Books: Red by Jack Ketchum

The late Jack Ketchum (whose real name was Dallas Mayr) is an author I’ve always been a big fan of; his work isn’t for everyone, as it’s usually quite graphic, and focuses on the worst aspects of humanity, delving deep into the depravity lurking in the hearts of men. The Girl Next Door, based on a horrifying true story, is probably his most disturbing work, but all of his books explore the horrors that humans are capable of inflicting on one another to some degree.

This particular novel, Red, was first published in 1995, and though I saw the paperback often back then as I browsed through the horror section of my local bookstore, after reading the synopsis, I opted for other Ketchum works instead; for whatever reason, the premise of Red either didn’t grab me immediately the way the subjects of some of his other books did, or I thought it would be an even bigger bummer than his usual stuff, given the topic. So I never read it back when it came out.

Recently, though, I noticed that Red was available to read for free on Kindle Unlimited, and I decided to finally give it a go. Now, I will admit that the central inciting incident of this story—the brutal death of a dog—is something that’s difficult for me to read about. I love animals, and I have a hard time reading or watching even fictional stories which feature the torture or death of a cat or dog. I know it’s kinda messed up (or is it?), but I’m generally pretty blasé about terrible shit happening to humans in horror novels or movies, but leave the goddamn kitties and puppies (and bunnies, and birds, and lizards, and snakes, and kangaroos…) alone, for fuck’s sake.

So yeah, this book got to me. I will note that although it doesn’t have a “happy” ending per se, it does have a less bleak ending than Ketchum is usually known for, but prior to the ending, some very, very nasty shit happens in this story. It’s not a book you want to read if you’re looking to reinforce your faith in the goodness of the human race, in other words.

The main protagonist of the story is an older gentleman named Avery. He’s in his 60s, he’s a widower, and he’s partially retired, though he does own a small general store in this sleepy little town. Everyone knows and loves Avery, and indeed, he is a lovable, honorable, and admirable character who you immediately feel an affinity with. He’s just going about his quiet life, not hurting a soul.

Avery spends a lot of time out in the woods around his home, fishing, and he always takes along his beloved dog Red, who he’s had for years. And indeed, he’s doing this very thing on one particular day when everything starts going to shit.

Avery is approached by three teenage boys, which is almost never a good time no matter who you are. Avery is wary, but the boys initially seem friendly; they have rifles, but they say they’ve been out hunting. This is a small town, so Avery knows them, or at least knows who their parents are.

The scene is tense from the get-go, because you know these little shits are up to no good, and you’re just waiting to see what brand of fuckery is going to ensue. And, true to form, they tell Avery that they’re going to rob him. Avery, not wanting to fuck up his day too much and kinda too old for this shit, is just like, hey, my wallet’s in the truck back there and you’re welcome to the twenty bucks in it, just leave me the fuck alone. The fact that these fuck-knuckles are all rich kids and don’t even need the money makes the whole situation even more infuriating.

Not content with simply taking the man’s money—which they deem too small an amount anyway­—they decide to take their payment in other ways, and proceed to blow off the head of Avery’s dog, Red, just because they can, and because they’re entitled little sociopathic assholes. One of the cocksockets seems to have some semblance of empathy, in the sense that he thinks blowing off a dog’s head with a shotgun is just a tad too far, you guys, but at this point in the story, if all three of these pissflaps were tied down and had all their flesh very slowly sloughed off with a vegetable peeler and the subsequent wounds sprinkled with kosher salt and Louisiana hot sauce, I wouldn’t feel the tiniest bit bad.

Avery, though, is a far better person than me, as he is able to resist the urge to ram both fists up these boys’ buttholes without lube and turn them inside out like cheap handbags. He is, of course, devastated by the loss of his dearest friend, but at first, all he wants from these shitstains is for them to take responsibility for what they did and feel some genuine remorse. He goes to the cops, knowing they won’t do anything, but just informing them of what happened and who was responsible. Then he goes to the boys’ parents, telling them what their crotch droppings have been up to, and how maybe they should correct these vile snatch napkins before they become serial killers. The parents, of course, being older, richer, and even shittier versions of their entitled asshole children, refuse to believe that their exalted spawn could have done such a terrible thing, and tell the hopelessly lower-middle-class old man to go pound sand.

At this point, Avery feels he has little recourse, but then a woman who works for the local media becomes interested in his story and convinces him to go public. He’s hesitant, obviously, but she is genuinely sympathetic, and wants to see the teenage dog murderers held accountable as much as he does.

Not surprisingly, this does not go well, and the teenagers and their awful parents begin a campaign of essentially terrorism against this nice old man, simply because he actually had the balls to go on TV and tell them how much they sucked. Poor Avery, who really is a good man, puts up with a lot from these cuntpockets before finally deciding that he has to fight fire with fire.

In essence, Red is a simple revenge tale, in the vein of a proto-John Wick, though much lower-key than that, at least initially. It explores the lengths that assholes will go to enshrine their assholery, and what happens when good people finally have enough of their shit and decide to go scorched earth on the motherfuckers. As you can tell, this story brought up some emotions, as not only do I loathe people who do horrible shit to animals, I also loathe entitled dickfucks who think they can do whatever the hell they want with absolutely no regard for anyone else. Those people definitely need to be brought down a few pegs, or, you know, boiled alive in tar, if necessary, fictional or no.

As I mentioned, this is not a pleasant story to read, but it is compelling and heartbreaking, and wonderfully written, as all of Ketchum’s stuff tends to be. It delves into the limits of human goodness, asking, what would it take for a genuinely good person to do things they never thought they would? It’s an excellent character study, and Avery is such a sympathetic, good-natured protagonist that your heart just goes out to him as he reluctantly sets out on this journey of revenge.

As far as I’m aware, all formats of the novel Red­—print, ebook, and audio­—also include a bonus novella at the end called The Passenger, which is also excellent and explores at least one of the same themes­—namely that of class—as Red does. The Passenger concerns a defense attorney named Janet Morris who has been representing a client who allegedly shot and killed an entire family. This serves as the backdrop for the main narrative, in which Janet’s car breaks down one night and she is picked up by a woman named Marion who went to her same high school, though they traveled in different social circles (Janet being a more upper-middle-class, cheerleader type, Marion being a more working-class, trailer park type). Things start going horribly awry: Janet not only begins to realize that Marion is crazy as shit, but the women end up crossing paths with three ruthless criminals on a rape and murder spree. The night gets exponentially worse from there. This was also a great read, though the ending strained credulity just a bit and it didn’t have the emotional impact that Red did. Still great and brutal, however, for those into more extreme horror.

Until next time, keep it creepy, my friends.

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