Friday, September 28, 2012

Countdown: The Top 20 Jack Ketchum Works of Short Fiction--#7

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

#7. "The Cow"

Co-author Lucky McKee might have had a hand in this novella sequel to 2011's The Woman, but "The Cow" is quintessential Ketchum.  The plot follows the blueprint established by the earlier novels in the series concerning latter-day cannibals terrorizing coastal Maine.  There are unflinching scenes of sudden, savage attack ("she simultaneously reached up and dug her fingers into his eyes and bit down into the crotch of his white cargo Bermudas") and utterly gruesome meal prep ("the gutting, the removal of the arms, the removal of the backbone, the halving and quartering, the removal of the ribs.  The deep cuts along the calves and thighs and rump.").  But what truly distinguishes "The Cow" is not its formula, but its formatting.

The narrative is presented as "The Journal of Donald Fischer," the lone survivor of a beachfront assault on his rehearsing theater group by the Woman and her cannibalistic sidekicks.   Fischer is penning his on-going account in "a filthy battered spiral notebook" while being held prisoner by his attackers.  The framing of the story this way is significant in that furnishes an overt example of something I would argue Ketchum has been doing all-along in the series: scripting variations on the Indian captivity narrative (a literary genre dating back centuries and most classically exemplified by the memoir The Narrative of the Captivity and Restoration of Mrs. Mary Rowlandson).

Ketchum has hinted at such a context previously (in the series' second novel, Offspring) by giving the cannibal clan suggestively Native American names such as Rabbit, and Eartheater, and Second Stolen.  Here in "The Cow," the anachronistic primitives living close to nature in the remaining uncivilized spaces of the modern world dry strips of slaughtered meat "over some kind of teepee-style rack."  The Woman's cannibalism is even described at one point as "a spiritual thing": "the best food understands its own death, its sacrifice.  And the deeper the understanding the more that supports the living."  Finally, while historical abductees such as Mary Rowlandson had to contend with the threat of heathen sexual aggression, Ketchum's narrative shows that a male captive like Fischer is not exempt from rape.  To his horror, Fischer has been kept alive not as a future meal but rather for the purposes of stud service.  Because the Woman seeks to rebuild her carnivorous tribe, Fischer is reduced to the status of a profane cow, something
"to be milked and milked again."

Fischer's closing journal entry is composed about four months after his climactic escape attempt: "The events I've written about took place in July.  Now, by my reckoning, it's October, somewhere around Halloween.  But there won't be any trick-or-treaters coming around here."  If there were any kiddies in the vicinity, they'd probably be scared off by Fischer's appearance.  The narrator's closing revelation is of his having been subjected to a series of body piercings, the inserted slivers of bone strategically placed not just to help keep Fischer tethered in captivity but also to increase his productivity ("It's true what they say about genital piercings," the hapless Fischer shares.  "It makes me a more efficient cow.").  Fischer nonetheless vows to "tear these bones out of me with my bare hands if given the slightest chance at rescue," an act that sounds so excruciatingly painful, the (cringing male) reader almost can't help but hope that Fischer remains gotten by the balls. 

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