Farewell To My Mentor: An Appreciation of Jack Ketchum

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When I first moved to NYC, in the fall of 2013, I was twenty-six and adrift. I was mired in a long novel that I’d been working on for years, and I wasn’t sure how to find a place for myself, of any kind, in the city. I was making an effort, but I needed something else and I wasn’t yet sure what that might be.

On a whim, after being blown away by a relentlessly horrifying and lyrical novel called The Girl Next Door, I contacted its author, Jack Ketchum (AKA Dallas Mayr), through his fan site. I said that I loved his book, and had been productively traumatized by it. Since his bio said he lived in NYC, I told him that I’d just moved here and asked if we could meet up sometime. I also sent him a story, one of my first after college.

To my surprise, he wrote back and invited me to the bar he said he always went to, near Lincoln Center. He also said he’d enjoyed my story, though it was more surreal than he tended to go for. Little did I know, at that moment, how crucial both aspects of this statement would turn out to be.

I took the subway up to Columbus Circle a few days later, unsure whom I was going to meet. What kind of person, I asked myself, writes a book like The Girl Next Door, let alone Off Season, The Lost, or any of the others I’d devoured in preparation? As it turned out, Dallas was one of the warmest, most approachable people I’d ever met. He was slim and dignified in an Evil Dead T-shirt under an open leather jacket, his longish hair lending his delicate features a striking and much-discussed resemblance to Willem Dafoe.

I don’t exactly remember what we talked about that first time, but I imagine we dove right into the subjects that would come to define our conversations over the next five years: the sinister undertones of growing up in 50s America, the mixture of psychedelia and paranoia that infused the 70s, the decade in which he came of age and helped inaugurate a new breed of hardcore horror fiction, and a pantheon of writers and filmmakers including Wes Craven, John Carpenter, Stephen King, Joyce Carol Oates, Clive Barker, David Cronenberg, and William S. Burroughs. He invited me to travel through his memories of Boston in the 60s, where he’d gone to college (I’d been a student there just a few years before we met), lonely Greek Isles, and grindhouse theaters in Times Square, from back when Taxi Driver portrayed it accurately. He told me about his early years as a literary agent for Henry Miller, fielding phone calls from a belligerent and incoherent Philip K. Dick, burning his first novel in a fireplace, and finding his way as a young writer under the mentorship of Robert Bloch, who was himself mentored by Lovecraft. He was a conduit to a world that isn’t exactly lost, but that has been sublimated into nostalgic pop culture. In this sense, it was a unique education to experience it vicariously through him.

It was clear right away that Dallas was a fully self-made person, with nothing to prove. He was no stranger to the harshness necessary to forge an independent path in the world, and yet he was also sympathetic, tender, and open to the needs of others. He was a true humanist, which is what makes his books so scary: not their blood and gore, but the depth of his identification with suffering, and his unflinching ability to expose evil as completely, brutally human. He once told me that murderers often wrote to him from prison, thanking him for understanding them so well. I don’t believe that Dallas had a murderous bone in his body, but what he did have was a gift for seeing how the dark forces that many of us would like to believe are supernatural are in fact the most natural of all. Hell is other people: it would be hard to find another body of work that so convincingly proves Sartre’s thesis.

Walking back to the subway after that first meeting, tipsy after a beer or two on an empty stomach at five pm, I couldn’t have known how profoundly my life had just changed, though I could tell, even then, that this had been a rare and special occurrence.

 

That first meeting turned into a weekly session, which I looked forward to like nothing else. Sometimes it was just Dallas and me – he would always stand at one corner of the dim bar, sipping a whiskey, while I’d sit on a stool, sipping a beer – and sometimes he was surrounded by fellow fans, other writers, old friends, or simply folks who enjoyed his company as much as I did. No one ever seemed unaware that they were in the presence of a truly special person.

I don’t think I quite saw him as a mentor until a year or so in, but, looking back, there’s no question that this is what he was, from the very beginning. Our freewheeling, proudly non-academic rambles through literature, cinema, and history were one key aspect of the relationship that began to develop. The other was devoted to serious, often harsh critiques of the work he invited me to show him. After he told me to take my overlong novel draft back to the drawing board – a piece of feedback that devastated me at the time, but that of course proved completely true in retrospect – I entered a new phase of development. Dallas’ devotion to clarity and realism, and his skepticism about my tendency toward dreaminess and ambiguity, at first seemed like an affront, but over time I came to understand what he was trying to tell me: not that I had to change my style to be more like his, but that I had to find my own way to engage the reader, first and foremost. In this sense as well, he was an altruist, committed to putting the reader’s needs before the writer’s.

Implicit in this lesson was the idea that fiction writing must aspire to be both art and business. Dallas was a genuine, full-time, professional writer, and during the time I knew him, I came to understand more of what this means. It means getting your work done, day in and day out, and then having a drink in good company before doing it all over again the next day, without self-pity or self-aggrandizement. It also means not just following your vision, but working to turn it into something that other people – strangers – will buy, and be happy they did. Accepting this challenge isn’t selling out; it’s growing up.

Harsh as his criticism was in the early years, his praise, which came more often over time, was electrifying because it felt real. It wasn’t encouragement, the way that of a parent or a professor tends to be. It was honest appreciation of a job well done, such that I felt he was slowly inducting me onto a new level. The gratification of earning this feeling from him would have been unknowable had he pulled any punches earlier on. I can think of no better definition of mentorship than this: in a very real sense, Dallas killed the kid I used to be and made me into the adult I now am.

The last time I saw him, he gave me a stack of Andrew Vachss novels and I told him to see The Killing of a Sacred Deer. We parted with a hug at the bookstall just outside the bar, as we always did. The impact of his passing last week will reverberate forever. It would be an insult to Dallas’ staunch secularism to imagine him in any sort of afterlife, but I can say that the years we spent together will live on in me, and that whoever I am now is someone very different from who I would have been if we’d never met, or if he hadn’t extended himself like he did. If, many years from now, I ever get the chance to pay forward the gift he gave me by mentoring another young writer in need, I will consider it among the greatest honors of my life to do so.

 

Image: Georges Seguin via Creative Commons

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