Friday, November 2, 2012

Joyride by Jack Ketchum

This was the one review I didn’t want to write.
It’s not that I’m going to shit all over Joyride. I can’t say that the book was a pleasant reading experience but it was undeniably well done. It’s got prose like a British sitcom, where the camera just stays at one place and unflinchingly describes the ugliness placed in front of it.
I think I’ve been twitchy about writing this one because Jack Ketchum is part of the horror orthodoxy. He’s one of those dudes people just get behind and if I say anything negative I’m afraid I’ll lose my horror bonafides. It’s not that I have anything particularly negative to say about the guy other than his work is nearly the textbook definition of a crapsack world.
Crapsack worlds, as defined by, is a fictional universe where everything is absolutely miserable. Usually it refers to a post-apocalyptic setting and often there are either zombies or robots or something running around, but Joyride takes place in a crapsack version of the human condition. Everyone sucks, everyone is poisoned by hate or madness, and you can murder your abusive husband in cold blood with your lover and still remain the “hero” of the story.
A lot of horror fiction, especially horror fiction without any overt supernatural elements, takes place in crapsack worlds. I can’t stand the tone of these stories. They feel like thinly veiled misanthropy. I don’t know Jack Ketchum in the way that a lot of people in the program do. For all I know, he’s a lovely human being who is kind to puppies and dotes over little old ladies in their hour of need. But it feels like writing from someone who sees very little light in the human condition.
Which, of course, means that he writes the best overtly vicious psychopath we’ve encountered in the course of the semester. Up until this point Francis Dolarhyde has been my favorite looney. He’s kind of a cop out. He’s easy to like. We feel sad for him, we hope he’s successful in fighting off the urges of the Red Dragon, and his murders aren’t jammed in our faces.
Wayne Lock’s mania is jammed right into our faces. We’re not meant to like him. But he’s brilliantly constructed.
Joyride feels like one of those old EC Comics morality tales where the scheming couple bumps off the husband, only to have him riiiiiiise up from the grave to seek vengeance. The story has been updated and the husband really does have it coming (though, frankly, I saw a million different ways she could have gotten away without killing the guy) but instead of the shambling drippy skeleton we get some misogynistic loon with a grudge against everyone. The basic message remains the same: if you step out of line, there will be horrible consequences.
Wayne Lock feels less grandiose than Dolarhyde. He’s less intelligent and a whole lot more petty and a whole lot more believable. As I recognized my insecurities in Dolarhyde, I recognize my idiot rages in Lock. It’s not hard at times to feel like people are against you and there’s reason to keep track of those grievances. But most of us shrug our shoulders and get over it. Lock seems like rage writ large, the kind of person with a permanent ‘fuck you’ mentality. It makes sense that he’d become entranced with the violence he sees. A guy like him builds kill lists as a way to vent, then discovers how easy it actually is to hurt people if you have no conscious and a whole lot of entitlement issues.
So he’s a well-designed psycho, but he’s really the only compelling character in the book. I read it months ago and I don’t remember anything about the couple, other than the fact that I wasn’t sympathetic toward them. It’s hard to sell me on cold blooded murderers, no matter how righteous their cause.
I also thought that the book was really centered around the climactic massacre. The back cover of the book sold it as a story of two ‘righteous’ murderers who find themselves trapped in a rolling massacre with a nutjob. That stuff is scary. Some of my favorite tense scenes in movies are the bits where a crazy person is in the back seat of a car, being half-playful and half-threatening to the scared people driving. It’s the ultimate hitchhiker story. That whole hook feels discarded midway through and the story ends in a gigantic setpiece where the wackadoo goes blasting through the neighborhood only to get gunned down by Johnny Law. It’s incredibly well-executed (har de har harrrr….) but it feels like it could be a short story in its own. It fits what came before but doesn’t necessarily follow, if that makes sense.
Before I finish this post, I want to stress that I don’t think this was a bad book. Jack Ketchum is a really, really good writer and I’ve enjoyed other things he’s written tremendously. I even “enjoyed” reading Joyride. If just feels like a world view I can’t particularly subscribe to.
I’ve been grinding through Silent Hill 2 over the past week as I’ve written this. It’s a supernatural story and it’s one of the scariest things I’ve every encountered, but it’s also a lovely story of grief and guilt and it takes place in a world where the horror of the supernatural contrasts the mundane joys and awfulness of regular life.
The crapsack world of a lot of horror fiction is a place where everything is terrible. Every family is dysfunctional behind closed doors, the mildest mouse can turn into the biggest monster, and everything is two hours and a hot meal away from falling apart. It’s the kind of attitude that feels immature to me. It’s myopic and limited, the world of heavy metal album covers and sullen teenagers. It’s probably not the effect Ketchum wanted the reader to take away from the story, but it’s what I pulled from it. Maybe I’m more interested in what I had to say rather than what the book did.  


Christopher Shearer said...

I would have written a lot earlier when I read this, but now I just don't want to. I'm tired. In short, however, I agree with your assessment and your reasoning. And you admitted the good points, the writing, the unflinching reality of it. The only quibble I may have is viewing that worldview as immature. In a lot of cases (see most) you're right, but for some people, that could be their reality because nothing ever has been good or gone right.

And Dallas is a great guy. Hang out with him at WHC.

Anonymous said...

Good points, but I don't see Joyride as 100% crapsack world. Seven was set in a crapsack world—dressed up with a lot of style, but still crapsack. I see Joyride as more of a crapsack corner. The main characters inhabit that corner, but the real horror comes when the crap leaks out. The victims lives were all outside of the crapsack corner until Lock stepped out of it and brought the crap into their lives.

Querus Abuttu said...

Ditto to most of what Chris said. And Dallas is a wonderful man. Brilliant and full of wonderful ideas.
I don't disagree on the points you brought up about Joyride, but I feel differently about them. I love Ketchum's writing, and I love that he doesn't paint a pretty picture. For all of my love of humanity, I like the realism he brings to a story. Yeah, it's ugly. So is life. Life is suffering, anyway you cut it and people make bad choices. They also choose their reality. Joyride was real for me like much of Dallas' writing I've dug into. Disturbing for some folks I'm sure, but I love the darks twists and turns.

I enjoy how he foreshadows events too. He lets you in that some serious shit is going to happen with lines like this:

"You could stand on the lawn at ten in the morning and imagine being eaten by a shadowy row of teeth. Teeth that were ten feet tall." Ketchum (Kindle Locations 136-138).

Every page was a decadent, evil treat.
Caio for now,


Anonymous said...

I have to agree with Chris on this one, but I do want to say that I think your post illuminates the fact Ketchum did the best job of pulling you into the characters because you saw the world through their eyes and never had any meta-perception of the world they live in. Wayne is hard to say, but we can see he believed he had a shitty life, we know Carol did have a shitty life, but everyone else pretty normal and the town was normal, the world was normal. If it was a truly crapsack world, all the random people he killed would have has shitty lives, but it as the exact opposite.

And Dallas is a terrific human being. You two would get along so well, it's not even funny.

Creature said...

In my defense, I did say that the attitude feels immature. There are people who have life experiences that would lead them to crapsack world views. It may reflect their perspective but I'd quickly burn out hanging out in that point of view. When I was a kid I believed in EVERYTHING DARK ALWAYS but that feels both exhausting and slightly silly now.

Like I said, I like his stuff. I even "liked" this, but I also felt like I was under assault. And I'm sure I'd get along with him. I get along with everyone.

....more or less.