Domestic Horror and the Cycle of Abuse
By: Tony Jones
The Haunting the Halls of Horror section on Ink Heist revisits older works from the annals of dark fiction and few authors have a more impressive back-catalogue than Jack Ketchum. Old battered and well-thumbed novels truly travel the world over; my brother picked up the copy of Stranglehold he later passed onto myself in a small second-hand bookshop in the Republic of Ireland for a paltry twenty cents. This was a slightly odd discovery as in the UK this novel was published as Only Child, so this American version, with the first few pages yellowing and falling out, is certainly well traveled. Along the way it most likely unsettled a few readers who were only too happy to pass their copy down the chain to upset another reader!
When one thinks of Ketchum Off Season, its sequel Offspring, or the notorious The Girl Next Door are the titles which might naturally spring to mind. However, he has many other novels, a number of which I still have not read, but most examine the evil which lurk in the heart of man. Few authors have examined human horror or the cruelty and inherent nastiness in society as thoroughly or as extensively as Ketchum. In fact, it’s worth noting that, short stories aside, Ketchum hardly ever wrote anything which could be categorized as supernatural horror, his 1989 novel She Wakes was a very rare exception. Stranglehold AKA Only Child is a fine example of what Ketchum does best; over a brief 247 adrenaline fuelled pages Lydia Danse and subsequently her child Robert Danse go through a truly shocking ordeal. Horrific it might be, but you will not be able to drag your eyes from the page, unless it is to take a psychological break. This is horror more in tune with The Girl Next Door rather than Off Season as it deals with what hides behind the false smiles and closed curtains of everyday lives
The old cliché ‘never judge a book by the cover’ does not hold up with Stranglehold as my well-thumbed 1995 copy looks like an innocuous play-it-by-numbers thriller, but nothing could be further from the truth. Spanning around forty years, 1953-1994, the story opens with a genuinely unpleasant prologue; a mother unsettled by the crying of her small baby decides to lower the helpless child head-first into the toilet bowl she has just urinated into:
She lifted the toilet seat and took hold of the baby’s feet, turned it upside down and thought, am I really going to do this? Am I? And the answer was damn right I am, I’m up to here with screaming whining sucking drooling pissing shitting I’m up to goddamn here with all of it.
She lowered its head into the water.
And held it there.
The baby dying.
Oh jesus oh jesus god of jesus.”
Chapter one jumps forward nine years to New Hampshire 1962, and by page fifty we have quickly arrived at 1987. These years are told over a sequence of brush-stroke short sequences where we introduced to Lydia and Arthur as children, teenagers and then as university age adults, before they eventually meet and marry. Never at any point does Ketchum attempt to shroud the fact that Arthur Danse is a bad egg, the big question is how bad? I’m sure there are plenty of horrific characters in the Ketchum novels I have not read to rival Arthur, but I doubt there will be many. Why is he so dangerous? Like all true sociopaths he is an absolute master at hiding his true face, unless of course, he wants you to see it. Once in a while the guard comes down and when it does there are consequences, which many women painfully find out. As with most Ketcham villains, for the most part, Arthur lives a normal life and is all the more frightening because of the banality of when he goes about his day to day business managing his successful bar.
Soon we enter the marriage from hell, perhaps with overtones from Joyride (1994) and elements of The Lost (2001) Arthur Danse makes a conscious decision to show his true face to his unsuspecting wife, which until then he had kept cleverly hidden, particularly his sexual proclivities. Like a lot of Ketchum’s stuff, the very matter of fact sexual violence is explicit and at times hard to stomach. However, it never truly comes across as exploitative or sold as cheap thrills and the blandness and frequency of it is perhaps a reflection upon how often this might on in real life. Interestingly, the worst of violence takes off screen, but this only makes the ripple effect of the consequences even more powerful. Even more unsettling, often it is forgiven or unreported.
More than half of the novel is played out via lawyers and the courtroom and this is where Stranglehold truly finds its legs and is impossible to detach from. Told from multiple points of view, including briefly the child Robert, the reader realises that Lydia is far from perfect herself and makes many flaky decisions which come back to haunt her. Along the way the book asks many questions about family, the long-term effects of abuse and examines the difficulties in breaking this cycle.
Ketchum does not waste a word and this unflinching realistic approach is not everybody’s favourite type of horror. Many would much rather read about vampires or a far-flung apocalypse, with Stranglehold being just too close to the bone or a reminder of someone they know or some heart-breaking event covered in the media. In actual fact, it has been well documented how Ketchum drew from real life crime cases for inspiration and this novel is another such example. In reading it I found myself in almost constant anxiety, pretty much from the first pages to the very troubling ending.
It is not a perfect novel and reading a book almost 25 years after it was written allows a certain level of detachment from life in a different era. For instance, I am not certain what DNA evidence there was in that period, but in the context of this novel it would certainly play a bigger factor these days. Secondly, the social services/welfare support and child protection help Lydia is given really leaves much to be desired, whether it truly was that awful in the nineties, or whether Ketchum exaggerated for the sake of the story I am not sure. But I genuinely hope he exaggerated. Thirdly, it may well be that the astonishingly bleak ending is because Ketchum was making a point about the failure of the American judicial system, but again this is open to debate.
Although Stranglehold may not be ranked amongst the best, or talked about, Ketchum novels by horror purists, its unflinching account of domestic abuse and both planned and random brutality is second to none and 25 years after publication still packs a serious punch.
– Tony Jones