Thursday, February 14, 2008

Dean Koontz: The Darkest Evening of the Year

Dean Koontz has written some of the best suspense novels--often with fatasy or science fiction elements--ever written.  That is at least partly because, unlike Stephen King, Dean Koontz has stayed with the single most effective theme in aoo of literature, and especially in suspense fiction:  Good vs. Evil, and good people vs. evil people.  Stephen King has often drifted off into "scare" and "horror" merely for the sake of scare and horror.  Plus, the "evil" in Stephen King's books tends to be too vague and abstract (e.g. "Bag of Bones", "It", "Dreamcatcher", and a long list of others).  In recent Stephen King books, neither the people nor the "good" and "evil" concepts are convincing--not nearly as convincing as "The Dead Zone", "Salem's Lot", or "The Stand".  "The Green Mile" was an exception, but Dean Koontz has really been a murch superior window into the concept of "good and evil" recently than Stephen King.  Koontz has a sense of morality that King seemed to lose, even as King went after the obvious targets of racism, etc.

In additon, Koontz has always had more talent at writing relatively convincing descriptions of men/women relationships, and women characters in general, than King ever had (sole exception:  the marvelous "The Dead Zone"). 

Koontz has developed one MAJOR fault.  His prose has always been a little too lush ("dark and stormy night" stuff, with a more poetic flair) and over-the-top.  His strong point has always been a sense of real people, that same poetic flair, and that sense of a moral viewpoint.  Plot was not the point of a Dean Koontz book.  However, he has developed a bad case of what I call "the kitchen sink syndrome".  Even as some of his plots have gotten stronger, Koonts has developed this distressing tendency to throw plausibility to the winds in an attemptt to throw "the kitchen sink" into his plots.  To his credit, he has kept a sense of morality (and moral sensibilites of his protagonists) in his most outrageouls plots, but a number of his recent books have thrown entirely too many "Pulp Fiction" elements into the plot.  "Intensity", despite its emotional payoff, was a totally absurd book.  Ditto for "Velocity" (which I threw against the wall before page 100, because of its totally unacceptable, and unbelievable, setup).  "The Husband" was a valentine to marital love (Koontz' heart is almost ALWAYS in the right place), but totally outrageous in its STUPIDITY.  Any "husband" who disregarded reasonable actions, in favor of doing unreasonable things in the name of love, would be betraying his wife.  "Odd Thomas" was a marvelous book.  The sequel was a potboiler with no purpose (including set action pieces that felt false).  All of the Koontz "bad" books have sacrificed all rationality in favor of an over-the-top pushing of every button Koontz could think of.

"The Darkest Evening of the Year" is the latest, and in some ways the worst, of the "kitchen sink syndrome" books.  There is not ONE serial killer.  There are not TWO.  There are THREE serial killers.  BOTH the male female protaganist AND the male protagonist have a "past" which haunts them (with a separate serial killer in each past--which serial killers come TOGETHER to torment the couple).  The book is heavily into mistreatment of animals, and if you like golden retrievers you may like the book.  The female protagonist is heavily into "animal rescue", and specifically of golden retrievers.  There are actual ANGELS in the book.   In other words, Koontz pushes almost every emotional button there is to push, but leaves rationality behind,.  The THIRD serial killer works for one of the ones tormenting the couple, and ENDLESS scenes are devoted to GRATUITOUS killings by this sociopathic killer.  They are DULL.  They are digressions from the main story, and indeed Koontz regularly seems to lose track of what the main story is (other than to push ever button he can, along with throwing in senselss, gratuitous killing after senseless, gratuitous killing.

The duaghter of teh male protagonist has DOWN'S SYNDROME (I could not make this up and wish Koontz had not).  That daughter is being tormented by the female serial killer merely to torment the male protagonist (nope, I did not buy a word of it).  There is a golden retriever with a leg cut off.  There is a golden retriever with SPINA BIFIDA.  TThere is a reincarnation (of sorts) of the daughter the female protagonist failed to save..  There is that reference to a real angel posessing a golden retriever.

It is all too much.  It is DULL throughout, except for the original "animal rescue" scene, which is also a human rescue of a battered wife and children.   That initial scene has real power.  After that, the kitchen sink takes over.  This is NOT a matter of fantasy elements.  One of the GREAT Koontz books is the one about parallel universes, with each person existing in MUTLIPLE universes (the same basic person, but slightly different in each universe, along with somewhat different events occurring in each universe). 

It is not a matter of whether you really believe that the events in a Koontz book could actually happen.  It is a matter of overwhelming boks with things that are just unbelievable, EVEN IN THE CONTEXT OF THE ASSUMPTIONS OF THE BOOK.  You just can't throw this many elements into a book, and try to push this many emotional buttons, without losing control.  Or, if you can, Koontz failed to do it in this mess of a book.

"The Darkest Evening of the Year" is a bad book, even though Koonz' heart is clearly in the right place.  The best thing about the book is that it does have a consistent, positive moral point of view (a view of good and evil, as well as Good and Evil, which is uplifting at the same time it suggests evil must be fought).   This just cannot overcome the "kithcen sink syndrome" in this book. 


slapinions said...

I must say I liked your review, in both tone and logic. You write your best when keeping your emotions in check (just my opinion).

As for Koontz I think he's a writer that you like for one book, love for another 5 or 6, and from then on it's a slippery slope with diminishing returns along the way. The plots are outlandish. There is a Lassie type adoration of canines, a distrust of the government, either an over the type loving parent or a completely absent one (never just a normal mom and dad), there are stylistic excesses straight out of Snoopy's typewriter.

It's just too much.

King has many drawbacks - a love for the Red Sox among them - but I think that of the two he is the stronger writer and, even forgetting popularity, the one of the pair people will remember in 50 years.


skip3366 said...

I appreciate the comment, with most of which I agree.  My view of King is affected by my opinion of his more recent stuff.  He was a pioneer of a certain kind of horror fiction seemingly set in the real world (although bringing in horror elements which were never part of the real world).   I regard "It" as one of the WORST bookds of the 20th Century (by a major talent)--I read every word of the more than THOUSAND pages, and regret every minute of it.  Both Koontz and King have written so much that they are bound to have some really BAD stuff.  I feel that both have lost discipline (the discipline to control their excesses) as they have become accustomed to success.  Plus, editors can't possibly have any inflence on them.  

I REALLY liked early Stephen King (I still regard "The Dead Zone" as one of the best books ever written--period).  But King fell in love with his own words, and recent books have often been pointless and dull (as King seems to be telling us:  I know that I can't possibly make this work, but I am going to show everyone I CAN)--a different kind of "kithen sink syndrome" than Koontz.   In "Bag ob Bones", for example, King has the nerve--in a really DULL book--to TELL the reader that he was killing off the young female romantic interest because he did not know how to handle it any other way.   "Dreamcatcher" seemed to be King saying that he could make a book about FARTING interesting (he couldn't).  The only time this "risk taking" really paid off was in King's revival of the serial in "The Green Mile".  Otherwise, I wish he had kept at the level of his early books.