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Closing Time and other stories

by Jack Ketchum

(Gauntlet Press, $55.00, 350 pages, January 2007.)

Review by William P Simmons

cover scanA literary auteur using language like a scalpel and the secret world of the human heart as his canvas, Jack Ketchum is a poet of pathos, as devoted to unearthing the emotions of his bruised and alienated characters as their blood. His fiction captures the suffering, joy, madness, and terror of modern life. Whereas Dallas Mayr is charming, friendly, and compassionate, his dark half, Jack Ketchum, is a historian of loss and revelation, tempting readers into the tragic underbelly of human depravity with a lean, honest style and keen understanding of primal instinct. Throughout the controversial evolution of his career, he brings readers to unsuspected extremities of terror by showing them something far scarier than the genre's usual focus on ghosts and beasties -- he shows them themselves. His work is the dark mirror which reflects our worst moments of violence, betrayal, unreason, and fury. Closing Time and Other Stories, Ketchum's newest collection, emphasizes the base miseries and dangers of everyday life -- on both extreme physical violence and more importantly, the emotional catalysts and aftereffects of such. With surprising dexterity, several of the stories also merge into moments of surrealistic beauty, unearthing emotional/metaphysical borderlands between everyday reality and the supernatural. No matter which aspect of human experience he chooses to explore, his focus on human psychology and transformative emotion remains intact.

In these pieces Ketchum refuses to veer from the animalistic urges and the cold logic that leads to violence and betrayal, nor does he blink from the wasteful agony and destruction of such acts. Violence is brutal, betrayal devastating, and in a world where our hearts are often as treacherous as the strangers we once thought were friends or lovers, those people -- and, at times, our own minds/hearts -- are shown to be our deadliest enemy. The best of these pieces induce us to stare deep and long into our worst instincts so that we may better understand the urges and reactions that control the fabric of our seemingly well-ordered lives. All of it. Every dirty shame and humiliation. Each act of senseless carnage, petty revenge, soul-shrinking terror or animal lust acted enacted on characters who may or may not be better than their tormenters. Ambiguity injects already suspenseful, terrifying plots and themes with greater authenticity and philosophical depth. In this light, Ketchum's fiction isn't only entertaining, sharp, and terrifying but, in addition, unapologetically serious, devoted to better understanding the oh so inhuman human condition.

One would think that the mean-heartedness of some of these pieces clash with stories that emphasize surprisingly effective tender renderings of human darkness. This isn't true. While the author consciously sets out to jar both the mind and our moral reflections by veering between states of outrage and sympathetic despair, evoking love and hate in equal measure, these emotions are examined with such honest passion that we're swept up with the characters, soon unable to quite point out where love turns to obsession and violence resembles mercy. Arguably, Ketchum is at his best interweaving moments of passion with emotional terror, capturing common 'working class' characters in all of their diversity and hardships. This consistent juxtaposition of tenderness and outrage makes for jarring reading. Ketchum isn't content to use his art as a route for simple escapism. Rather, in such stories as --"Papa" and "The Fountain" we're ushered into the confused mechanics of hearts in conflict with themselves. Ketchum allows us to see into the confused geographies -- the motivations and desires -- of the worst and weakest of our species, bringing to the forefront an understanding (if not always sympathy) for the men and women who in the morally ambiguous contexts of quick-moving plots are neither good nor evil... Simply human. Here 'human' is both scary and magical enough. Nineteen stories of tragedy and nightmare, compassion and funeral memory, Closing Time is a bittersweet poem to the age we live and sigh and die in.

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