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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.

Everyone, that is, except Ruth. 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 began to play 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.
    • Downplayed, but some of Donny's more heinous deeds, such as raping Meg, from the book are given to Willie in the film.
    • Likewise downplayed, but Eddie, while still sadistic, is not the one to brand "I FUCK / FUCK ME" on Meg's stomach in the film, nor the one to give her a clitoridectomy.
  • Adapted Out: Ralphie growing up to be a misogynistic serial killer is omitted out in the film, and he isn't seen again at the end, implying that he was killed by his mother or his two older half-brothers, especially after his part in tormenting the Loughlin girls.
  • 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, Ruth is said to be 37 years old, yet in the movie, she is much older (past her fifties). Hence, her ugly appearance mirrors her ugly actions.
  • And I Must Scream: Meg in the second half when she's kept in the basement with a gag.
  • Aren't You Going to Ravish Me?: in the novel, when the boys stop playing "The Game", a BDSM sex game with Denise, she complains and tries to get them to start up again. David notes that she insists on always being the victim, merely pretending she's choosing that role out of a burning desire to win (invariably the victim loses).
  • 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.
  • Betrayal by Inaction: David considers himself guilty for having failed to protect Meg and Susan, even though the situation escalated seamlessly from acts that his society would have considered normal to acts so insane that he feared being arrested as an accomplice had he gone to the police.
  • Big Bad: Ruth Chandler, a sadistic woman leading her sons in torturing her niece.
  • Big Damn Heroes: In the film version, Officer Jennings shows up just in time to stop Willie from slitting David's throat (because David beat Aunt Ruth to death on Meg's behalf shortly before that) and promptly arrests Aunt Ruth's sons.
  • Big, Screwed-Up Family: The Chandlers; dysfunctional to a whole level of craziness. Not to mention a family of lower-class lowlives.
  • 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 (although the kids are let off easy, being juveniles). 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, but only after having been sexually abused and emotionally broken. And Ralphie grows up to become a serial killer who burns teenage girls alive.
  • Break the Cutie: Meg, of course, and Susan.
  • Breast Attack: The kids have their own distinctive ways of abusing Meg. In the book it's noted Denise is fond of pinching Meg and ordering her to cry, and that Denise particularly enjoys twisting Meg's nipples, which she saves for last.
  • The Bully: Eddie Crocker, and to a lesser extent his sister Denise; both take out their anger on the other neighborhood kids because of The Chain of Harm from their father.
  • Bullying the Disabled: Aunt Ruth Chandler is not above mistreating and even molesting Meg's polio-afflicted younger sister 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.
  • Creepy-Crawly Torture: Woofer's thing is putting spiders and insects on a restrained Meg's bare skin to make her cringe.
  • Child Hater: Ruth shows signs that she despises children, even her own three sons, who are oblivious.
  • 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 
  • Damsel in Distress: Meg and Susan.
  • Deliberate Values Dissonance: David makes a point of noting that the abuse, before it was too late for the girls to escape, was the sort of thing that was informally tolerated in The '50s culture, though abominable in hindsight - hitting kids, denying them food, preventing them from going outside for misbehavior, verbal abuse, Slut-Shaming. Indeed Meg goes to the police once and is brushed off. David approaches his father once, telling him (as a means of approaching the subject indirectly) that Eddie and his mother are being beaten by Eddie's father, and David's father brushes him off, telling him that while it's technically wrong to hit a woman it may well be justified in context.
  • 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. It turns out that Meg was in the process of escaping at one point and was caught because she had to carry her helpless sister.
  • 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 Makes You Ugly: In the book, Ruth is initially described as being fairly attractive. As her treatment of Meg worsens, so do her looks, as she becomes more and more disheveled. In the film, she’s already ugly.
  • 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.
  • Face–Heel Turn: Donny, previously the closest thing Davey had to a best friend, becomes "a different Donny" in the book after raping Meg.
  • The '50s: The book's setting is small-town Jersey. It's a far cry from Leave It to Beaver.
  • Final Girl: Susan.
  • 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."
  • Hate Sink: Ruth is a woman who has taken her nieces Meg and Susan in after their parents died. Believing that all women are whores until proven otherwise, Ruth starts starving and emotionally abusing Meg, escalating to physical abuse when she fights back. Threatening to turn her wrath on Susan if Meg resists, Ruth has her sons lock Meg in their basement and regularly torture her. As Ruth and her sons convince other neighbourhood kids to join in on the violence, she starts allowing the boys to rape Meg. After David tries to stop Ruth, she has him thrown in the basement so she can kill him later, after which he learns that Ruth has been molesting Susan. David escapes, kills Ruth and alerts the police, but Meg dies of her injuries before paramedics can arrive.
  • 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.
  • It's All My Fault: Susan confides in David that, because Meg unsuccessfully tried to rescue her during her escape attempt, she believes herself to be responsible for Meg getting her nether-regions scorched.
  • 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.
  • Karma Houdini: Even the worst of the kids are only locked in a juvenile facility until they turn 18, after which their records are expunged, despite having actively and eagerly participated in murder and countless acts of sexual assault and torture, and might head down to an early grave due to crime and poverty. In the novel, Ralphie takes advantage of his second chance to burn some teenage girls alive. David feels he is one of these as well, due to his Betrayal by Inaction, and wishes his parents would be more unforgiving of him.
  • 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.
  • Misanthrope Supreme: Ruth hates everyone; men, women, AND children altogether.
  • 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.
  • No Dead Body Poops: Averted when Ruth's neck is broken after Davey pushes her down the stairs.
  • 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.
  • Revenge by Proxy: Aunt Ruth Chandler makes a point of targeting Susan for abuse in retribution for any act of defiance Meg does.
  • 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.
    • Eddie Crocker deserves special mention, living to fight and cause harm on others. Ruth comes to see him as something of a Psycho Supporter towards the end of the novel.
  • Sanity Slippage: Ruth seemed to be in the middle of one before the novel began, before snapping and becoming the ringleader of the torture and murder of 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.
  • Slowly Slipping Into Evil: In the novel, the kids are corrupted gradually as they move from acts that are highly taboo but some flavor of consensual (playing BDSM sex games with Denise as an eager victim) to similar acts with Meg that are nonconsensual but authorized by Ruth, the resident adult authority, to acts so bizarre as to constitute Jumping Off the Slippery Slope, but which are so resonant with the boys' previous behavior it would be hard to condemn (or publically expose) the latter acts without condemning all of them.
  • Slut-Shaming: Aunt Ruth burns the words I FUCK. FUCK ME. onto Meg's stomach. She verbally abuses Meg along these lines throughout Meg's time with her, and uses slut-shaming ideology to justify her behavior, even with the police once she has been arrested.
  • Start of Darkness: In the novel, the kids' descent down the slippery slope of evil actually begins independent of Ruth's prompting, as they play a game they call "Commando" or "The Game". This is a war game in which one kid has to defeat all the others, but is invariably captured, stripped naked, tied up, and abused by the other kids for the rest of the day. The game takes a turn, as David says, when Denise is introduced to it - and she wants to be the victim every time, only pretending to want to be the commando in hopes of defeating all the others. It's when the boys tell Ruth about The Game that Meg's abuse passes the point of no return, as Ruth encourages the boys to play The Game with Meg as punishment for her misbehavior.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • Troubling Unchildlike Behavior: The kids engage in acts of sadism and, in the novel, consensual BDSM they are far too young for, even setting aside the moral implications of their behavior.
  • Villainous Crush: David thinks Donny has a crush on Meg because he sexually abuses her in a relatively gentle manner, even kissing her on the lips when he thinks no one is watching.
  • "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 Ralphie becoming a killer of women 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 and molest ten-year-old handicapped Susan.
    • She also threatens to kill both Meg and David if they dare make any noise (while she goes upstairs to dissuade Officer Jennings from any suspicion when he arrives). Worse yet, she also implicitly stated her intentions to inflict her second Groin Attack on him as she and her sons prevent him from fleeing her house to report what she had done to Meg.