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Right to Life: A Novella and Two Stories
by Jack Ketchum

(Gauntlet/Edge, $16.95, 158 pages, paperback; Right to Life first published 1998; this compilation first published 2002.)

Sara Foster, who years ago lost her six-year-old son in a tragic accident, who lost cover scanher husband too, inadvertently becomes pregnant during her adulterous affair with the married Greg Glover; as Greg declines to destroy his family, they decide on an abortion. As they make their way to a Manhattan abortion clinic Sara is abducted into a car by Stephen and Kath Teach, two declared Right to Lifers, and drugged into unconsciousness.

When she awakes she is in the New Jersey basement cum torture chamber of the Teaches. Kath is barren. The couple intend to keep Sara until she comes to term, then keep the baby as their own; Sara herself will not be permitted to survive the delivery. In the meantime she is repeatedly tortured -- physically, mentally and in due course sexually -- primarily by Stephen, who is a sadistic psychopath with less interest in the baby than in the sexual sadism, but also to a lesser extent by Kath, who despite a sympathetic exterior is in fact little better. Of course, in the end Sara turns on her tormentors and bloodily exacts her revenge...

And that's more or less the whole plot of Jack Ketchum's short novel Right to Life, which seems to have been inspired in some major part by the ghastly case of the UK husband-and-wife sexual psychopaths Fred and Rosemary West. The tale is really quite well told, but one's left with the uneasy feeling that its subtext is a bit of a mess -- perhaps intentionally so. Yes, there are Right to Lifers whose life-sanctifying principles don't stop them from maiming, shooting and lethally bombing, and on the face of it the tale might seem allegorical of this miserable illogicality; yet the allegory soon falls apart as it becomes evident that Stephen has no real interest at all in the baby -- indeed, he at one point wonders if the baby might be disposed of along with its mother -- but is driven solely by the urge to gratify his sado-sexual urges, while Kath is looking forward gleefully to the goriness of performing an unnecessary and fatal Caesarian for the delivery.

So, sans subtext, all we're really left with is a tale of crazed inhumanity -- the pro- and anti-abortion debate being just a Maguffin -- yet it's a gripping enough narrative to brush off such misgivings until after the reading is done.

Of the two stories appended in this edition, "Brave Girl" is beautifully told and sucks the reader in with enviable skill, only to suffer from the lack of a real ending -- it just stops -- and "Returns" is a very pleasing bit of whimsy, a very short ghost story of immense appeal to cat-lovers everywhere.

This elegantly produced volume will serve as an introduction to those unfamiliar with Ketchum's work and as a gap-filler for Ketchum completists. For the rest of us, it's a pleasant enough way of passing a train journey.

Review by John Grant.

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© John Grant 19 June 2002