The scariest things are always those hiding in the place you least expect. A perfect example of this is The Woman (the book is a companion to the Lucky McKee film that made something of a splash at Sundance). You’d think that the title character is something to be afraid of, and you’d be right. She’s the last of a tribe of feral people, and has spent her life living in the woods hunting animals and humans with brutal efficiency.
But the woman’s been wounded, presumably when her tribe finally was tracked down by hunters or police. She’s a bit off her game (though still strong enough to attack and kill a wolf while armed only with a knife) and that makes her a target for small-town attorney Chris Cleek. While out hunting, he spies the woman bathing in a stream, and decides to capture her. But not to turn her over to the authorities. Instead, he brings her to his family’s house, where he keeps her prisoner in the fruit cellar and enlists his family’s help in “civilizing’ her.
And this is when things get scary. Because Cleek is a deeply twisted man. We could have guessed that - no person whose screws were tight would think that capturing and imprisoning a savage wild woman is a good idea. But as the story goes on it reveals the extent of Cleek’s disturbed nature, and its effects not just on the woman but on Cleek’s family: his alarmingly passive wife Belle, desperate teen Peggy, chip-off-the-old-block son Brian, and nightmare-prone daughter Darleen. And when a well-intentioned outsider looks into the secrets the Cleek family is hiding, the situation erupts into Grand Guignol violence.
The Woman was not written as a stand-alone book but it functions well as one. The narrative is perhaps a bit too lean but it sketches in the characters well and makes their motivations clear while at the same time leaving plenty to tantalize the reader’s imagination about this messed-up family. And while the woman is not the villain of the story, co-authors Jack Ketchum and McKee don’t romanticize her either. A short story titled “Cow” that serves as an epilogue to the tale makes it clear just what the woman’s predation on humans means in terms of the costs to her victims. The prose is spare but effective, with imagery that’ll stick in your head whether you want it to or not.
It’s a short but intense, down-and-dirty story that will have you wondering more than once, “How much more messed up can things get?” And I mean this in a good way.