Maciek's Reviews > Phantoms

Phantoms by Dean Koontz
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Dec 16, 10

bookshelves: owned-books, horror, disappointments, own-in-paperback, read-in-2010, reviewed, classic-horror
Read from May 27 to 30, 2010

In 1979, Dean Koontz wrote a novel called Whispers which catapulted him to the bestseller list. Koontz's status in the publishing world shifted drastically; from a rather unknown suspense producer he became the hot stuff, and in 1981 Whispers rose to the top five of the New York Times paperback bestseller list.

But this article is not about Whispers. While I'm not a fan of the mentioned novel, and consider it to be largely tedious and overwrought with banal drama and sentimentality, it shows potential in one field: the creep field. There are sections in Whispers that are genuinely disturbing to this day, and it's been three decades since the original publication - that's saying something.

However, as big a success the book was, it didn't made Koontz a millionaire, nor a cult writer. His publisher told him that if he wanted to build his career he'd have to write a horror novel - Whispers was marketed as horror, despite having little to do with the genre - horror was popular at that time. Koontz wrote four novels under various pseudonyms (all largely forgotten, more or less deservedly) and after two years he finally gave in to the urgings and in 1983 came up with Phantoms.

Now, in 1983 Koontz wasn't interested in angelic dogs and some weird new age philosophies, and most importantly he was still fresh with ideas and hasn't succumbed to the formula of rewriting the same book over and over. Phantoms was the novel which gave Koontz the label of a horror writer - a blessing or a curse? Seems like a bit of both. The book was an enormous success, earning praise of both audience and critics, who then returned to read his later work and were disappointed that it didn't had much in common with Phantoms.

Koontz opens the novel in the Hitchcockian way. With a bang - the opening estabilishes the tension and introduces the reader to the nightmare which will most certainly follow.

The scream was distant and brief. A woman's scream. - Deputy Henderson is sitting alone in the town jail of Snowfield in California, a small lazy town, when he hears the scream. The duty is dull; not much happens in Snowfield in September, and the deputy is bored. He listens intently but cannot hear anything; a quick glance at the peaceful main street makes him think that he might have imagined the scream. He almost wishes that somene had screamed; being young and brave he's ready for some action.
He sighed, looked down at the magazine that lay on his desk—and heard another scream. As before, it was distant and brief, but this time it sounded like a man's voice. It wasn't merely a shriek of excitement or even a cry of alarm; it was the sound of terror. The deputy gets up from the chair, ready to investigate, and when he's almost halfway to the door he hears a sound in the office he has just left.
That was impossible. He had been alone in the office all day, and there hadn't been any prisoners in the three holding cells since early last week. The rear door was locked, and that was the only other way into the jail.
When he turned, however, he discovered that he wasn't alone any more. And suddenly he wasn't the least bit bored.


Phantoms opens as a locked room mystery - what happened in the Deputy's office? How could someone enter the place that was empty seconds before he left it? Koontz restricts the action in the opening to a single place and a single protagonist, who is faced with danger that is shown but not explained, therefore making it intriguing and pushing the reader to the edge of his seat - this drastically increases the tension, a feat that requires considerable skill to perform on such small space.

The second chapter is titled Coming Home and introduces two characters - Jennifer and Elisabeth Paige. The two weren't close; Jennifer's work as a doctor didn't allow her to spend much time on bonding. However, on the death of their mother, Jennifer decides to take care of Lisa. The sisters drive to Jennifer's home in Snowfield, and quickly notice an unusual quietness in the town. Koontz does a great job with describing the surroundings in vivid detail, and thrusting two average people into a strange situation (another Hitchockian trope he uses).
The town is not merely quiet - it looks dead.

The sidewalks, balconies, and porches were deserted. Even in those shops and houses where there were lights burning, there was no sign of life. Jenny's Trans Am was the only moving car on the long street.

Snowfields appear to be uninhabited. The sisters are scared, but decide to find out what has happened. Koontz employs the best type of terror in this section of the book - something sinister has apparently occured in Snowfield, but neither the reader nor the two sisters have a clue what is going on. And it's not because of the lack of evidence; soon the sisters find plenty of evidence, but it produces more questions than explanations. The terror in Snowfield has occured for no apparent reason, and there is no explanation for ir. Or is there?

The silently crushing presence of a dead town is one of Koontz's best suspense in his whole career. It's difficult to discuss the book without going into spoiler territory, so I'll refrain from it. Have you ever wondered what might have happened on Marie Celeste, or who wrote Croatoan? The same mystery of mass disappearance is employed masterfully by Koontz in the first section of Phantoms. The horror employed by Koontz is the best one; no boogeyman shouting "BOO!", but a silently malevolent presence, or an imagination of this presence serves for the unrelenting sense of slowly unfolding terror. I started reading Phantoms when I was alone at night, and I was so into this section that I jumped when stray wind hit my window. It is the best setting to read this novel; silence equaling that in Snowfield, where little happens but the terror just mounts and mounts. This is Koontz at his best, a writer enjoying fresh success and experimenting with joy in the genre that offers unlimited possibilities. "You want horror?" - he asks. "All right - I'll give you horror! I'll give you the mother of all horror stories!"

Unfortunately, the first part is the only flawless one. In his previous novels, Koontz switched the narrative between protagonists, and does it again in Phantoms - in chapter 9, Jenny uses the telephone to call a sheriff from the neighboring town. From now on, the narrative will switch between a cast of characters, and this very technique largely destroys the brilliant creepiness of part one. The horror that ratcheted up with each revelation is largely diminished by the entrance of new characters and the insight into their perspective; now there's a sense of companionship and the two sisters are not alone, and when you're not alone in the dark the fear of the unknown largely disappears. Each chapter offers a new perspective; and the time spent with each character is too small to grow attached to them and to share their uneasiness and fright.

It's not the biggest disappointment, though. Koontz approached writing Phantoms with Whispers fresh in his mind; he wanted to provide a logically consistent explanation of the happenings in the town. From the afterword:

I thought I would cleverly evade their horror-or-starve ultimatum by making Phantoms something of a tour-de-force, rolling virtually all the monsters of the genre into one beast, and also by providing a credible scientific explanation for the creature’s existence. Instead of fearless vampire hunters armed with wooden stakes, instead of werewolf trackers packing revolvers loaded with silver bullets, my protagonists would save themselves by using logic and reason to determine the nature of their mysterious enemy and to find a way to defeat it.

Employing essentially the same tactic (and sharing the same sentiment) as Stoker in Dracula - Ancient Darkness against Modern Wizardry of Technology - destroys the book potential. Phantoms would become a timeless horror classic if it did not try to be too much - Phantoms would be a horror story, yes, but it would also be science fiction, an adventure tale, a wild mystery story, and an exploration of the nature and source of myth. Koontz tries to handle too many genres, too many subplots at once for the thing to work. The incredible, slowly unfolding horror of Part One disappears once the reader is shown what the protagonists are up against and how they mean to deal with the situation. I'm pretty sure that this section of the novel was spoofed in a certain movie that came out just a year later. The end of the novel retreats to the mediocrity and disappointment of most of Koontz's work.


Nevertheless, this is the novel that made Koontz known as a horror writer, and propably his sole title that has been influential in the genre and other media. I'm a big fan of the Silent Hill videogame franchise, and the influence of this work in the first installment is obvious and clear (not to mention that the titular town has a "Koontz street"). If only Phantoms held the mood of the first part, promised on the cover of my paperback edition - a mountain-country house constructed from wood, surrounded by ominous white fog, under a brooding red sky - but I'm sad to say it does not. It's a real shame, because conceptually this is one of Koontz's very best books; and it could be so much, much more. A wasted opportunity that will not be repeated.
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05/27/2010 "I have huge (and I mean xbox HUGE) expectations for this one."
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