The Passenger

January 14, 2016 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , , )

The PassengerThe Passenger by Jack Ketchum


I thought of two other works as I was reading this one: Chasing the Dead by Joe Schreiber, due to the whole “trapped in the car” premise of the story; and “The Night They Missed the Horror Show” by Joe Lansdale, due to the setting in the third act of the story. The Passenger was better than Chasing the Dead (though Schreiber didn’t set the bar too high for that achievement), but the best I can say about it against Lansdale’s story is that it reads more like an homage than an attempt to duplicate Lansdale’s brilliant story.

The story is about a defense lawyer, Janet, who, after being stranded on the side of the road after her car breaks down, is picked up by an old schoolmate who is far on the other side of sane. They come upon a group of men who are on the run from the police, and once the two groups merge, and Janet is taken hostage, the carnage escalates until they find themselves in an exclusive club where even their own perversions and violence could be considered tame.

I’m not sure if Ketchum has run dry the well that feeds his dark visions, or if I’ve just become desensitized to it after reading so much of his fiction in such a short amount of time, but I didn’t feel the kind of dread and horror with this story that I have with his other works. I remember how anxious I felt, how tight my stomach would get as I read The Girl Next Door and Joyride, but here I felt more removed from the events. I think the events of The Passenger just felt less personal than those of the other two works.

The story is told from mostly from Janet’s perspective, so we view the madness of her captors from the perspective of someone stable. I’m not sure if it makes the events more or less difficult to endure, though, especially when Ketchum has also written stories from the other side of that dynamic. When we read a madman’s justification for violence, it feels worse than seeing the same thing through the eyes of someone who feels the same way we do about it. His best works walk a fine line between those two perspectives (Cover and The House Next Door), but when he takes one side over the other, he seems to do better when he tells us the story through the eyes of his psychopaths.

The lack of resonance may also be due to the length of the story. Ketchum’s shorter works lack the punch of his longer ones, which could be related to the limited time he has to develop his characters, or it could be that he just can’t develop as powerful a story in a shorter space. Either way, The Passenger disappoints. Completionists should seek it out to get the full picture of the author, but other Ketchum readers might want to give it a pass.

Unfortunate Musical Connection: “Passenger” by Deftones (Such an incredible song.)

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