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From the Corner of His Eye by Dean Koontz
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Sep 18, 11

From the Corner of His Eye

by Dean Koontz

Bantam, 729 pages, paperback, 2001; reissue of a book
originally published in 2001

Dean Koontz is probably, right now, the most underestimated
writer at work in the field of fantastic literature. The reasons
are not hard to fathom. Unlike most authors, who go through the
learning process before they ever see print, Koontz had the
misfortune — although of course it must have seemed far from
that to him at the time — to find publishers for his early,
clumsy attempts, which, again unfortunately for his status within
the field, sold pretty well; one of them, Demon Seed
(1973), an sf novel of risible implausibility, was successfully
made into an even worse movie (1977). His movie novelization
The Funhouse (1980; initially published as by Owen West)
is another to be recalled with the wrong sort of shudder. Through
these and other books he gained a dubious reputation — and
good sales figures — as a sort of poor man's Stephen King, a
reputation that ignored the fact that he was slowly carving out
his own individual and quite distinctive niche: his novels, which
got steadily better, grew less like horror novels and less even
than like dark fantasies, instead becoming what might best be
described as dark technofantasies. Horrors there might be
aplenty, and they might seem to be rooted in the fantastic, but
almost always there was a sub-sciencefictional rationalization
somewhere. By the time of a book like Mr. Murder (1993)
— which is not far short of a fine novel — he had more
or less mastered his art. It can be read as a technofantasy
response to Stephen King's The Dark Half (1989): in both
books the central character is a writer being persecuted by a
doppelg„nger, but in Koontz's novel the doppelg„nger has been
manufactured rather than generated from the psyche.

Bestsellerdom greeted many of his novels of the later 1980s
and especially the 1990s, but by that time many readers of
fantastic literature had given up on him, having been more than
once bitten by his earlier efforts. This was a great shame.

And it would be a great shame were such readers to miss
From the Corner of His Eye, because, although not blemish-
free, this is a good novel by anybody's standards. Although not
as elegantly polished, it has the air of the novel that John
Irving, perhaps, might write were he ever to stray into Dean
Koontz territory.

Most of the book is set in the latter part of the 1960s.
Harrison White, a black preacher, writes a long and powerful
radio sermon based on the little-regarded disciple Saint
Bartholomew. This sermon provides important motivation for much
of the plot, as is slowly revealed. For example, a rehearsal of
it is playing in the background as psychopath Junior Cain is
brutally raping the younger of White's two virginal daughters,
Seraphim; she dies bearing the resultant child, a girl who,
christened Angel, is adopted by her elder sister Celestina.
Although Cain barely listens to the tape, the name Bartholomew
imprints itself upon his subconscious. Elsewhere, at about the
time of Angel's birth, the broadcast sermon much affects Joe
Lampion, whose wife Aggie is expecting their first-born; he dies
in a car smash while taking her to hospital for the birth, his
dying wish being that the baby, if a boy, be called Bartholomew.

Cain does not stop his psychopathic career at the rape of
Seraphim. Less than a year later he moves on to murder, the
victim being his fairly recent bride; he fakes her death as an
accidental fall from a rickety tower and is awarded millions in
an out-of-court settlement by the authorities whose task it
should have been to keep the tower in a proper state of repair.
Not all are entirely convinced by Cain's explanation, among them
his lawyer, Simon Magusson — seemingly seedy but in fact
with a moral core — and most particularly a maverick
homicide detective, Thomas Vanadium, who can make coins
(quarters) disappear in a seemingly sleight-of-hand trick that in
fact is real: he has accidentally learned the knack of flicking
the coins into parallel universes. (As an aside, this offers a
wry counter-explanation of the celebrated Randi-Geller dispute:
what if it's not Geller who's doing conjuring tricks but Randi
who's performing paranormal feats?) Vanadium hears Cain talking
in his sleep, and discovers that the murderer has a subliminal
fixation on the name Bartholomew — a fixation that he begins
to exploit after Cain has very nearly killed him. Cain, you see,
believes that he has killed Vanadium, rather than, in
actuality, putting him into a months-long coma; and it is because
of this false assumption that Cain's psychopathic career begins
to unravel; tormented by occasional, deliberately staged glimpses
of Vanadium's "ghost", by incongruously "materializing" quarters
and by snatches of a meaningful song "spectrally" broadcast into
his luxury apartment, he becomes obsessed with the notion that
the child born of his rape must have been a boy called
Bartholomew, the murder of which infant will bring him release
from all the "paranormal" persecution he is suffering.

As they grow through infancy, both Bartholomew — who
proves to be a child prodigy — and Angel discover they have
Vanadium's ability to interact with parallel universes, only much
more so; in Bartholomew's case this becomes even more pronounced
after, at the age of three, he must have his eyes surgically
removed to halt the spread of retinal cancer. To help him move
about without accident, he can let his mind briefly camp in
closely similar realities where he was never stricken by the
cancer and so still possesses his sight.

Cain is the star of the show. Koontz is obviously irritated
by the fallacy perpetuated in almost all serial-killer chillers
that serial killers are phenomenally intelligent — all
Hannibal Lecters. In real life this is total nonsense: serial
killers are almost always pretty dimwitted but their psychopathy
leads them to believe themselves to be more intelligent by
untold orders of magnitude than the "common herd"; this false
belief is what leads them to getting caught, usually through
repeated acts of thundering stupidity. Koontz, going against the
literary trend but more accurately reflecting reality, portrays
Junior Cain as an exceptionally stupid and gullible, if at the
same time cunning and certainly lucky, psychopath, and he does so
through often hilarious, laugh-out-loud satire. Cain has
pretensions to Culture, and is completely hoodwinked by the
stances of the bad modern-art cliques of the late 1960s: no
painting is acceptable to him unless it is utterly hideous,
preferably stomach-churningly so, and thus he squanders much of
his ill gotten gains on the dire but fashionable artworks
produced by idiot poseur Sklent. In his sexual life, Cain,
physically handsome but affectingly vile, is convinced of his
magnificence as a lover and that he is completely irresistible to
women; he is perplexed by the fact that so few of his ex-lovers
ever plead with him for a reconciliation and by the way so many
of the women lusting after him play the game of pretending to
resist, but chooses to dismiss these facts as just quirks of
happenstance. And throughout everything he is guided by the
ludicrous but bestselling self-help writings of the crackpot guru
Cyrus Zedd, which have titles like Act Now, Think Later
and which advise that one should live always in the future, never
in the present or the past. As example, Zedd's prescription for
the recovery of lost memories is to stand in a cold shower for as
long as it takes, tightly pressing a fistful of ice cubes to the
genitalia. Cain discovers that the technique does indeed
eventually help him recover a specific lost memory, and
thereafter, for some reason, he becomes generally much
better at not forgetting things. There are other books in
Cain's library — almost all purchased from the Book of the
Month Club, of which he is inordinately proud to be a member
— but somehow he has never quite had the time to read more
than a page or two of any of them, obviously believing that,
through their very possession, he has transformed himself into
Literary Man through some sort of osmotic process.

But Cain is not the only character in this long and much-
woven novel to leap out of the page and permanently imprint on
the mind. Celestina White is another delightful discovery. A
highly talented artist, she becomes successful creating paintings
of the type that Cain has learnt to detest and despise: only
morons could like paintings that uplift the heart and display
brilliant technique, after all. More to the point, having
initially, briefly hated the baby whose birth "killed her sister"
— the newborn who, while half the offspring of the loved
Seraphim must also be half the offspring of the deservedly
loathed (but unidentified) rapist — takes her in and
sacrifices much to be an ideal mother to her. It might sound as
if Celestina could read as a nauseatingly good goodie (and the
portrayal of Agnes Lampion does on occasion veer this way), but
in fact she emerges as a charming and extremely intelligent
woman, someone one wishes one had as a best friend. While it is
hard to control a grin of derision, if not outright laughter,
when Cain is at centre stage, in Celestina's case it is hard to
control a warm grin of affection.

As noted parenthetically, the depiction of the one-woman
charity movement Agnes Lampion is less successful, and, oddly,
the same can be said for the unkillable cop and retired priest
Thomas Vanadium, who really should be the tale's Immutable Force
of Good. Perhaps part of it is to do with the name. As will be
obvious, there's quite a lot of coding going on in terms of the
book's names: Cain, the black Whites, Simon Magusson, Angel,
Bartholomew, and so on, and this is by no means limited to the
central characters. But Vanadium — harder, of course, than
steel þ? It's a highly artificial surname, and the effect is a
bit hokey, damagingly so in that it colours our perceptions of
the rest of Vanadium's characterization, which would be just on
the verge of clich‚d caricature even without the name, which
pulls it (only slightly) too far in that direction. It's
possible, of course, that this was a deliberate gambit on
Koontz's part — to set a caricatured Force of Good against
his inspiredly caricatured Force of Evil — and certainly in
the rest of the novel Koontz displays a sufficiently attuned
intelligence that this may very well be the case, but in this
instance, at least for this reader, it is a minor irritation
rather than an effective literary stratagem.

Fantasy, technofantasy, science fiction, chiller thriller or
comedy of manners? From the Corner of His Eye is all of
these, to a greater or lesser extent. Although it has occasional
clumsinesses (almost inevitable in such a very long novel) —
the final, inevitable despatch of Junior by the kids is, for
example, hurriedly and rather flatly done — these are just
about irrelevant in the context of the whole, which is a splendid
achievement. Do not be deceived by the book's trumpeted
bestseller status, or by the bizarrely misleading blurb, or by
any memories you might have (no need for cold showers and ice
cubes here) of early experiences with Koontz's novels: give this
one a try.

This review, first published by Infinity Plus, is
excerpted from my ebook Warm Words and Otherwise: A Blizzard
of Book Reviews
, to be published on September 19 by Infinity
Plus Ebooks.

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