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Book Review: OFF SEASON by Jack Ketchum

Off Season Goes Off the Rails

By Sean M. Sanford

Reading about the culinary preferences detailed in Off Season made me pray to never know firsthand what kind of gore buffet ensues when the season actually opens. Cripes.

Sometimes the feelings elicited from reading a book are more memorable than the book’s actual happenings. At least for me. Especially scary shit. Contrasted with movies, few things perturbed me more than (holy shit) Zelda in the movie Pet Sematary when I was young. I’d think of the movie and my anxiety would immediately attach itself to images of her writhing in bed, begging Rachel to ease her suffering. 

Point is…

When I read Off Season, I was expecting…I don’t really know what. But not what I got. It opens with two sisters and their boyfriends in a cabin deep in the woods of Maine. Ever been to Maine? Speaking of Pet Sematary, there’s a reason Stephen King rarely decides to place his tales of terror anywhere else. The landscape is startlingly beautiful, with mountains and forests, lakes and rivers relatively untouched beyond the thoroughfare. But it creates a kind of loneliness. Not a ton of people spend a whole year in Maine. A friend of mine who was born there said most folks who migrate to Maine, looking for a life away from the hustle, end up leaving after one or two winters. The solitude and loneliness weighs as heavy as the drifts piled against your front door. And it can feel like if you ever need help, good luck.

Thereby the setting hit me right off. A duo of couples in the woods in Maine. Deep too. The cuts. As the title implies, they go during off season, when the forest is humanly desolate. Something about cabins in woods has always been fright-ripe for me. Maybe because I grew up in a house that was quite cabin-esque (its walls bemoaning adjustment whenever the winds blew), surrounded by woods of the Sierra foothills. I’d always suspected the forest behind our barn was haunted. Laying in my bed at night I always felt like the darkness that elapsed past the tree line was alive, watching. It truly felt like it had a personality. My grampa had bought the property off one of the first western landholders who had come out and swooped on it during the Gold Rush. There was once talk of a Native American curse being put on the land, and I shuttered over the arrowheads and grinding rocks I would occasionally find while exploring the backwoods. It felt like the yearbook of a horror show.  

Therefore, the setting of Off Season bludgeoned home right off. And it doesn’t take long to get to the meat of the matter. Suffice it to say that the story’s foursome is brutally attacked by some tripped out gang of savage-ass people who refuse all bounds of brutality. Cannibalistic inbreeds. Ever met one? I don’t recommend it. 

Ketchum was vocally inspired by The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Night of the Living Dead as to their absolute disregard of boundaries. Both films stretched the limits of what was being depicted to audiences at the time, and Ketchum felt that no authors had done the same with horror fiction. He wanted to really get in there, leave nothing to supposition. And he does it. He describes it all. The blood baths, the dietary trends, the bodily malfeasance; he tells us what happened, precisely how painful it was, and how much you wish you hadn’t just read about it. 

Ketchum was also inspired by how sinister the real world can be. He said Off Season was partly spurred by the legendary member of a cannibalistic homestead, Sawney Bean, whose clan was alleged to have murdered and relished upon more than 1000 people over 25 years. He and his lady Agnes apparently lived in a cave for all that time, creating a big-ass incestuous family who would gorge on the bodies of Sawney and Agnes’s murder victims. Like some hellacious Adam and Eve, the two produced eight sons, six daughters, eighteen grandsons and fourteen granddaughters, all from the jurisdiction of their own loins.

As such is the stylings of the folks we meet in Off Season, a big family of Oedipal meat-lovers.

Did I enjoy reading Off Season? ‘Enjoy’ is a strong word. I was enthralled, perplexed, and I couldn’t put it down. To be honest, I loved the experience of reading this book, although I’d be hard pressed to say I’ll ever read it again. That said, there is a sequel that I plan on checking out someday. After I’m done digesting. 

It does offer a lot of interesting takes on the human animal, and the reaches to which a person, even a whole family, will go when they’re…sick of eating veggies I guess? Told you the Maine woods are no joke.

Sean M. Sanford was born in northern California and currently lives in San Francisco. He writes fiction for Lowcard magazine, through whom he published a book of his short stories called A Manbaby's Requiem. His book is now available on both his writer's web-site, as well as Lowcard magazine's online catalog. Sanford was the proof-reader and editor of Lowcard for over 10 years. He wrote fiction for the online periodical Defiant Scribe, and currently writes articles for the horror movie web-site The Infinite Eleven and essays for an online non-fiction magazine, The Thoughtful Beggar. He has a book review account on Instagram called @skaters_who_read. He is head editor of an upcoming publication company called Juniper Publishing Co. out of San Francisco, who is currently taking manuscripts. He also owns a handmade incense company with his wife Candice called Effin Relax.   

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