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Literature / The Girl Next Door

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The Girl Next Door is a horror novel by Jack Ketchum (pen name of author Dallas Mayr), published in 1989. Brutal and disturbing, the plot is loosely based on the case of Sylvia Likens, an Indiana teenager who was tortured and murdered in a basement.

For the past 50 years, David Moran has been haunted by the events of 1958, the year he fell in love with Meg Loughlin. Meg and her sister Susan came to live next door with their strange, reclusive, and unstable aunt Ruth and her three rambunctious sons. Everyone was in love with Meg, with her beauty, her gentleness, her tomboyish sense of fun. But Ruth resented the beautiful young girl under her roof. Slowly she began to turn first her own sons, then the neighborhood children, against Meg.

That summer, Ruth invented a new game. A secret game that could only be played in the basement. A game where Meg was the focus for all their sadistic fun. A game with only one rule: Never tell anyone.


Little David knows that some games should never be played. He knows that someone has to rescue Meg before things go too far.

But as the grim summer goes on, Meg starts to seem less and less human, and David can't bring himself to look away from the horror.

A Film of the Book was made in 2007.

Not to be confused with the 2004 film by the same name.

The film and novel contain examples of:

  • Accomplice by Inaction: David feels progressively more like this.
  • Adaptational Heroism: In the book, Davey is initially more passive and even gets some voyeuristic thrills over Meg's predicament. In the film, he is horrified from the start.
  • Adults Are Useless: The parents send their kids over to Ruth's house with no idea what's going on. When Davey tries to tell his dad or the cops in town, nothing happens.
  • Age Lift: In the novel, Rutherine is said to be 37 years old, yet in the movie, she is much older (in her fifties). Hence, her ugly appearance mirrors her ugly actions.
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  • And I Must Scream: Meg in the second half when she's kept in the basement with a gag.
  • Asshole Victim: Ruth is such an awful, sadistic abuser that her obvious murder is ruled as an accidental death.
  • Audience Surrogate: David in some respects is made to represent the audience for continuing to read the story.
  • Big Bad: Ruth Chandler, a sadistic woman leading her sons in torturing her niece.
  • Bitch in Sheep's Clothing: Aunt Ruth. Despite her maliciousness, she can talk softly to her nieces, while still abusing them, as well as put on a false show of kindness towards Officer Jennings.
  • Bittersweet Ending: Aunt Ruth is dead and her kids are arrested. Yet, after God knows how many days of being tortured and beaten, Meg succumbs to her wounds and dies in front of Susan and David. And Susan is rescued, nevertheless
  • Break the Cutie: Meg, of course, and Susan.
  • Bystander Syndrome: Some of the neighbors knew what was going on with the girls and still did nothing. Truth in Television, unfortunately.
  • Chekhov's Gun: Susan's crutches are used in the climax.
  • Creator Cameo: Ketchum appears as a carnival worker in the film.
  • The Corrupter: Aunt Ruth has a terrible influence on the neighbor boys.
  • Covers Always Lie: The original paperback edition shows a skeleton in a cheerleader's outfit. Needless to say, the cover has nothing to do with the story and has since become (in)famous with collectors both for its blatant inaccuracy and its sheer goofiness.note 
  • Depraved Bisexual: Ruth Chandler has three sons, whose fathers she explicitly mentions having been attracted to at some point, whom she leads in torturing her niece. It's revealed near the end that she's been molesting her other niece.
  • Disabled Means Helpless: Susan can't walk well without her crutches, which (coupled with her age) is why she is unable to help Meg during her abuse.
  • The Dragon: Willie to his mother, Aunt Ruth. Though she doesn't actually seem to like him much.
  • Establishing Character Moment: In the film's prologue, before David recounts his story, he out of all the bystanders saved a homeless man who was hit by a passing car. It shows his compassionate nature, which was founded in his youth when he refused to join in on Ruth's 'games'.
  • Even Bad Men Love Their Mamas: Willie is fanatically and disturbingly loyal to Ruth, who does not like him at all.
  • Evil Gloating: "If I see any slutting going on around here, your ass is grass and Auntie Ruth's the lawnmower."
  • Evil Matriarch: Ruth is a particularly nightmarish example. She tortures her nieces in increasingly cruel ways and her sons take orders from her. She is also quite happy to get other kids to join in on Meg's torture. And she gives them cigarettes and alcohol.
  • Evil Old Folks: Ruth herself in the film.
  • Forced to Watch: The first scene of physical abuse in the story is Meg being held back while Susan is beaten by Ruth. Towards the end of the novel, once the Chandlers finally catch on to David's unwillingness to participate in the torture sessions, Ruth orders her boys to not let David go anywhere while they carve letters into Meg's skin with a needle, and hold him prisoner in the basement after they sexually assault her one last time. Abducting David swiftly comes back to bite Ruth in the ass, though.
  • Foregone Conclusion: It’s based on a true story, so there’s little hope for a happy ending.
  • Fostering for Profit: The arrangement starts this way, but turns bad quickly.
  • Gory Discretion Shot: The most brutal act isn't shown. The narrator says "I’m not going to tell you about this. I refuse to."
  • He Knows Too Much: Aunt Ruth towards David when he finally decides to tell someone about the abuse.
  • Hypocrite:
    • Aunt Ruth denies Willie the chance to rape Meg because Donny had just raped her and Ruth considers it incest. Later on, it is revealed that Aunt Ruth has molested Susan (to the point she made her bleed.
    • Ruth believes all women are harlots, despite having no authority to assess this.
  • I Want My Mommy!: Susan's literal words after Donny rapes Meg in front of her.
  • I Will Punish Your Friend for Your Failure: Donny and Willie storm off to tell Ruth after Meg hits Ralphie (in retaliation for touching her inappropriately), but hearing this, Meg runs off before they even get the chance. So Aunt Ruth beats Susan in her place, and threatens to do so any time Meg attempts to resist the Chandler family's abuse.
  • Jerkass: There's a cluster of them in this case. Aunt Ruth and her kids (Willie, Donnie, and Ralphie). Other neighborhood kids apply here too, especially Willie's friend, Eddie.
  • Kick the Dog: Susan and especially Meg are on the receiving end.
  • Kids Are Cruel: The neighborhood kids torture Meg for fun and treat it as just another game.
  • Let Off by the Detective: Officer Jennings sees David push Ruth down the stairs and break her neck, but writes it off as an accident, as this is about as just an outcome as there's going to be.
  • Naughty Bird Watching: Eddie and Willie try to catch Meg naked by watching her through a window. They only catch glimpses of her.
  • Never My Fault: Anything that happens as a result of Ruth's mistreatment of the girls she blames on Meg and sometimes, to a lesser extent, Susan. For example, she smacks a mug Susan was drinking from out of her hands and then yells at her for messing up the wall.
  • Nostalgia Filter: Aunt Ruth makes a remark that the carnival was more exciting when she was younger.
  • Parental Neglect: Ruth toward her own children. Also, the absent parents whose kids end up at Ruth's house.
  • Police Are Useless: Quite so. Meg even reports Ruth to Officer Jennings after a domestic incident, yet nothing is done about it. Until the end, after it's already too late for Meg. Jennings, David's father and another cop in tow, storms Ruth's house looking for David after he fails to come home the previous night. After David tells him about what she'd been doing to Meg for several months, well... Jennings decides not to arrest him for shoving Ruth down the stairs and rules her death an "accident", while gathering Susan in his arms and removing her from the premises.
  • Rape Discretion Shot: While it's not shown, everyone stands around talking about it, which is more disturbing. Totally averted in the book, though, where David happens to walk in right in the middle of the act.
  • Ripped from the Headlines: The case is a real life story, although the details, names, and setting have changed.
  • Sadist: Ruth, just Ruth. There's no clear reason why she does all that stuff to both Meg and Susan, except in order to amuse herself. She also likes smoking cigarettes as she watches her sons torture and/or rape Meg.
  • Shameful Strip: Aunt Ruth and her three sons play a game with Meg, who's tied up, called "Confess". Meg has to confess how she "plays with herself". After she refuses, the three boys strip her naked.
  • Slut-Shaming: Aunt Ruth burns the words I FUCK. FUCK ME. onto Meg's stomach.
  • Take That!: The book was partially written in response to Ketchum's disgust with Gertrude Baniszewski.
  • The Sociopath: Aunt Ruth shows some traits of high-functioning sociopathy, like an ability for verbal and psychological manipulation, but for most of the time she proves to be a low-functioning sociopath who torments victims too young and weak to defend themselves.
  • The '50s: The book's setting is small-town Jersey. It's a far cry from Leave It to Beaver.
  • Torture Porn: Zig-Zagged. There is plenty of torture. At first, Davey (and by extension the reader) feels a sense of voyeuristic excitement. This is happening, and it's allowed to happen. As the narrative progresses, the violence and feelings of helplessness become increasingly uncomfortable.
  • "Where Are They Now?" Epilogue: As an adult David looks up the fates of the children who helped torture Susan. Many have turned to crime or otherwise reckless lifestyles, with one of Ruth's children becoming a killer of woman as an adult.
  • Wicked Stepmother: Or, in this case, cousin, who's agreed to take Meg and Susan in as a foster parent.
  • Would Hurt a Child: Aunt Ruth isn't afraid to beat ten-year-old handicapped Susan.