Written by: Matthew J. Barbour
Cover, by Jack Ketchum, is first and foremost a suspense novel. Because of Jack Ketchum’s notoriety for writing Off Season and The Girl Next Door, Cover is often listed within the horror genre. The novel certainly has horror elements, including gore and nonconsensual sex acts, but these items are far less-detailed when compared to other Ketchum works. Cover isn’t about these things, but rather the interaction of the characters building to a head.
The narrative follows a group of campers out for a weekend getaway. While in the woods, they stumble upon a large crop of marijuana and decide to help themselves. Little do they know, the crop is guarded by a mentally unstable Vietnam veteran by the name of Lee Moravian. Lee’s connection with reality has been slipping for some time now, but the theft combined with the sound of gun fire brings his mind ever deeper into the war he fought and the nightmares he witnessed. He is a prisoner to his memories.
Lee decides the intruders must die, but the question is how. They outnumber and outgun him. At the very least, one of the campers shows signs of military training. It will take all of Lee’s considerable skills to see the mission through. They are unaware of his presence, but how long will that last?
While the setup is somewhat predictable, the delivery is anything but typical. Both, the campers and the madman Lee, are fully articulated characters which act in an intelligent manner. Both sides have advantages that the other side is aware of. Lee is not a serial killer hungering for human flesh. He is a former soldier, albeit suffering from PTSD, armed only with a crossbow. The campers are not city slickers with no business being in the outdoors. They are seasoned woodsman, physically fit, and armed with shotguns, hatchets, axes, etc… None of the characters are without faults, but equally none are simply fodder to increase the body count.
The story that follows this setup is a cat and mouse game. As a horror novel, it fails. Lee Moravian is not a monster. He is man who had to bear witness to some pretty atrocious acts. He has fled into the woods to escape reality. Yet, escape is simply not possible. You empathize with the killer, more than you do with his victims. Moreover, the action keeps you guessing. It isn’t at all clear who is going to win or if there can even be a win in this situation.
If you like gritty suspense novels, Cover is a good choice. The narrative is direct and to-the-point. Is it Jack Ketchum’s best? No, but it does deliver decent story from a bit of odd angle.