Review: The Girl Next Door by Jack Ketchum

The Girl Next Door
By Jack Ketchum
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I don't know that I've ever been so completely gutted and repulsed by a book before. The Girl Next Door was a sickening read - it's grim and grimy, and so dark it's a miracle you can even read the words on the page. This is a bleak, bleak, bleak story of child abuse of the worst kind, and just when you think the depictions of imprisonment, assault, and torture cannot get any worse, Ketchum peels back yet one more layer of the onion to draw tears from your eyes. I did not enjoy The Girl Next Door, but I respect the hell out of Jack Ketchum for writing it and it is a masterclass, perfectly executed, powerhouse of a novel. You don't just read The Girl Next Door - you experience it, and if you're really lucky you survive it.

After their parents are killed in a car crash, Meg and her crippled sister Susan are left to the care of their closest kin, an embittered single-mother, Ruth. Ruth has several boys of her own, but anytime her ire rises it is Meg who becomes the focal point of her anger. We learn of their relationship and the repulsive degradation that defines it, as well as the reason for Ruth's aggression toward Meg, through the eyes of 12-year-old David.

I read The Girl Next Door as a part of a buddy read with Sadie, Richard and our Instagram friend, Dani. One point of contention that arose early on was the issue of David himself. Each of us found ourselves angry at the boy, hating him for his complicity by way of inaction, and wishing he would do something, anything, to stop the torment occurring at his neighbor's house. We kept wanting this little 12-year-old, this child, to step up and be the hero, to rise up against the evil adult Ruth and end her. We found ourselves hating him almost as much as Ruth and the rest of Meg's abusers.

This story is horrifying on multiple levels, but knowing that it is based on the very real victimization and murder of Sylvia Likens makes it all the more gut-churning and infuriating. You want so badly to make it stop, and the only comfort seems to be in knowing that this is a fictionalized account, and that Ketchum actually is pulling his punches. While the cases of Meg and Sylvia are comparable, The Girl Next Door, despite it's extreme brutality, is blessedly sanitized (if only barely) from the real-life events it's inspired by. Like Sylvia, Meg is abused by her guardian, the guardian's children, and even other neighborhood children over the course of her captivity.

Our minds struggled to conform and accept the plausibility of all of this. How could this possibly happen? When confronted with the truths inherit in The Girl Next Door, we rebelled and tried to deny, but that's simply impossible. We know better. And we know that the mob mentality that sweeps through the Chandler house and the small New Jersey cul-de-sac they inhabit is entirely all-too plausible. This story is extreme, but it does not exist in a fictional bubble. We wanted to insist that this couldn't happen here, or to us, that we would have been better than David, that we could have and would have stopped Ruth despite the odds against us. Maybe we could and would have. Or maybe, if push came to shove, what truly frightened us most of all was the possibility that we would have been just as indifferent, just as willing to ignore it, as Meg's neighbors. We would have failed her and Sylvia Likens and Kitty Genovese and scores of countless others who are abused and murdered.

The Girl Next Door broke me. But, clearly, it's also given me plenty to think about, and more than enough things to feel. Beneath the brutal violence against Meg and the psychological assault this book wages against its readers, it's a startling and well-realized depiction of the horrors of mob mentality and bystander effect. What makes it so damn chilling is it's realism, it's plausibility. This is not exploitative torture porn, and nobody should read this book for enjoyment or escapism. This is a book designed to make you angry, to drag you out of your comfort zone and infuriate and shatter you completely. What makes it so damn frightening is that, at its core, the demons within these pages are not imaginary monsters but actual human beings. Humans are the worst monsters of all.

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Michael Patrick Hicks

Michael Patrick Hicks is the author of the science fiction novels Convergence, an Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award 2013 Quarter-Finalist, and Emergence. His work has appeared in several anthologies, and he has written for the websites Graphic Novel Reporter and Audiobook Reviewer. In between compulsively buying books and adding titles that he does not have time for to his Netflix queue, he is hard at work on his next story.

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