Sep 11, 2006
Off Season by Jack Ketchum - thoughts
Have you ever felt you just missed the boat on an author? You know what I'm getting at, that one book that everyone raved about, but you simply couldn't fathom its popularity? Perhaps it's Yann Martel's Life of Pi, an amazing book that a surprising amount of people loathe. Or Margaret Atwood's The Tent, critically acclaimed yet snooze-inducing.
Well, Jack Ketchum's Off Season affects me in this way. I just don't get the hype. Stephen King raves on the cover, "If you read Off Season on Thanksgiving, you probably won't sleep until Christmas." No dice. I love Stephen, and will defend even his lesser efforts to the death, but his blurbs have led me down troubled paths before, most notably Bentley Little's The Walking, a novel that King apparently admires, but which I found to be a dreary, repetitive, and downright terrible, terrible novel. Really. I can't emphasize this enough. Just awful.
Off Season is not nearly that bad. It is a grimly effective horror novel with several moments of absolutely grosteque imagery. So no, it's not that bad. It's just not that good.
The plot harkens back to the glory days on grindhouse flicks, those cheaply-made exploitation movies with titles like I Spit on your Grave. A group of attractive young professionals arrive at a rented cottage for a weekend of relaxation. A hideous family of in-bred monstrosities attacks the group. Carnage ensues.
Right from the start, Ketchum is deliberately evoking the pulpy b-movie slasher films of the 1970s. These were usually terrible, but there were glimmers of true art and passion amidst the dreck. George Romero's classic Night of the Living Dead comes to mind, a nihilistic masterpiece that Off Season owes more than a nod to. He says as much in his afterword, a lengthy and entertaining discussion on the evolution of the novel, from its original and highly-neutered first publication in 1981, through its gaining cult status as a no-holds-barred horror epic, up to its ultimate re-release in its original, unexpurgated glory. It's strange that Ketchum, while noting Living Dead as an influence, never mentions Wes Craven's The Hills Have Eyes, another low-budget gorefest that Ketchum's plot is almost an exact recycling of.
Now, there is nothing wrong with this sort of story. As Roger Ebert said in his droll and literate defense of George Romero's zombie epic (and the greatest zombie film of all time) Dawn of the Dead, "It is not depraved...it is about depravity." The same can be said of Off Season: it is definitely about depravity. Ketchum knows that we are all voyeurs, and we have a dark fascination with gore and subjects society considers taboo. He then proceeds to show us exactly what depravity is, in all its forms. Murder. Rape. Cannibalism. Mutilation. And it goes on like this.
Now, I'm no prude (although remarking on one's lack of prudity pretty much guarantees the moniker 'Prude' will be hung around the speaker's neck). I absolutely love the gritty low-budget movies that had the courage to go all the way with their ambitions. There is no better summation of the perils of consumerism than Dawn of the Dead (the original, not the surprisingly fun but lesser remake). The Hills Have Eyes, while not in the same league, does provide an in-depth satire on the bonds of family. Depravity can be a terrific entertainment, when done correctly. Look at Stephen King's Pet Semetary, a novel even he found too scary, and as depraved an examination of grief as there ever could be.
Ketchum's story does not have the heart of Pet Semetary. Nor does it have the resonating satire of Dawn. What it has, is gore. Buckets of it. People are skinned alive. Tongues are hacked off. Women are raped, dismembered, and disembowelled. No one gets off easy. No one is spared.
So, we've established that Off Season is ugly, and nihilistic, and bleak. So what? Such a vantage point does not make a novel worthless. But for all its in-your-faceness, there seems little point to all the blood-letting. That may also be Ketchum's point, that there is no point to it all, that life is brutish, short, and unpleasant. Mission accomplished.
But there's nothing beyond the ability to quease that makes Off Season anything more than moderately interesting. In the end, it's exactly like most of the grindhouse films it emulates. It's short, has flashes of originality, and vanishes from your memory once completed.