Vernal Equinox 2003
By Jack Ketchum
By Lee Cushing
"...in a way he and the dog were one flesh now, one spirit alive yet not only alive, dead yet not only dead, part of a process decreed by earth and flesh that was fierce and steady and inplacable, beyond all knowing of life and all of human reason."
LOCAL RICH KIDS OUT for a thrill murder Avery Ludlow's (just plain Av to his friends) beloved dog Red. Av is a Korean War vet full of more piss and vinegar than Jack Palance doing one-armed pushups at the Oscars. He demands the bare minimum: a confession from the McCormack kids and their bystander friends and an apology.
Like a small town version of the Kennedy clan, the threat of scandal leads the McCormacks to circle the wagons around their own. The McCormack patriarch denies his children are capable of such an act. When mere denial isn't enough to shake Av off the trail, he tries tossing money his way.
But Av is relentless. Red was all he had left in the twilight of a life full of disappointments. His wife and one son are dead, another son is rightfully inprisoned and estranged, his daughter has a content but distant life.
Av kicks a little ass along the way (and gets a can or two of whoop-ass poured over him, too). But the reader ends up rooting for him not in response to any sort of simple appeal to vigilantism. Rather, we root for him because he is a character drawn deep and rich and real.
We root for him because he's nearing the end of life's poker game and has no chips to show for it. And he, like all of us, is wondering what it all means. We root for him because instead of letting circumstances mire him in a sort of existential dread, he does what he can do. He clings to what's left of life in him. He clings to the memories of his wife and of Red, clings to the shred of a relationship he has with his daughter, and he even manages to cling to a vivacious, nubile local news reporter who decides to cover his everyman-fight-for-justice. Some reviewers have judged the affair to be out of left field and a little unrealistic. But Av projects a resolute masculinity not all that common these days and that's undoubtedly part of his appeal.
RED is about the inevitability of loss that comes with aging. It's about becoming increasingly irrelevant with age, about the young inheriting the earth, and about the amoral consequences of all of that. And it's about our attempts to construct meaning and justice in an amoral world. It's about finding that meaning, losing it, and struggling to find it again.
Which brings us to "The Passenger," a novella included in Leisure's edition of RED. "The Passenger" is much more violent and reads more like a standard crime thriller than the more "literary" RED. Still, its story of a defense attorney who gets caught up in the gritty world of the type of criminals she ordinarily defends makes it an apt addition to the volume.
Combined, the two works are a must-read for anyone looking to make a mark in publishing. Horror writers, in particular, can stand to learn from Ketchum's ability to use wince-inducing violence for something other than it's own sake. This shit has gravitas!
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Vernal Equinox 2003, Updated March 27, 2003
BLOOD ROSE is Copyright © M. W. Worthen.