Tonight, another episode in my ongoing engagement with the works of Dean Koontz. Not a review, exactly, but an appreciation and evaluation.
I’m going through Koontz alphabetically, picking up his books left to right across the bookstore shelf. This results in some odd juxtapositions, such as when I read Night Chills (published 1976) immediately followed by One Door Away From Heaven (published 2001). Having made it more than half way through the corpus, I think I can say that those two books represent something like the full range of Koontz’ work—from the creppiest early stuff to the most sublime of the recent.
Night Chills is barely recognizable as a Koontz book, in the sense I’ve come to know them. It’s a pretty standard thriller with a cutting-edge (for the time) scientific premise. But the way Koontz handles the material seems to reveal an immature artist, unsure of himself and trying to emulate established writers.
Which is probably why there’s so much sex in the book, and why it’s so (relatively) explicit, and… frankly, creepy.
The premise is Subliminal Mind Control (which was thought to be real science at the time. More recently it’s been generally debunked, and its chief proponent has admitted to fraud). The main villain is an evil scientist who’s also a shy social misfit with deep, repressed anger toward women. You can imagine what such a man might do when endowed with the power to program women’s minds, and that’s just what he does—right in front of the reader’s eyes, and at great length.
Also a character dies who probably would have been saved in a later Koontz book. Not that an author shouldn’t surprise us now and then, but along with all the kinky sex, it just made the book overwhelmingly nasty.
Another of the villains, by the way, is the perfect standardized, Central Casting born-again Christian hypocrite that you can find in almost any Hollywood movie (Koontz was pretty hard on born-agains in some of his early books). This makes me wonder if Koontz didn’t have the movie market in mind when he wrote the book.
Well, enough of that disappointment. We move on to One Door Away From Heaven, which is an entirely different matter.
In recent years Koontz has found his voice in sweet-souled thrillers, often with Science Fiction or Fantasy plots, that make deft use of comedy to bring an extra measure of sympathy and humanity to his good characters (which, any author will tell you, are the hardest kind of characters to write). One Door is a masterpiece of that form, a book I loved from start to finish.
It’s about assisted suicide and the value of human life (I don’t think that qualifies as a spoiler. There are plenty of other surprises). Koontz illustrates this theme (brilliantly, I think), by marshalling a cast of characters who are both badly damaged and deeply sympathetic.
There’s Micky Birdsong, the beautiful, alcoholic ex-convict who’s not doing well at rebuilding her life. She’s living with her Aunt Gen (a sweetly daffy woman who suffers from mild brain damage due to a gunshot wound) when she suddenly meets Leilani Klonk, a beautiful little girl crippled by birth defects. Leilani is the daughter of an unreconstructed hippie woman rendered psychotic by constant drug use and electroshock. Her stepfather is a world-famous advocate of euthanasia. He has already killed Leilani’s older brother, and she has good reason to believe he’ll “cure” her soon, too. Neverthless she’s brave and resilient.
There’s Noah Farrell, a low-rent but ethical private detective who works and goes on living solely in order to pay for his comatose sister’s care.
And there’s Curtis, a boy on the run from the enemies who murdered his mother. Curtis has trouble socializing with others, for surprising reasons that Koontz gradually and deftly reveals.
This book is sheer joy. More than an entertainment and a cautionary tale, it’s actually a parable. Very highly recommended.
A favorite line:
Besides, her budget was so tight that if she plucked it, the resulting note would be heard only by dogs.
(If you find Night Chills anywhere, step away carefully, making no sudden moves.)