Not On My Damn Mountain

or, Jack Ketchum’s Firedance and What the Man was Trying to Tell Us the Whole Damn Time.

The Peaceable Kingdom with the Leopard of Serenity, Edward Hicks

*This is an attempted analysis of Jack Ketchum's "Firedance" and will, as such, spoil the everloving out of it. I suggest you read the story first.*

When it comes to the standout works of Jack Ketchum, people tend to lean toward his novels. The outrageous violence of Off Season jumps to mind immediately for many, as does the heartbreaking brutal realism of The Girl Next Door. Works that paint a worldview of hopeless nihilism in the face of humanity’s violent and destructive tendencies that had a profound effect on the world of literary horror. However, I don’t believe that was what his work as a whole was really about.

Personally, “Firedance,” stands as the key to what the man meant to say in the midst of all these crimson fangs and grime-crusted talons. It’s a short bit, ostensibly about a group of animals taking to acting out those Peaceable Kingdom paintings to the dismay and terror of the hunters in a nearby community. It bluntly lays out a reversal of states, with the animals laying and even dancing around a fire, predator and prey cozying up to one another, while the humans hide in the dark shadows of the forest, terrified and drooling for blood.

It is an important moment, one where “a feeling passed through the crowd that felt like a kind of collective shame or guilt or something, as though the animals had made them smaller somehow, a damn sight less significant”* breeding a palpable sense of resentment. It’s a moment fans of the man know well, a tipping point. “A moment when he knew, just knew it was going to get ugly.”

We’ve seen enough of his work to know as much ourselves. One nervous finger will twitch against a trigger. The first spare drops of blood will spill. Then, the night will erupt in cordite blooms and the beauty of this unspeakable event will be destroyed. Even when it doesn’t occur that night, we are certain that it will on the next. Or the one after that.

When Ray Fogerty raises the double barrels of his shotgun, along with so many others there, it has the feeling of inevitability to it. Frisco, hiding in the shadows alongside them, knows it and we, curled up in the comfort of our well-lit and oh so civilized homes, know it as well. After all, tearing apart the rare wonders of the world for daring to call into doubt our fragile sense of importance is kinda what we do.

Except that we don’t. Not this time. “Not on my damn mountain,” as the man puts it during the introduction to Peaceable Kingdom (the collection in which I first encountered this story).

Instead, the wee Patty Schilling, cruller thief though she is, breaks the line and rushes in to join the dance of fur ‘round the fire. Soon follow the other children and the women. While we don’t see it, there is the implication that it all ends in the peace and joy of the dance, with the gun put aside for the hornpipe. Something that can look like an uncharacteristically optimistic move for someone who generally didn’t traffic in happy endings, nu?

That’s the point, though. I think. It was certainly the point he was making with that collection. It feels like the point he was making the whole time.

While he shone so bright a light on the worst of us, on the horrors we inflict upon each other and ourselves in our fear and insecure sense of self importance, he was aiming at something better. He wanted us to see that, no matter the trappings of civility and civilization we wrap around ourselves, we are no different than those feral, cannibalistic throwbacks feeding off the flesh of our neighbors. A quick run through The Woman makes that clear enough. Or, as Gert put it, “We’re the only animal on earth who takes comfort in the breaking down of things.” But that isn’t all he wanted us to see.

“Firedance” makes it clear that he saw a hope. Not in his own generation or compatriots, those too set in their ruts of comfort and fear and reactionary impulse. But in those children. The same ones we see so often maligned for a push towards pc culture (what Todd Glass rightly calls “being nice”) and an acknowledgement that sticks and stones are not the only things that break us. The ones who are not quite so terrified of this “whole new time, a whole new nature” that they feel the need to burn it down to its component atoms.That they may find an opportunity in this change, a chance to be something better.

Perhaps it is a growing sense of the bitterness of my age settling in, or maybe it is a symptom of the troubles of our specific age, but that is a message I desperately need in my life right now.

*This, along with all other quoted text, is from the 2003 Leisure edition of Peaceable Kingdom, by Jack Ketchum.*