By Ted Gioia

The masters of horror—from Poe to Hitchcock and beyond—shrewdly realized that the
epicenter of fright resides in our psyches. Creating horror is more than just piling on the
gore and guts.  A slaughterhouse is not the same thing as a haunted house, and anxiety
cannot be reduced to sheer disgust.  The scariest juncture in any horror story is always
the moment of anticipation, that interval—sometimes ever so brief—when everything
still wears a mask of normalcy.

Examine the oeuvre of Alfred Hitchcock for examples.  
His hypersensitive awareness could detect the latent
horror in a staircase, grasping hands, a drinking glass,
a flock of birds and other unlikely aspects of quotidian
reality. In the famous shower scene in
Psycho, Hitchcock
spent two days shooting a three-minute sequence from
77 different camera angles—supported by extraordinary
string writing by composer Bernard He
rrmann.  This
interlude defined the epitome of horror for moviegoers
of the era, yet the audience never gets a clear glimpse
of any injury or of the killer’s knife penetrating flesh.

But is it still scary today?  Here is Martin Scorsese's
assessment: "It’s so familiar that you think: great movie, but it’s not so scary
anymore. Then you watch it…and quickly start thinking again. The shower…the
swamp…the relationship between mother and son—it’s extremely disturbing on so
many levels. It’s also a great work of art."  Hitchcock knew well that dismemberment
would actually create a sense of revulsion and disgust that would run counter to his
evocation of existential dread.  If anyone had asked the great director, he could have
told you that the
Zapruder film is not a horror movie, even though it is far more
revolting than anything Hitchcock ever concocted.  

But apparently no one ever explained this difference to Jack Ketchum.  And certainly
if horror could be achieved simply by multiplying mutilations, he would be the master
of the idiom. Instead his work stands as an example of how turn a horror book into a
horrible book.
Off Season reads like the winning entry in a gross-out contest. But give
Ketchum some credit. He certainly managed to disgust a number of people—including
his publisher who, in a rare about-face, decided to pull the book from the market.  

Even before publication, Ketchum battled with the
editorial staff at Ballantine, and the two sides bickered
over paragraphs, sentences, even phrases. ("I’ll give you
this bludgeoning if you leave me that beheading,"
Ketchum later explained, was a typical
quid pro quo
in this process.) I wonder whether the rough handling
of a book editor by a gang of lunatics, which occurs
midway through this gruesome novel, was not the
author’s symbolic response to this laborious negotiation.
Off Season returned to print in 1999, sponsored
by a new and less squeamish publishing house, Ketchum
put back much of the disputed material.  In its first incarnation, it was filled to the
brim with blood, but now its cup truly runneth over with gore. If you want more
plasma and hemoglobin, you would need to rob a blood bank.  

The book takes place in coastal Maine—why do so many horror stories take in the
Pine Tree State?—in a community fittingly called Dead River. Here a large gang of
cannibals have set up operations, but without alerting the local authorities.  The local
police sit around, occasionally wondering why missing person stats are "just a little bit
higher than you’d expect them to be." But maybe it’s simply the rough coastal waters
claiming victims or disgruntled teens running away from home.

Even the police start taking notice when two different people report seeing a
strange gang of violent youngsters.  Officer George Peters, a cardboard cop with a
weight problem and a tendency to talk in clichés, eventually decides to set up a
search team to get to the bottom of the mystery. But our slow-moving policeman
may have waited too long.  Carla, a visitor who has rented a home in the area, has
already attracted the attention of the ghouls, and when they learn that she has
five friends staying with her, they decide that (despite the title of this novel)
hunting season in Maine is officially open.

I will spare you the details. But if you let your local butcher give you a tour of his
backroom, you will get a pretty good sense of what is going down in Dead River,
Maine on September 14, 1981.  

Okay, unless I give you a little taste, you won’t full appreciate how low this book sinks
on the scale of horror literature. So here goes:

"She opened her eyes and saw that both Laura's arms were gone at the elbow, and
both legs at the knee. He had piled them beside her like firewood. And still Laura
lived, her glazed eyes still blinked and stared, her chest rose and fell in an irregular
broken tremor.  Her mouth was open wide. He had impaled her tongue—the
offending member with which she had cried out to him before—on a fishhook.  And
now he was pulling on it slowly, grinning with an imbecile’s ripe pleasure…."

Our imbecile (the character, not the author),
will now chop out her tongue and  let her
watch while he eats it.  And these kinds of
stunts go on for page after page after page. No,
this isn’t storytelling, just torture—and I’m
talking now merely of the reading experience.  
And the revulsion is directed not so much at the
evil characters—who are less plausible than
Lego action figures—as at the writer who has
inflicted this mess on us.  If only someone had threatened to clip his tongue with
a fishhook, perhaps he would have spared us. Instead he confidently sat down at
his typewriter, and delivered jumbled
similes from hell.  Read ‘em and weep: "Nick
fired at him a second time and saw half of his neck disappear and a huge whale spout
of gore shower the room as the head toppled sideways to his shoulder like a fallen

Which raises, of course, that classic philosophical question: If a blood-spouting head
falls like a tree in a novel devoid of plausible characters and events, does anyone care
to hear it?

If you don’t like whale spouts of gore, you won’t find much to enjoy in
Off Season.  
And you will certainly want to skip over the "recipes" that Ketchum proudly inserted
into the unexpurgated version of his novel. But at least Mr. Ketchum adds some
comic relief in his postscript to this edition his book.  Here he explains that
dismembering, cooking and eating people was essential to his novel because "life’s
like that…the world’s like that." Let’s hope he’s joking.  Just in case, don’t ever let
him prepare a meal for you.  Here’s another tip: skip his books too.  

Ted Gioia writes about music, literature and popular culture. His latest book is How to Listen to Jazz
from Basic Books.

Publication Date: May 23, 2016
This is my year of horrible reading.
I am reading the classics of horror fiction
during the course of 2016, and each week will
write about a significant work in the genre.
You are invited to join me in my
. During the course of the year—if
we survive—we will have tackled zombies,
serial killers, ghosts, demons, vampires, and
monsters of all denominations. Check back
each week for a new title...but remember to
bring along garlic, silver bullets and a
protective amulet.  
Ted Gioia
My Year of Horrible Reading

Week 1:
By Bram Stoker

Week 2:
The Haunting of Hill House
By Shirley Jackson

Week 3:
Tales of Mystery & Imagination
By Edgar Allan Poe

Week 4:
By Stephen King

Week 5:
The Passion According to G.H.
By Clarice Lispector

Week 6:
By H.P. Lovecraft

Week 7:
The Exorcist
By William Peter Blatty

Week 8:
The Woman in Black
By Susan Hill

Week 9:
By Jean-Paul Sartre

Week 10:
I Am Legend
By Richard Matheson

Week 11:
Ghost Stories of Henry James
By Henry James

Week 12:
Interview with the Vampire
By Anne Rice

Week 13:
American Psycho
By Bret Easton Ellis

Week 14:
Last Stories and Other Stories
By William T. Vollmann

Week 15:
Ghost Stories of an Antiquary
By M.R. James

Week 16:
Rosemary's Baby
By Ira Levin

Week 17:
The King in Yellow
By Robert W. Chambers

Week 18:
By Daphne Du Maurier

Week 19
The Woman in the Dunes
by Kōbō Abe

Week 20
The Dark Eidolon
by Clark Ashton Smith

Week 21
Off Season
by Jack Ketchum
conceptual fiction
Exploring the Non-Realist Tradition in Fiction
The Author as Butcher:
Jack Ketchum's
Off Season
No, this isn’t storytelling,
just torture—and I’m
talking now merely of
the reading experience.
To purchase, click on image
Follow Ted Gioia on Twitter at

Conceptual Fiction:
A Reading List
(with links to essays on each work)

Home Page

Abbott, Edwin A.

Adams, Douglas
The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy

Aldiss, Brian
Barefoot in the Head

Aldiss, Brian

Aldiss, Brian
Report on Probability A

Allende, Isabel
The House of the Spirits

Amado, Jorge
Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands

Amis, Martin
Time's Arrow

The Golden Ass

Asimov, Isaac
The Foundation Trilogy

Asimov, Isaac
I, Robot

Atwood, Margaret
The Handmaid's Tale

Banks, Iain M.
The State of the Art

Ballard, J.G.
The Atrocity Exhibition

Ballard, J.G.

Ballard, J.G.
The Crystal World

Ballard, J.G.
The Drowned World

Barth, John
Giles Goat-Boy

Bester, Alfred
The Demolished Man

Blish, James
A Case of Conscience

Borges, Jorge Luis

Bradbury, Ray
Dandelion Wine

Bradbury, Ray
Fahrenheit 451

Bradbury, Ray
The Illustrated Man

Bradbury, Ray
The Martian Chronicles

Bradbury, Ray
Something Wicked This Way Comes

Brockmeier, Kevin
The View from the Seventh Layer

Bulgakov, Mikhail
The Master and Margarita

Bunch, David R.

Burgess, Anthony
A Clockwork Orange

Card, Orson Scott
Ender's Game

Carpentier, Alejo
The Kingdom of This World

Carroll, Lewis
Alice's Adventures in Wonderland

Chabon, Michael
The Yiddish Policemen's Union

Chambers, Robert W.
The King in Yellow

Chiang, Ted
Stories of Your Life and Others

Clarke, Arthur C.
Childhood's End

Clarke, Arthur C.
A Fall of Moondust

Clarke, Arthur C.
2001: A Space Odyssey

Clarke, Susanna
Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell

Crowley, John
Little, Big

Danielewski, Mark Z.
The Fifty Year Sword

Danielewski, Mark Z.
House of Leaves

Davies, Robertson
Fifth Business

Delany, Samuel R.

Delany, Samuel R.

Delany, Samuel R.
The Einstein Intersection

Delany, Samuel R.

Dick, Philip K.
Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

Dick, Philip K.
Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said

Dick, Philip K.
The Man in the High Castle

Dick, Philip K.

Dick, Philip K.

Disch, Thomas M.
Camp Concentration

Disch, Thomas M.
The Genocides

Doctorow, Cory
Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom

Donoso, José
The Obscene Bird of Night

Ellison, Harlan (editor)
Dangerous Visions

Ellison, Harlan
I Have No Mouth & I Must Scream

Esquivel, Laura
Like Water for Chocolate

Farmer, Philip José
To Your Scattered Bodies Go

Fowles, John
A Maggot

Fuentes, Carlos

Gaiman, Neil
American Gods

Gaiman, Neil

Gibson, William
Burning Chrome

Gibson, William

Grass, Günter
The Tin Drum

Greene, Graham
The End of the Affair

Grossman, Lev
The Magicians

Haldeman, Joe
The Forever War

Hall, Steven
The Raw Shark Texts

Harrison, M. John
The Centauri Device

Harrison, M. John

Heinlein, Robert
The Moon is a Harsh Mistress

Heinlein, Robert:
Stranger in a Strange Land

Heinlein, Robert
Time Enough for Love

Helprin, Mark
Winter's Tale

Herbert, Frank

Hill, Susan
The Woman in Black

Hoffman, Alice
Practical Magic

Houellebecq, Michel

Huxley, Aldous
Brave New World

Jackson, Shirley
The Haunting of Hill House

James, Henry
The Turn of the Screw

James, M.R.
Ghost Stories of an Antiquary

Keret, Etgar
Suddenly, A Knock at the Door

Ketchum, Jack
Off Season

Keyes, Daniel
Flowers for Algernon

King, Stephen

Kundera, Milan
The Book of Laughter and Forgetting

Kunzru, Hari
Gods Without Men

Lafferty, R.A.
Nine Hundred Grandmothers

Le Guin, Ursula K.
The Dispossessed

Le Guin, Ursula K.
The Lathe of Heaven

Le Guin, Ursula K.
The Left Hand of Darkness

Leiber, Fritz
The Big Time

Leiber, Fritz
Conjure Wife

Leiber, Fritz
Swords & Deviltry

Leiber, Fritz
The Wanderer

Lem, Stanislaw
His Master's Voice

Lem, Stanislaw

Lethem, Jonathan
The Fortress of Solitude

Levin, Ira
Rosemary's Baby

Lewis, C. S.
The Chronicles of Narnia

Link, Kelly
Magic for Beginners

Lovecraft, H.P.

Malzberg, Barry N.
Herovit's World

Mandel, Emily St. John
Station Eleven

Mann, Thomas
Doctor Faustus

Márquez, Gabriel García
100 Years of Solitude

Markson, David
Wittgenstein's Mistress

Matheson, Richard
Hell House

Matheson, Richard
I Am Legend

Matheson, Richard
What Dreams May Come

McCarthy, Cormac
The Road

Miéville, China
Perdido Street Station

Miller, Jr., Walter M.
A Canticle for Leibowitz

Millhauser, Steven
Dangerous Laughter

Mitchell, David
Cloud Atlas

Moorcock, Michael
Behold the Man

Moorcock, Michael
The Final Programme

Morrison, Toni

Murakami, Haruki

Murakami, Haruki
Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the
End of the World

Nabokov, Vladimir
Ada, or Ardor

Niffenegger, Audrey
The Time Traveler's Wife

Niven, Larry

Noon, Jeff

Obreht, Téa
The Tiger's Wife

O'Brien, Flann
At Swim-Two-Birds

Okri, Ben
The Famished Road

Percy, Walker
Love in the Ruins

Poe, Edgar Allan
Tales of Mystery & Imagination

Pohl, Frederik

Pratchett, Terry
The Color of Magic

Pynchon, Thomas
Gravity's Rainbow

Rabelais, François
Gargantua and Pantagruel

Rice, Anne
Interview with the Vampire

Robinson, Kim Stanley
Red Mars

Rowling, J.K.
Harry Potter & the Sorcerer's Stone

Rushdie, Salman
Midnight's Children

Russ, Joanna
The Female Man

Saramago, José

Sheckley, Robert
Dimension of Miracles

Sheckley, Robert

Sheckley, Robert
Store of the Worlds

Shelley, Mary

Silverberg, Robert
Dying  Inside

Silverberg, Robert

Silverberg, Robert
The World Inside

Simak, Clifford

Simak, Clifford
The Trouble with Tycho

Smith, Clark Ashton
The Dark Eidolon

Smith, Cordwainer

Smith, Cordwainer
The Rediscovery of Man

Stephenson, Neal
Snow Crash

Spinrad, Norman
Bug Jack Barron

Stoker, Bram

Stross, Charles

Sturgeon, Theodore
More Than Human

Sturgeon, Theodore
Some of Your Blood

Swift, Jonathan
Gulliver's Travels

Thomas, D.M.
The White Hotel

Tiptree, Jr., James
Warm Worlds and Otherwise

Tolkien, J.R.R.
The Hobbit

Updike, John
The Witches of Eastwick

Van Vogt, A.E.
The Mixed Men

Van Vogt, A.E.

Van Vogt, A.E.
The Voyage of the Space Beagle

Van Vogt, A.E.
The World of Null A

Vance, Jack
The Dragon Masters

Vance, Jack

Vance, Jack
The Languages of Pao

Verne, Jules
Around the Moon

Verne, Jules
From the Earth to the Moon

Verne, Jules:
Journey to the Center of the Earth

Vollmann, William T
Last Stories and Other Stories

Vonnegut, Kurt
Cat's Cradle

Vonnegut, Kurt
The Sirens of Titan

Vonnegut, Kurt

Wallace, David Foster
Infinite Jest

Walpole, Horace
Hieroglyphic Tales

Wells, H.G.
The First Men in the Moon

Wells, H.G.
The Island of Dr. Moreau

Wells, H.G.
The Time Machine

Wilson, Robert Anton & Robert Shea
The Illuminatus! Trilogy

Winton, Tim

Woolf, Virginia

Zabor, Rafi
The Bear Comes Home

Zelazny, Roger
Lord of Light

Zelazny, Roger
This Immortal

Special Features

Notes on Conceptual Fiction
My Year of Horrible Reading
When Science Fiction Grew Up
Ray Bradbury: A Tribute
The Year of Magical Reading
Remembering Fritz Leiber
A Tribute to Richard Matheson
Samuel Delany's 70th birthday
The Sci-Fi of Kurt Vonnegut
The Most Secretive Sci-Fi Author
Curse You, Neil Armstrong!
Robert Heinlein at 100
A.E, van Vogt Tribute
The Puzzling Case of Robert Sheckley
The Avant-Garde Sci-Fi of Brian Aldiss
Science Fiction 1958-1975: A Reading List

Links to related sites

The New Canon
Great Books Guide
Postmodern Mystery
Fractious Fiction
Ted Gioia's web site
Ted Gioia on Twitter


SF Site
Graeme's Fantasy Book Review
Los Angeles Review of Books
The Millions
Big Dumb Object
SF Novelists
More Words, Deeper Hole
The Misread City
Reviews and Responses
SF Signal
True Science Fiction
Tor blog

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If horror could be
achieved simply by
multiplying mutilations,
Ketchum would be the
master of the idiom