Thursday, August 9, 2012

THE CENTURY'S BEST HORROR FICTION #94: A review of "The Box" by Jack Ketchum

In many regards, Ketchum is a lot like Simon Clark: they’re both great novelists who are kind of iffy when it comes to short fiction. However, while some of Clark’s short stories can be decent, Ketchum has one that is an absolute masterpiece: “The Box.”

The unnamed narrator of this one is a family man: a wife, a son, and twin daughters. They are traveling on a train at Christmas time when they encounter a stranger clinging to a gift-wrapped box. Danny, the son, is excited to find out what kind of gift someone else is getting, so he asks the stranger what it is. The narrator tries to get his son to back off, but the stranger says it’s okay. He opens the box just enough so that only Danny can see in. What he sees . . . changes him.

He’s still his usual affable self, but for some reason, he’s stopped eating. At first his parents think that it’s normal (even though their Depression-era parents would have forced-fed them in their youths), but when he goes five days without eating, it unnerves them. He’s not in pain, and he seems content in himself, but he just won’t eat. And he’s starting to waste away.

They take him to the doctor, who can’t find anything physically wrong with him, so they take him to a shrink. This guy knows there’s a problem, but he doesn’t think he can get to the bottom of it without seeing Danny everyday until he starts eating again, and then twice a week thereafter.

Then, one night our narrator overhears his son talking to the twins about the box, but when he intervenes, he learns nothing. The very next day, his daughters stop eating, too. And next his wife Susan stops eating. The narrator talks to Danny, trying to figure out what is going on. He knows it has to do with that box, but all Danny will say about it was that it had nothing in it.

Holy fuck. Could you imagine that happening to your family? And what the fuck was really in that box to completely rewire an entire family’s way of thinking?

SPOILER ALERT: They eventually admit Danny to a hospital, where an IV somehow fails to give him the nourishment he needs. So he dies. They hook up the twins to IV’s, and they, too, die. Lastly, Susan dies shortly afterward, leaving the narrator alone in the world, wondering what the fuck could have possibly done this to his family. He starts riding the train, looking desperately for the man with the box but never finding him. He’s losing weight, but not because he’s stopped eating; he’s just eating poorly. To quote the final line of the story, “I’m hungry.” END OF SPOILERS.

This is possibly the most unnerving, most maddening horror story put to paper. You never get answers. In all likelihood, Danny was telling the truth about there being nothing in the box. But what about that situation made him stop eating? What about this made him stop desiring to live? And what about this made his sisters and mother stop eating, too?

You’ll never know. And because of this, “The Box” will haunt you for the rest of your life. You’ll never forget it. It will change you. Ketchum’s short fiction isn’t usually impressive, but he more than makes up for it with this one. It’s been reprinted enough; there is no excuse for you not reading this one.

[This story first appeared in CEMETERY DANCE, and it cannot be read online at this time, sadly.  But fuck, man.  It's been reprinted SEVEN TIMES.  How hard could it be to find?]

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