OFF SEASON by Jack Ketchum (2006, Leisure Books)
I ran across Jack Ketchum’s name years ago in the way of an interview. I was a little perturbed there existed a modern horror writer with a substantial output whom I knew nothing about. It took me years to find a book by him- The Lost-but afterwards I was hooked. I managed to see most of the film versions of his books (did think The Lost for screen was a little on the weak side, but you can’t have everything). I avoided the first published novel, Off-Season, because I felt the subject matter (Backwoods Cannibals On The Rampage) had been done death. Even by 1980 when the book was first published.
Considered part of his “Dead River” trilogy (the other two novels being The Offspring and The Woman), this is the book which launched his career. I feel it also kicked started the whole “splatterpunk” horror phenomena which ran amok in the late 80’s to early 90’s. Crazed cannibal movies for the drive-in movie circuit have been around every since Jack Hill unleashed Spider Baby in 1964. But this was the first time a novel had taken the gore level to 11.
Off-season is loosely based on the legend of Sawney Bean, a 16th century legend about a clan of murders and thieves who hid-out in the caves of Scotland near Galloway. The clan also had a tendency to dine on their victims, which made for a lot of chapbooks. Unfortunately, there is little evidence to suggest they ever existed. The tales told about them still made for chilling tales along the northumberland border country.
In Ketchum’s novel, the crazed cannibals are the survivors of a family who were in charge of a lighthouse off the coast of Maine. When a hurricane struck in the 19th century, one of the daughters ran off from the family, insane from lack of food. She managed to survive long enough to kidnap a child of the next family. Soon, an entire tribe of these creatures had populated the island in secret. Until “men with guns” forced them onto the mainland, where the hunting was much better.
The novel begins with a woman being chased by the cannibal children. She’s made the mistake of stopping to check on an innocent girl who was crying by the road. The feral kids chase her over a cliff and into the sea.
At the same time, a group of innocent 30something New Yorkers are about to arrive at a cabin in the Maine woods, near the town of Dead River. What they don’t know is the location of the cannibal tribe’s hidden cave, in close proximity to the cabin. The tribe soon becomes aware of the latest opportunity and heads out on a raid.
Parrell to the action is a sheriff named Peters who’s about to retire. Dead River doesn’t see much activity except in tourist season. His biggest problem are Gothamites who can’t understand why the plumber won’t show up when summoned. But when the woman who went over the cliff at the beginning is fished out of the ocean, he starts to add isolated incidents up. She swears it was a pack of kids who chased her. The sheriff remembers a drunk rambling about a group of kids beating a dog to death down by the ocean. And there have been more disappearances around town than the population would warrant.
When the cannibals do attack the cabin, it’s quick and viscous. But one man has had military training. Plus there’s a pistol floating around..somewhere. The gore flies fast, but Ketchum has done all he could do to make us feel sympathy for the victims. The original book had plenty of the violence toned-down by the publisher. The unabridged version restores it.
The cannibal tribe is the reverse of all the “noble savage” stories so many of us read as kids. Imagine Tarzan butchering Jane’s family and you will have some idea of the brutality of this book. It’s not a novel to be read if you dislike violence in your fiction. The tribe is viscous beyond description, but Ketchum has done a little research and tried to imagine how such a group might survive. They don’t even have names; the clan leader is simply refereed to as “The Man”.
The ending is nihilistic. Ketchum was trying to make a point about the random senselessness of the universe, but his publishers made him put a positive spin on a few characters. The unabridged version removes the positive.
An important horror novel, but not the sort of thing to read for brightening your day.