I did not enjoy this book. The monsters in it were too real.
I prefer stories where the monsters are imaginary creatures: Ogres, Dementors, Ring Wraths, Demons, and other non-existent beings that you wouldn’t have to worry about bumping into on the bus or working beside at your place of employment. There is some comfort in knowing that the things that happened in a scary book could not possibly happen in real life.
In The Girl Next Door, Jack Ketchum gives us a story about a sociopath that starts out appearing to be as safe and stable as anyone else. Ruth might even be described as “the cool mom”. She drives her sons and their friend to the carnival and frequently offers the boys beers. Readers watch her become less human as she gives in to her worst tendencies.
The concept all by itself is terrifying. It gives readers the uneasy feeling that the cashier at the grocery store, the man at the bus stop, or even the neighbors, could be sociopaths. They appear normal, and safe, and sane. But, how much do you really know about what people do behind closed doors?
I’m going to pause here for a moment with a warning. If you were abused as a child or teenager (emotionally, physically, or sexually) I would highly recommend that do not read The Girl Next Door.
This book is intentionally disturbing in ways that would make readers who had healthy, safe, childhoods feel shocked, disgusted, and angered about what happens. Speaking as someone who didn’t have a safe, happy, childhood … this book has great potential to re-traumatize people who have had bad things happen to them when they were young. There was a point early on when I had to stop reading and seriously consider whether or not this story would cause me harm.
The story is told to the reader through Davey, a 12 year old boy who lives with his parents next door to Ruth and her sons. He hangs out with Ruth’s boys, one of whom is close to his age. The youngest son is considered “weird” because he does things like torture bugs and melt his army men into a wood shredder.
One day, two girls move into Ruth’s house. There is a cute moment when Davey meets Meg before he knows that she has moved next door to him. Later, Davey learns that Meg is 14 years old, and her sister, Susan is 9. They are Ruth’s nieces.
Meg and Susan lost their parents in a car accident. Meg has a large scar on her arm. Susan got mangled in the accident and broke her legs and hips. She is in a lot of pain, and can only walk with the help of braces and crutches. In other words, these two girls have to live with Ruth because they don’t have any other living family members.
This sets up a situation where Ruth is free to beat, torture, and sexually abuse the girls. The majority of the abuse falls upon Meg, but Susan is also abused whenever Ruth wants to make Meg upset. They can’t escape, and have no where to run to.
Davey is put into a awful position after Ruth starts encouraging her sons to abuse Meg. The abuse escalates and Ruth is now allowing, and encouraging, some neighborhood kids to join in. The youngest son, who has already exhibited sociopathic behavior, seems to truly enjoy the abuse he sees happen to Meg. A neighborhood boy, who has his own sociopathic tendencies, escalates the abuse.
Davey is uncomfortable, but he doesn’t know what to do. He’s a kid, after all, with very little power to change anything. He does make a few attempts to help the girls, but things don’t work out.
I did not enjoy this book. I don’t like descriptions of abuse and torture, especially when done to children. If Jack Ketchum’s goal was to make readers repulsed to the point where they feel sick to their stomachs – he has achieved it.
To be clear, The Girl Next Door is not a terribly written book. Jack Ketchum made some very likable characters that the reader will feel sympathy for. He created a terrifying “bad guy” – all the more scary because it makes readers worry if there is someone like Ruth in their neighborhood. The violence in the story escalates at a pace that keeps the reader nervous about what comes next.
It has the building blocks of what a good story should have.
It simply is not the book for me. I won’t be rereading this one.
At the end of the story, there is a section in which Jack Ketchum explains what he was thinking about when he wrote The Girl Next Door. In short, he was influenced by something that happened in real life. He had read about an adult woman who, with the help of her children and some neighborhood kids, tortured a sixteen year old girl to death. The girl was a boarder.
The woman who did this was a sociopath. Jack Ketchum had been thinking about writing about a sociopath. The Girl Next Door is the result.
Why did I finish reading The Girl Next Door (even though I did not enjoy the story)? The main reason was that I was hoping that the end of the story would provide…. some sort of justice, I suppose. In a way, it did. The other reason I finished the book was because I’m working on one of those “read X number of books in a year” things, and have fallen behind on my goal.
I think I’m going to have to start doing some research about the books I’m considering reading before starting them.