Jack Ketchum’s writing is astonishing.
Pretty much as soon as I started reading this book, my entire body wanted to clench up. Literally. I usually read in bed before turning in, and by the end of the first chapter I had to remind myself to relax – it’s only a story.
So Ketchum really knows how to ratchet up the tension and keep it there.
The guy is talented. However, despite that, I didn’t like this book. I’ve read one or two other Ketchum books – since he is often found lurking in the horror section of Barnes and Noble – and even though they definitely had an effect on me, it wasn’t one that I liked.
Joyride is the story of Carole, an abused ex-wife, and Lee, her lover. They plot together to knock off Carole’s ex, since he can’t seem to either stay away from his ex-wife, or to keep his hands off her. The police, of course, see nothing and do nothing since the ex is a local, powerful businessman (is there any other kind in these stories?). The plan? Lure the ex to a secluded place in a nearby public park – lots of woods, hiking trails, and varied topography. You get the picture. Then, after a rather clunky murder of the ex, Carole and Lee take off, shocked by their experience, but also relieved. Like, Thank God, that’s over.
Except that it’s not. Up on a hill, looking down on them the whole time, is batshit-crazy Wayne. Wayne had just been in the process of trying to strangle his girlfriend while having sex with her, but it wasn’t working out. She gets up and leaves in a huff – and Wayne lets her go. It is here that Wayne’s character – bored, fickle, randomly violent – starts to emerge.
(I always cringe for the close-encounter- almost-victims in fiction and true stories: Girl, do you know how close you came…? Shiver.)
Anyway, Wayne watches the desperate lovers do the deed. Then when a nervous Lee glances up to see if anyone is around, Wayne recognizes Lee as a sometime-patron of the bar where he works.
Ouch. More randomness at play.
In that moment, Wayne mistakes them for his long-lost soul mates in murder and decides to make friends. It’s kind of all downhill from there for Carole and Lee as their lives descend into a pit of murder, rape, torture and mayhem, courtesy of their buddy, Wayne.
Joyride is not exactly like a written version of a gore-fest movie since there is an effort to create real and sympathetic characters with Carole, Lee and Lieutenant Rule, but it’s kind of a limp-fish attempt.
The depiction of Carole as an abused ex-wife felt like a checklist job. I also felt like Lee was just going through the motions of acting as the ardent, righteous lover who saves his girlfriend from her nasty old man. Towards the end, there, I honestly thought he was going to tell Carole, Bitch, you are too high-maintenance for me. I am outta here. But then he got killed before he could. Lieutenant Rule, the one cop in town who’d kept half-an-eye on Carole’s plight while she was going through hell, seemed like he’d wandered out of a different novel. You know, like maybe a detective story where he was the protagonist?
The real star of Joyride, though, had to be Wayne. He was a realistic, creepy psychopath; there’s no denying it. The fact that he was an amalgamation of two real-life psychopaths only made him stronger, in my opinion.
Speaking of that, a few people have complained that Ketchum basically steals his story ideas from true life situations and people. There is nothing wrong with this. We all do it to some extent as writers, and remember – Robert Bloch did it with Psycho and everyone loved it.
As far as I’m concerned, Ketchum is a terrific writer. His stories grab you by the throat and squeeze, turning your head towards the horror that waits.
I just wish that horror was something more interesting than humanity at its worst.