Stephen King, when writing about his craft, has said that if something isn't particularly scary, there's always the “gross out”. Jack Ketchum (aka; Dallas Mayr) seems to feel that there's nothing wrong with a little bit of both, as his intensely frightening and masterfully grisly novel, Off Season clearly shows. Originally released to scathing reviews (the Village Voice deemed it “violent pornography”) over twenty years ago, Ketchum's first novel has resurfaced in a new “author's cut” version, and, man, oh man, this one's a doozy.
New York-based editor, Carla, is on a working vacation in the coastal town of Dead River , Maine . It's a bustling tourist trap in the summer, but here, in the off-season, it's a quiet slice of small town New England life. Dead River 's also a perfect escape for her pals from the Big Apple; especially her long-suffering sister, Marjie, whose lack of ambition and direction has brought on a serious case of the blues. Of course, this is also the perfect place to entertain her new boyfriend, Jim, and maybe even give her ex, Nick, a chance to get to know him better. After all, Carla's always valued Nick's friendship above everything, even though she knows he's still carrying a torch for her. Then again, he's found someone new, himself; a real young one named Laura. Throw in Marjie's latest boyfriend, Dan, and you've got all the makings of an interesting weekend-
-and it will be.
You see, that man Carla saw by the river this morning, well, he saw her, too. He's been watching her for awhile, now. Watching and waiting; savoring every moment of it. He's got friends, too, back at the cave they call home. Men, woman, and children- forgotten and feral and hungry.
In Off Season, Ketchum exhibits a sort of folksy, conversational style of writing that is akin to a whiskey-breathed geezer waxing nostalgic in a bar. He lures you in with engaging humor, spices things up with a little dirty talk, and then, when he's got you good and hooked, grinning like an idiot and hanging on his every word, he pulls a sawed-off shotgun out from beneath his coat and paints the place with the vaporized bits of your noggin. When the shit hits the fan in Off Season, you're simply not ready for just how far Ketchum will go, somehow finding ways to describe carnage that, up to this point, I'd thought indescribable.
While the plot may not bring anything new to the genre (the cannibal family motif has been around the block a few times), its execution is a revelation, as Ketchum offers up easily the most visceral and stomach churning piece of horror fiction I've read to date. He manages to achieve this without sacrificing the nuts and bolts of a quality novel, and makes us genuinely care about his characters and their fates (although, much like the tagline from that other classic cannibal family tale states, “the lucky ones die first”).
So while Off Season is, essentially, a big fat gross-out of a novel, it's also a fantastically written one that will have you reevaluating the limits of horror literature. You may love it, you may hate it, but I guarantee you won't soon forget it!