Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Countdown: The Top 20 Jack Ketchum Works of Short Fiction--#11

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

#11. "The Visitor"

As we've already seen on the Countdown, in Jack Ketchum's writerly hands a ghost story is never just a ghost story, and a vampire story never just a vampire story.  So it should be no surprise that the author offers more than the usual blood and guts when turning his focus to zombies.

"The Turning" (1998; collected in Peaceable Kingdom) details the trials of Florida retiree Will and his wife Beatrice.  The elderly couple misses the evening news on "the night the dead started walking," and so are taken by surprise the following morning when their neighbor John Blount "climbed the stairs to the front door of their mobile home unit to visit over a cup of coffee as was his custom three or four days a week and bit Beatrice on the collarbone, which was not his custom at all."  Blount's attack is described in prosaic terms, but that doesn't mean the story is devoid of grisly horrors, as Will witnesses "some terrible things that first day":
He saw a man with his nose bitten off--the nosebleed to end all nosebleeds--and a woman wheeled in on a gurney whose breasts had been gnawed away.  He saw a black girl not more than six who had lost an arm.  Saw the dead and mutilated body of an infant child sit up and scream.
Still, Ketchum's narrative does not dwell on the undead pandemic scourging through the streets of Florida but rather situates itself within the "relatively quiet" interior of the local hospital.  Will makes daily visits to see his wounded wife, and following Beatrice's passing (and the lethal injection of her risen form by the swift-acting yet humane hospital staff) he continues to visit the subsequent occupants of Beatrice's room.  He brings the comatose patients flowers, sits with them and regales them with personal anecdotes.  Sadly, though, Will is less a good Samaritan than a man plagued by severe grief.  When a woman closely resembling Beatrice is "put down" by the doctors in Will's presence, Will's bottled emotions bubble over.  He's still crying when he returns to the hospital the next day, and is suddenly grabbed by the now-zombified guard. 

When his bicep is bitten, Will feels "a kind of snapping as though someone had snapped a twig inside him," and the widower wonders if the sensation isn't metaphysical: "Heartbreak?"  Will calmly navigates the desolate hospital, enters his wife's old room, and climbs right into the empty bed.  Lying there infected, Will is more pensive than apprehensive: "He thought how everything was the same, really.  How nothing much had changed whether the dead were walking or not.  There were those who lived inside of life and those who for whatever reason did not or could not.  Dead or no dead."  As the waning Will waxes philosophical at story's end, Ketchum manages to inject a strong dose of thoughtfulness into the traditional tale of mindless, shambling hordes. 

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