Ketchum while you can

Ketchum while you can

Jack Ketchum: "I get a kick out of being scared." Photo: Jason Borg

Jack Ketchum: "I get a kick out of being scared." Photo: Jason Borg

A famous horror author was in town, scouting for a local publisher to introduce his chilling writings to Malta. Veronica Stivala jumped at the unique opportunity and grit her teeth to find out more...

Jack Ketchum belongs to a famous 'family' of horror writers. As a child, he corresponded with Psycho author Robert Bloch who nurtured and enkindled his passion for writing. In the same fashion, Bloch himself had been the protégé of famous horror-writer H.P. Lovecraft and was one of the youngest members of the Lovecraft circle.

The legendary and controversial novelist Jack Ketchum was in Malta last week in anticipation of the European publication of his books and the recent film adaptation of The Lost, The Girl Next Door as well as the long-awaited Red starring Brian Cox of Troy and Tom Sizemore from Saving Private Ryan. This was not his first time as he was on the island back in the early 1990s when he was trying to promote Joy Ride.

Ketchum has had links with the film industry for a long time. He's always been a film aficionado and remembers the first film he saw as a child with much enthusiasm: he had been allowed to stay up to the late hour of 1 a.m. to watch Frankenstein. The seed for the love of horror seems always to have been there. The first book Ketchum read was Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde.

Indeed, Ketchum's life is peppered with famous names. He's been hailed by Stephen King as "one of the best in the business, on a par with Clive Barker, James Ellroy, and Thomas Harris... Jack Ketchum has a dark streak of American genius".

The comparison with the legendary Clive Barker augurs well and Ketchum admits that he would consider directing one of his own works and in fact is working on a script now.

Ketchum is a pseudonym for Dallas Mayr. Why the pen name? "I lied my name into the business," the author jokes. The story behind the name is that at the beginning of his career, afraid to reveal his true identity in case his work didn't go down well, the writer created a pseudonym and pretended that he had discovered the works by the author Jack Ketchum. Since he made a name for himself as Ketchum, he ended up keeping the name.

In the interview, we speak about the style of his writing where, in his words, he writes cinematically. "I love dialogue," he says, explaining that he picks up ideas for his writing from what he hears other people saying. He likes to eavesdrop and compares himself to a fly on the wall. He loves old things (such as old buildings and cities) and these are also a source of inspiration for his horror stories. Perhaps his trip to the Megalithic temples and Ħaġar Qim might spur a new novel ... Saw: In the temple? Or Rock Horror? (No condescension at all intended...)

The 61-year-old author, who hails from New Jersey, doesn't look his age, nor does he act like the famous writer he is (he has a cult following across the US). He is very down-to-earth, smokes like a chimney and evidently enjoys his whisky. He's a very humble and approachable man and for a long while wasn't even aware that he had a fan-following ever since the publication of his first book Off Season.

He recounts, still with a tinge of amazement, how he was once encouraged by a friend to go to a horror convention. His jaw dropped when he found that he had a group of fans who were keen followers of his writing.

As with many authors, Ketchum has an eclectic line-up of jobs to his name ranging from work as an actor, as a teacher, a stint as a soda-jerk, an attempt as a singer to working as a refuse collector. His involvement in the arts has all contributed to bettering his writing skills. His acting gave him a good ear for dialogue.

Ketcham's main source of inspiration is people. When he writes, he first develops his characters and then lets them take on a life of their own before creating the rest of his story. The same can be said of his research work. Here in Malta, where he wants to break into the market, the most important thing is to get to know the people, and get a feel for the place in order to be able to market the 'Jack Ketchum brand'.

Indeed, because his works attract a cult following, he wants to ease in on a small scale preferring to target small groups in intimate settings rather than going for a full blown mass-marketing campaign in the first place.

What sells in fiction?

Sex, gore and action. Ketcham divulges that he tests his writing on himself. "I get a kick out of being scared," he quips, adding that only if he feels scared when he reads his own work, does he consider it to be a good piece of horror writing.

Despite the entertainment factor in his novels, there is a strong element of catharsis in Ketcham's writing: the motivation behind much of his writing is anger. He uses his writing as a means to try to find justice in books such as Red which tells the story of a man who does his utmost to avenge the trio of ruthless shotgun-toting juvenile delinquents who killed his dog called Red.

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