REVIEW: Ladies’ Night by Jack Ketchum

First published in 1997, Ladies’ Night was the tenth Jack Ketchum novel to see print but the second to be written. Ketchum’s introduction mentions that the original form of the novel was far longer than the 166-odd pages that would eventually see print nearly two decades after it was originally written. While I assumed this meant that Ketchum had written the novel and stuck it in a drawer, his Wikipedia page alludes to the shorter version of the story being a re-working of an unreleased Balantine Press manuscript. This suggests that the decision to stick this novel in a drawer might have come from the publishers rather than the author himself.

While the fate of the original version of Ladies’ Night is ultimately both immaterial and ancient history, it is interesting to think that Balantine Press might wave through a novel as gloriously violent as Ketchum’s debut Off Season only to draw the line at Ladies’ Night. Maybe the original form of the narrative was too long and maybe 1980s Ketchum was too prideful to make the sorts of cuts that he would eventually wind-up making prior to the release of this much truncated version. These are both distinct possibilities… Or maybe Balantine Press flinched from the choice of subject matter as Ladies’ Night is essentially a version of Night of the Living Dead in which only women are affected and men are forced to violently put them down.

It’s not much of a reach to say that Ladies’ Night is sexist: Not only is the entire book written from a particularly voyeuristic version of the Male Gaze, the entire set-up of the novel feels like a justification for a series of semi-masturbatory fantasies in which men find themselves utterly vindicated in their decision to hack women to pieces. In fact, the book even ends on a pre-pubescent boy wishing to murder a complete stranger merely because she happens to make eye-contact and smile at him. This may be less shocking in context but the implication is that Ladies’ Night is a piece of speculative fiction that serves as a form of moral fantasy, a world in which men’s fear and hatred of women might turn out to be justified.

Let me be clear: This is not a clever feminist deconstruction of the male gaze; it is not even a particularly progressive piece of writing. Ladies’ Night is a novel that draws upon currents of fear and loathing that trickle beneath the surface of our culture and right into the heads of young men who then go out into the world and make life difficult for any women they happen to encounter. This novel is not educational, up-lifting, or emancipatory: It is the dirt. It is the black shit that is caked under your finger-nails. It is ugly, it is violent, it is horny and it is dark… but only up to a point.

There are two broad approaches we can take to this kind of material. The dominant paradigm, rooted in popular feminist discourse and the fact that women account for about 80% of book sales, is cancellation: This book is sexist, sexism is bad, badness is an ethical problem and to attend to this book’s ideas is to lend them a degree of legitimacy that extends their existence in the world. In other words: Do not want, do not buy, and do not engage. Cancel that shit. However, if we step back from the idea that the purpose of critical engagement is ensuring the moral hygiene of some community or social media timeline then we can use these sorts of texts to dig into the impulses they embody. Sure… Ladies’ Night is a violently sexist fantasy, but what kind of violently sexist fantasy are we talking about and what are the roots of those feelings? Much like Dark Hollow by Brian Keene, Ladies’ Night explores a really fascinating set of sexual desires but stops just short of making its implications clear.

The novel is supposedly set in New York but despite Ketchum’s protestations, the story has a sense of aggressive placeless-ness, as though it could be happening anywhere, everywhere, or nowhere at all. The narrative kicks off with a tanker truck overturning and covering the road with some mysterious chemicals whose smell reminds everyone of cherry lollypops. Ketchum never unpacks the reasons for this smell despite alluding to it a couple of times but, for me, the idea of cherry lollypops feels like an allusion to 1950s nostalgia; to innocent and non-threatening young women in hoop skirts and ponytails. Given that Ketchum wrote this in the 1980s – a period just as dominated by 1950s nostalgia as the present day is dominated by nostalgia for the 1990s – the imagery seems unlikely to be accidental.

From there, the narrative is broken up and scattered amongst a series of disjointed vignettes as we see the effects of the chemical spill play-out over different groups of people. At first, you have women getting really angry about the gross insensitivity of their brutish, philandering husbands, and then you get women getting increasingly horny. Initially it’s just a bit of tingling and rubbing but soon the horniness comes to dwell on people in the women’s lives: Neighbours, sons-in-law, daughters’ boyfriends and even sons. Rarely are these desires bounded by wedlock and rarely are they non-transgressive. Ketchum’s introduction even draws our attention to the nature of these desires and suggests that they imply that the women in his novel were somehow bad people before they were even affected by the chemicals: An interesting but entirely wrong-headed take. The transgression and the intensity of the desire start quite slowly, but the angle of outward trajectory is pretty damn obvious.

We are then transported to a dive bar where husbands pick up the women with whom they will cheat on their wives. There’s a really ugly sense of solidarity between the men too as one man will often steer a willing woman into the path of another married man. It’s a bit like that scene in an early series of Mad Men where all of these porcine out-of-town business men take it upon themselves to comment upon how much ‘fun’ the pneumatic office red-head happens to be. However, as soon as Ketchum introduces the figure of the predatory cheating husband, he sets out to undermine him by having him look up and realise that the bar’s energy is off… that rather than a load of horny men looking to hook up, the place is filled with hard-drinking women who are growling at each other and eyeing up the men like they’re pieces of meat. There’s even a lovely scene where a girl pops to the toilet and returns to find her guy talking to another girl and she makes a series of remarks that can just as easily be read as ‘don’t blow this chance to take me home’ as ‘I will kill you if you talk to another woman’.

It’s here that Ladies Night starts to show its intelligence as I was reminded of the kind of novel where people flip the persecution polarities in order to create fictional worlds where white people were trafficked as slaves or where straight people are a minority continually oppressed and bullied by tyrannical queers. Every speculative genre has them, the reaction to them is usually anger born of the recognition that these are little more than racial persecution fantasies: What if we were treated the way that we treat Black people? Wouldn’t that be awful! Wouldn’t that be a dystopia! It is easy to read Ladies’ Night as a particularly crude and violent riff on this overly-familiar theme but I would argue that the nature of the persecution fantasy reveals says a lot more about 1980s masculinity than it does the moral calibre of women.

The interesting thing about gender-switch dystopias is that they are often have a sexual charge that causes them to back into a lot of queer and kinky sexualities. For example, back in the 1980s, a hugely popular and achingly mainstream British comedy double act called the Two Ronnies would often end episodes of their long-running TV show with these extended cinematic riffs on particular ideas. One of those ideas was entitled The Worm that Turned and it opened with a cartoon worm in a top hat being stepped upon by an enormous foot clad in a high-heeled sandal. The opening info-dump then went on to explain how the roles of men and women had been reversed leaving men forced to wear panties and frilly dresses, their every thought and act policed by an all-female military police force who march about the place in PVC bodysuits and high-heeled boots:

I am reminded of the opening scene of Soderbergh’s Behind the Candelabra where a gay man beholds the aggressive camp of Liberace’s stage show and marvels at the fact that none of the repressed, straight, middle-aged audience seems capable of perceiving Liberace’s sexuality. The same is true of The Worm that Turned: to a contemporary audience, the kinkiness and the themes of female domination are so obvious that it seems absolutely incredible that the show went out on mainstream TV and was watched week after week by millions of families all over the UK.

Ladies’ Night may feel like a re-tread of Night of the Living Dead but I was struck by the fact that the opening stages of the novel are absolutely indistinguishable from a style of story that is hugely popular with people who are really into female domination. There are literally hundreds of stories, games, comics, and films set in worlds where men are enslaved by women who are transformed into beings who are stronger, more sexually aggressive, and are therefore deemed inherently superior. In some cases the fetish even slides across into depicting trans-women as women who are physically larger than men in all possible ways. There are literally stories that are riffs on Matheson’s I am Legend except instead of the protagonist being beset by hungry vampires; he is besieged by trans-women so raveningly oversexed that their humanity has come to be eclipsed by their desire.

Needless to say, the similarity between the muscular, well-endowed and sexually predatory trans-woman of femdom pornography and the muscular, well-endowed, sexually-predatory trans-woman of conservative fear mongering is far from accidental. The rat-king of fear, loathing and desire that inspired Ketchum to write about female zombies has now jumped the cis/trans barrier and inspires TERFs to write about trans-women in toilets and little boys being forcibly turned into cat-girls by depraved healthcare professionals. Despite this particular trope seemingly post-dating the writing of Ladies’ Night, Ketchum is definitely aware of the sexual charge embedded in his chosen nightmare. For example, incest is a recurring motif in this book and while Ketchum never actually goes so far as to put any of that stuff on the page, there is a scene in which a son watches in horror as his infected mother masturbates and this is then revisited towards the end of the book when the mother leaps on her son and effectively starts dry-humping him before trying to tear him to pieces.

One of the interesting things about this kind of novel and the kinds of author that produces them is where the novelist chooses to draw the line. For example, this is a novel in which people are shot, stabbed, maimed, decapitated, and castrated. It’s not just that people get killed, there is also a real glee and sadism to the way that the knives slide in or the hatchets shatter bones and sever limbs. Ketchum is also really adept at capturing the red mist of horniness and how hormones make it really easy for all kinds of fucked-up things to swim into your head. In Ladies’ Night, no punch is pulled right up until you reach the point where aggressive, predatory horniness becomes actual psychotic rage and it’s that tipping point between absolute desire and murderous hatred where things get really transgressive.

William S. Burroughs’ Naked Lunch contains a scene where someone is making what is referred to as a ‘blue movie’ but which could just as easily be referred to as a snuff movie. The ambiguity is what makes the film both transgressive and interesting… desire feeds the desire to kill, which feeds the desire to fuck, which feeds the desire to kill. Burroughs memorably referred to this as the orgasm death gimmick:

MARY : “No, let me.”  She locks her hands behind Johnny’s buttocks, puts her forehead against him, smiling into his eyes she moves back, pulling him off the platform into space… His face swells with blood… Mark reaches up with one lithe movement and snaps Johnny’s neck… sound like a stick broken in wet towels.  A shudder runs down Johnny’s body… one foot flutters like a trapped bird… Mark has draped himself over a swing and mimics Johnny’s twitches, closes his eyes and sticks his tongue out… Johnny’s cock springs up and Mary guides it up her cunt, writhing against him in a fluid belly dance, groaning and shrieking with delight… sweat pours down her body, hair hangs over her face in wet strands.  “Cut him down, Mark,” she screams.  Marks reaches over with a sharp knife and cuts the rope, catching Johnny as he falls, easing him onto his back with Mary still impaled and writhing… She bits away Johnny’s lips and nose and sucks out his eyes with a pop… She tears off great hunks of his cheek… Now she lunches on his prick… Mark walks over to her and she looks up from Johnny’s half-eaten genitals, her face covered with blood, eyes phosphorescent… Mark puts his foot on her shoulder and kicks her over on her back… He leaps on her, fucking her insanely… they roll from one end of the room to the other, pinwheel and end-over-end and leap-high in the air like great hooked fish.

“Let me hang you Mark… Let me hang you… Please, Mark, let me hang you!”

This is the thematic territory that Ladies’ Night inhabits but it is also the subject matter that Jack Ketchum pointedly chooses not to include. At what point does the desire to possess sexually become the desire to destroy physically? Ladies’ Night makes it clear that there is a link between the two stages but shies away from depicting the tipping point. This evasiveness is partly a result of the fact that most of the book is about women attacking complete strangers but stirred through this much safer subject matter is an obsession with incest; a woman’s loathing of her philandering husband that sees all of her sexual desires shuffled over towards her pubescent son: A male who is growing up, who is learning how to be a man, but who is also pure, without sin and unclaimed by potential rivals. Ketchum never unpacks the woman’s desire and certainly doesn’t engage with the oedipal question of what might happen if a pubescent boy returned his mother’s lustful stare but this must be viewed as either a potential victim of the editing process, or a deliberate slice of ambiguity. Did the chemicals turn women into monsters, did it turn them into men, or did it turn them into what they were all along?

This last interpretation is hinted at in a series of scenes involving a woman who is seemingly unaffected by the chemicals. Early in the novel, she is attacked by some men who are not interested in the difference between her and the infected prompting her to steal a police car and mow them down. She then spends the rest of the novel cruising around the city running people over with her car. Occasionally she stops and removes body parts from the front bumper, pausing only to reflect on the fact that she isn’t wearing any underwear. Was this woman infected, was she changed, or was the breakdown in society all the excuse she needed to go on a psycho-sexual rampage?

Ladies’ Night is a short, gruesome novel and its decision to draw a tasteful veil over some elements of its subject matter leaves me wondering about what was cut out of the original manuscript prior to the decision to publish it in a truncated form. Was it dozens of pages of kinetic and vaguely sexualised violence or was it something darker and more psychological? Those who know Ketchum chiefly for such splatterpunk titles as Off Season might suspect the former but what of Ketchum’s most infamous novel: The Girl Next Door? That was a novel all about sex, desire, jealousy, and sadism. Maybe Ladies’ Night got there first.

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