Thursday, August 23, 2012

Countdown: The Top 20 Jack Ketchum Works of Short Fiction--#18

[For the previous entry on the Countdown, click here.]

#18. Weed Species

Although this 2006 work was packaged as a separate book by Cemetery Dance, it qualifies as a novelette in terms of its length.  And based on its content, it earns the #18 spot on the Countdown.

Don't let the title fool you: Weed Species has nothing to do with rampant marijuana use.  Rather Ketchum is employing a censorious conceit; as defined on the book jacket's front flap, a weed species is "an organism that is intentionally or accidentally introduced to an area where it is not native, and where it successfully invades and disturbs natural ecosystems, displacing native species.  See also kudzu, water hyacinth, zebra mussel, Burmese python, eco-tourism, sociopath."

The characters Sherry Lydia Jefferson and Owen Philip Delassandro certainly fit this negative mold.  In the shocking opening "chapter" of Weed Species, Sherry presents the drugged body of her thirteen-year-old sister Talia as a Christmas gift to her fiance Owen (a businessman with "Baywatch good looks," but an utter grotesque on the inside).  This holiday rape will also be captured by camcorder, but matters go awry for the awful auteurs when Talia chokes to death on her own vomit mid-shoot.  Still, incident fails to scare Sherry and Owen straight; their perversion extends so far as to a sex game (later in the narrative) in which Sherry dresses up in the late Talia's clothing, and Owen himself develops into a serial rapist and killer.

Ketchum doesn't reserve his scorn for this odious duo, though.  Weed Species takes a grim view of humanity as a whole, interpolating references to a series of despicable acts, from sailors who "butcher and bludgeon" dodo birds "just for fun," to a mother who almost kills her daughter through a mind-boggling act of neglect, to a family in Wisconsin who keeps "their seventeen-year-old daughter locked up in the basement for three years without anyone knowing."  Not even in the narrative's climax does Ketchum allow any sense of real redemption.  Sherry, after serving a brief prison sentence (she strikes a deal with the D.A. following the arrest of Owen, who is eventually executed for his crimes), returns to society and soon coaxes her new beau Arliss into raping a girl for/with her.  An armed religious zealot who lives down the block (and has recognized the infamous Sherry) breaks in on the perpetrators in flagrante delicto, but there's ultimately no blaze of glory haloing the gun-firing vigilante:
His third, fourth, and fifth shots were for Sherry Lydia Jefferson whose head was between the young girl's legs.  He could barely hear these shots because the first two were so loud.  But the woman twisted forward and slid off the couch bleeding form the breast and stomach so that he knew that his job was done here and felt such joy and excitement, such intense exultation that it did not even occur to him to wonder why his own manhood almost ancient to him by now should suddenly be aroused. 
Weed Species is vintage Ketchum, offering unflinching depiction of disturbing acts of sexual violence.  Yet once again the author proves that he is much more than the horror genre's equivalent of a shock jock.  Perhaps the most haunting aspect of the work is the account late in the narrative of the subsequent life of one of Owen's early rape victims (from the time when Owen was only threatening to kill his female abductees).  Janine Turner is now married with children, but she has been psychologically scarred by her past trauma, and accordingly turns into a drunken (physical) abuser of her own family members.  In the end, Ketchum suggests, hearkening back to the book jacket copy, the most nefarious aspect of a weed is its blemishing spread--its facile mutation of hitherto-ordinary human nature.


Gregory McCarthy said...

Sounds very interesting. I keep meaning to read Ketchum. Btw, the part about the sister choking on her vomit and being presented as a gift for rape has got to be taken from real life murders of serial killers Paul Bernardo and Karla Homolka. Karla's sister died exactly the same way on Christmas. Horrible people.

Joe Nazare said...

Thanks, Gregory. I definitely recommend Ketchum's work. His is a sophisticated approach to graphic horror, full of emotional and psychological realism.