The Girl Next Door

January 5, 2016 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, )

The Girl Next DoorThe Girl Next Door by Jack Ketchum


Geek Love by Katherine Dunn is the only book in my collection where I almost stopped reading it because it was too much. I’ve abandoned books that were boring or uninteresting or poorly written, but Geek Love covered so much depravity and obscenity through its portrayal of cruelty and misguided devotion that I almost quit it. I persevered, though, partly because I had to see if there was something redeeming about the story, and partly because I needed to see what would happen next. It’s like rubbernecking as your drive past an accident; you’re horrified at the possibility of what you might see, but you can’t prevent yourself from looking.

The Girl Next Door is now the second book I almost quit reading for being too much.

This story was inspired by true events. Sylvia Likens was a teenaged girl who was sent to live with her neighbors when her parents could no longer support them. Over the next three months, their foster mother, along with her children and other neighborhood children, tortured Sylvia to death. Ketchum, in his afterword to this book, writes of discovering this story and feeling compelled to write about it. It wasn’t until he was forced to go through his own childhood effects after his mother’s death that he found the right way to tell the story.

Ketchum fictionalizes the events, and creates new characters to try to explain how such a horrible thing could happen. His two central characters are Meg — his stand-in for Sylvia — and David, the next-door neighbor who is the first to meet her, and who instantly develops a crush on her. The story is set on a dead-end street by the woods, where David has lived his entire life, and where David has had the same friends all his life. Meg and her sister, Susan, are being fostered by David’s next-door neighbor, Ruth, a single mother with three sons. David has been given free rein at Ruth’s house, enough so that he’s allowed to drink beer and smoke cigarettes there, despite being only twelve years old. Meg is the outsider, the interloper, and draws the ire of Ruth, for seemingly no reason. What starts out as casual verbal abuse becomes much, much more as Ruth allows her own children, along with the neighborhood children, to participate in Meg’s punishments.

Ketchum does two things in this story that make the story very personal for the reader: he tells the story in the first person through David, forcing us to be unwilling participants in Meg’s torture; and he tells the story as a recollection of David’s from some 30 years after the events took place. David never participates in any of the torture, but he watches, and is fascinated by it. Part of it is his crush on Meg; the other part of it is just rubbernecking, waiting to see what will happen next. David becomes a passive participant, and the number of times that he doesn’t stop the torture, and the number of times he doesn’t tell anyone about it, means that he goes from being the protagonist to simply the narrator. It’s frustrating to read about his passivity, but at the same time, it’s reflected through the reader, who continues to read the story despite how far things go. We also have the opportunity to stop the torture simply by not reading about it, but we find it hard to stop. It could be the mild hope of escape that Ketchum teases us with, or it could be that we, like David, simply have to see what happens next.

Meg’s character is strong, in a number of ways. She’s strong enough to fight back, and she’s strong enough to endure the torture when Ruth threatens to do the same to her sister if she doesn’t. Her strength is that hope of escape I mentioned above, even though there’s also a feeling of inevitability about where the story will end. Despite her strength, there’s still a strong current of helplessness in her situation that makes you know that it won’t end well.

Telling the story as a recollection, Ketchum makes our narrator easy to trust and believe. David, unwilling as he was, was still a participant, and the story is told as a confession, an apology. He doesn’t forgive himself, nor does he expect the reader to do so. He bears the responsibility of his participation, so there’s never a question as to his reliability as a narrator. Who would lie about being a part of such a thing?

David does become the hero of the story, and he’s given absolution by Meg and Susan, but both revelations are the weakest part of the book to me. David’s willingness to finally get involved in helping Meg comes too late, and the ease with which she thanks him for that help doesn’t fit with the tone of the story. There shouldn’t be any reason to sympathize with David; he needs to be held responsible as much as those who participated. Meg is the protagonist here, with her strength and her inability to be broken and what she has to endure to protect her sister. Shifting the attention to David not only denies Meg her own absolution, but it also lessens the sacrifice she makes. Meg doesn’t have to survive to achieve all that, but she at least should be the one who saves her sister.

This is not a book for everyone. It goes into dark places, and doesn’t flinch when it comes to showing you how depraved people can become when they’re given the opportunity to go where there are no limits. It’s not gratuitous, nor could it even be called splatterpunk (the amount of blood and gore in this book is surprisingly minimal), but it’s still the abyss that Nietzsche warned us about. Those with a high constitution and who can appreciate a good story even as it makes you question why you want to read it will find a compelling, thoughtful, excruciating experience with The Girl Next Door.


1 Comment

  1. 2016: A Review | Veni Vidi Verkisto said,

    […] The Girl Next Door […]

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