Phantoms by Dean Koontz
When, in a discussion of horror fiction , the soon to be Mrs. Dark recommended Dean Koontz to me, I was frankly sceptical. The first two books I'd read by Koontz I'd found horrifying only in their overwhelming concentration of small town sugary American niceness, with every character a cutesy stereotype of one sort or another (really I was cheering on the bad guys just to cut the treacle).
Phantoms however, she assured me was a long way from cute, rather in the same way that Neptune is a long way from the Sun.
One of the first things I noticed about the book was it's very classic horror structure, one which reminded me strongly of old interactive fiction games. The book begins with Jenny Page, a doctor, and her fourteen year old sister Lisa driving to the small mountain town of Snowfield. On arrival however, they find their house deserted and Jenny's housekeeper mysteriously, and hideously, dead. Slowly, Jenny and Lisa begin investigating, trying nearby houses, walking the streets, seeing friends and neighbours and the truth dawns that something bizarre and terrible has happened to the people of Snowfield.
Shortly after, they contact outside help, which arrives first in the form of Sheriff Bryce Hammond and several of his deputies, and then later in the form of a germ warfare investigation team, and (as anyone might guess) not all of these people are going to leave Snowfield alive. The pacing of the novel from start to finish is perhaps one of its most masterful aspects.
Koontz’ ability to slowly deepen a sense of dread and confusion (particularly coming on the heels of the disquieting opening), drawing more characters in almost one after another, and his very immediate pacing of the book (most of the entire 16 hour’s worth takes place over about three days), is nothing short of brilliant. Unlike in the other Koontz I'd read, the characters are for the most part well thought out and put together, and stop just the right side of likeable or dislikeable without being two dimensional. This makes the truly horrific fates several of them meet all the more surprising, especially because each shock reveals slightly more of what is happening and just how major a threat the force at work in Snowfield actually is.
I also greatly admire the way Koontz teases the reader with snippets of information (some of it not revealed to the characters), but nowhere has the reader waiting for characters to catch up to something that the narrator already told them. Indeed the pacing of the revelations, as well as the advent of deaths is nothing short of exquisite.
Stylistically, Koontz also has the rare ability to make descriptive passages have a certain intense immediacy, exactly capturing the feeling of being alone, or perhaps not, jumping at shadows, speaking too loudly, not knowing what is around the next corner, indeed Koontz ability with description to gauge just how much is enough to give a sense of place without dragging things out too long and dropping the tension level is another contributing factor to Phantoms seeming a far shorter story than it actually is in terms of reading time.
Of course, not everything in the book is perfect. Occasionally, Koontz has a habit of adopting a somewhat pedagogical, almost patronizing style when expressing opinions about say, "types of people", which can sometimes read as a little arrogant and is slightly reminiscent of his later far more stereotyped offerings. Fortunately in Phantoms he holds this to a minimum, and of course it is possible these stylistic aspersions were more due to character perspective than author's opinion (though the fact that when Koontz is for example expressing the perspective of psychotic or murderous characters it is very clear that their thoughts are separate from the narrator inclines me to think Koontz own beliefs might be showing). I have also noticed this tendency to narrative judgement extends to tragedy as well, indeed on several occasions when detailing character back-story Koontz is a trifle too heavy handed in the depictions, effectively saying to the reader "you will like this character because he is a nice person who has been through tragic circumstances" rather than simply presenting characters and letting the reader make up their own mind on whether to like them or not. This tendency to paint the backgrounds and certain aspects of character a little too boldly contrasts markedly with Koontz descriptive or situational horror, indeed the fact that Phantoms is mostly a very immediate story is likely Koontz playing to his own strengths as a writer (a shame he couldn't have managed to do more of this).
I also confess that while for the most part the characters are complex and do have their own history, often the drawing of them was a little too bold. For example, having Bryce and Jenny share instantly heartfelt revelations of their life’s secrets after knowing each other for a very short time, or presenting Lisa, a supposedly fourteen year old girl with the vulnerability, cuteness and feelings of a much younger child.
I was also mildly disappointed that though Koontz had several "good" characters who made mistakes, all of his "bad" characters were unremitting monsters. Now of course an unremitting monster or two isn't a bad thing in a story (especially in a horror novel) but being able to predict the absolute decency or not of a character upon their initial somewhat judgemental authorial portrait, especially when you’re not sure which characters are going to live, does make things a bit too easy.
One thing I do credit however is the book's ending. The explanations and revelations are followed by a massive sequence of action that both doesn't take quite the route you'd expect, and also involves the nail biting possibility that not all the participants will survive, given that as is shown by the rest of the book, nobody, in any situation is safe. Indeed the fact that as time goes on you realize just how dangerous the situation is and how likely every character is to run into a grisly end at any moment is another reason the tension ramps up steeply, especially towards the big climax.
There was one minor subplot in the ending that I did feel got slightly lost, or at least was entirely ineffective. Indeed I rather wonder if Koontz originally planned that plot to have a different (and more tragic) outcome then either he or his editor changed his mind. While I can see the logic of this since the book is plenty dark enough in terms of character deaths and skin crawling oddities, it still might have been better if either Koontz removed that subplot or at least made it have a more satisfactory conclusion rather than effectively doing little with a character we'd seen almost from the beginning and another we'd heard equally nasty rumours about.
That being said, mostly the ending does everything it should do, a nail biting battle against overwhelming evil that more than justifies the steadily mounting tension and increasing levels of violence and shock that have led us there. Even the romantic subplot which is sign posted to the point of almost seeming an afterthought, isn't quite as irritatingly saccharin as it might have otherwise been, simply because it is at such a contrast to the general levels of fear, tension, and appropriately placed and artfully constructed amounts of gore.
In general Phantoms is a superlative work of horror fiction. All the aspects that make for a gripping story, a small group of mostly likeable characters pitted against a very alien menace whose brooding presence is always threatening, a slow revelation of information, and some truly disgusting and horrific moments of death and uncomfortable body horror, all the more terrifying for the fact that it revolves as much around pain and ironic torment as it does around simple blood and guts.
The at times somewhat broad characterizations never spoil the expertly paced nastiness, and over all I finished Phantoms both fully satisfied, and with a definitely higher opinion of Koontz as a horror writer.
This Phantoms book review was written by Dark
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