The assigned book for this week was Joyride by the incomparable Jack Ketchum. I’ve met Dallas before and the man is as humble and gracious as he is talented. So my criticism of this book are colored. Further, I was roughly 50 pages into the novel when I realized that I’d read this sometime in the mid-to-late 1990s and that this was probably the first Ketchum novel I’d ever read.
Yet going back to this novel drove home something I like about Jack’s writing: It can be both simultaneously impossible and highly believable. Elements of sheer bad luck join events taken from real life to produce the inciting incident and unfolding drama in Joyride. The almost magical quality of the sheer, dumb luck involved in the inciting incident bringing Carole and Lee into contact with Wayne suggests the fantastic; the remainder of the text reveals a nightmare obscuring the age-old quest for companionship and validation.
The sheer bad luck involved in Carole and Lee being spotted and misidentified as fellow psychos by Wayne feels impossible. In truth, if you can get beyond the fact that Wayne is killing people, he comes across as incredibly lonely and desperate for human companionship. He perceives Carole and Lee (who murder with purpose–arguably valid, though still they are murderers) as being people who can understand him. So the level of suspension of disbelief can be abrogated by the development of characters through the twists and turns of the increasingly dark journey the trio undertakes.
In order to create the character of Wayne, Ketchum drew on the story of the “death walk” of real life spree-killer Howard Unruh. Unruh served as a tank soldier in World War II where he kept meticulous records of all the men he killed in combat. He was a closet homosexual who was teased by neighbors for being a “mama’s boy.” He was also a “recluse who loved guns.” Diagnosed a paranoid schizophrenic at the time, Unruh might today be classified as a severely ego-dystonic homosexual with PTSD arising from war-time trauma. When neighborhood vandals stole a fence he’d built, he snapped and walked through his neighborhood, shooting people as he went.
Obvious parallels between Unruh and Wayne can be drawn by the reader. One parallel that is worth mentioning is the use of a notebook kept by both the fictional and the real killer listing who needed to be killed with the word RETAL (short for “retaliate”) beside the entries that demanded immediate attention. Unlike Wayne, Unruh didn’t seek helpers for his spree.
Another of Ketchum’s works, The Girl Next Door (adapted into a movie of the same name) details another real-life murder. In this story, a young girl is forced to live with her sadistic aunt who ultimately murders the hapless girl with the aid of neighborhood children and teens seduced by the older woman’s “cool” demeanor. But unlike Joyride, The Girl Next Door doesn’t deviate quite as far from the events it is drawn from. Both that novel and its movie are difficult and deeply disturbing. Compared to that story, Joyride reads like J.K. Rowling–and I can appreciate that bit of fantasy, the magic of bad luck–it takes the sting out of the real-life horror informing Mr. Ketchum’s fiction.