Ginger Nuts of Horror
the mirror ultimately, despite being fairly chilling in its initial framing, just becomes a set up for getting “Exposition Fairy”
Here's the thing with Dean Koontz: he is often derided as the poor man's Stephen King, and that is true, to some degree; he is one of a million horror writers who made a name for themselves during the popular renaissance of the genre throughout the 1970s and 1980s, in which book store and library shelves groaned under a surfeit of Stephen Kings, Clive Barkers, Graham Mastertons, James Herberts, Shaun Hutsons and a hundred others. Though it seems absurd to even think it now, time was, horror was the dominant commercial force in mainstream publishing; something that we who remember regard as a golden age.
Dean Koontz, whatever else you might think about his fiction (and we'll be delving into the bowels of that particular diseased body, worry ye not) was one of the many who made a place and name for himself in that climate; when publishers and distributors were all seeking to find their own Stephen King; to manufacture a similar phenomenon, though rarely with any great success.
My introduction to the man's work (like so many other examples) came from my Mother, who was one of the many horror fans who made out like an absolute bandit in this era: her bookshelves crammed to bursting with everything from King to Herbert, from Koontz to Barker. I particularly recall her collection of Dean Koontz books, as they consisted of a series whose titles were “spattered” across the front covers in the manner of blood.
Whilst on a family holiday somewhere perhaps in Majorca or Corfu, having exhausted my own books rather quickly, my Mom allowed me to select from one of the many she had brought along, my choice being the novel Phantoms, owing largely to conversations we had about it whilst walking to dinner or around the pool, which snared my (extremely young) imagination.
I loved the set up as a child, and still do: the opening and ideas that inform it are very, very strong, which, I would later come to learn, is somewhat typical of the author's works:
A pair of sisters are driving back to their mountain home-town to reconnect with their parents. Some nice tensions are drawn between them; some vaguely hinted at family issues, that they are hoping to redress during this reunion.
However, upon arrival, they find the town utterly deserted, in the manner of myths of the Roanoke colony or the Mary Celeste: houses abandoned, apparently in the midst of meals being prepared, cleaning been done; nothing taken, all property and possessions still intact; no signs of any struggle or violence.
Even re-reading the book now, the set up is excellent; strong, tense, atmospheric; the mystery is wonderful, as is the omnipresent sense of threat as the girls explore the town, trying to find some sign; anyone and anything that might suggest where the people have gone.
You can imagine what effect this had on my then-developing imagination; on my child's perceptions. Being one of my earliest exposures to horror in written form (others consisting of Stephen King's The Mist and John Saul's Darkness), this blew my mind: I loved the tensions, the visceral emotions of dread and tension that the book elicited (which I still seek out to this day, but rarely find).
It was something of a revelation to me.
Adding to the tension and mystery, the girls discover a cryptic message scrawled on a mirror in one of the houses:
The Ancient Enemy.
It's brilliant; clever, mysterious, tense; it sets up myriad questions in the reader's mind: who is Timothy Flyte? What is the Ancient Enemy? Why did someone take the time to scrawl it on a mirror?
From this point on, the article is going to go neck deep into spoilers, so, if you haven't read Phantoms (or watched the God-awful film adaptation) and have intention of doing so, you might want to to stop reading....
This is where it all falls apart; when Koontz not only sets about solving the mystery, but when he loses interest in his own ideas. I couldn't articulate at the time why I found what follows so dissatisfying; only that the eventual pay-off left me frustrated and almost angry, as though I'd been cheated of something I'd been promised.
Of course, being so young, I had little notion of the processes that go into created works; of how the flaws they express come about. To me, it was baffling that something I enjoyed so much in its earlier stages could turn out so ineffably wrong.
Are you ready for this?:
A big monster did it.
I'm not kidding; a big monster took the town's people. That's the mystery; that's the big reveal. All of the tension and ambiguity; all of the creeping dread of the unknown, drains away in the face of that revelation:
Given the deliberate confusion established earlier in the book, and how well drawn it is, the absolutism of this and the explicit manner in which it is communicated just does not work; it feels as though Koontz started out with a wonderful set up, but had no idea how to pay it off and didn't even consider even if he should, allowing the narrative to flail around for a few chapters before finally opting for the most lazy-ass, throw-away solution you could imagine (also, the manner in which the protagonists eventually defeat the monster is also pulled directly from the author's ass).
As discussed in previous articles, I have to give Koontz some praise for this, as I have no doubt that my dissatisfaction with this story was part of what kindled my own imagination: I spent much of that holiday wrestling internally about what I would have done better; how I would have made the story pay off, and still do. It's arguable that, without that initial disappointment, my own work would never have been produced.
A big monster did it. Fucking Hell.
As to how I might have done it better, I many ways, I don't have to, as it has already, numerous times and in numerous mediums: one of the better examples I can think of which has more or less the same set up and structure is the video game series, Silent Hill:
As in Phantoms, the protagonists invariably find themselves within the eponymous abandoned town, the horror and tension escalating as they discover the truth of not only what happened to the townspeople, but why they find themselves there.
This is where Silent Hill proves itself Phantom's superior in many notable respects; instead of making the horror overt, defined and external (Big Monster!), it makes it ambiguous and personal; though there are undoubtedly monsters in Silent Hill (and some very big ones, at that), they are not so clearly defined or explained as “The Ancient Enemy,” nor are their motives quite so simplistic (The Ancient Enemy wants two things: to eat everything in sight and to be acknowledged). The “monsters” of Silent Hill might not even exist, in any literal or physical sense; rather, they are projections and manifestations of the player character's drives, neuroses; their guilt, their suppressed or sublimated desires...in that, Silent Hill becomes a stroll around an extremely damaged individual's psyche, making the horror more distinct and intense; more deranged and disturbing.
Phantoms, in many respects, sets up and suggests this possibility in its opening, with the discussions between the two sisters; their clear dissatisfaction with themselves, with one another; with their family situation. The book would have been much, much stronger if it stuck with that; if it followed it through (it doesn't, by the by; almost nothing comes of that subject from the moment the mystery starts to unravel). The arrival of various male authoritarian forces within the town also somewhat lessens the threat; the girls are soon surrounded by scientists with cutting edge equipment; by government agents and military men, which serves to diminish both them and the town's threat. It didn't need to; were the manners in which they are (variously) picked off more subtle and suggestive (were they, in essence, left in the hands of a better writer than Koontz), this could have actually served to emphasise the threat and mystery.
Instead, Koontz seems intent on dotting every “i” and crossing every “t” for his readers, ensuring that they are left under no illusions that the threat is external and it is defined and its is coming and that the girls will, of course, be amongst the few left alive to see the eventual climax...it becomes powerfully, powerfully boring; the characters exist only to skitter about and be afraid and to provide exposition (and eventual resolution), the “Ancient Enemy” is not interesting or complex enough to engage or to pay off the set up of the book's earlier scenes. It's all a bit of a damp squib, really.
The Ancient Enemy itself (Big Monster!!!) compares very unfavourably to the entities that (directly or indirectly) inspired it: it is, at essence, a Lovecraftian beasty; a shapeless and ageless entity that man should not wot of, but lacks any of the suggested mythology and ethos of Lovecraft's own creations; it is entirely more secular and defined and, thus, does not work: it actually turns out to be a very simple creature; a sort of very big amoeba that stirs evert so many millennia from its hibernation to feed and then buggers off again. That's it. That's all it does.
There are myriad examples of horror and science fiction and even fantasy that contain very similar entities in very similar situations that are simply more interesting; they are communicated more subtly or leant a degree of ambiguity that “The Ancient Enemy” just isn't. An excellent example can be found in Stephen King's Desperation, which has a very similar set up and, indeed, rhythm to Phantoms (a dead and deserted town, some nameless and unknown force responsible), but whereas Phantoms tells you everything you need to know about its Big Monster (often in the form of exposition that Tolkien would have rolled his eyes at), Desperation leaves the mystery hanging; you never really find out what the entity “Tak” is; only what it does, what it wants. Even that isn't made overt, as the characters just don't know. How could they? They are just every day people thrown into absolutely horrendous and bizarre circumstances. This, once again, is something that Phantoms promises but does not deliver; as with many, many of his books, Koontz can't resist throwing in the “Exposition Fairies” in the form of antiquarian, Timothy Flyte (played by Peter o'Toole, no less, in the movie adaptation), who serves to tell the reader what's going on and very, very little else.
Had the story stuck with the girls and maybe a handful of other characters who were and remained similarly ignorant, finding out details that are far from conclusive but which suggest possibility as they explore the town, that would have been far, far more tense and engaging.
Also, the message on the mirror ultimately, despite being fairly chilling in its initial framing, just becomes a set up for getting “Exposition Fairy” Timothy Flyte on location, which is extremely sad; had the girls found other cryptic messages in other parts of the town, that allow them to slowly piece together a disjointed suggestion of what happened and what is still happening, it would have maintained tension and mystery, each message escalating the situation as the girl's states of mind dissolve.
Now, King's Desperation is far from perfect, and has its own set of problems (the whole “God” thing is deus ex machina and extremely frustrating, the climax doesn't work and certain elements of the story are infuriating), but it is a flat out better example of how you do this kind of story.
Sadly, having read a number of Koontz's work since, I find this to be a consistent problem: he starts out with fantastic and interesting ideas, some fairly decent characters, then loses interest, leading to narratives that flail about and swell far beyond their own ability to sustain engagement, the eventual conclusions slip-shod and under-baked, often involving some deus ex machina, as in this instance, in which one of the boffins present discovers that The Ancient Enemy has a cellular structure like a virus and can be dissolved with this chemical or that and yadda, yadda, yawn, yawn; wake me up when the Big Monster's just an expanding puddle of goo.
It's annoying, its frustrating, but, as I said before, were it not quite so, then I myself may not have even set pen to paper, and may not have learned essential lessons that have allowed me to refine my own work.
In that, one can make an earnest argument for the existence and consumption of bad fiction; one that this series of articles exemplifies.
If you enjoyed this article check out George's previous one on The Scarlet Gospels