Some of this blog’s readers are already familiar with my book review series Is that an Old Book? in which the scope of books I review spans years, decades, centuries. Essentially, I consider anything written since 1970 a relatively new book. This installment features Jack Ketchum’s amazing novel, Off Season, one of the finest and most disturbing tales ever typed.
I have recently been considering writing an essay on the role of wilderness in the works of H.P. Lovecraft. I then began spinning the ideas into a longer piece on the aesthetics of New England horror. I decided I didn’t want to focus on any one writer so much as consider the way the region’s landscape is treated in a variety of works that take place there. I was going to reach back to include pieces by writers such as Hawthorne, Melville, and Dickinson (all of whom include horrific elements in their writing) alongside more contemporary names like Joe Hill and Stephen King. Keeping in mind, however, an emphasis on the story’s geography rather than the author’s, I decided to begin with a review of Jack Ketchum’s pivotal gem, Off Season.
First released in the early 1980’s, when Twenty-First Century catch phrases like “slasher” and “extreme horror” were not so familiar, Off Season has worn a number of different skins in its publishing life. The version discussed here will be the Leisure Books edition, which includes an afterward by the author that describes the novel’s editorial history, along with a bonus short story titled “Winter Child” that well complements the book’s main feature.
Off Season tells the story of three young couples from New York City who are spending a week in northeastern Maine. Carla, a successful editor, has gone ahead of the rest, to finish a professional project. She rents a cabin in the “off season”, a time when the region’s already sparse numbers of summer tourists have returned south. She finds the cabin an ideal place to get work done and enjoy some nature into the bargain. Her five companions join her on a Friday evening, and much of the novel’s first act focuses on the dynamics among these friends, a well-paced narrative of their struggles with love and with careers. One of the companions is Carla’s sister Marjie, with whom she enjoys a certain closeness, even if Marjie hasn’t shared her career success and lives a generally less stable life.
Unknown to the cabin’s tenants, along the nearby coastline there exists a cave inhabited by humans of a most bizarre ilk, namely, a family of cannibals. They are a partial-echo of the Scottish legend of Sawney Bean, a group of humans whose forebears existed within a civilized culture, but have incrementally changed into something feral and alien to all known ethics. Ketchum draws a deft genesis of this family, how they grew from the shadowy roots of a lighthouse keeper and his wife and children, how they starved on a remote island after a storm, and how this starvation brought on a taste for human flesh that began to be handed down through generation after incestuous generation.
With the group of couples arranged on the altar of their isolated cabin, the cannibals mount a vicious attack. They sacrifice their victims to their stomachs even as the siege still rages. Structurally brilliant and deceptively subtle, Ketchum dizzies the reader with this abrupt turn from a nearly “emo” novel about love and success, to a blow-by-blow account of a horrific massacre. To this point, the reader has become invested in a set of conflicts and intrigues among the couples—Carla’s romantic entanglement with an egocentric actor named Jim, Marjie’s relationship with good-hearted yet economically struggling Dan, and writer Nick’s regret at losing chances with both sisters and ending up with catty and self-doubting Laura. All of this is in full swing when the shadow of murder arrives, interrupts, and forces all to bow.
The cannibals attack ruthlessly, employing means of exhibitionist torture as they bring down their prey one at a time. At this point, to many, the story arc may seem like the conventional pattern of a slasher film—an isolated group trying to survive psychotic killers in an enclosed space. And yet this is an artistic ruse—for even within the novel’s concise economy, Ketchum writes scenes from the points of view of the killers that juxtapose alien and frightening streams of consciousness with the terrified thoughts of the victims. We have an author well aware of what prose can do that film can’t, and he uses inner monologue to great effect. Thoughts intersperse well with action, and bloody butchering and grotesquely violent erotic gestures meld into something beyond scary to eerie and uncanny.
The family of cannibals includes men, women, and children. They are wild and know that fear struck in a victim can tenderize the meat. But these tribesfolk have their own fears—their distant, semi-forgotten origin on the island with the lighthouse haunts them. The sea itself breeds strange feelings in them when they are near it. They know what guns are and that though strong, fast, and vicious, they are well aware of their own mortality.
I want to emphasize this point when discussing Off Season as a novel of New England, not because it doesn’t have broader appeal and themes, but because it is one of the more useful ways to discover its hidden beauties and conceits.
It happens I grew up in Bangor, Maine. I lived a bit in Brewer, a bit in Orono, and went to college in Portland. My father’s family has been living in the region for generations, up and down Maine’s coast. When I was a kid in the 1970’s, I spent most of my time experiencing a “classic” small town life. Growing up in that area, I also became very aware of a writer named Stephen King who lived nearby and was having some success. His presence and his works certainly influenced my life and my interest in literature. I have written a bit about this in another blog post in an essay about The Shining and a micro essay that began to discuss thoughts on the concept of wilderness. Suffice it to say here, that while I enjoy much of King’s work and note its importance, I take from it an impression of its concerns with “small town” culture that is very different from what I would call “wilderness themes”. Many of King’s horror stories strike me as Norman Rockwell paintings with vampires and ghouls. I recognized, growing up in Bangor, how this evolved. Yet there was another kind of feeling the northern landscape gave me that did not echo the kind of fear instilled by King’s aesthetic.
Though I lived and went to school in a small town, my father owned an old log cabin on an isolated lake near the Canadian border in Washington County. This is the same county in which Off Season takes place.
To get to this cabin, one had to drive north to Lincoln and then further northeast to the Grand Lakes region. At the time there were no roads to the lake on which the cabin was built, so we had to unpack the pickup truck, repack the boat, then head another seven miles in across a lake, a stream, and another lake. Once there, a wood stove served for cooking and heating, and we slept on bunk beds with the mice and the spiders.
As kids we had a lot of fun there to be sure—the lake boiled with fish at the time, the coves were alive with critters from tiny frogs to colossal moose. On a clear night the weather treated us to crystalline starlight and occasionally Aurora Borealis. All plenty of fun, even idyllic. I was often allowed to bring a friend, and there were certainly glimpses of paradise, and to revive the earlier King aesthetic, touches of Stand by Me wistfulness.
But there was also another feeling in those woods. If it was not a clear night, when the cabin’s lanterns went off, a pitch blackness descended like none I have experienced since. I lay in the top bunk feeling irksome drafts between the logs and hearing owls’ cryptic hoots and humans’ wheezy snores. Although I was blinded by the darkness, there was plenty of activity going on that didn’t care about this particular creature’s downtime. I did not sense then the awe of nature’s beauty, its majestic eagles or its shiny starlight, but rather sensed its completely impersonal continuum. The feeling that scuttled up my spine with the spiders instilled a sense that nature was not just arbitrary about me, but arbitrary about being arbitrary—it could just as soon oppress and attack as be beautiful and serene. It could just as soon change my place in its hierarchy as leave me in it. It had no concern for my ethics on the one hand, and yet could easily produce something that cared deeply about what to me would be an aberrant and horrific new order. That blinding and crawling darkness whispered that the version of nature we were enjoying with canoes, sunsets, and ducks, was a skein mounted for a puppet show. A human version of nature. The nights lying in the darkness hundreds of miles from hospitals and police taught me a different version. And there were many times when I would wake up to a bright day and that feeling would not subside. Paddling through sun-cooked weedy shallows run with leeches, it felt as if the light teetered on the same edge of an alien order as the darkness.
Early in Off Season Ketchum gives his own description of the landscape in Washington county, citing (and this is my paraphrase) the way the pines look a little shorter, the scrub boggier, with hints that the north’s longer winter will be arriving early. He gives a palpable sense that the arctic is not far away, and that because of this the land has been a little mutated, a little deformed by its harshness. He hints at this in a way I have rarely encountered in a writer describing the region. I must also interject here—there are many more famous, and for lack of a better word, “hip”, American wildernesses—The Rocky Mountains, Alaska, southwestern deserts, to name a few. But here is where Ketchum’s descriptions include another critical element from his choice of settings, namely the region’s economy. He describes how the region’s poverty causes the architecture to be a bit stunted, and how the tourism of the southern parts of the coast visibly tapers off that far north. Even today I can say that the coastal economy struggles due to not holding the attraction other more “popular” wilderness destinations do. Most of my New Yorker friends much prefer a trip to Alaska or California.
And so wilderness—be it a physical wilderness, cultural wilderness, or in this case both—makes its own rules. Ketchum gives this accurate portrayal in contrasting the culture of the young couples with the culture of the cannibals. In this rendering, he makes good use of what many would call extreme violence. I would argue that one cannot generate the kind of feeling I had in that cabin long ago, that grand feeling of vulnerability coupled with the desire to survive, in any other way.
In his afterward, the author reveals that Off Season’s original publisher backed away from the project after coming under fire from media critics. He cites an article in The Village Voice that wrote off the novel as too heavy on torture and even as pornographic. This is unfortunate, for while I would force no work of art on an unwilling audience, I think we risk a great deal in not giving “extreme” works of art the same consideration with regard to complexity as we would others simply because of their aesthetic. I remember going to the Sensation art exhibition in 2000 at the Brooklyn Museum, an exhibition Mayor Giuliani tried to ban, and there looking at photographs of car accident victims and sculptures of school children with genitalia for noses and thinking to myself, whatever one might think of horror novels, they aren’t any more potentially offensive than this. Perhaps all of these works have a purpose, and in the right setting, the chance for insightful impact.
In the back of the Off Season’s Leisure edition appears the bonus short story, “Winter Child”. In his introduction, Ketchum describes the permutations of its development, how it might have been part of another novel or stand on its own, and how either way had a connection to the cannibal family from the coastal cave. This story, too, takes place in Washington County, and features the arrival of a pretty and mysterious young girl at a widower’s farmhouse. The widower’s son tells how her father adopts the girl, brings her into their cozy yet obscure rural life. Of course the son’s foreboding is ultimately correct—but by then, particularly after having been in the mind of the cannibal women in the edition’s first offering—the careful reader has experienced uncanny glimpses of how ethics can fall away in the world’s empty places. Echoes sound of the landscape’s secret and ominous warnings, as in Algernon Blackwood’s The Willows and The Wendigo. Like a diabolical twist on Wordsworth’s sublime, Ketchum weaves a vision where the reader can taste the nature of the land and the nature of the mind in an environment not locked-in by the customs we’ve learned since birth. He offers instead a glimpse of an open continuum, tethered to the familiar neither by light nor darkness, a humanity frightening in its monstrosity, and more threatening by the possibility of its alien sense of beauty.
Carl R. Moore lives and writes in upstate New York. His collection Slash of Crimson and Other Tales, including novellas Slash of Crimson and Torn from the Devil’s Chest, makes its debut this year from Charon Coin Press.