Dallas Mayr, better known to his fans and colleagues within the literary world and horror universe as Jack Ketchum, has been terrifying and captivating readers with his fiction writing for over 35 years, bursting into our world with the powerful and gut-wrenching masterpiece novel Off Season in 1980.
Ketchum has rightfully maintained his notoriety within the horror literary community, having won the much coveted Bram Stoker Award four times, (each for a different category of literature), and has been praised by his contemporaries – including Stephen King.
Several of his stories have been adapted into popular films including Red in 2008, which starred Brian Cox and Tom Sizemore, and the gory, horror adaptation Offspring in 2009, in which Ketchum has a cameo as the coroner. With a new novel, The Secret Life of Souls, out this week (written with familiar collaborator Lucky McKee), I was fortunate enough to ask this brilliant horror maestro some questions regarding his writing process, his previous works, and the times he has dealt with censorship.
Connor Bell (Oyez Review): As a reader of your work, it seems to me that the story is the most important aspect to all of your novels. Do you usually begin with story, or do you find yourself beginning with a character or setting instead? Does it vary?
Jack Ketchum: I begin with theme and character, not story. In fact very often the characters create the exact nature of the story as it goes along, and sometimes they surprise me. That’s part of the fun.
CB: You explored the ideas of backwoods-terror and cannibalism in your debut novel Off Season, which recently celebrated its 35th anniversary with a new special edition release. These ideas were around before: the urban legend of Sawney Bean, films like Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chain Saw Massacre and Wes Craven’s The Hills Have Eyes, as well as the real life case of Albert Fish, yet your story reinvents this horror concept within the idyllic landscapes of Maine. How did you manage to create something that felt so new out of urban legend, and were these stories and legends influential on your writing Off Season?
JK: Off Season had a lot of influences (though it should be said for accuracy that The Hills Have Eyes wasn’t among them – seems Craven and I were working that vein at pretty much the same time). But certainly Night of the Living Dead and Texas Chain Saw were influences. But so were How to Survive in the Wilderness and Vardis Fisher’s novel Mountain Man, made into the movie Jeremiah Johnson. I knew the Maine terrain pretty well, having done two seasons of summer stock in Cape Elizabeth, forest and sea all around and plenty of isolation. So it was natural to set the story in that area.
CB: Prior to its release Off Season dealt with some censorship issues, especially in regards to the novel’s conclusion. Today it is readily available in the version you intended to initially have published. Was this censoring of your work something you saw as inevitable given its graphic content, or were you surprised that the publishers demanded changes?
JK: I wasn’t surprised, because publishers are notoriously conservative, but I was dismayed to say the least. I thought they were missing the point. You can march through Hell and survive, and then sheer bad luck gets you in the end. But it was my first novel and I wanted it out there, so I gave in. As you say, when it got republished I got the ending I wanted. And I never gave in to a publisher’s wishes again. They didn’t want it the way I wanted it, screw ’em. I’ll go elsewhere.
CB: When the publishing company decided to withdraw themselves from promoting Off Season – did this worry you at all, or did you think that the novel’s strong sales spoke for itself?
JK: I was very disappointed at first, to see all the banners and point-of-purchase displays disappear overnight. But then I learned that the book was doing wonderfully by word-of-mouth alone. And that news was delightful.
CB: Did the censorship issues, which Off Season faced, make you worried about graphic or extreme content in your subsequent novels, or was it always your belief that the work would find a home somewhere even with its dark content?
JK: From Off Season on I wrote ’em as I saw ’em. I’ve never had reception of my work in mind during the writing of it. You have to make that leap of faith in yourself, or else you become some publisher’s bitch.
CB: Who or what inspires you to keep writing?
JK: Well, I just yesterday wrote a poem for my cat. But all kinds of things trigger the urge to write. Something that pisses me off. Somebody I love. And the love of writing itself, of the process, of being allowed to live for a time inside your own imagination – and actually get paid for it! That’s pretty amazing.
CB: Stephen King has called you, “the scariest guy in America.” What has his support meant to you personally?
JK: Steve’s a wonderful cheerleader for my work, as was Robert Bloch before him. I owe him a lot and he knows it. Hell, he just wrote Lucky [McKee] and I a terrific blurb for our new novel, The Secret Life of Souls. He’s a big soul himself and deserves every bit of the success he continues to enjoy.
CB: You love horror – that is apparent. Was there ever a moment that you felt pigeonholed in your career? In other words, did being labeled a “horror writer” bother you, or has it always been a badge of honor?
JK: Nah. In fact my readers seem willing to stay with me no matter what I do. Broken on the Wheel of Sex is a bunch of comic men’s mag stories from the ’70s. Notes from the Cat House is a book of poems. What They Wrote is a bunch of essays about … well, what they wrote. And my short stories are all over the place. Even some of the novels can’t really be classified as horror, even though horrific things happen. Red and Cover for instance.
CB: Your new novel: The Secret Life of Souls, is due out in early November. What would you like to tell readers about it?
JK: Rough to pigeonhole this one too. It’s about show business, a highly dysfunctional family, and a little girl and her dog. Not necessarily in that order. Lucky and I had a blast doing it.
CB: What advice do you have for young or aspiring horror writers?
JK: Read everything, not just in genre. If you like a writer’s licks, try making them your own. Start writing short stuff, not novels. Find a reasonable schedule to write in and stick to it. Apply ass to chair. And then, as Robert Bloch once told me, if you don’t have to write, don’t do it.
CB: Thanks again for taking the time to answer these questions!
JK: My pleasure. Thank you.
Connor Bell is a MFA Candidate in Creative Writing at Roosevelt University and serves as a reader/editor for issue 44 of Oyez Review. He earned his BA in Cinema Arts & Sciences from Columbia College Chicago in 2015.