Thursday, October 4, 2012

Countdown: The Top 20 Jack Ketchum Works of Short Fiction--#5

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

#5. "The Rifle"

Ketchum's 1996 tale (the lead story in the collection Peaceable Kingdom) opens with a divorced mother finding the eponymous firearm (which her ten-year-old son Danny has stolen from his grandfather's farm) hidden in a bedroom closet, "unexpected as a snake."  Danny has always been a troubled and troublemaking child (e.g., "stealing Milky Ways form the Pathmark Store"; "the fire he and Billy Berendt had set, yet denied they'd set, in the field behind the Catholic Church last year").  The "shrinks" and "counselors" his mom has already sent him to haven't really been able to help.  And now, with the theft of the rifle--and the loading of it with one of the shells he'd similarly purloined--Danny has gone too far.

Irate, the mother treks through the woods behind her home to confront Danny with this indisputable evidence of his bad behavior.  One of the key reasons the mother purchased her property was because she wanted her son to be close to the natural world and to learn from it ("Birth, death, sex, the renewal of the land, its fragility and its power, the chaos inside the order, the changes in people that came with the change of seasons."), but mom has no idea of the perversion/despoiling of nature she is about to uncover.  When she confronts Danny about the rifle, she notices
"something furtive" about him; he doesn't seem to want her to see inside the converted root cellar that serves as his clubhouse.  Forcing him to unlock his private sanctuary, the mother makes a horrific discovery:
She reached down and threw open one door and then the other and the first thing that hit her was the smell even with her sinus problem, the smell was rank and old and horrible beyond belief, and the second thing was the incredible clutter of rags and jars and buckets on the floor and the third was what she saw on the walls, hanging there from masonry nails pounded into the fieldstone, hung like decorations, like trophies, like the galleries she'd seen in castles in Scotland and England on her honeymoon and which were hunter's galleries.  A boy's awful parody of that.
Spotting this bloody tableau of animal torture, the mother is struck with a "stunning terror" of Danny, "[o]f this little boy who didn't even weigh ninety pounds yet."  Worse, she realizes not just what Danny is but "what he would become."  For his is the classic behavior of a nascent maniac, a serial killer in the making, and people like him "did not respond to treatment."  Seeing in Danny's cold gaze that "there was nothing to save in his nature," the mother abruptly raises the rifle and fires a killing shot into the boy's left eye. 

Exhibiting the toughest love, the mother makes a preemptive strike in defense of society's innocents.  But the woman (who locks up the root cellar Danny has fallen back into, and plans to report the boy as missing) has achieved anything but closure.  Going forward, she'll be forced to wonder, "How had it happened?"  How had Danny turned out so wrong?  Here the narrative recurs to a rhetoric of nature to form one of the finest closing sentences in the Ketchum canon: "It was a question she would ask herself, she thought, for a great many seasons after, as spring plunged into sweltering summer, as fall turned to winter again and the coldness of heart and mind set in for its long terrible duration."

In his Introduction to Peaceable Kingdom, Ketchum notes that author "Peter Straub once paid me the compliment of saying that he thought a lot of people came to my writing for the wrong reasons but stuck with me for the right ones."  "The Rifle" perhaps forms the perfect case in point.  Hearing that the story focuses on a sick kid given to animal mutilation, readers might expect to encounter depictions of grisly violence, which are in fact present ("Like the turtle the cats were nailed through all fours.  [Danny] had eviscerated both of them and looped their entrails around them and nailed the entrails to the walls at intervals so that the cat's were at the center of a kind of crude bull's eye.").  Still, it is the realism of natural setting and human psyche, the dramatization of the emotional anguish of a struggling mother, that makes "The Rifle" such a powerful and unforgettable short story.

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