When once asked who he thought the scariest guy in America was, Stephen King replied, "Probably Jack Ketchum." I remember reading that quote and thinking that Ketchum had to be a serial killer, or some terrible politician or criminal that I had never heard of. When I later found out he was an author, I was impressed to say the least. I grew up on the stories of Stephen King, so an endorsement like that holds a lot of weight for me. I'm a big horror movie hound, though I don't typically read a lot of horror novels.
But that's okay really, because Jack Ketchum isn't your typical horror author.
The type of horror Ketchum writes is what I would classify as "real horror". His stories feature wounded souls and very troubled psyches. Whereas King may be able to create a 500+ page opus about a killer car, Ketchum tends to deal more with the type of horror that could actually happen. The Lost and The Girl Next Door are both loosely based on actual events. His book Red is about an older man who seeks justice against a group of punk kids that shoot his dog. His novella Right To Life is about a desperate couple that kidnaps a pregnant woman on the way to an abortion clinic, so they can keep her child for their own.
Cover -- which was just re-released in paperback -- fits into this pantheon like a blood-soaked glove. An obnoxious webmaster might call it Deliverance meets Taxi Driver, but only because it's about a disturbed Vietnam vet hunting a group of civilians through the woods after they accidentally stumble upon his marijuana farm. So yes, you have the city folk being chased through unfamiliar territory by the crazy Travis Bickle-style vet, but Ketchum refuses to let it be that simple. For one thing, the city folk in this instance aren't as helpless as you'd assume. And the hunter is chasing something much deeper than mere prey.
By now, we've all seen enough modern horror movies featuring people being chased through the woods by local yokels, but I can't recall a version of this story where the characters were handled as maturely as they are in Cover. Ketchum spends a lot of time building them up before things go horrible. In fact, the "action" doesn't even begin until around page 150 (the book is only 308 pages). And when it finally does, you're really not sure if there's a clear-cut bad guy vs. good guy(s) conflict at hand, which is refreshing.
When the shit hits the fan, the violence plays out realistically, in ugly yet controlled bursts. Lee Moravian is a precise killer, always three steps ahead of his prey. Yet it's not sensational at all. The man isn't a cannibal. He's not some privileged psychotic who gets off on hunting actual humans. Hell, he's not even that scary looking of a guy. He's just someone who cracks under the weight of his past, haunted by terrible flashbacks of a war that made no sense.
Cover is Ketchum's third novel. Written in 1983, he explains in the foreword that he did not fight in the Vietnam War. In fact, he was one of those clearly on the other side of the line that protested it. Yet, he had a lot of close friends who went off to the jungles and came back changed men... changed for the worse. They were veterans who fought a conflict for their country and returned home to a place that didn't recognize or even want them. This left a strong impression on Ketchum and he made it a point to one day tell their story.
My only critique of Cover is that it seemed to build to a frenzy, yet its climax sort of deflates a little. What happens in the end makes complete sense for the characters, but Ketchum had me in such a vice grip of intensity during the last 50 pages, that I wanted a more satisfying payoff to the action. Yet this critique is one of the things I appreciate so much about Ketchum's books: He refuses to wrap things up pretty. He very frequently kills off main characters you assume are going to become the "heroes" and the topics he explores never have clearcut solutions. The man has guts despite the consequences. He's admitted in interviews that these creative moral stances have hurt him in the past from getting more widespread acceptance in the literary world. They've even led to his books getting reduced releases.
Hopefully the many recent movie adaptations of his books will lead to more widespread recognition, because books like Cover deserve it.