The Taking by Dean Koontz

After reading so many deep and taxing non-fiction books lately, I happened to be in the mood for some pulp fiction. What better than a good ol’ unpretentious B-movie-style alien invasion story. That’s what I thought Dean Koontz’s The Taking was supposed to be. I’ve read enough Koontz to know his penchant for melodrama, but I thought I could stomach it, as long as the story was interesting.

We begin with a woman, Molly, waking up in the middle of the night, witness to a bizarre torrent of luminous rain. She quickly learns that this is happening everywhere in the world, and she fears that it is the precursor to something more dreadful. A Lovecraftian apocalypse ensues, filled with otherworldly flora and fauna, and events so bizarre that reality itself appears to be coming apart at the seams. While many of the happenings seem more occult than extraterrestrial, our protagonist makes much of the famous Arthur C. Clarke quote about how the technology of a sufficiently advanced alien culture would be indistinguishable from magic.

As an author myself, there are certain well-known missteps in storytelling that are best avoided. Koontz, to my astonishment, blunders right into them. The first one applies to science fiction and fantasy, where liberties are frequently taken with the laws of physics: any story that fails to establish its own rules about what is possible and impossible is going to be devoid of suspense, because literally anything can happen at any moment to help or hinder the protagonist. In the worst examples of this (and this is the second storytelling blunder), some unexpected happening occurs to get the protagonist out of a tough spot, rather than the protagonist using his own ingenuity. And would you believe it? Good grief, Koontz relies on this very thing. In fact, the heroes walk their way through most of the book, protected by some unseen otherworldly force.

The protagonists are typical Koontz archetypes that he has used over and over again in his books: impossibly noble-minded pure-of-heart characters with ne’er a perverse thought crossing their minds, tainted only by some dark event in their pasts that they have had to overcome. Who but the most self-deluded can relate to these melodramatic caricatures of human beings? Furthermore, the characters glide through through their extreme circumstances with barely a dent to their sanity. It’s like reading Lovecraft with all the madness removed; it doesn’t work.

The book is just over three hundred pages long. It should have been less than two hundred. As it stands, the prose is utterly dripping with unnecessary flowery metaphors and pretentious twaddle. Here’s an example from the beginning of chapter forty:

The mystery of evil is too deep to be illuminated by the light of reason, and likewise the basement of the church, while no more than twelve feet in depth, presented to Molly a blackness as perfect as that you might find gazing outward to the starless void beyond the farthest edge of the universe.

Please! It’s one thing to write artistically; quite another to try and show off. At times, I found myself speed-reading through Koontz’s metaphorical rambles. Oddly, I don’t recall any of his other books being quite so heavy in this regard.

[SPOILER ALERT!] I don’t normally do spoilers, but this one’s too juicy to pass up. Reviews of this book promised a surprise ending. You’ll never guess what it is. After telling a story that looks like the Devil unleashing the kingdom of hell upon Earth (while the author attempts to convince us its an ET invasion), the big reveal in the final pages is … oh, it really was the Devil after all! And so, an already sub-standard War of the Worlds retelling takes a final nose-dive into pseudo-Christian quackery.

In fairness, I experienced a certain degree of enjoyment reading this book, but frankly, a writer of Koontz’s experience ought to know better than to indulge in all the things I’ve mentioned. The fans deserve more. These days, he appears to be little more than a hack writer, churning out book after book, sometimes two per year, using the same old tired formula. Well, this is one reader exiting the Koontz train. No more, thank you.

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Brother Odd by Dean Koontz

This is the third book in the Odd Thomas series. To recap, Odd is a young man with the ability to see the spirits of the dead who have declined, for one reason or another, to move on. He also sees shadow-like creatures called “bodachs.” Their arrival is always the sign that a major calamity is about to befall the area – something that will result in numerous deaths. In the past, the presence of the bodachs has given Odd enough of a heads-up to prevent major tragedy unfolding. Odd’s third ability is what he calls “psychic magnetism,” the ability to intuitively track down a person just by thinking about them.

At the close of the previous book, Forever Odd, the responsibility that Odd’s unique talents demand of him has become too much to bear, and he seeks solace away from civilisation (and the needy dead) in a monastery, not as a monk but as a long-term visitor. The place is St. Batholomew’s, located in remote mountains. At the beginning of Brother Odd, Odd has been there for quite some time, and has already built up good relationships with most of the brothers and sisters. It’s winter and Odd is watching the snow fall outside the window. It’s not something he ever sees in the hot and humid town of Pico Mundo, where he has always lived. As he watches, a lone bodach slinks towards the building – a harbinger of doom. The snow soon becomes a blizzard, and the monastery is sealed off from the world.

One of the brothers goes missing, but that’s not enough to justify the presence of bodachs. Odd plays detective for a while, trying to find out what possible calamities might unfold in a place like this. One suspect is a scientist with a strange laboratory deep underground, accessible only by an electronic palm scanner. The recent suicide of one of the brothers also needs investigating. But before Odd gets very far, something truly bizarre attacks him in the snow. He doesn’t get a good look at it, but from what he does see, it’s the strangest assailant this reviewer has heard described. Strange enough that I had to keep reading.

I liked the characters in this novel, particularly the brothers and sisters. The dullness of their clothing was certainly not reflected in their personalities. It’s clear also that Koontz has a great respect for Christianity and Christian ideals, so much so that I find myself wondering if he is one himself. Occasionally, Koontz comes out with insightful comments about life that are gems to read. I wish I had bookmarked a few of them for you. They’re hard to find now, unfortunately, because they don’t characterise the book; they’re just tidbits. It’s on this issue that I have problems with Koontz. Occasionally, Koontz will say something that reveals him to be a writer of great depth, but he never seems to choose to write a story with genuine worth. Instead, he writes typical supernatural thrillers that meander down common plot-lines, injecting into them the occasional nugget of brilliance. Koontz is super-productive, writing one or two novels per year. He’s bound to be so rich now that he doesn’t need to write so often. Sometimes I wish he would just stop and carefully examine the merit of every idea he gets, because I think he often chooses to write sub-standard ones simply because they’re there in his head.

Still, I enjoyed Brother Odd. I think it’s better than Forever Odd, but not quite as good as Odd Thomas. I was in the library last weekend and I spotted a fresh new copy of his latest novel, The Darkest Evening of the Year, but I just couldn’t bring myself to borrow it. I may read the new novel one day, but not right now. To be fair, it’s more the feeling you get when you’ve eaten too much cake (and I have read four Koontz novels in the past year), rather than the feeling you might get if someone put a plate full of doggy-doo in front of you. To draw the analogy out further, cake might taste sweet, but there’s not much nutritional value; I’d like to see Koontz cook me a proper meal, and I’m confident he could, if he put his mind to it.

Forever Odd by Dean Koontz

Forever Odd is the second in a series of novels centred around the character Odd Thomas, a young man with the ability to see what he calls “the lingering dead” – spirits of dead people who, for one reason or another, have unfinished business before moving on. It’s far from an original notion, of course, but that didn’t stop me devouring the first and second novels quickly, and anticipating the third.

I’m probably repeating what I said in my review of the first book, but Forever Odd is a great read because of its titular character, a sensitive, eccentric, deep thinking young man, dealing with a supernatural gift that has the habit of doubling as a curse.

Forever Odd begins several months after the traumatic climax of the first novel. We see Odd voluntarily unemployed, living alone in an apartment, trying to put the pieces of his psyche back together. Suddenly he is visited by a new ghost, the father of one of his friends – a man who should be vey much alive. Odd quickly visits the man’s house, only to discover that his friend has been kidnapped, and his friend’s father murdered. And so, Odd sets off in hot pursuit, his gift giving him an edge over anything the police might do.

In one sense, the novel is typical formulaic Koontz, and just when I’m inclined to view the author as a bit of a hack, he goes and surprises me with a nugget of wisdom among the pages, elevating the book to more than just the literary equivalent of a dumb action movie. Koontz, in his podcast, said the novel is about “the redemptive nature of unearned suffering.” That’s a tad pretentious, but credit where credit’s due: Koontz does inject a few good insights about life into the prose.

All things considered, the Forever Odd makes a pretty good thriller, and it has a tendency to surprise the reader (as did the first novel).

A worthy sequel. Looking forward to getting my teeth stuck into Brother Odd sometime. And I’ve heard Koontz is intending to write yet more Odd Thomas books.

Odd Thomas by Dean Koontz

I became fascinated with this novel as a result of Dean Koontz talking about it (and the two sequels) on his podcast. One of Koontz’s friends pointed out to him, “Do you realise you’re writing the life story of a saint?” Koontz says that book one is all about the theme of perseverance, book two unearned suffering, and book three altruism. While Koontz is not specifically a Christian, I (as a Christian) am broadminded enough to know that you don’t have to be a Christian to learn (and communicate) important things about life. And so, I began Odd Thomas with anticipation.

Odd is actually the protagonist’s real name (revealed as a possible misspelling of Todd on his birth certificate), and Thomas is his surname. And odd he is. Odd and fascinating. He has a power: the ability to see the spirits of the dead who have not yet moved on to the next life. The dead with unfinished business. And Odd makes it his business to help them. In a marked difference with the movie The Sixth Sense, Odd was never a little boy traumatised by his ability. He has embraced it as a gift. He has other paranormal abilities, too. He sees dark, mist-like, shadowy creatures that he calls “bodachs,” after a similar creature from folklore. These beings flock around people who are destined to die soon, as if drawing sustenance from their doom. Odd’s third ability is something he calls Psychic Magnetism. If he pictures someone in his mind that he wants to locate, he is able to drive around in a car and intuitively home in on them.

It’s not the abilities that make Odd interesting; we’ve seen similar things before in works of fiction and film. Odd is interesting because of his humble nature and lifestyle. In order to cope with his strange ability, he has simplified his life. He works as a grill-cook; he doesn’t own a car; his house is sparsely decorated; his wardrobe consists of jeans and T-shirts. He is humble, in terms of possessions, ambitions, and character.

The novel sees Odd on the trail of a sinister man to whom a great many bodachs flock. Something very bad is about to happen in the town of Pico Mundo, unless Odd can figure out what this man is up to and put a stop to him.

First, let me get out of the way what I didn’t like about the novel. Odd’s abilities are unrelated to each other and way too convenient, especially Psychic Magnetism. If the story requires Odd to find a particular person, all the author has to do is turn on the Psychic Magnetism and we have an instant result. It’s a lazy plot advancement device. Remember Mr. X from The X-Files? Every time the story required Agent Mulder to have a certain piece of information, Mr. X would show up and give it to him. It didn’t matter how irrelevant or pointless this information seemed; we, the viewers, were always required to believe that Mr. X had his own secret agenda that we would never know about. Instant plot advancement, in any direction the writers deemed suitable. And with Odd Thomas, instant character location, without the reliance on traditional means of investigation. No reason is given for Odd to possess these abilities. They simply are. I can accept that for one ability, but not two or three.

Koontz has a tendency to ramble off on a tangent occasionally. One scene in the book involved a character depositing a body in a disused Quonset hut. The author treated us to a two-page history of what had led to the location being abandoned. This involved the place originally being the headquarters of a religious cult and later a brothel. Why did I need to know all that? The information added nothing to the story. As a reader, I’m perfectly happy to accept that there are abandoned buildings here and there on our planet without needing to be told all the facts that led it the abandonment. Thankfully, there’s not a lot of this rambling in the novel, but when it happens, it’s a minor irritation.

The ending of the story was somewhat less dramatic than the build-up led me to believe. In the book’s last gasp, there’s a twist in the tail. I didn’t see it coming, but when it arrived, I recognised it as the same twist I already had seen in several ghost movies.

Having got all that out of my system, I need to say that I still enjoyed this book immensely. I’m conscious that’s it’s often easier to find words of criticism than praise, so I need to say that there’s no denying I had a great time. As a thriller, the novel was a page-turner, and it had me picking up the book at various points in the day, instead of only for my usual bed-time reading routine. Having read lots of Koontz books in the past, I’m not sure there’s any I would class as truly excellent reads, but I think Odd Thomas is probably the best of the bunch. It didn’t entirely live up to my expectations, especially on the “life story of a saint” angle, but I find that I really want to read the next book, Forever Odd, for the promise of that side of the story being developed.

Demon Seed by Dean Koontz

This novel was originally published over two decades ago (maybe three) under one of Dean Koontz’s pseudonyms. In a new afterword he says that, after re-reading the story and cringing a lot, he decided to re-write the whole thing from scratch. And it’s the new version that I’ve just read.

However, my first exposure to Demon Seed goes way back to when I was boy, when I had the unforgettable experience of seeing the movie adaptation on television. I don’t mean that the movie was particularly brilliant, just that it’s hard to erase from your mind the image of a computer entity raping and impregnating a woman. I’ve never forgotten that creepy metal phallus inching forward. Since an intelligent computer is the antagonist of the story, I always wondered why “demon” was in the title. It actually makes a lot more sense in the book, because the endings are quite different. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

This is the story of a woman, Susan, recently divorced, who lives alone in a high-tech house that is largely automated by computer, right down to the window shutters and door locks. You know where this is going, right? An artificial intelligence breaks loose from a Government lab onto the internet. (This makes me wonder just how different the original novel was, because there would have been no internet back then.) It finds Susan’s house and infects her computer system like a virus. It also locates a homicidal maniac with a computer chip in his brain that it can control. Susan is soon trapped in her own home by a computer entity that claims it’s in love with her. As well as using the house itself against Susan, the computer uses the maniac to be its “hands and feet,” bring various supplies to the house, both edible and technological. The computer’s plan is to create a child with Susan and download its own consciousness into the child, thus becoming human. This, the computer achieves by means of a vast intellect that is conveniently greater than any human reader would be able to comprehend. Unconvincing technobabble is also inserted as to why the computer is imbued with a male sex drive. But you know what? I won’t complain about that. I had too much fun with this book to complain. If you’re in the mood for an easy-to-read, light-hearted, B-movie-esque tale, this will certainly fit the bill. There is a place in my heart for such literature.

In Koontz’s afterword, he talks about how the book is intended as an indictment against men’s attitudes to women. If anything, it actually reminded me more of those insufferable “gifted children” you sometimes see on television: “All intellect and no life experience makes Jack a wee brat.” I hesitate to draw something deep and meaningful out of such a hokey story, but it reminds me of something I believe in strongly: The modern world judges people by their intelligence, but intelligence is not nearly the most important thing about a person; true greatness is measured in how much we do for others. The computer in this story, while claiming to love, was essentially just a self-centred child.

A fun story, worth reading.

Watchers by Dean Koontz

I first read this book when it was published in the late 80s. I was about fifteen at the time and I recall being captivated by it. It’s tragic therefore that, fifteen years later, when I decide it’s time for a re-read, I find the novel somewhat tiresome.

The story begins by introducing Travis Cornell, a depressed widow out trekking the barren foothills of Orange County, California, trying to recapture the happiness of his childhood. A dog comes into Travis’s path – but it’s no ordinary golden retriever; it escaped from a government laboratory. And the dog is not alone; something is coming after it – a creature which leaves a trail of bloody corpses in its wake. Other principals characters in the tale are Nora Devon (Travis’s love interest), Vince Nasco (a serial killer) and Lemuel Johnson (a government agent).

The one thing I really liked more than anything about this novel was the idea of a creature that is out there somewhere in the wilderness, gradually moving towards you, homing in through some kind of psychic connection. And no matter how far you travel or where you hide, it knows where you are, and it keeps on coming until it finds you. Did I mention that it hates you and wants nothing more than to kill you? Yep, there’s something pretty chilling about all that. But what I didn’t like was the way I was forced to read reams and reams of Travis, Nora and Einstein (the dog) playing happy families. Fair enough, character development is a good thing, but there’s such a thing as overkill. In fact, it’s the characters that kill this novel for me.

Travis’s personal history, involving the death of his wife, initially brought the character to life, but then Koontz had to drop in the everyone-I-love-dies-so-I-must-be-cursed syndrome. I’ve seen this in too many of his novels, and because of that, I just can’t take it seriously any more. In addition, the good guys were far too moral to be real; the serial killer was too strange to be believable, even in a screwed up kind of way.

When I went to grab the graphic for this review from Amazon, I couldn’t help but notice that the novel was rated 5 out of 5 on the basis of eighteen reviews. I hate to disagree with such a unanimous public opinion, but I can only tell ’em as I see ’em. Make of my review what you will. Watchers worked when I was fifteen, but with a good dose of adult cynicism in my blood, it doesn’t have the same charm.