Published in 1989, the book is loosely based on the 1965 torture and murder of 16-year-old Sylvia Likens in Indiana by her caregiver Gertrude Baniszewski, Baniszewski’s children, and other neighborhood youths.
Reading details of the actual crime pale in comparison to reading the book. I don’t recommend reading about it because if you have a heart, it will make you angry and sad and sick. The book evokes those feelings, too, but shies away from describing the worst of the worst. But not by much.
In The Girl Next Door, Ketchum changes the names and sets his story in 1958 suburbia. The main characters are the cruel ringmaster and mother Ruth; the teenage victim Meg; and narrator David, a boy who witnessed the crime.
As difficult as it is reading The Girl Next Door, writing it must have been harder for Ketchum. It was almost like he didn’t want to write it, but had to because the tragedy gnawed at his soul. The entire book is like Ketchum trying to explain the unexplainable through the eyes of a 12-year-old boy.
The genius of The Girl Next Door is Ketchum’s decision to tell the story in first person through the point of view of David in flashback mode. It allows the reader to only know the horror that David remembered secondhand and not experience all the horror Meg endured in real time. It dilutes the horror to a level the reader can process.
This book hit me hard, I think because the first part describes my boyhood to a T.
I was David, catching crayfish in the creek, going to carnivals, hanging out with the neighborhood kids, and playing baseball. That was me. That neighborhood was mine. As all-American as apple pie.
In the book, David is a likable boy, but his inability to act is frustrating. David is part of the group who witnesses Meg’s torture but is afraid to tell anyone. He’s torn but witnessing the taboo acts is seductive and almost paralyzing to a 12-year-old boy, especially if an adult gives him permission.
An entire college course could be devoted to The Girl Next Door, discussing the psychology of authority, the bystander problem, group peer pressure, permission, violence, and voyeurism. A film adaptation was released in 2007.
While reading the book, two moments drilled me in the gut and filled me with dread.
The last line of Chapter Twenty-Three is “Let it go where it goes,” and it’s followed by the only line in Chapter Twenty-Four: “Where it went was to the basement.”
Chilling. Because nothing good in horror novels based on true events ever happens in the basement.
The seminal moment in The Girl Next Door is Chapter Forty-Two.
Chapter Forty-One ends with Ruth about to commit an unimaginable act of torture on the helpless Meg.
Chapter Forty-Two reads: “I’m not going to tell you about this. I refuse to. There are things you know you’ll die before telling, things you know you should have died before ever having seen. I watched and saw.”
That’s the whole chapter.
“There are things you know you’ll die before telling, things you know you should have died before ever having seen.”
What an incredible sentence.
Even Ketchum, a fearless horror writer, had a line he couldn’t cross.
It was like he knew anything he wrote at that particular point in the story would only diminish the torture of that young girl in perhaps the cruelest moment of her imprisonment.
It was like he paused for a moment of silence to honor her memory before continuing to write.
Chapter Forty-Two will always be one of my favorite chapters in any book I’ve ever read.
Ketchum knew in the real world humans do far worse to each other than anything a horror writer could imagine.
Or in this case, doesn’t want to imagine.