Wednesday, June 21, 2023

QUICK SHOTS: Red by Jack Ketchum

Jack Ketchum has a legacy as an extreme author, extreme horror that is. I first encountered his work in my early-20s after getting my hands on a copy of Off Season, his version of the old Sawney Bean tale (directly covered in L.A. Morse's Flesh Eaters) of cannibals in the woods. I had known of the books reputation before I read it, but it didn't quite prepare me for the book. It's one of two books (the other being Joe R. Lansdale's The Nightrunners) that truly unnerved me. It's a wild, short, gory, rollercoaster ride through backwoods terrors. It gave me a viewpoint of Ketchum's work, a narrow viewpoint, think he only did EXTREME HORROR.

But slowly I began to pick up his work wherever I found it; Ketchum has never been easy to find in my neck of the woods. I bought them because I knew I liked his style, but I always just stuck on the shelf for the "another day." I got Red in a bundle with a few more of his early 2000s Leisure reprints, which are pretty neat because most of them have a bonus short story or novella in them, but they do have sort of lackluster covers. Give and take. Most of them actually have stickers indicting that they eventually wound up at Dollar General for a buck. That would have been a bargain, I tell ya. 

Remember when those bad guys killed John Wick's dog and he went apeshit on them in revenge? Yeah, Red did that first, just not to the extreme over-the-top action of the John Wick movies, but it is interesting to note. SO much so that I didn't realize it as I read the book, only making the connection talking to my wife about it when she brought it up. Avery Ludlow is an old man with an old faithful dog fishing one day when some teenage boys senselessly shotgun the dog to death. As an animal lover I felt Avery's pain there. The dog Red means a lot to Avery and the randomness of the attack shakes him. 

Red's an onion of a book. Slowly we begin to understand why the dog Red meant so much to the widowed and Korean war vet Avery and why he would go through such lengths to be a modicum of justice for it. Avery does a little detective work and then works through all the normal channels talking to the boy's father the rich guy McCormick who's a slightly shady real estate developer type, to going to the police, to suing, to a television news story, only to come up empty on all fronts. Then the paperback stuff happens, retaliations fly, there's arson, .38s and .44 Magnums, and it all comes to down to a white-knuckle thrilling finale, but mostly what the book does is use a thriller-plot to give a little mediation on grief, justice, and real evil. It's a different Ketchum then I found in Off Season which gave the same thrills, but a lot less of the heart. Avery is a whole person not just a hero-lead and it's easy to follow him along as you turn the pages. 

In a lot of ways, it reminded me of a John D. MacDonald Gold Medal stand-alone or a Donald Hamilton stand-alone. Clean writing, good characters, paperback excitement, evil villains, and solid action with consequences. Red is a terribly sad book, but very sweet in its own way. Red got me to buy the rest of Ketchum's back catalogue and the movie adaptation of Red staring Brian Cox, that's how good it was. It's an easy to find book so do yourself a favor, huh?