Friday, February 18, 2011

Review: What the Night Knows by Dean Koontz

The signs were good, and early word of mouth suggested a return to form. With the inevitable hit and miss ratio of a prolific author it seemed What the Night Knows was not only a homecoming to the magic of the past but a transcendent step up the ladder - perhaps a piece of dark fiction that would be regulated to the status of classic and the author – whilst achieving greatness many books ago – would be held in even higher regard as a composer whose ability to consistently dispense works of art would not be questioned.

This optimism continued as I started my journey, and although difficult I managed steer away from the obvious influx of new reviews pouring in every day. The opening paragraph is pure Koontz, setting the stage for a power-play of epic scope where the author’s cerebral prose could be used to the full extent. Already, I had ascertained that the formula for What the Night Knows was going to be the same one applied to his previous foray Life Expectancy whereby we have a domestic lifestyle shattered by a series of malevolent dates over a certain time period. This worked for that particular book, and the ‘countdown’ or ‘ticking-clock’ effect is a tried and true prescription for a writer of suspense.

John Calvino is a homicide detective who has recently been alerted to an entire family’s slaughter committed by a young member of it, one Billy Ryan, whose confession and lack of remorse is only the tip of the ice-berg that show startling similarities between these murders and ones that were committed twenty years previous. Although not the Detective assigned to the case, John goes out of his way to initiate a meeting with Billy and what he finds when coming face to face with him will not only confirm this correlation to past advents but will open up whole new possibilities in regard to the perpetrator. For it was John’s family itself who were the victims all those years ago - his father, mother and siblings all the violent work of one Alton Turner Blackwood. Although dead, it seems Alton’s curse might just live on in the form of Ryan … until Ryan dies, and then all Hell breaks loose.

At its core, What the Night Knows can be construed as a simple macabre tale – that of the invading spirit, one who is able to leap frog through time and space (and individual to individual), to finish off what he started. Thankfully, one of the strengths of the book is that Koontz can make believers out of us, and he constructs a serious mythology. Quiet easily, this aspect of spirit possession could have fallen into campy realms that resembled something like Friday the 13th: Jason goes to Hell or perhaps a rampaging liquid-metal cyborg. The upsurge of dread and malice we feel from Alton Blackwood is real and almost pervading. The snippets of his journal interspersed throughout the book give an intimate glimpse into a worthy evil.

As we progress, the first oddments of doubt start to wriggle in – and slowly turn into outright disappointment. Koontz, over the course of years, seems to have lost touch with his fellow humans. John Calvino is man with an attached family that is almost perfect in its world view. (They also have hired staff). His wife, Nicolette, is an acclaimed and successful artist; his children Zach, Naomi and Minnie are faultless and display none of the characteristics of normal children. What we have instead are character headspaces filled with nothing but 'Koontz-talk' whereby the author goes on rambling dirges that reflect his Republican politics and conservative philosophy. In a brutal flipside everyone else that surrounds them are positively evil - thief’s, sexual deviants and even child murderers. And each are ripe for spirit possession. I understand, on a narrative level, that antagonists must be created for the purpose of fiction, but when they are heaped on with such loving abandon it becomes so unrealistic it’s almost laughable. What the author has tried to do here is step out of his comfort zone and make a story steeped in the supernatural and brimming with dark and horrible images almost 'Laymon-esque' in their ferocity. But he doesn’t succeed. Horror is supposed to be fun … but the depressing nature of this novel had me audibly sighing at every available turn. When the final act came about, the un-thinkable occurred: I didn’t care whether or not I finished the final pages. As a reader, I was merely re-treading ancient ground from dozens of his pervious stories.

Sadly, the return to form never came about – and although I have unfailing respect for this author and will continue to read each new novel as it comes out, a wide gulf in the relationship between reader and writer has opened up in this instance.

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