Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Dean Koontz/ODD HOURS

Twenty years ago, Dean Koontz began his novel MIDNIGHT with a terrifying late-night jog on the beach. It took him exactly one chapter to bring a healthy, vibrant young runner to a godawful end.

ODD HOURS, the fourth (and newest) book in Koontz's Odd Thomas series, doesn't start on the beach, although it occurs in an oceanside resort town. Its protagonist isn't someone who runs for fitness, really, although he does quite a bit of running. But by the end of the first chapter he's running, all right, pursued by not-quite-nameless horrors. And although that initial pursuit will drive the book through eight chapters instead of one; although the runner will live; although the pursuers are clearly human rather than the ambiguously-specied ones of MIDNIGHT -- despite all this, you will recall the earlier book and the shudders that accompanied its opening. They'll echo in your head with each panting footstep.

ODD HOURS continues in style Koontz's popular first-person saga of the 20-something fry cook who sees dead people.

I know, I know: "I see dead people." The first book in the series came out well after "The Sixth Sense" -- or, for that matter, well after THE INFERNO, THE LEGEND OF SLEEPY HOLLOW, A CHRISTMAS CAROL, and a thousand other books and movies featuring protagonists who interact with the dead. So, to a first-time Koontz reader, the idea may seem exhausted.

Not so.

Odd Thomas (the protagonist's actual name, as well as a pretty good descriptor), as he once said, not only sees dead people: "By God, I do something about it." He can't make them any less dead, but he can sometimes help them move on to the afterlife, giving up their infatuations and obsessions with "real" life. He can talk to these ghosts, interact with them, but they cannot talk to him. (Their mouths open and they gesture and "talk," but in silence -- a fact which causes them no end of frustration, sometimes to the point of crossing the line into ridiculous or violent manifestation.) In the process, he encounters live nasties: evil men and women, pathologically insane men and women, men and women who seem to be (and perhaps are) working in the service of dark supernatural forces.

In the present story, Odd has left behind Pico Mundo, the fictional California desert town where the series began. He's left behind St. Bartholomew's Abbey, featured in BROTHER ODD. He's left behind, finally, the ghost of Elvis Presley, who haunted him for years with his silent, mournful countenance, and who at the end of Brother Odd managed to achieve the peace to get on with his afterlife. And Odd is still haunted not just by ghosts of the famous and ghosts of the unknown, but by the spirit, deep within him, of his "sweet girl" and soul mate, Stormy Llewellyn.

He's relocated this time around to the small resort town of Magic Beach. One night his sleep is disturbed by a nightmare of frightening realism:
I had been standing on a beach, snakes of apocalyptic light squirming across the sand. The sea had throbbed as some bright leviathan rose out of the deep, and the heavens had been choked with clouds as red and orange as flames.
Ere long, Odd comes to discover that the dream is (as such dreams tend to be) not all symbolic, but a premonition of horrors to come. And (as such story lines often go) only our protagonist can make the dream, and the world itself, turn out otherwise.

Along the way, he's aided by a classic Koontz cast of secondary characters: his employer, an elderly retired actor; a mysterious woman with certain creepy powers of her own; a woman horribly disfigured by an accident in her past; the all-white ghost German shepherd, Boo; yet another in a long string of Koontz's idolized golden retrievers; and the ghost of Frank Sinatra.

The antagonists this time around inhabit the institutions which nominally glue society together: the police department; the harbor patrol; a minister. All of them want money. None of them care about those red and orange skies because, so they claim, Magic Beach itself will be spared...

I haven't read everything Koontz has written, but I've read quite a bit of it. And I must say that if you think of him strictly as a horror writer, you have probably read very little, if any, of his work.

True enough, the supernatural (both good and bad) plays a heavy role in Koontz's story. He does not shy away from depicting awful events, in straightforward but highly visual terms:
His face was bruised, one eye swollen half shut, one ear crusted with blood -- the consequence of events in the interrogation room.

As I stepped closer, he reached, and I shot him twice again.

He slid down the gunwale and toppled onto his side. His head knocked the deck hard enough to bounce.
Yet oddly (heh), Koontz's writing is marked primarily by his good heart. We're sometimes told that a society can be measured by the way it treats animals and the elderly; on both these scores, Koontz is truly a good person. He doesn't torture his characters: those which die do so quickly (as in the passage above), not in Bonnie-and-Clyde "artistic" slo-mo. He makes evil characters plainly evil (at the same time adding contradictory "human" elements to their characters -- loving families and so on). There is generally little moral ambiguity about the outcome.

But Odd Thomas has started to suspect that he himself has a dark side -- the will to do nasty things. To nasty people, yes. But nonetheless it's a side of himself he doesn't care for and, I suspect, will continue to grapple with.

One downside becomes evident early on: that initial chase scene seemed to drag on quite a bit longer than necessary. Odd Thomas's voice is a charming one, punctuated with sly humor (and a quaint near-absence of contractions: "is not" instead of "isn't," "it is" vs. "it's," and so on). It may be that this voice beguiles Koontz as much as his audience. In any case, Odd's woolgathering asides just when the action is starting to ratchet up can seem, at their worst, like artificial "suspense-making" gimmicks.

But the operative word in that paragraph is "charming." If you haven't met Odd Thomas before, you might want to start not with ODD HOURS but with the first in the series (the eponymous ODD THOMAS), and read forward. If you have met him, on the other hand, you'll come to ODD HOURS knowing what pleasures to expect -- including the usual little jolts you never saw coming.

And it doesn't hurt to learn along the way just why the shade of Frank Sinatra has resisted moving on. (Hint: it goeth before a fall.)


ChrisEldin said...

I love Dean Koontz's writing, especially his use of weather metaphors. Didn't know the Odd series came out with a fourth book---thanks for sharing!!! Now it's on my list!

JES said...

Weather metaphors? That's a new one on me -- now I'm gonna have to re-read them all! :)

(Thanks for the heads-up, Chris; will have to keep an eye open for this. There's a TON of fog in ODD HOURS, for one!)