From the back cover:
“Suburbia. Shady, tree-lined streets, well-tended lawns and cozy homes. A nice, quiet place to grow up. Unless you are teenage Meg or her crippled sister, Susan. On a dead-end street, in the dark, damp basement of the Chandler house, Meg and Susan are left captive to the savage whims and rages of a distant aunt who is rapidly descending into madness. It is a madness that infects all three of her sons – and finally the entire neighborhood. Only one troubled boy stands hesitantly between Meg and Susan and their cruel, torturous deaths. A boy with a very adult decision to make...”
Many reviewers have commented on the mounting, sickening brutality of this novel, and how the real-life horror of most mainstream novels pale in comparison. And I’d agree, for the most part – though I feel that Ketchum’s Stranglehold, which left me furious at how effectively gut-churning it is – is way more sickening than The Girl Next Door.
Anyhow, back on point...
The novel starts off with David, as an adult with two failed marriages (which stem from the events he’s about to describe), looking back on his early adolescence, when he met outgoing Meg (whom he gets an instant crush on) and her shy sister, Susan. This adolescence should be a sweet, innocent time, but for Ruth, Meg and Susan’s increasingly cruel aunt, whose tortures of the two girls are initially aided by her three sons – and eventually the other neighborhood kids.
David’s tone is angry, bitter from the get-go, the early melancholy of his recollections spiked with the aforementioned anger. As time goes by, and Meg – herself often the embodiment of this melancholy – endures more humiliations from the drunken, disconcerting Ruth, the tone of the novel becomes more troubling, more nasty... in an adult, sexual way.
To describe more would spoil the horrors this novel has to offer. It’s a roller coaster affair, seen from David’s conflicted, guilty point of view, with Ketchum’s steady, non-gratuitous writing making this a can’t-put-down read. I was by turns sad, angry and ill, but I never wanted to stop reading this, because I hoped that Ruth would get her comeuppance, and that Meg and Susan would get away...
Great book, if you’re willing to be disturbed by all-too-familiar, headline-aping cruelties.
In his post-novel “Author’s Note: On Writing The Girl Next Door,” Ketchum describes the real-life case which inspired the novel, about how angry the case-related news story made him – so furious that he had to write about it to purge it from his system. This “Author’s Note” is no less potent than the novel that precedes it.
The new reprinted editions of The Girl Next Door are also graced with two post-novel short stories, “Do You Love Your Wife?” and “Returns”.
“Do You Love Your Wife?” is a solid story about a man (Bass) who pines for a long-gone lover while (possibly) losing another, more current one. The ending’s unexpectedly gentle, the end-line multilayered.
A man haunts his self-destructive alcoholic wife (Jill) and Zoey (his beloved cat) in “Returns”. I’ve read this story before – it’s also an addendum story in a Ketchum novella, Right To Life – and it tore me apart the first time, seeing what a bitch Jill is, and what she’s capable of. Reading this a second time, I was no less affected: this story genuinely horrifies me, nearly moved me to tears. One of Ketchum’s best stories, ever.
The Girl Next Door is set to be released as a film in 2007. Daniel Manche plays David Moran. Blythe Auffarth plays Meg Laughlin. William Atherton plays David Moran, as an adult. Gregory Wilson directs.