This was the first Jack Ketchum book I ever read, and wow, did it make an impression.
Since then I’ve read a few Ketchum books. He has a talent for gore and disgust. By way of analogy, I love watching “Who’s Line Is It Anyway?” where great comedians ad-lib various funny situations. But over time I’ve found that if they can’t make you laugh because it’s funny, they’ll just do something that embarrasses you. Laughing because you’re embarrassed to them is just the same as laughing because you think something is funny. It’s kind of a cheap trick (but one many comedians use, and to great effect).
Likewise, some horror writers try to disgust you instead of scaring you. They try to think of the most awful and insensate acts of evil, then play them out for you on the page. Ketchum to me is one of these guys. That’s not saying he’s a bad writer, just that his style is like that. If you like that thing, you’ll probabaly like all of his books.
But every now and then the writer’s style and the material move together such that the writer’s character and the character of the story merge. In The Girl Next Door, this is what happens. It’s a story about a typical suburban neighborhood around 1958. Ketchum does a great job of describing this world. It made me feel like I grew up in the 50s. Due to an accident, a couple of girls move in with the family next door. At this point the story slowly drifts from being a slice-of-life story to something much, much darker. It becomes a meditation on how people treat each other, especially how people treat outsiders. The Other. Basing it on a true story only adds to the punch.
I won’t go into details. I don’t want to, even if you’ll never read the book. I find them disturbing to recall. The entire book moves from a warm, lighthearted suburban drama to a dark tale of vile horror. In short, it was a great book! Left me thinking about it a month later, and that’s always a sign of a good read. Many of the books I read and review here I have to review right after I read them, otherwise I forget a lot. Not The Girl Next Door — it stays with you a long, long time after you’ve finished.
It’s gotten so that anytime people use the word “intrigue” you think of boring spy novels or something involving complicated plots. But it doesn’t have to be that way. Gone For Good is a great little page-turning novel where as each secret is exhumed and decisions made, the universe shifts into a new way of looking at things. Massive changes in the reader’s model of reality can easily be overdone, though. Coben doesn’t go too far.
Starting off sounding a lot like a crime novel, we begin with the death of a next-door neighbor that is pinned on our protagonist’s brother. The brother was never found, though, and our guy lives day-to-day wondering whether his brother is alive and knowing in his heart that he didn’t commit the crime. The plot gets moving with the death of a close relative that causes our hero to begin a search, and a mission, that can only end in a big old bucket of suspense and surprise.
I enjoyed this book a lot, especially after reading some splatterpunk horror. It’s nicely told, and the author doesn’t miss a beat. It would have been easy to make a book like this too complicated, or too busy, but Coben balances the story-telling just right. To me a sign of a good book is when you are reading a part and thinking “Why the heck am I reading this? Is it important?” only to later realize “Wow! That was really important!” Very cool when it’s done well. He also nails dialogue. There were a few times when characters made snarky remarks where I caught myself laughing out loud, which I rarely do. And several other times characters said things as I nodded, thinking, yep, that’s exactly what he’d say.
As I understand it, Coben usually writes in a serial format. You know, the same hero doing something a little different each time at bat. I don’t blame modern authors for doing this — it seems to be the only way to make a buck at writing. But I’m glad he took some time out to write Gone for Good; it’s a wonderful little book.