Friday, February 18, 2011

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 appeared 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 – while achieving greatness many books ago – would be held in even higher regard.

This optimism continued as I began my journey, and although difficult I managed steer away from an influx of reviews pouring in daily. Our opening monologue is pure Koontz, setting the stage for a power-play of epic scope where the author’s cerebral prose could be fully explored. Already, I had garnered the formula for What the Night Knows was going to be a similar one applied to Life Expectancy, where a domestic lifestyle is 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 suspense.

John Calvino is a homicide detective recently alerted to an entire family’s slaughter committed by a young member of it, one Billy Ryan, whose confession and lack of remorse highlights startling similarities between these murders and one's 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 not only confirms this correlation to past events, but will open up whole new possibilities in regard to the perpetrator. For it was John’s family 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. 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 a serious mythology is constructed. Quiet easily, this aspect of spirit possession could have fallen into campy realms resembling 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 pervading. The snippets of his journal interspersed throughout give an intimate glimpse into a worthy evil.

Progressing, the first oddments of doubt begin to creep in ... which slowly turn into outright disappointment. Koontz, over the course of years, seems to have lost touch with his fellow man. John Calvino is attached to a family almost perfect in its worldview. (They also have hired staff). His wife, Nicolette, is an acclaimed and successful artist; his children Zach, Naomi, and Minnie are faultless, often displaying little characteristics reflective of normal children. What we have instead are character motivations filled with nothing but 'Koontz-talk', where the author goes on rambling dirges advocating his Republican politics and conservative philosophies. In a brutal flip-side, everyone surrounding them are positively evil: thief's, sexual deviants, and even child murderers. And each are ripe for spirit possession. On a narrative level, I understand antagonists must be created for the purpose of fiction, but when they are heaped on with such loving abandon, it becomes unrealistic. Here, Koontz has attempted to step out of his comfort zone and create a story steeped in the supernatural, a narrative brimming with scenes almost Laymon-esque in their ferocity. But he doesn’t succeed. Horror (at a core level) is supposed to be fun … yet the depressing nature of this novel had me audibly sighing. When the final act came about, the un-thinkable occurred: I didn’t care whether I finished the final pages. As a reader, I was merely re-treading ancient ground from dozens of the author's previous stories.

Sadly, the return to form never came about. And (though I have unfailing respect for the author) a wide gulf opened in this particular experience.