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D E A N K O O N T Z
selected works from 1980 to 1991
This started out as a retrospective sliced out of Koontz's work from the Golden Age of Modern Horror. Unfortunately, time diced me into more pressing areas of interest and this roundup of 9 novels was left on the cutting board, half completed. My notions concerning Koontz have moved on, but, instead of abandoning this work-in-unprogress, I've decided to pike it to an unfinished post with apologies.
So here it is Sailor Baby(1 ), but don' expect no navigation.
And, I'll tell ya right now, I'm not gonna say anything new or original about Dean Koontz. I have a major dubiety ache over him. With one hand, I can't stop turning pages, and, just when I think he's the most creative, fertile best-seller fantasist around, my other hand points to some of the most God-awful prose going. I mean, his sentimentality is stomach-roiling, yet he can double-time your heart with terror and suspense. He unapologetically tosses out info dumps with glee, along with political and social opinionated sidebars, but an ensemble of characters can be paced as beautifully as throughbreds racing Santa Anita. He's so phenomenally verbose I wonder if the word draft is even in his vocabulary, and he's so prolific no literary critic could view him seriously. Yet there's depth, consideration, and wisdom weaving through his writing. Back in the ‘80s when I first read Koontz, I thought he was feverishly innovative for mixing genres into a smash hit format. Now, with a more mature view, I see the historic and formulaic ties to other authors and past constructions. This is not a criticism but a declaration of worthwhile intent, as most admired creativity is the recognition of original form naturally sampled by the best writers. It's always in the mix, baby, and Koontz can crookwalk you down more twisty avenues than anyone. Unfortunately, he can't shake the flashpot of best-seller, fireworked prose, nor can he seem to stop writing when he needs to. With close to 100 novels of wildly-undulating consistency collecting royalties, this palsies him to the discerning eye. Hell, even Dumas had less than 50, Dickens less than 25. Admittedly, he's keeping pace with King, who is also losing more and more discriminatory readers—hell, we're starting to die off—but Dean's limelight seems to be blurring and losing intensity.
Which is not necessarily a bad thing . . . for the preserved works, the legacy, I mean . . .
I started with Whispers, his 1980 breakthrough work. I elected not to read his pen-named stuff because I assumed—without any sustainable facts or rational opinions, by the way—it to be second tier work. That, in retrospect, is another project entirely. 1983's Darkness Comes was passed by, mainly because I wasn't attracted to the notion of throwing a Crime genre work into his signature mix of Horror, SciFi, and Suspense romances. Although, by the time I got to The Bad Place, which features married detectives as protagonists, I didn't care. So, I stuck with the sales-supported peaks—sacrificing Lightening and Oddkins of 1988 just because the synopsis didn't appeal—and read:
The Bad Place, 1989
Cold Fire, 1991
Hideaway from 1991 finally broke through my mesmerization with its white-water rapids and rabid opening followed by the snailcrawl through a fact- and character-gathering ebbtide that capsized any further voyaging.
Whispers bludgeons its way into the serial killer genre with typical Koontz bravado. With more sand than cement in its build, he strings a story of madness, obsession, and extreme cruelty balanced in the cat's cradle of a love attraction between two extricated characters. Successful Hollywood screenwriter Hilary Thomas manages to beat back a rapist who escapes, but she's held in suspect by the police when her attacker proves to be 400 miles away at the time. On the second attack, however, she nails him, and the page-turning snare is set. She falls for the investigative detective and picks up a crusty-but-benign attorney along this trail of puzzlements and incongruities. Bruno Frye, the wretched villain, is a full-bore poster boy for what happens when you don't go gay from an uber-dominant and torturous mother-monster.
Outlandish to the brink of credibility, the novel is seriously creepy fluff. There are many arresting images, not to be outdone by the source of Bruno's whispers themselves: as a child, he was locked in a room with “hundreds upon hundreds of huge roaches swarming in the room . . . their shiny green-brown carapaces appeared to be sticky and wet, like blobs of dark mucus . . . [and] the whispering was the sound of their ceaseless movement” (Literary Express Inc., Dean Koontz Signature Series, ISBN 1581650698, c. 1980, p.445).
Along the way, more “whispers” abound, not as false leads but as shudderings “so far beyond our understanding that the danger is incalculable” (p.264). One of the more interesting ones is Koontz's rant on Los Angeles as earthquake country, where he draws credence that Southern California's notorious outlandishness—you know, sex, drugs, & rock ‘n' roll as sold by Hollywood's celeb cult and craze addicts—is in part a reaction to the ever-present pressure of impending catastrophe.
It's kind of a long stretch, but Phantoms is what comes out of those ragged fissures that suddenly disrupt the Earth. And, yeah, knowing the Ancient Enemy is hibernating below your feet is plenty ‘nuff to party down on a mix of Romilar and Red Mountain wine.
Jenny Paige certainly brings her younger sister Lisa to her ski resort hometown in the Sierra to have a little fun, but finding the mutilated body of housekeeper Hilda pretty much seriously bums their crunk(2). Touring the town, they find more bodies and “a flawless silence” (G.P. Putnam's Sons, ISBN 0399126554, c.1983, p.42) that indicates all 350 residents are eating dirt as well. Contacting the neighboring town's police results in a quarantine and some sorely-inadequate assistance. There's more discovered facedowns, more plaguing anomalies, and, finally, contact, fraying, enlightenment, and vanquishment.
Phantoms is a nail-biter, for sure. The problem is that the perpetrating monster is far more interesting than any of the characters. Being so non-human as to be unknowable, Koontz remains detached, disallowing his readers to personalize this creature's core. There's precedence in Lovecraft's Shoggoths from At the Mountains of Madness of 1931, where Howie describes them as “terrible, indescribable things vaster than any subway train – a shapeless congeries of protoplasmic bubbles, faintly self-luminous, and with myriads of temporary eyes forming and un-forming as pustules of greenish light.” They're amorphous and amoebic shapeshifters, gorging on protoplasm for sustenance and absorbing its victims' mind and memories to mimic recognizable “phantoms” as decoys, leading to more chewfests. The effect is cumulative: as it absorbs more humans, it gains more of their power, their tricks, and knowledge, making it even more cunning, cruel and vicious—and very difficult to overcome. However, it also assimilates human weaknesses like pride and arrogance, which ultimately destroys it. This allows Koontz to leave the novel with sum good ol', knee-thumpin' moralizing:
Twilight Eyes was botched the moment it hit the public's sweaty palms, since its original incarnation in hardcover—from Land of Enchantment Publishing in 1985—was only one-half of the story, as proven when the full novel appeared in a cheap paperback version in 1987. It is a first-person narrative from a drifting teener named Slim MacKenzie as he joins a carnival to whack goblins and hide from the law. Really, is there any other reason to join the carnival except to whack goblins and hide from the law?
So, by page 7, Slim whacks his first carnie goblin.
Now goblins are “dog-pig things” (Berkley Books PB, ISBN 0425100650, 31st printing, c.1987, p.14) that masquerade as humans, yet they are “an evil far more ancient than the human race . . . so malignant that it could have withered a man the way the gaze of the Medusa turned the most courageous warriors to stone” (p.15). I don't know what they are. I don't know what they want. I only know they're a little too juvenile to sit on my headboard.
By page 52, he has encountered “on a stool beside the teddy bears, the most beautiful girl I had ever seen”. He compares her to Veronica Lake. There is no reason to think this is the 1940s. Or that young Slim is a closet film buff.
Soon after, I quit the book. I guess the goblins rule the world by now.
Strangers is a far more sophisticated mystery, entertaining its entanglements right up until the end. It was an essential turning point for Koontz: as his first hardcover bestseller—Whispers holds that honor for paperbacks—it gave him the beef to call his own shots with the editors and earn some serious gravy. But, more importantly, he changed his writing approach by deliberately tossing any plot outline and allowing himself to be swept into the “narrative tornado”(3).
Like King's The Stand (1978) or McCammon's Swan Song (1987), this is Koontz' epic, with multiple locations, a hefty character list, numerous time shifts, and myriad thematic content floating through all the eddies and ebbs, asides and sub-plots, clues, herrings, epiphanies, raves, and rants. There's plenty of ancillary sidesteps ruminating on Jewish cooking or the proper weaver's tools, but Koontz's ensemble technique that keeps herding the reader around the country until finally settling into the Tranquility Motel in Nevada, never flatlines into futility or boredom, but fences the action into an ever-tightening corral of perplexity, danger, and gripping anticipation.
Terrifying dilemmas such as sleepwalking, panic attacks, and nyctophobia force the characters toward a solution, as they discover the umbilical connection that ties them to Elko, Nevada. They were all there at the same time and witnessed the same event, although memory is elusive and interpretations differ. Sophisticated brainwashing is suspected. So is a heavy military presence in the area. You might even opt for alien interaction early on in the pageturning, and you'd be partially right. But the difference here between other Koontz terrorfests is that the badguys are not outsiders, but our very establishments. Another interesting dissimilarity is this is a first contact novel without regard for any alien influence except mankind's paranoid self-delusions. Ultimately, though, Strangers doesn't touch down on much new ground. However, it is one hell of a rocket-ride read.
Watchers is everybody's fav Koontz sidewinder; even Dean himself has put this one at the top of the pack. Youbetcha, it's the one with the dog; Einstein, the golden retriever with an IQ higher than last decade's Vice Presidential candidate. Easy targeting aside, this is where I rolled off the desk and onto the critic's room floor. This is actually my second pic for best-of. I love the good-vs-evil, good-animal vs. bad-animal teeter-totter, and run-screaming-for-your-life-then-fight flow of the book. But selfishly, the locations here from Orange County to Big Sur are my old, remembered haunts, and I enjoy Memory Lane as much as the next horrorphobe. Oh yeah, there's bathos here, too, in a Frankenstein sorta way, with a mawkishness only Koontz can get away with:
Well, maybe not.
Midnight is a tired wannabe of Jack Finney's Invasion of the Body Snatchers from 1954 thrown into the grinder and seasoned by Dr. Moreau with modernized zombie clichés. There's psychological probings. There's insightful, helpful moralizing. I don't remember anything pertinent about this book.
Next up, The Bad Place. As mentioned earlier, the main leads are 2 detectives married to each other. This has all the quirkiness, cross-threaded genres of SciFi, Horror and Crime, and solid good-bad characterizations of the best of Koontz. It's tight, well-blocked, atmospheric, chilling, quasi-plausible, stiffly moral, and my favorite read of the bunch.
Then there's Cold Fire. Hmmm. When I originally read this 20 years ago, it was also with a string of previous Koontz novels fresh in my mind. Then, I thought it was Best-Of. Now, I think it's comical in terms of subject handling. The microcosmic theater of psychological thrilldom chaps my intellect. I feel soiled. I feel betrayed. I feel silly and inconsequential.
In conclusion, I imagine lots of people will hold me highly suspect knowing I've managed to read about 8 Koontz novels in a row, most of them for the second time. But the quirky and twistoid playground of Koontz's seemed the place to hide, recharge, bemoan, cry, languish, sulk and ponder while I watched my Mother enter her final days. I've learned nothing much about death from Koontz, but I did learn something about it from my Mother: without hope you are already dead and just going through the jerking. The universe may just be clockworks, biding time and managing space according to the rules and theories of the Scientific Method and modern Physics. Chances are slim I'll discover the metaphysical truth of ultimate reality while I still sport an intact personality. But, screw it, it's just more fun to see your life in terms of wonderments, whether that includes believing in fairies, aliens, Shoggoth, hobbits, werewolves an' vampires an' zombies, or that Buffalo Bill Cody was the consummate American. And, yes, Dorothy, there's afterlife, angels and the élan, demons from Hell, and a place called Handbasket. So stand by your family and friends, trust only the Artist and your own Art, and, as the Youngbloods anthemized too many decades ago: Love Oneanother.