Steven King once wrote, "a short story is like a quick kiss in the dark from a stranger." If that is true, Jack Ketchum gives readers coffins full of kisses in Peaceable Kingdom.
Don't be misled by the title; the stories in this collection are anything but peaceable. They are as dark and disturbing as speculative fiction can be. But the title is not ironic, Ketchum explains in his introduction. And while some of the stories may scare us, some of them, he tells us, have "something else on their mind, too."
Jack Ketchum, author of The Lost, Red, Broken on the Wheel of Sex, Off Season, and numerous other novels and short stories, is known for his diversity, and the thirty-two stories found here are no exception. Subjects range from horror to suspense, science fiction to dark humor. There are stories of the surreal, a vampire tale, and a western. Ketchum explores taboos and unsettling social and cultural issues, including sexual abuse, child molestation, madness, revenge, incest, guilt and redemption, stripping away facades and revealing the human heart in all its ugliness and beauty.
Two of the stories found here, "Gone" and "The Box," received the Bram Stoker Award in short fiction. "Gone" is the tragic story of a mother whose daughter is abducted. The pain is rekindled threefold in a surprise ending. In "The Box," a young boy, his sisters, and eventually his mother lose their appetites and their will to survive after the boy looks inside a stranger's mysterious box.
As you delve deeper into the volume, you begin to appreciate the scope of Ketchum's considerable talent, the importance of theme and the writer's intent. "Great horror fiction is almost always allegorical," King writes, and Jack Ketchum is a writer who knows from the outset what he wants to say and how best to say it. But his message comes through subtly, and the stories, unpretentious and powerful, work well on both the literal and figurative levels.
Among the more disturbing tales in the group is the lead story "The Rifle," in which a mother learns that her young son has a dark and demented secret. The solution to the problem could not be more difficult.
"Mail Order" is about a man obsessed with snuff films. Just when he is convinced the torture and death portrayed in all of them are fake, he learns that is not always the case.
Whoever said that ghosts can't hurt you have never visited the nightclub called the Blue Parrot, the setting for "The Haunt." Here the spirit of a former occupant reminds us to be careful what we ask for. We just might get it.
"Sundays" is a multi-layered story, a study in human nature. As a man's unfaithfulness costs him his wife, he thinks back to his childhood and his father and wonders about the conflicting elements of the human psyche. Why do people risk such loss to do the things they do?
In "The Holding Cell" a man is arrested on a DUI charge and locked up with several other inmates, one of whom keeps repeating, "Cell. You're in it now." Those words seem to prove prophetic as the man's records fail to show up on the police department's computer and his ex-wife can't get him out as long as he is lost in the system. This surreal account of bureaucracy's blunders goes a terrifying step further, however.
"To Suit the Crime" is another tale of law enforcement, and this one has an even more chilling ending.
"The Great San Diego Sleazy Bimbo Massacre" is black humor at its best as a disgruntled wife enlists the help of her friend and next-door-neighbor to do away with her shiftless husband. The problem is, their plots keep failing and the man seems to have an inordinate amount of luck.
And "Luck" is the title of the western included in the book, but this time the luck is good only for the villain.
One of the most memorable pieces is the novella "Closing Time." The setting is New York and the time is just after the tragedy of 9/11. David and Claire are deeply in love, but Claire is ending their relationship because David can't bring himself to leave his wife. The breakup is agony for them both and David cannot accept it. He is drawn to her building where he watches her apartment from across the street at night, and he knows the bar where she works.
In the subplot, an armed robber is working the area and bars are his specialty. I can't say more without giving too much away, but this story raises many questions about right and wrong and the human condition. It is tragic on many levels. "Closing Time" is definitely one of the best in this collection.
The story "Amid the Walking Wounded" is the science fiction offering here, and "The Visitor" is about the waking dead.
A few of the stories are a bit predictable, and the final scene in "Forever," a tragic and beautiful love story, echoes faintly Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men, but all in all this is a supurb collection.
Jack Ketchum builds his stories upon the solid foundations of universal themes that transcend genre and lifts them to a literary level. He can deliver chills aplenty, and quite often does, but many of his stories go beyond the "shock and awe" of horror. As he writes in his introduction, "sometimes they've got something else on their mind, too."
What else the stories in Peaceable Kingdom are about is indicated in the final selection "Firedance." I won't say too much about this one, because I don't want to spoil it for readers, but "Firedance" is based on the passage of scripture found in Isaiah 11:6-9, the one that talks about the lion lying down with the lamb. Read it and you will know.
Copyright © 2003 Shannon Riley
Shannon Riley's work has appeared in over 400 publications in the U.S., Canada, and the U.K., including Cemetery Dance, Gothic.net, Twilight Times, Gauntlet, Hellnotes Newsletter, and Blood Rose Magazine. She just completed a short story and poetry collection entitled Southern Gothic and is now working on a novel. To contact her, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
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