When Stephen King supplies a cover quote saying that the author (Jack Ketchum) is probably ‘the scariest guy in America’ part of me thinks ‘ooh, sounds like a good book’ but another part wonders if I’m being set up for a fall. Apart from ‘Old Flames’ I haven’t read anything else by Jack Ketchum but on the basis of what I have read I’m pretty sure that I can find a horror author that scares me more. I could probably find more than one in fact.
‘Old Flames’ actually comprises two stories. The story sharing its name with the title of the book tells the tale of a woman who is unlucky in love and the lengths that she will go to in order to get her man and also to protect herself when things inevitably go wrong. ‘Right to Life’ is the story of a woman’s pregnancy while in the captivity of a couple who plan to steal her baby as soon as it is born.
I wouldn’t normally review two horror books in a row (I like to try and keep things fresh) but I thought it would be interesting to look at another style of horror compared to that which Gary Braunbeck employed in ‘Coffin County’. While there is a heavy supernatural element to Braunbeck’s work, Ketchum eschews this to concentrate solely on the horror that humanity is able to commit all by itself. There is plenty of that to be found in what is actually a very short book. Whilst ‘Old Flames’ concentrates on the inner workings of a damaged mind, ‘Right to Life’ shows the reader (in no uncertain terms) what a damaged mind is capable of doing. Be warned that ‘Right to Life’ contains some fairly explicit scenes of the torture of a pregnant woman…
I found both stories gripping and they kept me reading to the end. ‘Old Flames’ had a sense of inevitability about it where, even though I knew what was coming, I had to get to the end. In the same way, ‘Right to Life’ had an urgency about it where I found myself racing to the end to see what happened to our heroine. Here’s the thing though; neither story scared me at all. Sure, I winced a few times (I’ve found that I don’t really care for scenes of female torture!) and I was concerned for certain characters but I’m going to sleep easy tonight because there was nothing in either story that unsettled me. This is really just a matter of personal taste, on my part, regarding what I look for in horror fiction. I want to be scared; not just left feeling strangely repulsed by scenes of torture piled one on top of the other and coming across as ‘overkill’. This wasn’t really the case in ‘Old Flames’ but I found that this story was a little too short (only 130 pages) to adequately address some of the questions that I had of the main character. This meant that I had trouble getting a feel for why she behaved in certain ways and this left me unable to engage with the character (as the main character this was a bad thing!).
If you’re a Jack Ketchum fan already then you will know what to expect and will probably get a lot out of this book. On the strength of what I’ve read though, I’m not sure that I’ll be giving him another try.
Five out of Ten