Saturday, November 15, 2008

You're Killin' Me, Mr. Koontz

Warning: major spoilers for Seize the Night and The Taking.

Just like some people prefer Coke over Pepsi, and vice versa, I've always favored Dean Koontz over Stephen King when it comes to fun blockbuster reading. When reading a Koontz novel, one never knows where the man's crazy imagination is going to take them. Like H.P. Lovecraft before him, Koontz has a real gift for invoking the weird that masterfully combines science fiction, spirituality, thrill, horror, and mystery.

But alas, Koontz is also very annoying. No, really. For instance, his penchant for preaching, which often results in saccharine prose better suited for a Hallmark card or one of those "Chicken Soup for the Publisher's Bank Account" volumes. From the Corner of His Eye was a particularly egregious example of this:
Not one day in anyone's life, her father taught, is an uneventful day, no day without profound meaning, no matter how dull and boring it might seem, no matter whether you are a seamstress or a queen, a shoeshine boy or a movie star, a renowned philosopher or Down's syndrome child. Because in every day of your life, there are opportunities to perform little kindness for others, both by conscious acts of will and unconscious example. Each smallest act of kindness – even just words of hope when they are needed, the remembrance of a birthday, a compliment that engenders a smile – reverberates across great distances and spans of time, affecting lives unknown to the one whose generous spirit was the source of this good echo, because kindness is passed on and grows each time it's passed, until a simple courtesy becomes an act of selfless courage years later and far away. Likewise, each small meanness, each thoughtless expression of hatred, each envious and bitter act, regardless of how petty, can inspire others, and is therefore the seed that ultimately produces evil fruit, poisoning people whom you have never met and never will. All human lives are so profoundly and intricately intertwined. . . [ad infinitum] . . . we must build something new and better in the ashes, just as from pain and grief we must weave hope . . . [and it goes on]
Okay, call me a "bah humbug," but when you add the most angelic set of heroes (with names like Seraphim, Celestina, Grace, and Angel to boot!) ever seen since the Victorians produced schmaltz like Ten Nights in a Barroom, the moralizing just coalesces into some grossly syrupy sludge.

Also irritating at times are the "Koontz clich├ęs": the amazing dog, the precocious and insightful yet innocent child, a tough female lead with a tragic past of the type often seen in Lifetime movies, and a black-and-white cast of irredeemable villains and flawlessly virtuous heroes. It wouldn't surprise me at all if, one day, someone somewhere built a "Dean Koontz story generator," like this one for Hemingway.

So now you're doubtlessly wondering why I'm being so harsh on an author I said I liked. While his earliest stuff – i.e. The Funhouse and Night Chills - is basically pulp, the works from his middle period include some of my favorite books! Phantoms I've read multiple times, while Midnight, The Face, Winter Moon, and Seize the Night (which gave me hope that Dean was over his sentimental phase) are real, suspenseful, and multilayered tour-de-forces. Dean, listen to me: please get down from the righteous soapbox. I mean, you're an amazing writer when you stick to the story and thrill us with the supernatural and the surreal! Granted, you've never been particularly good at composing realistically nuanced characters – that is, characters who are not either eternally good or incorrigibly evil – but no one's perfect.

(But really, Dean, your good guys in From the Corner of His Eye were so freakin' godlike in their perfection, I ended up rooting for the bad guy. And he was a rapist. When your protagonists are so nauseating that a female reader is on the rapist's side, most people would consider that a wake-up call.)

Now The Taking, a relatively recent Koontz offering, is quite interesting in that it somehow manages to embody both the good and the bad sides of Koontz. On the one hand, it's suspenseful, frightening, and wholly unpredictable. While alien invasion has occupied a huge portion of the cultural imagination for decades, I found Koontz's interpretation strikingly unique. Rather than focusing on sci-fi action (space ships! ray guns! explosions! bug-eyed monsters! SQUEEE!), Koontz focuses instead on the deeply human elements of hope and longing in the face of annihilation:
They could find no news, no meaningful information [on TV].

A handful of channels continued to broadcast signals, sharp pictures, surprisingly pristine sound. . .

For a minute, they watched an old episode of Seinfeld. An audience, real or virtual, laughed and laughed.

. . . On another channel, in the black-and-white Casablanca night, Bogart said good-bye to Ingrid Bergman as total war descended on the world.

Neil knew the dialogue so well that he could recite it word for word. His lips moved to match those of the actors, though he made no sound.

He switched channels. Here, Cary Grant, with exquisite comic timing, grew increasingly flustered in the face of Katherine Hepburn's nonstop screwball patter.

And here, Jimmy Stewart wisecracked with an invisible, six-foot-tall rabbit.

At first Molly didn't understand why Neil watched these old films with such shining-eyed intensity. . . Soon she realized that he expected never to have the opportunity to enjoy these movies again, or any other, if all of Earth fell under the rule of an alien people clutching their new gods.

Yeah, there's some silliness involving zombies and giant man-eating spiders, but overall this is a truly wonderful book.

And yet. . .

And yet, as anyone who's read even one recent Koontz novel knows, the man never misses the opportunity to impart a moral lesson, which leads to such a ginormous plot hole it's a wonder that not even any of the Amazon one-star reviewers seem to have noticed it. The overarching theme of the story is the sad state of contemporary culture, a topic that Molly and Neil frequently meditate on as they journey through their hellishly transformed hometown. The book ends with Molly's revelation of the true nature of the invaders: that they may have, in fact, been the legions of Hell unleashed upon Earth to punish mankind for its sins. Of course, she, her husband, and the children they rescued have all been spared, while the vast majority of the adults in the world were brutally murdered, mutilated, or otherwise condemned to some grotesque punishment. Those who survived are, like Neil and Molly, Absolutely Wonderful Human Beings. Yet those killed weren't all bad people: some were Molly and Neil's friends who wanted to make a brave stand against the enemy.

So . . . how do we cure the world of moral sickness? I mean, there are so many people out there lacking in angelicness! What to do, what to do!

* drum roll *


Am I missing something here? I can't help but to wonder how well Koontz thought this out, or, if he did, what this apparent duplicity says about the guy. We're talking about a serious moralizer deeply concerned about the contemporary state of social decay writing a book about humanity being essentially purged. But I liked the book. What does that say about me?

*sigh* Dean, you give me a headache, I swear.


On a lighter note: anyone who has also read Seize the Night will note that these pseudoscientific ideas of Hell as an alternate universe and the afterlife as a shift from one parallel world to another aren't exactly new territory for Koontz. (Not surprising, since, again, he DOES have the tendency to recycle characters and themes.) Anyone else think the demonic invaders of The Taking might have come from that otherworld of red sky and black trees encountered by Christopher Snow & Co.? I'm thinking maybe Koontz should combine the two for the long-awaited Ride the Storm he's been working on since 2003. Just a thought.


Mo from Unmainstream Mom Reads said...

I cannot believe I never picked up on all the moralizing and religious overtones! I guess I was too busy hating super dogs, metaphors, and $5

The Koontz cliches were awesome, and totally true! This was a wonderful post :)

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