Book Review: The Passenger
The Passenger by Jack Ketchum is most assuredly a horror book but it is that rare type of horror rooted entirely in reality with only a very brief swing into the bizarre in one odd scene. It was probably marketed as a crime story or a thriller and it probably deserves both of those titles too. But that is the problem with horror, it is all about perspective. A great many books sold off of the horror shelves are really urban fantasy or magical realism, where the supernatural exists and interacting with it is relatively harmless. If a story is not frightening then it can't really be called horror but what frightens people is almost entirely subjective. Deep in our psyches we all have specific triggers just waiting to be set off by just the right scene, just the right monster or just the right description. Repeated exposure numbs them and I have honestly given up on trying to second guess my own. Most horror that is based in reality falls flat. You have to be able to climb inside your character's heads and drag the reader in with you if you aren't introducing something from outside their everyday experience.
The Passenger drags you into the story and layers tension on tension from the very first moment. There is a profound sense of vulnerability in Helen's story from the moment that her car breaks down and even hints of it before. Once the criminals enter the picture it is inevitable what is going to happen to her, they are introduced to the reader in the midst of an attempted rape. They are redirected temporarily by the overexcited antics of their fan-girl Marion but even as Helen works frantically to find a psychological angle to work the inevitable rape happens to her. It is portrayed with no trace of romance and while you could say that Ketchum cuts away in the interest of good taste it is in more accurate to say that it is to represent her immediate disassociation from what is happening to her.
Even for people that are comfortable reading depictions of rape the agonisingly close perspective in this story might give you pause and if Helen was not already beginning to detach from reality I would call her ability to not only survive but to continue pressing her own agenda afterwards ridiculous.
After that moment enthusiasts of horror might have expected the usual rape-revenge exploitation plot to unfold, with Helen gaining the upper hand and meting out bloody vengeance on her kidnappers but for all of the horrific things that she has witnessed and been subjected to, this is not in her character. She is not an action heroine, ready to beat hardened criminals at their own game. Within that arena she is well aware of their superiority but Helen is a lawyer, and when that is combined with a Chekhov's gun set up in the first scene of the book she is able to manipulate events so that she walks away alive, if not unscathed, and her tormentors do not.
My only complaint about the story is the weird little satanic cult that gets tacked on at the end completely unnecessarily. It added nothing to the story and broke immersion. Beyond that The Passenger encourages me to read much more of Ketchum's work because I rank the writing very highly indeed.