Saturday, October 20, 2012

Countdown: The Top 20 Jack Ketchum Works of Short Fiction--#3

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

#3. "Chain Letter"

This 1998 short story (collected in Peaceable Kingdom) enthralls from its very first lines.  Riddled with puzzlement and unease, the reader wonders why protagonist Alfred so anxiously awaits the daily delivery of the mail.  Furthermore, what's the significance of Alfred's dream about first bullying a cab driver and then flagellating himself with sticks spiked with rusty nails?  The dark suspense only intensifies when Alfred decides to take a walk into town, and spots a series of roadside atrocities: the body of a long-dead and bird-scavenged child; "a horse with a bullet in its brain"; a group of small boys in the midst of  "nailing a woman to a barn" and beating "her with thin birch switched about the face and head."  And perhaps most perplexing of all: why does the receipt of something so banal as a chain letter render a "decent enough guy" like the character Henley automatically untrustworthy ("Now what have you got.  Another bloody butcher.  Either that or he'll be having second thoughts or regrets or whatever and he'll sit himself in a corner somewhere and wait for the brains to crawl on out of him.")?

The violent chaos gripping the town links back to the titular piece of mail, but Ketchum reveals this only gradually to readers, starting with a discussion at the local cafe between Alfred and his friend Jamie.  During the course of their conversation, Jamie shows that he has strong thoughts on the subject of the kind of man it will take to put a stop to the sinister missive:
Some fucking lunatic.  Somebody tired, disgusted.  No promethean, you can bet on that.  Somebody without the stomach for it, without the imagination--I figure suicide is about lack of imagination.  Somebody missing the urge to make use of all that permission.
That somebody could turn out to be Alfred, who returns home to discover the dreaded envelope waiting for him.  The letter inside reads: "The aforesigned pass on to you all responsibility for their actions, past, present, and future.  We deem this the highest honor, the highest challenge..."  To reject this responsibility, the recipient merely has to "add a new name to the space provided beneath your own.  Be sure to check the list thoroughly to see that you do not repeat any name already entered above..."  The conclusion of the letter suggests a twisted religious origin: "Declared by the will of God and the First Congress of Faith, Abraham White, founder.  All bless."

 "It's the old, old concept of sin-eater again, only more extreme," Alfred thinks, the line forming an apt gloss on Ketchum's hardcore-horror variation on Shirley Jackson's "The Lottery."  And with this one also recognizes why Ketchum chose to alternate sections written from Alfred's first-person perspective with italicized sections written in the third person: structure reinforces theme, as notions of self and other (apropos of the symbolic ingestion of external guilt) are melded together.

Alfred truly struggles with the decision of how to respond to the letter: "Do I send the letter to somebody I love or somebody I hate?  Do I spare those I love the pain of waiting or take the chance that the letter might miss them entirely, as unlikely as that seems?" 
He realizes that ending the chain requires a "martyr, a brand new Christ" committed to suffering the "worst death imaginable."  Alfred psyches himself into being that figure by imagining various acts of horrific self-wounding.  The extended sequence (e.g. "But first the genitals should be torn away and the teeth smashed and swallowed, one should have to throw oneself against a wall or table until the
backbone cracks and the skull is fractured, long sharp knives one should shove up one's ass, the nose must be severed, the nipples burned black") of spectacular havoc forms what is without a doubt one of the most cringe-inducing passages Ketchum has ever penned.

One has to wonder whether Alfred is spurred by an irrepressible masochistic streak or sheer disgust with the society surrounding him.  Alfred admits he has "no faith" that anyone else will move to end the cycle of violence, and expresses his disdain for the fellow townspeople who hide behind "the names, the writing, the ordinary symbols" (by using "an odd but commonplace form letter," one probably dreamt up in some "grey office building" or "grim bar," as a convenient excuse for indulging uncivilized impulses).  By mapping out (and carrying out) "a death commensurate with the crime, the one really emphatic death amid all these careless neutral ones" that his murderous friends and neighbors have caused, Alfred hopes to send a "personal message" to his peers: "You're full of shit, every one of you.  I'm about to prove it."  These closing lines constitute yet another potent clincher to a Ketchum tale, with "full of shit" doubling both as slang for disingenuousness (Alfred puts little stock in people's proclamations of what they would do if they received the chain letter) and a more literal account of the inner filth saturating the townspeople.  By accepting the role of sin-eater and subjecting himself to a gruesome martyrdom, Alfred gives a whole new meaning to the phrase "scathing critique."  

1 comment:

Black Cross said...

You now, I never really knew much about Jack Ketchum. I read one novel, Red, and haven't gotten around to reading any more. After reading this and some of the back posts, it looks like I might have to finally get around to it.--Rob