The Vision (1977) by Dean Koontz

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Southern California according to Koontz is a place infested with serial killers, but happily there’s a clairvoyant-at-large, Mary, using her Dead Zone skills out of the goodness of her blessed heart. Together with Max her manly husband of about six months (it feels like they’ve been married for years and years) she helps the police capture evildoers before they harm any single ladies. But she’s got some heavy history of her own and her subconscious hides the worst killer of them all.

The Vision is all business from the beginning and proceeds at a breakneck pace helped along by the fact that a large part of the novel is told through dialogue. Backstory is given drop by measured drop, because otherwise the reader would probably figure out what takes the seer a lifetime to piece together. Not that the small retinue of characters doesn’t make it far too easy from the start.

There’s nothing wrong with the plot, it’s a thriller by the numbers, with some surprisingly nasty details from the man who is pretty much a human equivalent of a golden retriever. The plot point involving bats is the one that sticks to mind, and it’s probably going to be at the top of my mind every time I as much as glance at a Koontz book. There are also supernatural attacks by glass trinkets and seagulls, because killers alone wouldn’t cut it.

The Vision is a lesser novel. The writing and the pacing are alright, but all characters, most importantly Mary herself, are thrown in front of the reader fully formed and all that’s left is to count all the clues. She may have been on a journey, but the readers aren’t invited to participate. It’s the writer’s choice and it does serve a thriller format very well, but it does detract from the horror and the mystery of it all.

*** (3/5)

The Other Emily (2021) by Dean Koontz

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A dash of mystery, a spoonful of horror, a sprinkling of science fiction on top, bake at 200 degrees celsius for 30 minutes and you’ve got yourself a new Dean Koontz novel. A decade ago Emily of the title went missing without a trace, apparently as a victim of a serial killer who never confessed to killing this particular girl, just many others. The other Emily is Maddison, a woman who is somehow an exact duplicate of the long-lost Emily as she was when she disappeared. David the still grieving widower is immediately smitten, but being the smart protagonist that he is, he’s soon figuring out the origin of this strange doppelgänger. Who also jokingly claims to be an assassin.

The mystery unwinds itself slowly, with David going after clues, interviewing eyewitnesses to different strange events and sneaking into haunted houses and abandoned underground lairs. All of the novel takes place after the fact (Jessup the serial killer is already jailed and condemned to die and most of the violence takes place elsewhere, with David following up news reports), so the emphasis here is firmly on resolving the mystery of Emily/Maddison. The serial killer, often the star attraction in many a Koontz novel, is here relegated into a supporting role, which actually works even better.

Jessup’s homespun mythology of collecting brides to be resurrected is a particularly good one, especially since it has an unexplained connection to what’s taking place elsewhere at the same time. The women, Emily and Maddison, clearly have something resembling parallel lives, with Maddison’s strange modern house on Rock Point Lane mirroring that of Jessup’s rundown house and its subterranean maze.

The novel loses some of its steam in the middle, especially during the many romantic intervals, only to gain traction again when David is on his own and the hunt for clues is on. Struggle through the many California sunsets and you should be ok.

In true Koontz fashion the final explanation for Maddison’s origin involves some acrobatic genrebending, but it’s still a satisfying conclusion. The Other Emily might not upend the Koontz formula in a radical fashion, but it does tweak it subtly, resulting in a well-spun mystery that somehow feels fresh even after all the dozens and dozens of Koontz novels using similar ingredients and characters over the years. But I guess that’s what good craftsmen do.

**** (4/5)

Shattered (1973) by Dean Koontz

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Coming out on the heels of Richard Matheson’s Duel and Spielberg’s movie adaptation of the same story, Shattered is a no-frills car chase from Philadelphia to San Francisco. Alex has recently married Courtney and is taking a road trip to her with Courtney’s younger sibling, 11-year-old Colin. Little do they know they have a stalker in the form of a psychopath in a white van. Beginning as an innocent game, the chase soon escalates.

Set mostly on Interstate highways and roadside motels and diners, Shattered exists in a quintessentially American landscape. Other than the trio, there are barely any other characters of note. This isolation in wide open spaces creates a good atmosphere, although Koontz needs to jump through some loops to keep it that way; the only police officer Alex and Colin meet is ridiculously unhelpful.

It’s unclear if Koontz revised the novel for republication in the eighties, but Shattered reads exactly like any other Koontz novel, except for a notable lack of deeper character development. Alex is a coward, Colin is a 11-year-old and the psychopath has migraines. That’s all, and it’s in line with the concise nature of the book, and it doesn’t detract from the action, but in this regard Koontz has done a lot better since. A lesser novel, certainly, but good enough for a couple of hours of entertainment.

*** (3/5)

Intensity (1995) by Dean Koontz

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Dean Koontz is something of a guilty pleasure. His standard of quality seems to be so reliable that he produces neither turkeys nor masterpieces. He’s not a plagiarist, but he’s not terribly original either. His books are usually very well crafted, and although there are edges, especially his later books feel just… too wholesome.

Of course Koontz himself seems like a nice, well-adjusted guy who loves dogs and has, just based on his production rate, an admirable work ethic. He also seems like a canny businessman who knows to sprinkle his wares with just the right amount of suspense and thrills for his target audience. For hardcore horror fans, that may not be enough.

Intensity, however, makes a good try. Basically a cat-and-mouse chase where the mouse occasionally goes after the cat, Intensity is the story of psychology major Chyna, who witnesses a sadistic serial killer Edgler Vess attacking the family of a friend she’s staying with. Through some twists of fate, she ends up hiding in Vess’ motor home as he leaves the scene, ultimately arriving at his house, where Vess is holding a 16-year old girl as a prisoner.

Almost entirely a two-person novel, both of the characters are presented in some detail. Chyna, who has been hardened by a tough childhood, is an inventive and brave protagonist, while Vess is a psychopath of exaggerated proportions, a Jack Reacher of serial killers. Chyna’s desperate attempts to hide or to escape or to just not let Vess escape are described in minute details where every second and heartbeat counts. Check the box for suspense and thrills with a big fat marker.

That’s about it. The novel is an entertaining rush, a quick-paced series of thrills, where the good guys eventually win, as they always do. The trick is in how to get to the resolution, and Intensity lives up to its name, never boring, never wavering from its single-minded mission. Intensity doesn’t try to be anything but an exciting ride, and that’s why it works.

***** (5/5)