Rating: 5 out of 5
I finally got around to reading Jack Ketchum’s The Girl Next Door after hearing a lot about it. There are some things you need to know if you’re thinking of reading it. One, it’s based on a true story, which makes it even scarier than it would be as is (Ketchum notes after the story that he actually softened the details a bit, which makes it even more horrifying). And two, you should probably consider this book to have all the content/trigger warnings: torture, rape, assault, sexual assault, slurs, and animal harm, at the very least. All of it explicit.
Teenaged Meg and her younger sister Susan lost their parents in a car accident that also disabled Susan. They’re sent to live with a distant relative, Ruth, and her sons. All does not go well. Ruth seems to have some very extreme viewpoints regarding women and girls, and she’s kind of off the rails as well, which results in Ruth “punishing” Meg and Susan in some very over-the-top ways for what are really small issues. When Meg tries to stand up to Ruth, Ruth loses it. She imprisons Meg in a concrete shelter in the basement and eggs on her sons and their friends to get them to help torture Meg. The narrator, David, isn’t as happy as some of the others to hurt Meg, but he also doesn’t do anything to stop it from happening until things have gotten well and truly out of control.
A couple of characters do try to talk to authorities, only for us to see how terribly the police can fail kids, who are largely seen as their guardians’ property. While the narrator is clearly the best of the group of kids, he’s still not a positive character. He’s just barely sympathetic enough for the reader to be okay with having him as a narrator, but he still waits a long time before screwing up the empathy and courage needed to do something.
Thankfully Ketchum doesn’t try to make him into an overly sympathetic character, because I think that would have backfired. If he’d waited so long to do something just because he was afraid, I think he would have been even less understandable, if that makes sense. The truth is, he’s fascinated by what’s going on. This is really the first time he’s gotten to see a naked girl, and he’s being given permission by Ruth to go a little wild. Although he doesn’t want to see Meg hurt, he kind of feels like Ruth–who’s always been a friend to the neighborhood kids–must have a reason for “punishing” Meg. He doesn’t want to upset his position in the local pecking order. He doesn’t know how to get the police to step up and do something. Yet none of this is meant to redeem him–he clearly isn’t that much better than his neighbors.
It’s particularly scary to watch how the town’s kids get sucked into what’s going on. Ruth is the fun neighbor who gives kids beer and speaks frankly to them. It’s just her own kids, David, and one or two others, but gradually more and more people get sucked in. It’s all a game to the kids at first. The fact that this is a “softened” version of a true story really makes you think about how on earth something like this could happen, how so many people could step over that line and stay there.
This is a very tough read, but it asks some very important questions.