Midnight by Dean Koontz

Rating 5.8/10
A midnight feast comes with too much sugar

Despite my dislike of the taste of cloying sugariness which Koontz’ Odd Thomas had previously given me, on Mrs. Dark's recommendations last year I tried, and subsequently greatly enjoyed Phantoms. So, as I began Midnight, my expectations were for the most part positive. Sure enough, as the book opens I wasn't disappointed, since nothing makes for a more gripping start to a horror story than a good old grizzly death at the hands of mysterious monsters, and this is just how Midnight begins, with late night jogger Janice Capshaw being stalked and then finally brought down and killed by unseen creatures on a foggy night by the sea.

This sets up both the initial plot that draws us into the novel, and much of its tone, since like Phantoms Midnight takes place in a small town, Moonlight Cove, where something is seriously wrong, also like Phantoms some of the book's protagonists are newcomers to Moonlight Cove who gradually learn what has been happening and slowly realize that they've walked into a situation of deepening horror.

The way Koontz handles the pacing, style and immediate action in the book is undoubtedly masterful.

He shows an amazing ability to write with immediate and descriptive flare, with a particular emphasis on the feelings of isolation and increasing dread, and that sense that something is not right or that the silence tells you you’re not alone. In particular, one thing I greatly admire is Koontz ability to structure his story in such a way that he never leaves off the tension. Chapters tend to be short, and Koontz has a decidedly cinematic air in the way he cuts to a different scene just when you think your going to receive a revelation or when a character is in danger, then suddenly skipping elsewhere and only when you are invested in the "elsewhere" returning to the first scene. Indeed, some of his later chapters when the book's action has increased and multiple characters are in life or death situations would almost read like camera changes in a film were it not for Koontz descriptive skill and his ability to drop us right in the middle of a character's scary experience in all senses.

Unlike in Phantoms, Koontz handles six major characters throughout the book and paces revelations and interweaving plots fairly well. Sam Booker, a world weary FBI agent and Tessa Lockland, a bubbly documentary filmmaker and sister to Janice Capshaw have both come to Midnight Cove to investigate mysterious deaths, in Tessa's case that of her sister Janice. How Sam and Tessa slowly uncover more revelations, go from disquieting signs such as Sam's observing diners unnaturally piggish eating at a restaurant, and Tessa's belief that she's being stalked, a belief first derided as female hysteria by a pompous hotel clerk and then confirmed in a truly nightmarish way are both superlative pieces of setting, each moving at just the right speed and with the correct amount of revelation intermixed with atmospheric fear.

Another aspect which adds to the pacing and general texture of the first part of the book is the story of eleven year old Chrissie Foster, which contrasts the edgy tension of the other character perspectives with immediate shock and danger. After seeing her parents in the middle of a horrifying transformation, Chrissie is forced to run for her life across the night time landscape, pursued by howling monsters and unsure whom to trust since a large part of the town's population are under the sway of Thomas Shaddack, a brilliant scientist attempting to rid the people of Midnight Cove of emotions and create a new master race.

Though I initially wondered if Shaddack's early introduction and his troubled relationship with Lowman Watkins, the town's former police chief revealed a little too much truth rather early on, I will say this was an area where Koontz exceeded my expectations, particularly since as we see more short flashes of the people of Moonlight Cove and the effects Shaddack's plans for them are having, it becomes clear that even Shaddack isn't aware of all the ramifications of what he's doing.

My only minor issue in terms of the book's general structure is that though the plot in Midnight is themed around science, the ways the science actually causes what it does are very thinly explained, Koontz for example frequently talks about "biological chemicals" without any specificity and even has what is tantamount to magic underpinning part of the explanation. Not that I mind magic so long as it is consistent with the world the author is creating, however in the world of Thomas Shaddack, a world which Koontz emphasises is one of cold logic and emotionless scientific progress, the idea of the more fantastical elements does not seem to fit, or at least it doesn't get enough explanation to convince me that it should.

That being said, I can see why Koontz did delve into the fantastical, since undoubtedly some of the directions in which he takes the people of Midnight Cove are truly grotesque, and make for some absolutely spine tingling scenes, after all, every good monster horror needs some good monsters, and this is one area Koontz certainly does not disappoint, especially when it comes to ordinary people's sudden transformations.

Unfortunately, the major problem with Midnight and the reason why it didn't earn a higher rating from me is the characters.

Sam Booker is an FBI agent who has become cynical after his wife's death, can't think of more than four reasons for living, and has a bad relationship with his nihilistic, heavy metal loving son. We learn all of this because Koontz tells us in the narration, explaining at length how Sam lost love of life, an explanation which Sam repeats in almost the same tone and words when he meets the ever optimistic Tessa. Similarly, Tessa is a documentary filmmaker who can't have children and has "reached out to embrace the world as her family through her films", again, facts we are told in the forced, unsubtle tones of a character in a self help pamphlet, tones which aren't improved when Tessa and Sam directly contrast their views, or rather when Sam explains painfully to Tessa how terrible his cynicism is and Tessa rebuffs him with a host of optimism and platitudes about living with hope, taking responsibility and the general unspecific niceness of life.

While the banter between Sam and Tessa when not discussing their life problems is pleasant enough, for it to immediately march into a life affirming sermon, which it increasingly does as the book progresses, and then this sermon turn into Tessa's instant desire to make love to Sam (something again which we know she has since she tells us that she desires to make love to Sam), is so abrupt as to be actively jarring.

Sam and Tessa aren't even the worst exponents of platitudes in the book, that position belongs to the sixth major character, disabled, wheelchair bound Harry Talbert, a war veteran who lives alone and has been observing Midnight Cove through his telescope.

Even if we leave aside Harry's questionable spying on people (an issue Koontz plainly recognizes since Harry himself justifies his observation repeatedly), the fact that the narrator and virtually every character is telling us how inspiring Harry is, how he isn't able to participate in his community but maintains a love of life, how he loves people from afar (through his spying), and in general how we should all admire him for being disabled is just plain nauseating. This is quite aside from the completely independent problem that frequently Harry (often in the same sentence), is described both by narrative voice and by other characters as "a cripple" or "not a whole man" yet equally "not a second class citizen" an irony which plainly escaped Koontz.

Where Koontz however does succeed in creating likeable characters is when he refrains from telling us he's creating likeable characters and simply rights. This is true both of the precocious Chrissie, who often thinks in headlines and plans her life as though she's the heroine of a novel by Andre Norton, though I do wish Koontz, had explained which Andre Norton novel he was thinking of). Also I liked Harry's relationship with his black labrador service dog Moose, who in some ways Koontz writes as a far more well rounded character than most of the human cast, being one of the few authors to give a dog a real personality and even a sense of humour.

Another character who Koontz does well with is Loman Watkins, since unlike with the other cast members Watkins has a very real set of character motivations and internal conflicts to deal with directly caused by the circumstances of the plot. While again both Koontz explanation of Watkins’s various motivations and Watkins' own description of himself are far too blunt to really have the insidious character change of a true possession, at the same time having the main underling to the mad scientist be someone who's final destiny was uncertain and who I genuinely couldn't predict was a nice touch.

The mad scientist himself was unfortunately far too over the top to be believable, despite exploring some of his back-story, particularly because he became increasingly more psychotic and less effective a villain as the story progressed. Indeed as the characters met up and the story rolled around to its conclusion sadly Midnight seemed to lose momentum, mostly due to its focus on characters.

Where Chrissie's story while alone was a genuinely compelling tale of a bright and likeable child pitted against a hostile world, as soon as she meets up with the rest of the cast she instantly devolves into someone who exists to be protected and mothered and loses most of her potential for impacting upon the plot. If it weren't for the first half in which Chrissie is shown to be ingenious and resourceful while alone I would almost have pegged Koontz as suffering gender stereotypes given that Tessa's roll in the plot is to firstly be afraid, secondly meet Sam where she cooks breakfast and gives life affirming speeches before randomly falling in love with him, then act the damsel threatened by Thomas Shaddack who has at this point devolved into a less than effective gun toting psychopath. For all Shaddack's supposed intelligence and the time Koontz takes explaining his world view, which again is unfortunately coloured by so much over the top eeeeevil that I just plain could not take him seriously, Shaddack unfortunately is less than threatening in person.

While I was not unsatisfied with the conclusion to the book's action, especially one particularly chilling subplot which harked back to Phantoms, the final emotional end of the book felt wrong in the extreme. The boorish reconciliation between Sam and his son makes Sam seem rather petty and has the over emphatic moralizing of a TV relationship councillor's final thought, particularly since Koontz plainly believes that heavy metal is if not actually evil in itself, only something which emotionally stunted people would listen to as a reinforcement to negative worldviews, quite a contrast to some of my own metal loving friends.

My lady feels somewhat abashed that she recommended Midnight, but in truth the book has a lot of good points. The interweaving plots, the ramping tension, and above all the superlative atmosphere and action; plus some good old fashioned scary monsters. Even in terms of character, when not telling us what to feel or expounding his own views, Koontz can right engaging and even lovable characters, especially Chrissie and Moose.

The problem is where any author will have their own views about the world and about people, views which will colour their work, such as Rowling's ideal of a loving family or Horwood's love of nature, in Midnight it felt as if Koontz simply expressed his views without paying attention to the needs of the narrative voice or character motivation. Despite Chrissie's story generally containing the least amount of moralizing, I was still disheartened when she took a moment to praise the Catholic Latin mass and decry the church for abandoning it, a sermon which is almost word for word analogous to some of Koontz own remarks I read on the subject.

The feeling that I was reading a fairly heavy handed statement of Koontz own morality rather than a novel is typified by Thomas Shaddack's very much conscious rejection of love and family, Sam's supposed cynicism, and Loman Watkins' impassioned speech about responsibility, a theme which Koontz attempts to flow over into his novel's action, but which again has the allegorical subtlety of a brick.

There are undoubtedly those who enjoy this sacrifice of character in favour of inspirational speeches and simple morality tales, (Hollywood regularly trades on such). For myself however, I prefer seeing real people in bad situations, and if I am inspired, it is seeing flawed human beings triumph over darkness, rather than, as was increasingly the feeling in Midnight, good guys who embody the author's attempt at moral lessons triumph simply because they were the good guys.

Despite this pretty major problem however, I probably will return to Koontz in the future, since if I can stomach the extremely large spoon full of sugar, the medicine will be most effective for my chills.

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