I didn’t like Jack Ketchum’s Joyride. This essay will give the reasons why. Please note that this review contains spoilers of Mr. Ketchum’s Joyride and Off-Season and the comic version of The Walking Dead.
My first problem with Joyride is that it is domestic (family-based) horror, and this particular subgenre tends to have a nasty moralizing streak that I find very unpleasant. An example – in the Walking Dead comic, Lori Grimes thinks that her husband Rick is dead so she takes up with his friend Shane. After Shane dies and Rick returns Lori discovers she’s pregnant, and it’s not clear who the father is. In a later issue, Lori and her baby die horribly. Was this piece of cosmic irony intentional on the author’s part? I don’t know, but I’d say that the symbolism is pretty clear.
In Joyride Carole and her lover kill her husband, and cosmic retribution comes in the form of Wayne the Psychopath. I won’t dwell on the fact that plot-wise, divine payback makes a lot more sense than the only budding serial killer in Barstow just happening to witness Carole bashing her ex-husband’s brains in with a rock. Still, one wonders if God’s Middle Finger was intentional on the author’s part. You could miss the connection, but it’s there. That’s #1.
My second problem with Joyride is that it’s not very well-written. Mr. Ketchum head-hops like a frisky bullfrog leaping from lily pad to lily pad. The book isn’t edited very well and character development is paper thin. There’s a reason this reads so quickly. I wonder if Joyride was originally a screenplay treatment converted into a novel.
Mr. Ketchum doesn’t much care about plot, using real life as the starting point for many of his stories. This isn’t a critique. Dostoevsky got the idea for Crime and Punishment from a newspaper clipping. Mr. Ketchum states in his afterword that the idea for Joyride came from a pair of serial killers culled from the book Bloodletters and Badmen. I won’t say Mr. Ketchum’s material is derivative, but it’s easy to see his influences.
Thus, the fact that much of Joyride flunked the believability test in many places is a real problem. Some of this has to do with plot (see Paragraph #3), but I found the characters’ motives to be unbelievable. To me, Carole’s asshole ex Howard is the most fully fleshed out character of the bunch. He was totally believable. I found the actions and the motives of the other characters harder to believe and understand.
Ketchum tends to hone in on his characters’ weaknesses and most unpleasant characteristics and treat that as character development. Susan dates Wayne the Psychopath because…well, I don’t know why. From Susan’s description of him, he sounds like the grumpiest, most unpleasant fuck in existence, and that’s before we learn that he’s a budding strangler and serial killer. I’m sorry, there’s no way anyone would want to date this guy, and that to me is a real believability issue.
Here’s another example. One of the main characters of Joyride is Carole, who has been abused by her ex-husband. The particulars of Carole’s marriage are depressing and awful; domestic horror also tends to rub the reader’s face in wretched excess. I don’t believe that a writer needs to treat his/her characters with kids’ gloves, but if they become punching bags with no agency, that’s a problem.
Case in point: it is Lee, Carole’s lover, who decides that they must kill Howard and Carole goes along with it. To me, this is important because it strips Carole – the most likely candidate to be the main character of Joyride – of anything resembling agency. Carole kills her husband because Lee botches the job. They bash his brains in with a baseball bat and then a rock and throw his body into a creek, where he floats off downstream to be discovered by a perverted Eagle Scout.
The final deal-breaker is Joyride’s message. When I read Jack Ketchum’s Off-Season I saw a writer interested in sadism. The opening scene of Off-Season features a character being whipped. The introduction to Joyride is all about hurting people, also. This is fine, except the author seems to think there’s some sort of profundity in such statements as (paraphrasing) LIFE IS PAIN or THE WORLD EATS YOUR MOTHER, when these statements are in fact eye-rolling hogwash. Nihilism disguised as philosophy is still nihilism.