Friday, September 14, 2012

Countdown: The Top 20 Jack Ketchum Works of Short Fiction--#12

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

#12. "Brave Girl"

A quieter--but not necessarily gentler--Jack Ketchum story...

The premise of "Brave Girl" (2002; collected in Closing Time and Other Stories) is simple: four-year-old Suzy comes to the rescue when her mother suffers a household accident (Liza Jackson slips getting into the bathtub, cracking her head off the ceramic soap dish [ouch!] and knocking herself unconscious.  Suzy has the wherewithal to turn off the tap, drain the tub, then dial 9-1-1 and calmly explain the situation.  In short, this "brave, exceptional little girl" demonstrates a maturity well beyond her years.  She isn't even fazed (hint, hint) by the blood-spattered scene she finds in the bathroom.

Suzy's grace under pressure makes for a great human interest piece, and the girl is quickly tabbed for a local TV news spot.  But the reporter's (and Ketchum's) feel-good story takes a dark turn mid-interview.  As Suzy bends over to retrieve her dropped doll, the camera captures a startling detail: "the long wide angry welts along the back of both thighs just below the pantyline that told [the reporter] that this was not only a smart, brave little girl but perhaps a sad and foolish one too" for saving her abusive mother's life.

The reporter, Carole Belliver (a firm "believer" in truth and justice?) is outraged and orders her cameraman to "Dupe the tape.  Phone the police and child welfare and get copies to them.  I want us to do what her daughter evidently couldn't bring herself to do.  I want us to do our best to drown the bitch."  With such forceful closing words, "Brave Girl" transforms into a different type of feel-good story, one in which the reader revels in the notion of a domestic monster receiving a much-deserved punishment.

The accidental discovery of Suzy's victim status forces Belliver to "kill the [news] story," yet brings Ketchum's story to life as a work of American Gothic.  Forget supernatural bogeys and remote locales; the worst horrors, Ketchum reminds us, can be found hidden behind the closed doors of home.

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