Benjamin Wollmuth is a lover of literature who enjoys sharing his thoughts on everything from movies and video games to books and music.
A Bit of Background
I first heard of Off Season while listening to a podcast––here's a quick shoutout to Dead Meat. When the podcasters were talking about it, I knew that I had to read it. As a horror fan, just the mention of intense, graphic violence really tripped my trigger.
The story is based on the infamous Sawney Bean, the supposed leader of a 45-member clan of cannibals in Scotland. He's mostly a legend, for there is not much proof of his actual existence, yet the story––real or not––inspired many a creator. In fact, Wes Craven's The Hills Have Eyes is probably the most popular piece of art to use the Sawney Bean legend as inspiration. However, Jack Ketchum's Off Season may just be the most controversial.
The original, truly graphic draft––a draft that anyone can get their hands on today––wasn't originally published back when the book was released in 1980, much to Ketchum's chagrin. Ballantine Books, his publisher at the time, was not too keen on the vivid descriptions of violence and sex and required Ketchum to change the book tremendously before they would even think about selling it.
Even after the changes, the novel received backlash and people did not want to sell it. For a first novel, this is not what Ketchum wanted. Times changed, however, and now we have Ketchum's original vision for to enjoy. Almost two decades later, Ketchum—the pseudonym for Dallas Mayr––was able to release his original, completely unaltered draft. And I am so glad.
Not only is Off Season a horror novel that deserves to be read, but it is also a horror novel that deserves to be ranked toward the top of the horror genre charts, right there alongside the works of Stephen King. Because holy shit, this book is stomach-churning, nightmare-spawning, and truly horrifying. Moreover, it is wonderfully written, and its characters are understandable and likable. If a horror story can make me feel sad when a certain character dies, then that story is doing something right.
The story follows Carla, a woman who is renting a cabin in Dead River, Maine, in order to work on a book she is editing. To kick off her stay, she invites her sister, Marjorie; Marjorie's boyfriend, Dan; her ex, Nick; and his girlfriend, Laura; as well as her (Carla's) new boyfriend, Jim. The story jumps between the points of view of these characters and two cops, Peters and Shearing. Additionally, Ketchum also shows things from the points-of-view of the villains—the incestuous, cannibalistic family who are out to kill.
While this does seem like a lot of characters to handle in a book that is just under 300 pages long, Ketchum manages to describe them all––personality and body types, in case you were wondering––very vividly, which allowed me as a reader to grow more attached to each character. Needless to say, the surprising deaths hit hard when you know the characters pretty well.
Many horror stories––books and movies alike––rely on mystery to build tension and suspense. Many of those stories rely on the mystery of who the hell is killing everyone. This story often shows things from the killers' perspectives, as I said before. Therefore, the mystery is mainly based around who the hell is gonna die next.
*Potential Spoilers in Following Paragraph*
Ketchum doesn't follow the horror tropes––hell, he kills off the character who appears to be the main protagonist almost immediately when all hell breaks loose. He's not trying to stick to cliches––he's trying to surprise readers while also telling an engaging story, and he does a damn good job killing off the strong and letting the weak fight till the end. That's as close to spoilers as I'll get in regards to characters.
Vivid Descriptions of Sex and Gore
This book is definitely not for everyone. If you hate graphic violence, you'll hate this. If you think graphic sex is wrong or pointless, you probably won't like this. I can completely understand why someone would not enjoy this book. It's insanely raunchy.
While I can agree that some of the sexual actions that occur in this book feel somewhat unnecessary at certain points––and unnecessary sex is something that could be left out of many horror stories––I can easily say that I am glad a book like this exists because this is something that will never be truly adapted to film. Why? Graphic nudity, intense sexual actions, and insanely vivid descriptions of gore, just to name a few. So much of it, in fact, that even if it happened to be made into a film, it would never release in regular theaters and would definitely be X-rated.
The good thing is I don't need to see it on a screen if I can play it in my head. Now, here me out, because that probably sounded weird. Again, I can do without unnecessary sex if it doesn't add anything to the story, but in terms of gore, I want to see it. I'm a horror fan. I can't be scared if I'm not seeing what's actually happening. Sometimes implications are okay, but I want to see it. And when I'm reading it, I can see it all in my head.
In a story like this, the gore is essential. The cannibalistic family is scary because we are told everything they do—every little detail. I feel bad when characters die because I am told exactly what happened to them and how they died. This story is built around gore, which adds to the horror. This is true horror. This gave me nightmares. This made me lay in bed at night, thinking back to the horrible, graphic way a certain character died. I'm telling you—this book is true horror.
Ketchum manages to deliver a truly horrifying tale with Off Season, the most graphic book I have ever read. If I wasn't a horror fan, I would probably hate this book. But since I am a horror fan, I love the gore, the vivid descriptions, and the risks that were taken.
Cliches are thrown out the window. Children and pregnant women are turned into monsters. The weak are made strong. You never know who will live until the end or who will die trying. When you think you know what will happen, your expectations are killed, cooked, and eaten, never to be seen again. Now, that is good storytelling.
If you are easily queasy, don't read this. If you are traumatized by horror, don't read this. I'm warning you: this book is truly insane. If you want to give it a shot, take the risk. If you do read it, let me know what you think in the comments. I would love to start a conversation about a book that has easily become one of the best I have ever read. If you truly love horror, I do not think you will be disappointed. Just be ready for the trip of a lifetime.
This content reflects the personal opinions of the author. It is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and should not be substituted for impartial fact or advice in legal, political, or personal matters.
© 2020 Benjamin Wollmuth