Jack Ketchum has long made a name for himself by delving into the darkest regions of human sexuality. His first novel, 1980’s Off Season, was so horrifically visceral that its publisher, Ballantine, opted against a second printing (it was later re-published in an unexpurgated version in 2005). His novel Ladies’ Night, featuring several sequences of sexually violent women attacking men and boys, was initially deemed too graphic to publish. In Right to Life, a pregnant woman is kidnapped at an abortion clinic and is assimilated into slavery and torture. What may be his most harrowing book, The Girl Next Door, fairly revels in the depiction of a teenage girl repeatedly brutalized by her so-called caretaker … not to mention the reluctant good-guy protagonist. Ketchum rarely sensationalizes his violence, instead opting to simply report it: every demeaning act, every rape, every murder, simply is. His seeming inability to shy away from trauma is what has always made his work so at-the-core disturbing … and so compulsively readable.
Which makes his and co-writer Lucky McKee’s new novella, I’m Not Sam, immediately surprising. It is not, on the surface, a particularly gruesome tale. Certainly there are hints around the edges: Patrick is a graphic novelist specializing in sordid horror stories (“Splash page indeed,” he comments after completing a particularly splatterpunky image); Sam, his wife, is a medical examiner. They discuss the details of their work over breakfast, as if autopsies and brain spatter were cordial mealtime topics. Most palpable is how in love they are. We are treated early on to a sexual sequence far removed from Ketchum’s and McKee’s previous collaboration, The Woman (whose scenes of degradation and associational evil are nearly on par with those in The Girl Next Door). Sam and Patrick’s sexual life is at once tender and explicit. It’s always refreshing in horror when sex is presented as normal, uncomplicated fun, especially when it’s between a married couple in love.
There’s fallout, however; the next morning, Sam wakes up … and she’s not Sam. While she has the same body and some of the same memories as Sam, the personality inhabiting her is a little girl named Lily. Somewhat unusually for a horror story, Patrick responds rationally, immediately seeking medical attention. When nothing seems to be physically wrong with Sam/Lily, Patrick dedicates himself to becoming Lily’s caretaker. Until things start to go wrong.
While the dénouement of I’m Not Sam is genuinely shocking, it is so through buildup and inference. There’s a scary bit of foreshadowing in an incident involving a water-snake. The symbolism of the sequence is inescapable, but it’s so well executed that the Freudian trappings never bog down the power of the surface events. A call from Sam’s office and Patrick’s reaction not only reveals Patrick’s state of mind, but also recalls Ketchum’s earlier work (especially Right to Life, The Woman, and The Girl Next Door). Ongoing reminders of Sam’s/Lily’s state of regress continually underscore the queasy nature of the situation: Lily’s toys, Lily’s eating habits, and especially the state of Lily’s underwear (and the fact that Patrick keeps noticing it) keep the reader on edge, even as Patrick grows uncomfortably accustomed to his shifting responsibilities to the woman/girl in his house. What’s happening to Patrick’s work is perhaps most interesting. Does Patrick cast himself as the villain intentionally, or is it an inevitability he simply accepts? There aren’t answers.
It has always been to Jack Ketchum’s credit that even his senseless brutality has repercussions, physical, psychological, and emotional. Here, even though the most shocking incidents are performed off-page, the aftershocks are immediate and just as horrifying as if they were as in-your-face as in Ketchum and McKee’s first work together. Even Zoey, Patrick and Sam’s beloved cat, understands the uncomfortable truths at the heart of I’m Not Sam: how a single selfish act can destroy the things we care about the most, and how, despite assurances to the contrary, those things can never be repaired.
I’m Not Sam will be published December 2012 by Cemetery Dance Publications in three states: a trade hardcover edition, a signed limited-edition hardcover, and a deluxe signed and traycased lettered edition. Visit CemeteryDance.com for details.
Kevin Quigley is an author whose website, CharnelHouseSK.com, is one of the leading online sources for Stephen King news, reviews, and information. He has written several books on Stephen King for Cemetery Dance Publications, including Chart of Darkness, Blood In Your Ears, and Stephen King Limited, and co-wrote the upcoming Stephen King Illustrated Movie Trivia Book. His first novel, I’m On Fire, is forthcoming.