My first encounter with Jack Ketchum's work was reading his novel 'Red'. A somewhat slim book, I finished reading it in one day. You know if a book is going to be worthwhile usually after the first couple of chapters, and the time spent reading 'Red' was thoroughly worthwhile. It still remains one of the best pieces of fiction I have encountered, which brings me to ...
... 'Only Child'.
Like 'Red', this novel is fairly slim. But that is as it should be. There is no room for wasted words in Jack's writing. He gets to the point quickly and effectively, inviting his readers into a nightmare journey - a mixture of fiction and reality. It is exactly this juxtaposition of taboo realism and carefully crafted fictional characters that lends Jack's writing its uniqueness. He deals with the cruelty and evil inherent in society, bringing such issues to the surface, almost as if he is attempting to release his anger by way of writing.
Violence in 'Only Child' is extreme and, at times, graphically depicted. In this way, the novel can be likened to Richard Laymon's work. But there is nothing supernatural about this book. Jack's horror is about the experiences some people suffer everyday of their lives - people who want to escape from their tormentors but are too terrified to take a stand, because of the consequences should they fail. Lydia McCloud, however, does make a stand.
Married to the fraudulently good-natured Arthur Danse, Lydia soon discovers his dark side. For Danse does not adhere to the rules of society. Undoubtedly disturbed, Danse believes he is here for a reason ... to ensure that he teaches humankind that both fear and pain are necessary, and that he has been chosen to inflict such pain on anyone who refuses his demands. His disturbing behaviour is not limited to the unfortunate people he encounters outside his family - rather it is Lydia and his young son, Robert, who are most at risk.
Jack Ketchum has created two strikingly different characters here. Lydia is imbued with inner strength, a giving nature, and an understanding of what really counts in life. Arthur Danse is cruel, calculating, and possesses a relentless determination to both control and hurt people.
The message behind this book is that good can triumph over evil if the victim is able summon enough courage to face their tormentor. 'Only Child' takes a realistic and accurate view of domestic violence and child abuse. It explores the psychological aspects of such abuse from the viewpoint of both antagonist (Danse) and protagonists (Lydia, Robert, and anyone else who, along the way, dares to question Arthur Danse).
I once knew a mother and daughter who were subjected to physical and psychological violence and abuse within a domestic environment, and can therefore relate to this story.
'Only Child' should be remebered alongside Thomas Harris's 'Silence of the Lambs' as one of the best psychological thrillers of violence ever written. Jack's writing is both dark and powerful; his subject matter disturbing yet insightful. Certainly unforgettable.