There's a huge difference between Off Season and Hide and Seek. The former is a brutal, shocking, irredeemable affair; Hide and Seek is more a Southern Gothic story (despite being set in Maine), complete with the losers and the troublemakers, the grotesque and the damaged, the self-destruction, and the poignant observations on life and age. It's remarkable to see how Ketchum could tell two such divergent stories, especially when you consider how these were his first two published books.
The story is told as one character, Dan, reminiscing on a woman, Casey, he knew when he was in his early twenties. It's clear from the beginning that he has regrets over the relationship he had with her, and it gives him an opportunity to reflect on who he was then, who he is now, and take an honest look at himself at that time. There's nothing about the way he tells the story that makes him out to be an unreliable narrator; the honesty with which he tells the story tells us otherwise.
The story is about that relationship, and since the book is about people, its success hinges on how well Ketchum creates the characters. I found that to be what Off Season lacked the most, but in Hide and Seek, Ketchum gives Dan and Casey complexities to make them understandable, and interesting. The first half of the book tells us about them, and establishes what makes them tick, and the second half of the book is seeing the culmination of that relationship in a game of hide and seek gone awry. And Ketchum does an outstanding job of capturing how creepy that game is. It was one of those stories where if someone had tapped me on the shoulder as I was reading, I would have leapt out of my skin.
Ketchum also has a lean style, somewhat reminiscent of Joe Lansdale, and it keeps the story humming along. It's also descriptive, without a lot of telling. He describes behavior that reveals what a character is thinking, instead of just telling us what they think. Given that the story is written in the first person, it's a clever way for Ketchum to get into the other characters' heads without breaking the confines of his narrative.
I've read other reviews that note their disappointment in the novel, partly because of the "reckless, dangerous games" mentioned in the description of the book, and I guess I understand that. It's true that the games in the novel aren't nearly as bad as the description suggests, but I went into this novel only knowing that it was the next book in Ketchum's bibliography. After the disappointment of Off Season, I wasn't expecting much, and the story impressed me. Ketchum attempts to give the story a sense of horror, but to me it felt tacked on; I felt like the real story here was the one about Dan and Casey, and how it affected Dan.
As much as I disliked Off Season, I enjoyed Hide and Seek. And as much as people praise The Girl Next Door, I can't wait until I see how Ketchum tells that story.