Every year, on the weekend before Labour Day, I volunteer at Rue Morgue’s Festival of Fear in Toronto. It’s always a blast, I always spend too much money, but it’s always worth it.
Getting the invite for the 2011 FoF got me thinking…But this isn’t about the Festival of Fear. This is about a great guy I met at a previous FoF
When I volunteered a couple of years ago, I was lucky enough to be selected as one of the “handlers” for Jack Ketchum, noted horror author. I’m not sure what a handler is supposed to do, other than ensure Jack gets some food if he’s hungry, some water, and watch the booth if he wants to go off for a smoke. Other than that, I think we’re supposed to sit back and let Jack do his thing.
And he can do his thing. Jack Ketchum is disarming. Fairly soft-spoken, generous to a fault, and more than willing to give his fans all the time they want to take to chat. And he never just does the smile and nod while they’re gushing or talking, he’s listening and responding. He’s interested. Yet, with all of that, he’s very humble, seems appreciative of praise and feedback, but never seeks it. When asked which of his books is “a good one to start with” which, by the way, is a common question, he adopts a slightly pained look and says, “you’re asking me to choose between my children.”
So, this is where I, as the opinionated loudmouth sometimes steps in. I’ll happily tell them about any book on the table, find out which other authors they like, or what they’re favourite horror stories are, then lead them toward one book or another.
Where it got interesting was on the second day of the show. One younger woman came up to the booth and Jack was signing and chatting with another person, so I did the standard, “Have you read anything of Jack’s?” She seemed blissfully unaware of his novels, but was obviously a voracious reader and she, like me, was disappointed that there was so few horror novelists at the FoF.
So we started talking about Jack’s various books and I tried to give her the gist if each one without ruining any of the revelations. And by the way, Jack himself is ridiculously good at doing this, though…it may have something to do with the fact that he wrote each one, but his brief descriptions are “back of the book” spot on.
Anyway, by the time Jack was ready for her, she’d chosen, if I recall, THE GIRL NEXT DOOR, RED, THE LOST, OLD FLAMES, OFF SEASON, OFFSPRING and COVER. Basically, all the paperback titles that were on the table. She kept saying to me that she loves horror and loved when an author “got her” as in, scared the shit out of her. I explained that, yes, Jack does get the scares, but the fun I have with him is that he more knocks you on your ass. As one other fan put it, he never cops out. If he’s taking you somewhere grim, he won’t stop with a “dot, dot, dot” (…), he’ll wade in.
But the scares aren’t gory, they’re not supernatural. To me, it’s the choices his characters make. The nasty psychos in Ketchum’s novels aren’t nice people dressed up in black to look bad, but they have some redeeming features. His characters scare you, or get you, or knock you on your ass because they seem exceedingly real, but they’re choices are mindblowing.
I’m likely not explaining myself well, however, read one Ketchum novel all the way through to the end (I dare you) and tell me then if you understand what I’m talking about. Stephen King says, “Who’s the scariest guy in America? Probably Jack Ketchum.”
The really fun part of this “handler” job is, I get to know that feeling that, as someone walks away with one of his books, I’m anticipating them reading, trying to reconcile the sweet man that signed the front of the book with the mad bastard that wrote all those horrible scenes. I remember the feeling of closing the back cover of virtually every Ketchum book with a soft, low, “wow.”
So, as this girl walks away, thanking Jack for signing the books and hoping at least one of the books will “get her,” I smile as Jack Ketchum looks down at the table with his life’s work on them, his mouth twists into a small grin and he says, with no sense of bragging, “I think I’ll get her.”
You’re damn right he will.