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The Taking by Dean Koontz

7/10 Today's special, loathsome bulbous fungus with a side order of preaching

Having just finished a rather large fantasy epic, I was looking for something short, stand alone, and in a different genre. So, given how much I'd enjoyed Phantoms, I decided it was time to try another book by Dean Koontz. I'll admit I was a little surprised to find apocalyptic science fiction, when I was expecting a more typical horror, then again, The Taking certainly has its share of horrible monsters.

Molly Sloan can't sleep. Despite seven years of blissfully happy marriage to her husband Niel, she still finds herself occasionally awake at all hours, a perfect time to practice her profession as a writer. But this time something is wrong. A rain is falling, a rain that smells and feels unclean, and comes with an impending sense of dread. Viewing the news, Molly realises this deluge is worldwide, and that this torrential, poisonous rain is only the start. For it soon becomes clear the rain is seeding the earth with malignant alien life. As Molly and Niel make their way out into the twisted new world which is rapidly taking over their California home town, Molly realises that they are beginning a fight for survival, a fight against not just bizarre alien creatures, but the very essence of despair itself.

I've always found the idea of something transforming our world a fascinating one, from the red weed of War of the Worlds to Stephen King's The Mist, where the apocalyptic invasion goes beyond the breakdown of society, or even ravening hordes of monsters, points where the very landscape of familiar shops, houses and streets becomes something lurid and alien.

From Midnight and Phantoms, I had already seen Koontz give small California towns a grotesque makeover, and here he dials it up to eleven. From the very taste and feel of the rain, to purple sky, obscene alien growth and fungi, and of course monsters that range from insects to walking corpses to one incredibly creepy doll, Koontz’s knack for the nasty is given absolutely full play here. This undoubtedly is the book’s major strength. Told in short, pointed chapters, often finishing in cliff-hangers, using the same slowed down, intimate view of time I've seen Koontz employ before, with most of the book's events happening on one apocalyptic day, The Taking is a genuinely compelling survival horror where you never know what might be lurking around the next corner.

The overall prose is a good bit more verbose than I expected, there being few adjectives Koontz doesn't like. While this often produces some fairly exquisite turns of phrase, it can also become quite excessive. For example, at one point, Koontz describes alien vegetation as: "loathsome bulbous fungus that now seemed obscene in its slimy tumescence." I'm certainly with him up to the "loathsome bulbous fungus, but telling us it’s obscene is a little redundant, and Koontz really should have kept the slimy tumescence out of that sentence. I also winced occasionally when Koontz actively misapplied words or concepts, such as not knowing the proper meaning of "suffix". Then again, even though the prose could've probably done with a bit of closer editing, I'd definitely rather an author try too hard than not hard enough, and for every simile that runs on too long, or misapplication of language, there are five or ten occasions when the prose strikes the bizarre bullseye dead on, like the horrific audio of the international space station's final moments.

One other issue is the question of character and plot progression. The story is not so much told from Molly's perspective, as we are told about Molly's perspective. We are told not just about Molly's history and her career but her feelings and general approach to life, how she tries to look forward and be positive at every opportunity, how she survived a violent incident as an eight year old child and since then has tried to maintain a spark of hope in her heart. The rule of "show don't tell", is not an absolute one in fiction, and there are occasions, such as when we're told about Molly's psychotic father, even as she confronts him, where what Koontz tells us about Molly contributes directly to the action. The problem however, is that very little of what we are told about Molly actually affects what she does in the plot. We're told how much Molly loves her husband, yet, other than a bit of hand holding, we're given very little evidence of this, something which seems especially odd during an apocalypse when both of their lives are in danger. We're told that Molly tends to view things more rationally; except when she's writing, whereas Niel is a more emotional character, yet both of them simply agree amicably about everything and are always of one mind. Indeed, the only real actions and attitudes both Molly and Niel show during the apocalypse, is eternal confidence and practical positivity, with even fits of despair the work of otherworldly forces, which of course Molly completely withstands, since she's such an endlessly hopeful person.

Unfortunately, this one note characterisation also affects all characters in the book. Where in Stephen King's The Mist we see a range of attitudes and actions from the trapped survivors, when Molly and Niel meet up with their neighbours, everyone is divided into stark factions. There are the despairing drunks who have given up on life, those duped, weak people looking for a peaceful solution, those equally weak, petty dithering who want more information, and of course the good, positive, proactive fighters with their all American arsenal of self-defensive firearms. Guess which faction Molly and Niel join?

When Molly and Niel have the idea of going around the town rescuing trapped children, all the children are of course cute objects with little personality, indeed, they felt more like collectables in a computer game, with the few other adults we run into usually insane, or drunken.

It is not just with his very direct way of introducing characters that Koontz text here feels way too pedagogical, but also in the various opinionated diatribes he inserts, often at inappropriate moments. So, while watching the news of disasters all over the world, Koontz is of course quick to tell us about the terrible falsity and general awfulness of the media. Before the power goes out, Molly and Niel are able to catch glimpses of old films, which gives Koontz chance to rhapsodise about the evils of TV violence; a little ironic that he contrasts what I believe to be the artistically complex Kill Bill, with the supposedly wholesome western genre.

During Molly's recollections of her father, there is of course a polemic about the liberal treatment of prisoners (a theme Koontz returns to several times), and; perhaps most ironic for a modern reader, even some discussions about that paranoid myth; climate change.

For all of this however, Koontz’ gift with the weird atmosphere, and the fact that you never exactly know what Molly and Niel will run into next, meant that despite the obvious axes Koontz is grinding, the plot never entirely stalled. Even when Molly and Niel started to be led to trapped children by angelic dogs, the actual rescues Molly and Niel make still required entrance into dark, monster haunted places, and some frightening confrontations. Though the plot did feel somewhat run on rails, or at least feel like a series of challenges presented to the main characters rather than having the characters free to act, at least the challenges were interesting, and even when confronting psychopaths or avoiding houses collapsing under the influence of alien insects, we still had that looming sense of danger.

Unfortunately, the ending and actual explanation of what was going on is something of a let-down. The alert reader will doubtless pick up a religious undertone to the apocalypse, the problem however, is that this religious aspect both undermines all attempts at explanation, and also conflicts badly with character agency. I have no problem with books written from a Christian perspective, but in authors like Stephen King and Madeleine L’Engle, though God, or, at least a universally positive spiritual force is part of the world’s cosmology, it is still primarily the characters who drive the plot, with God, or the power of light only intervening when absolutely necessary, as with the eagles carrying Frodo and Sam from Mount Doom, or the final confrontation in The Stand.

Here however, God is a far more direct force, not only intervening increasingly often through angelic figures; albeit I fully well agree with Koontz that dogs likely know a lot more about a loving god than most humans. But, God is also integral to the explanation of what the apocalypse is, what Molly's part in things is, and why everything abruptly stops. While I have atheistic friends who are huge Stephen King fans, simply viewing the power of light as a fantasy trope, here I suspect only those who not just believe in God, but believe in the very specific sort of God which Koontz does, will likely find this ending satisfactory. Unfortunately, since I agree neither with Koontz’s overtly retributive moral position, or the motivations he gives God, this ending just plain didn't work for me. Even from a purely literary perspective, essentially saying "things happened because God wanted them to", is hardly a reasonable explanation, or a way to account for the extremely abrupt ending.

For all the opinionated beliefs, occasional lapses into verbosity and fairly thin characters, I still can't deny the book is incredibly engaging. Even though we're told a little too effusively to like Molly, simply as someone trying to survive in a world rapidly mutating into ever more weirdness, I was still primarily on her side, and even if the children felt heavily idealised and pretty much characterless, at the same time, the idea of rescuing children from horribly alien dangers is still an engaging one, and while the very abrupt ending felt something of a cop out, at the same time, the book was short enough so as not to overstay its welcome. Overall, The Taking is much like a ride on a ghost train. The track is one way, and you know that when you get to the end of it none of the nasties will be leaving with you, but that doesn't stop you getting to see some good old gruesomeness, and getting a shiver or two during the ride.

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