Eventually I read myself dry of the master of horror and his newer stuff lost its appeal. So I turned to other, newer horror authors and King contemporaries. Unfortunately, I soon found that no one else could deliver the goods like King. Robert McCammon? Too imitative. Peter Straub? Not my style. Dean Koontz? I never met a Koontz novel I liked.
Then I encountered Jack Ketchum and found out that there is in fact life after Stephen King.
If you haven't heard of Ketchum you're not alone. Though he's a steady "mid-list" author, Ketchum doesn't have nearly the curb appeal of a King or a Straub or a Koontz. That's a shame, in my opinion.
Ketchum is one of those authors whose just darned readable. One mark of a good writer is the ability to craft effortless prose, and picking up a Ketchum book is like slipping into a comfortable pair of jeans.
At the same time, Ketchum can take you to unexpected places, raw and mean and dark. In his books, the worst monsters are people, and Ketchum pulls no punches in demonstrating the depravity of their souls. A great example is his fine 2002 novel The Lost, the story of an unsolved double murder in a small New Jersey town. Police reopen the case years later following another gruesome crime. Ketchum paints a disturbing potrayal of the murderer, but just as ably describes his two half-unwilling accessories, a pair of lost souls drawn in by his animal magnetism and cold-hearted charisma. Many B-grade horror writers settle for the shock; Ketchum gives you that but also provides the context and the characterization and makes it interesting and believable.
My one charge against Ketchum is that his books start off white-hot, but don't seem to deliver on their early promise of greatness. For example, in The Lost Ketchum ably links the lost spirits of youth to the social upheaval in 1960s America. But he doesn't provide the answers as to what makes men monsters. His build-up is often great, but when he finally pulls aside the curtain I often find that the shattering revelation for which I had hoped falls short.
But I'm still holding out hope that Ketchum may one day put it all together and deliver a truly great novel. As of now I've only scratched the surface of his writing: Besides The Lost, the only other Ketchum novels I've read are The Girl Next Door and, currently, Hide and Seek. At last count Ketchum is up a dozen or so novels. I've also encountered a few of his short stories ("Gone," from October Dreams, is terrific) which I've also enjoyed. He certainly has all the raw materials and talent to make it happen.