Mama Cushing’s Short Story Society: Discussion of Jack Ketchum’s “Gone” (Part 1)
Author: Jack Ketchum
Originally published in: October Dreams: A Celebration of Halloween (Cemetery Dance hardcover edition, 2000; Roc trade paperback, 2002)
Reprinted in: Peaceable Kingdom (Subterranean Press hardcover, 2002; Leisure Books mass market paperback, 2003; Leisure Books ebook, 2011)
Awards: Bram Stoker Award for Short Fiction for the year 2000 (presented in 2001); part of the collection Peaceable Kingdom, which won the Bram Stoker Award for Fiction Collection for 2003 (presented in 2004).
Commentary on this story appears in: To Each Their Darkness by Gary A. Braunbeck (Apex, 2010)
Spoiler-free synopsis: Our protagonist, Helen, decides (after some emotional struggle) to give out candy to trick-or-treaters for the first time since the kidnapping of her three year old daughter five years ago. She finds her house shunned by the neighborhood children. However, a trio of kids from outside the neighborhood show up at her doorstep. As a result of the brief encounter, Helen’s life descends into an even darker chasm of grief and loss.
Why this story is important to the genre:
“Gone” as an Example of the Power of Subtext
In his nonfiction book on the horror genre, To Each Their Darkness, Gary Braunbeck devotes several pages to “Gone”, citing it as an example of the power of subtext in horror fiction, as well as an example of the “after the fact” story.
To the uninitiated, Braunbeck describes an “after the fact” story as a short story in which “the main action of the story has already happened before the first sentence..in these stories you’re presented with a situation that, nine times out of ten, is in no way connected to what actually happened; you have to piece together the events by what is said and done by the characters.”
Braunbeck makes a convincing case that “Gone” is the type of story the genre could benefit from seeing a lot more of, a story in which the horrific effect is magnified by having the horrific events deduced by the reader (much as the protagonist in the story also pieces the puzzle together, herself). It’s the sort of tale that works because of the power of understatement and suggestion. The general outline of the conclusion can be pieced together by the reader (which is disturbing, in its own right), but the ending is open-ended enough to leave the reader unsettled by considering a handful of alternate specific scenarios, leaving the ending hurtfully ragged and raw.
Braunbeck refers to “Gone” as “one of the most elegant, chilling, and genuinely disturbing” stories Ketchum has ever written.
“Gone” as an Example of Effective “Escapable Horror”
I’m kicking around a hypothesis that horror stories can be divided into two categories: those in which the horrific is inevitable, and those in which the horrific is escapable.
Fine examples of inevitable horror abound. Cosmic horror falls into this category. In the work of Lovecraft and Thomas Ligotti, horror is sewn into the very fabric of existence. But there are other examples of this sort of horror. I would argue that both Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery” and Octavia Butler’s “Bloodchild” fall into the category of inevitable horror. (Digression – Yes, Butler is typically classified as a SF writer; ignore that classification. “Bloodchild” is one of the more disturbing pieces of fiction I’ve ever read. It’s horror set on another planet.)
In both Jackson’s and Butler’s stories, horror may not be sewn into the fabric of existence, but it’s built into the social compact and is thus almost-equally inescapable.
“Gone”, however, is an example of a case in which the horror is derived from missed opportunities. The horror of “Gone” is partially derived from how our protagonist could be spared her suffering if events had occurred just slightly earlier or later. While Jackson, Butler, and Ligotti invoke dread, “Gone” induces a sort of tragic agony because of all the near-misses involved.
(Readers Beware: Beyond Here Be Spoilers)
To start off with, there’s the near-miss that happens before the story even starts. Helen refers to the kidnapping of her daughter as “the three minutes that changed everything.” If not for “an inconsequential event” (forgetting the newspaper and going back into a 7-Eleven for it, leaving her daughter in the car), the kidnapping may not have happened in the first place.
The reader gets a sense of the guilt Helen feels about this, the torture she inflicts on herself, the rumination on how things would have been much different had she not gone back for the newspaper, or had gotten in and out of the store quicker.
This initial near-miss is mirrored by the final, devastating one. Another three minutes that change everything. The trick-or-treaters reveal that they’re aware that Helen is “the lady who lost her baby” and that her child was a “little girl”. Then, just as she’s closing the door, Helen is given a clue about the possible whereabouts of her daughter when one of the trick-or-treaters says to the others “too bad they wouldn’t let her out tonight, huh? too bad they never do…”. Yet she is unable to piece together the meaning of this until it’s too late.
(“…but at first it didn’t register, not quite, as though the words held no meaning, as though the words were some strange rebus she could not immediately master, not until after she’d closed the door and then when finally they impacted her like grapeshot, she flung open the door and ran screaming down the stairs and into the empty street.”)
It’s a tragic near-miss. A second tragic near-miss and, arguably just as devastating as the first. I don’t use the word “tragic” loosely. This is a story of connections between mother and daughter lost by a matter of seconds and inches. As Braunbeck says: “This is what turns ‘Gone’ into the stuff of classic tragedy. Helen’s closing the door before the kid’s words finally register is akin to Romeo walking past the nurse who carries Juliet’s note, and like with Romeo, by the time Helen realizes what it means, it’s too late; the kids are nowhere to be seen.”
In “Gone” the reader is left with a sense of horror because both the initial trauma and the new trauma are escapable, but aren’t escaped. Both the initial loss and the re-experiencing of loss could have been avoided had the timing been different (had Helen not gone back into the store or had gotten out of the store sooner, had Helen pieced together the meaning of the trick-or-treater’s statement early enough to demand further answers). This double-dose of tragedy twists the knife into the protagonist, and reinforces the theme of guilt. In this case, I think that it’s possible for the reader to come away from the story knowing, intellectually, that Helen’s guilt is inappropriate. That she’s not to blame, but the kidnapper is. But Ketchum deftly sucks us so deep into Helen’s point of view that this isn’t immediately obvious. We’re left at the end with a belly full of guilt, soul-sick, regretting the missed opportunity.
“Gone” in the Pantheon of Great Halloween Stories
Lots of horror stories are written about (or at least set during) Halloween. In my reading experience, very few of these stories excel. “Gone” is, in my opinion, among the top-tier of Halloween stories.
It’s not a supernatural horror story, but like Ray Bradbury’s “The October Game” it’s impossible to imagine a scenario in which “Gone” was set any other night of the year. The plot relies on children who would not ordinarily visit Helen coming to her house while wearing disguises that render their physical description (let alone their identities) a mystery.
This underscores another theme that runs throughout the story, the tension between closeness and boundaries in a community. Helen’s initial, basic trust (that no one in her community would steal her child outside of the 7-Eleven) is betrayed. In response, she builds emotional walls to keep the community out and the community seems to also build walls to keep her at a distance. Conversations come to a halt when she walks by others in the grocery store. The loss has stigmatized Helen. While Helen’s descent into depression may be one reason the community keeps her at arm’s length, another may be that she’s living proof that the community is not as safe as it would, perhaps, like to imagine itself as being. The community has stopped seeing Helen, the individual, a long time ago and now only sees in Helen the ugliness of loss. It’s as though there’s an understanding that if they marginalize her, they can ignore the reality that their connection with their children is every bit as fragile as Helen’s was to hers.
Halloween is a time when neighbors who would not ordinarily mix lower the boundaries, if only a little. “Gone” works, in part, because it exploits the pre-existing tension between trust and suspicion that seems to run through Halloween these days. We see that theme also touched on (in a much different style) by Thomas Ligotti in “Conversations in a Dead Language” (another top-tier Halloween story, in my opinion).
Okay, so this is the point where I stop blabbing and try to get some discussion going. Feel free to post any thoughts you have about “Gone” as a comment to this blog entry. In the spirit of a “book club” sort of discussion, I’m offering a couple of questions here in the spirit of stimulating discussion. But those questions are just intended to get things started. Feel free to ask questions or make comments of your own, apart from anything I’ve written.
Questions for Part One
1. In To Each Their Darkness, Braunbeck writes: “At least one-third of the Ketchum fans I have spoken with are wary of ‘Gone’ for one simple reason: they don’t understand the ending.”
I know a few readers went out and read “Gone” for the first time as a result of it being featured here at Mama Cushing’s. I’m curious – did anyone here have a hard time understanding the ending? Is there any feeling that it’s too suggestive/not concrete enough?
2. Do you agree that “Gone” ranks in the top-tier of Halloween horror stories? What other Halloween stories do you enjoy?
I’m looking forward to at least one (possibly two) additional Mama Cushing’s posts on “Gone”; one in which I discuss some of what a newer author can learn by looking at the nuts and bolts of “Gone” and another in which I’ll post an interview where Jack Ketchum responds to a few questions about the story and his writing in general. Keep watching Laughing at the Abyss for updates.