Ladies' Night

LADIES' NIGHT

By Jack Ketchum

First Digital Edition published by Crossroad Press & Macabre Ink Digital

Copyright 2011 by Jack Ketchum

Copy-Edited and with cover design by David Dodd

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This one's for Paula White —

usually a lady but not always.

And for Richard Christenson,

who labored well and mightily.

"I deserve this fate. It's a debt I owe for a wild
and reckless life. So long, boys!"
— Bill Longley
hanged in Giddings, Texas, 1877

"If I'd the courage I would make my way home.
Too many antics in the forbidden zone."
— Adam and the Ants

"In the war between men and women
there are no survivors."
— Norman Mailer

Introduction

Truly attentive readers of mine, I mean real out-and-out detail-type-persons, may have noted that between 1981, when I published my first book,
Off Season
, and 1984, when I published my second — a little one-hundred-ninety-four-page thing called
Hide and Seek
— there was not a peep out of Jack Ketchum anywhere. No magazine work. No short stories. Nothing. And you might have asked yourself, so what in hell was this guy doing for three years? Sitting back counting his bucks?

I wish.

A good part of that time I was writing the novel you now have in hand. And writing it massively.

Plus privately I was scared as hell. Both during the writing and after.

~ * ~

To explain I have to backtrack some.

When
Ballantine
bought
Off Season
it created a lot of in-house buzz precisely because it was so ferocious. In 1980 nobody had seen a book with quite so many teeth. That this was eventually to be its downfall had not yet occurred to anybody. But practically the whole damn house had read the book. I'd be walking with my editor and people would peer out at me from their cubicles, smiling and shaking their heads. This is the guy who wrote that crazy fucking thing about the cannibals. Marc Jaffe, who'd bought the novel, his first purchase as the new editor-in-chief there, took me aside one day and said, this book is going to make you rich, son.

Uh-huh.

I've written about all this before so I'll be brief. What happened in a nutshell was that they decided to mount this whole big campaign, posters and point-of-purchase display stands and an edition of 40,000 copies just for distributors, trying to advance-hype the thing — and the reaction of said distributors almost to a man was, excuse me? This shit is violent pornography and we want no part of it. Are you guys nuts?

But by the time they weighed in with that bad news I'd already contracted for a second book.

In January of `81 I signed to do a novel called
The Mantis Syndrome
. The title will become obvious to you once you've read the book. I changed it only because I liked the double entendre of
Ladies' Night
and
Mantis Syndrome
seemed just a little too Michael Crichton to me. I'd slaved over the outline and sample chapters — so much so that I've vowed never to do it again. The outline came to about forty pages. The chapters another forty. And then in writing the book I followed that outline just as slavishly.

I'll never do that again either.

Why did I put myself through all this? Because basically I was a little terrified.

Patti Smith once said something to the effect that they give you twenty-one years to produce your first album and six months to produce your second. She knows whereof she speaks. The idea for Mantis from a publishing standpoint was that the book was to be of the same flesh as
Off Season
, only bigger. Sort of my
'Salem's Lot
to
Off Season
's
Carrie
. Only Ketchum-style, with all the violence right in your face. This was, remember, months before the shit hit the fan with the distributors.

The advance was to be $20,000.00. Twice the advance for
Off Season
and very nice money in those days for a second novel. In fact it's very nice money these days but that's another story. I was still hearing all this buzz about the first book, how it was going to make a huge splash and how they had even bigger hopes for the second, I mean I was gonna be launched, friends. So there was plenty of pressure to top myself with this one.

And I had Patti's proverbial six months to do so. Literally.

I brought it in under the deadline, though. I worked long hours and followed the outline scrupulously because that was the outline
Ballantine
had bought. Scared every minute that I wouldn't pass muster, that I had only a few licks as a writer and that I'd used them all up in
Off Season
.

I've later learned this feeling's common. The I-Only-Have-One-Book-In-Me complex. I wish I knew it then.

But I brought it in and I brought it in big — over four hundred pages. That's right, the book before you once had a very serious case of
elephantitis
: I had explanatory subplots involving the military and science communities and another about a gay friend of my lead character's and his lover, I had fake newspaper articles and TV reports — I had all
kindsa
stuff. To date it's still the biggest book I've ever written. I had yet to learn for sure that less is sometimes more though I should have learned that from
Off Season
.

My only excuse — and it's a poor one — is that I was scared again.
Ballantine
wanted big and that's what I needed to deliver. Accent the word needed. Hence my first and only doorstop.

That wasn't what bothered
Ballantine
, though. They didn't seem to mind the bloating one bit. Does this surprise you? They're mass-market publishers for
godsakes
.

It was the violence, naturally.

By then the votes were in from the distributors. I could now walk through their 50th Street offices and almost hear the collective whoops. I got a two-page letter from my line-editor Susan Allison making lots of suggestions about how to bloat the book further and the only mention of cutting was, "we agreed that much of the violence must be taken out or held back. The story works very well without the gore." I say piffle. When you finish the book let's see what you think.

I didn't want to do the revisions. I don't think I was being arrogant about it. I was probably still too worried to be arrogant. It wasn't just cutting the violence either. Among other things they wanted to throw the whole story into the future and despite the science-
fictiony
premise this was decidedly not science fiction, this was horror, and the notion of imagining New York City ten or a hundred years from now held no appeal whatever. With a few exceptions I'd rarely even read science fiction. So while I dickered with
Ballantine
my agent at the time, Jack
Scovil
, quietly auctioned the book to pretty much every paperback company in town.

Stealth and cunning. It's an agent's job.

But we got no takers. Everybody was offended by the violence, particular the female editors, who thought I was misogynist in the extreme. One editor who shall remain nameless was kind enough to enclose her reader's report by mistake along with her rejection letter. I kept it. The report said, "I stopped reading every pearly word after the girls who work at the Burger King threw the would be (sic) hold-up man on the grill." Actually it's McDonald's. And the incident occurs only about a third of the way through so he or she didn't read much. Which is probably all to the good because considering what follows that scene's pretty mild. But the reader went on to conclude, "I hope the person who wrote this confines his aggressions to the page. This is pretty dreadful."

Words to live by.

The bottom line is, we never did sell it. Jack argued that I'd delivered an acceptable manuscript, which had followed the outline in every way. An understatement. And since it wasn't the writing — as I'd feared — it was the whole idea that bothered them at this point, I got to hold onto the advance.
Ballantine
sweetened the pot slightly in a contract for a third novel, the only caveat being that I was to hold down the bloodshed level on this one.

Jack's a pretty good agent.

Trouble was, for a long time I couldn't write the book. I was a one-book writer. The failure of
Ladies' Night
proved it. I was convinced.

I'd used up all my juice on the first book just as I'd suspected. Neither my agent nor the woman I lived with nor any of my friends who read and liked the book could talk me out of it. I could see myself going back to magazine work or a steady job, a fate too awful to conceive for anyone who has seen The Other Side. It was a crisis of confidence that lasted long and worked its way deep.

I spent a lot of time staying out late and getting up woozy in the morning. I was becoming Tom in
Ladies' Night
.

Then one day I got an idea for a small book, which would be written in the first person. I was re-reading James M. Cain at the time and thought, what if I do something like Cain does, draw characters who are in way over their heads and don't know it — only do it with a bunch of kids, teenagers. In the first person I'd have to break through and find some new licks.

Hide and Seek
emerged. Crisis over.

~ * ~

But I could never really quit on
Ladies' Night
. Looking back I still liked the damn thing, thought the premise pretty audacious. But I kept it in a drawer and went on to other things until 1988. That year my old friend Richard Christenson — a playwright — and I were sitting in a bar one night and he was bemoaning quite rightly how difficult it was to make a buck in the business of writing drama, almost as tough as it was to make a buck in poetry, hell you might as well have been trying to sell pet roaches in this city and I found myself urging him to try some prose instead. I wasn't getting rich here but I was still afloat, doing what I wanted to do. Maybe so could he. As we talked it became clear he was game. I said here's an idea, why don't you see what you can do to trim some of the fat off
Ladies' Night
, whip it into shape and make it salable. We'll split the credit and the money fifty-fifty.

He spent months on the book, adding here, subtracting there, mostly subtracting — again to no avail. He did a partial rewrite of about the first quarter of the book and by the time he was finished I thought it was a wholly viable new take on it so we attached a far less gargantuan outline and Alice Martell, my agent by then, sent it out again.

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