‘Ashley Bell,’ by Dean Koontz

A relaxing massage, and then chardonnay and a silly-fun session of divination, and the next thing you know, you’ve attracted the attention of an incarnation of Hitler, and you’ve invited occult forces into your life, and you’ve been spared from cancer only so that some lunatic can stab you to death with a thousand pencils.

One of the joys of being a Dean Koontz fan is the many surprises he offers. Not for him the comfortable formulas that endear us to other authors (often providing considerable legitimate pleasures). Koontz keeps trying new things. With the exception of a very few series books, such as the Odd Thomas adventures, Koontz keeps tricking us – except that you can almost count on some kind of supernatural dog somewhere in his recent works.

The heroine of Ashley Bell is not the titular character, but a young California woman named Bibi Blair. Beautiful, a superior surfer, engaged to a military hero, her career goal is to be a famous author, and she’s made fair progress in that direction.

And then one day her arm starts feeling funny, and the doctor informs her she has a rare brain cancer. Inoperable and 100% fatal.

Bibi is a fighter. She refuses to give up. She announces that she will fight this thing and win.

That very night, she has a vision, and is healed.

The next day, to celebrate, her hippie parents give her the gift of a massage and a psychic reading. The psychic tells her her life has been spared for a reason. The reason, she divines, is to save the life of a young girl. The girl’s name is Ashley Bell.

Bibi takes the message seriously. She sets out to find Ashley Bell, and finds herself the target of a sinister cult devoted to human sacrifice.

The story starts strange, and gets stranger and stranger. Then, around the half-way point, Koontz blindsides the reader, and it becomes a very different kind of story. I won’t spoil the twist for you, but it’s pretty neat.

I’m not sure that the ending of Ashley Bell is quite worthy of the skillful storytelling that kept me riveted up to that point. But I’m not sure it’s not, either.

I do know it was like no other book I’ve read, and I wouldn’t have missed it.

Highly recommended. Mild cautions for adult themes.

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