Sunday, December 6, 2015

The Lost

I wasn't too sure of my thoughts when I watched The Lost, the film adaptation of the novel by Jack Ketchum. I was torn between admiration, disgust, fascination, and boredom.

At the time, I hadn't read the book, but now I see the film is remarkably faithful to the text. Sleazebag delinquent Ray Pye still stuffs crushed cans in his boots to make himself taller, he still murders the two girls in the woods, Detective Schilling tries to nail him for it, friends Tim and Jennifer are equally awed and afraid of Ray, new girl Katherine leads him on, and it all leads to an eruption of violence.

In retrospect, the movie mostly depicted the surface action of the story. The book's advantage is it delves into the thoughts and decisions of the characters. Ketchum writes in the third person, but each chapter is told from different perspectives, so we'll see in one chapter how Ray views himself during his date to New York with Katherine, and in the next, we'll read about how ambivalent she is about him. The result is the novel holds together better than the movie, so actions that seemed seemed unsupported on film make more sense on page.

Except from the 1965 prologue, the book takes place in Sparta, New Jersey in 1969, which I don't recall the movie making a point about. Here, Ketchum touches on the small-town 1960s zeitgeist: the Vietnam War is still raging, hippies are present, drug culture is all the rage, and a couple of historical events, mainly the murder of Sharon Tate (which Ray finds especially interesting) as well as Woodstock, are mentioned. The country at large seems lost, filled with turmoil and despair, and that trickles down to the characters.

The character who benefits most from this is Schilling. In the movie, Schilling was nicely played by Michael Bowen, but he was absent for long stretches and felt peripheral. In the book, his personal life is explored: he's an alcoholic (he hates that word), his wife took their two kids to Arizona, and his son is trouble. He's obsessed with getting Ray for the murders, and he has a plan to push him.

I still don't care for the subplot involving Schilling's retired partner Ed, a widower in a relationship with the 18-year-old Sally Richmond. It feels like it belongs in another story and doesn't have much of a payoff, except to get Ed back on the force by the end. Interestingly, Sally is college-bound, and unlike the other girls, she has no interest in Ray, which makes him mad. There are also some vague passages from Ed's cat's point of view which add nothing.

Ketchum can craft strong, memorable prose. The Lost is filled with nasty characters and bookended with scenes of nasty, gory violence. As a writer, Ketchum grasps the physical details, like the sticky feel and rotten smell of dried blood on a girl locked in a trunk with the thick, overwhelming gasoline fumes of the car. He also knows how to build up tension and release it, like when Ray shoots the first girl in the beginning:

"Lisa felt something strike the back of her shoulder, an acorn falling from high above, she thought, from the tree, but knowing even then that something was wrong, that whatever it was had struck her too hard and then instantly heard the crack, like someone stepping on a branch in the brush out there in the dark and at first there was no pain, it was only startling, a sound out of sync with the world. But she turned at the sound and at the sudden wet feeling on her shoulder.
And that was when her face exploded."

That passage continues with a description of the bullet shattering, and her teeth drilling into her cheekbone. Many scenes are unpleasant, and Ray is a hateful, vain, lecherous creature whom I kept waiting for Schilling to nail. His temper is driven by his need to be in power, and when he's rejected or perceives rejection, it's not pretty.

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