Thursday, August 30, 2012

Countdown: The Top 20 Jack Ketchum Works of Short Fiction--#16


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

#16. "The Turning"

Cataclysm is in the air in this 1995 short piece (collected in Peaceable Kingdom).  An unnamed narrator walks the streets of the Upper West Side of Manhattan, reading signs of something wicked coming the City's way.  He passes a gang of teenage boys assaulting a homeless man, shoving "a piece of jagged macadam" into the victim's bloodied and broken-toothed mouth.  He spots grim shopowners standing sentry in their doorways, and elderly travelers whose frightened faces suggest an innate understanding of the changing underway.  He stops to give twenty dollars to a pretty young homeless woman, hoping to save her from a fate worse than destitution.

The climax of the story pulls these cryptic hints together to bring an intriguing premise to light:
He had seen it happen before.  A long, long time ago.  When the collective will and consciousness of an entire people had grown intense enough, black enough, angry enough, fearful enough and focused enough to rend deep into the nature of human life as it had existed up until then, all that dark cruel energy focused like a laser on an entire class, transforming them in reality how they were perceived and imagined to be almost metaphorically.
In the past it had been the rich--the ruling class who were perceived as vampires.  Feeding off the poor and destitute.
Now it was the poor themselves. 
The reason the protagonist understands all this, the narrative reveals, is that "it had happened to him."  He was among the handful of Old World nobles transformed into nosferatu by lower class antipathy.  Given the poverty and discrimination now plaguing New York City, though, the number of vampires will be "legion."

Ketchum's twisty little tale offers one last turn of the screw in its final lines, as the main character heads off to "dine with a beautiful recently-divorced real-estate heiress."  Apparently the man plans on enjoying a sanguineous night cap afterward as well, as "The Turning" finishes with a line that at once works as a scathing social critique and a pitch-perfect mimicking of the macabre wit of Robert Bloch: "Unlike most of the world, he preferred to feed upon his own."

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