Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Countdown: The Top 20 Jack Ketchum Works of Short Fiction--#20

Jack Ketchum (the pen name of horror writer Dallas Mayr) is not just an accomplished novelist; he's also an indisputable master of the shorter narrative form.  In acknowledgment of that fact, the new Countdown here at Macabre Republic will be ranking Ketchum's top twenty works of short fiction.  I'll be choosing from stories and novelettes only; extraordinary novellas such as The Crossings, Right to Life, and The Passenger will not be considered.  The Countdown will also be limited to single-author works (i.e. I'm excluding the various collaborations with Edward Lee) featuring the Jack Ketchum byline (not those published under the earlier, Jerzy Livingston pseudonym).  Of course, the selection and slotting of stories on the Countdown is highly subjective (many will be surprised to find a certain prize-winning piece missing from the list), but the accompanying commentary will attempt to give a bit of explanation for each of my decisions.

OK, enough preamble.  Let's get this Countdown started:

#20. "When the Penny Drops"

Jack Ketchum is doubtless best known as a creator of unflinching, hard-core horror, but he is a writer of many tones and modes.  The 1998 story "When the Penny Drops" (collected in Peaceable Kingdom), for instance, is a quiet and subtly uncanny tale presented by a narrator with a penchant for waxing philosophic ("It's from the mysterious that we make the leap to godly grace or evil.") and existentially curious ("Promise and promiscuity.  That's the business of living and the entire mystery is why.  To what end?  To perpetuate exactly what?").  This (strategically) unnamed figure also offers up some profound pronouncements about love, as when discussing his frequently-long-distance relationship with his wife Laura:
There's a sheer simple joy in cooperating with another living soul under difficult circumstances that's highly underrated.  For two people who are mostly apart and provided that there's love to begin with, every meeting is glue. It is a soft glue which allows for great elastic pullings apart, thin fibrous stretchings over cities and continents, space and time.  But each strand is of exactly the same composition.  It wants to come together.  Its chemical goal is to return to the unity from which it sprang in the first place.  And it does.
"When the Penny Drops" unfolds very much as a love story, sketching scenes from a twenty-eight-year marriage.  The narrator spends a good deal of time describing a honeymoon spent on the Greek island of Mykonos, but he's not just awash with nostalgia.  He's leading readers to the account of a strange incident that occurred during the vacation.  The narrator loses and frantically searches for his wallet, only to return to his hotel to find that someone has turned it in to the front desk with its valuable contents intact.  The mystery man who carried out this good deed seeks no reward, and simply leaves a note for the narrator encouraging him to "Do the same for someone else someday."  At the time, the narrator doesn't make too much of this unusual stroke of good fortune, but certainly senses a brush with mystery twenty years later when someone turns in his expensive ring (which the narrator had left behind on the bathroom sink in a New York bar), along with a note reading "Do the same for someone else someday."

At this point, the story appears to be heading towards some heartwarming finale of repaid kindness.  Remember, though, this is Jack Ketchum at the helm; we are being steered toward a dire twist.  Mystery in the grander sense of the term yields to unsolved crime, and the narrator's mysterious benefactor is supplanted by an only-vaguely-identified figure who shoots and kills Laura (an accidental witness to a liquor store hold-up).  The murder scene is under-standably a traumatic sight for the narrator, but what really floors him is the glimpse of the penny box next to the liquor store's cash register, a penny box with the message "Take one if you need one.  And do the same for someone else someday."

Grief-stricken, and struggling to come to terms with the meaning of Laura's death (what purpose does it serve in the Grander Scheme of Things?), the narrator takes some drastic measures.  He quits his job, buys an oft-robbed liquor store on the Lower East Side.  "I figure it's only a matter of time before somebody tries again," the narrator concludes as he stands waiting with a thirty-eight Smith & Wesson at hand.  "I'm not looking for the guy who shot Laura.  I know the odds on that.  But somebody.  Please god.  Someone else someday."  Violence is all he is looking to pay forward now, a fatal payback to an ostensibly innocent third party.  If the narrator's story-opening thesis holds that it's from the mysterious that we make the leap to either godly grace or evil, then his closing mindset indicates an unfortunate plummet toward the latter alternative.


Anonymous said...

Thank you for doing this, Joe. When's the next installment? --Ketchum

Joe Nazare said...

Hello. A new Countdown post will appear every few days over the coming weeks. #19 is scheduled for Sunday.