Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Koontz Klatsch

As we all know thanks to Colin Clive and Boris Karloff, "Frankenstein" is the name of the doctor who stitched together pieces of several corpses and reanimated them. That reanimated being is usually known as the monster, and it has no name. But what if Frankenstein really was the monster?

Which is exactly what the mad doctor is, according to Dean Koontz's revisionary take on Mary Shelley's novel in his five-book "Frankenstein" series. Victor Frankenstein's horrible vision for "improving" humanity has morphed, 200 years later, into a vision for replacing it. Frankenstein has used his genius to keep himself alive and to gradually begin building biologically engineered super-humans he programmed and controls.

Koontz begins the series in New Orleans, as detectives Carson O'Connor and Michael Maddison confront a series of horrific and unexplainable murders. The mysterious giant Deucalion enlists their help when he reveals that the murders have their source in Victor's schemes and that he is the original monster stitched together in Victor's lab. The first three books in the series cover the three fighting Frankenstein -- now calling himself Victor Helios -- in New Orleans, before shifting in the final two to a battleground in a small town in the rural northwestern U.S.

The series is entertaining and offers some food for thought as Victor's creations wrestle with their artificially created existence and its implications. Koontz is a practicing Roman Catholic and he brings that perspective into conflict with the idea of lab-grown people. Are they people? Do they have souls? Does Victor's programming to suppress what he sees as humanity's flaws improve them or does it sow the seeds for their destruction? Genre fiction can ask and deal with questions like these even without being "serious literature," in the same way that C.S. Lewis's "Space Trilogy" does.

Although intriguing, the series is really too long, though. It would have been better as a trilogy, either excising the final two books entirely or by collapsing the first three into two and the last two into one. The last pair add little to the ideas with which Koontz is working and not that much to the story itself. Koontz's vision of Frankenstein works at a pretty high level for genre fiction, but the length and the rather listless and talky final confrontation between Victor and Deucalion keep it from being a classic on the shelves.
Jonah Ellington Basie Hines Eldridge Wilson Hampton Armstrong Kirk is a young boy with a long name. In an un-named city in the United States in the mid-1960s, he will encounter new people. Some of them will become friends, and some of them will mean danger for him and those around him. As he reflects back on those times from the vantage point of late middle age, he will see connections between these people and events both near and far. He will also see influences that are simultaneously from beyond his own world and intimately tied to it, in Dean Koontz's 2013 novel, The City.

Although he'd written several novels in different genres, many under pen names, Koontz first made a name writing thrillers with a distinct supernatural flavor. Once he began regularly charting on bestseller lists, he used his pseudonyms less and less often and began overtly branching out into those other arenas. but he regularly circles back to his supernatural roots.The ghost-story feel of The City is a good example. Jonah encounters people and events he can't explain with his knowledge of the real world, even if the life he lives as the son of a single mother who works at a department store by day and sings in jazz clubs by night is as much a part of the everyday world as you or I.

These supernatural appearances may want to warn or alert Jonah to some possible future disaster, or they may just be a part of his dreams. Koontz uses the natural mysticism of the child to help foster this atmosphere. An appearance by one character takes on supernatural implications in Jonah's mind, but a neighbor responds to it in ways that an adult would. That which is literally supernatural blends with what seems to be so in our narrator's eyes and soaks magic into even the mundane. The reminiscent tone of the story allows for some brief reflective pauses to stop and mull over ideas and concepts the narrative introduces. Koontz dribbles those out in small doses so he doesn't clog his story.

The adult voice reflecting on childhood experience is common but here done particularly well, leading to a kind of To Kill a Mockingbird-by-way-of-Peter-Straub feel that makes The City a pleasure to read as well as to digest. Koontz is no Harper Lee -- the villains are far less organically a part of the story than Bob Ewell was, and the supernatural agents sketchier and more vague than they really should be. But even so, The City is one of Koontz's better works and one worth spending some time and gray matter on.

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