Dean Koontz has become as comforting a ritual as a writer who specializes in the creepy can be. Year after year, his books sprout at mass bookstores and priced-to-gouge airport chains, bearing their unique, bloody scent. So what if his suspense novels deploy similar structure, villains, and even the same Sylvia Plath poem (”Johnny Panic”) again and again? The man delivers, and you’ve got to give him that.
So how fascinating to crack From the Corner of His Eye – ye gods, his 38th novel – and find deviation from Koontz’s pat commercial formula. Sure, there are spooks and hemic spatters, but who would have supposed that the so-called master of American suspense – an author so associated with flecks of blood, gristle, and wet viscera – would ever deliver lines like ”Every day of your life, there are opportunities to perform little kindnesses for others, both by conscious acts of will and unconscious example. Each smallest act of kindness…reverberates across great distances and spans of time”? Or comfort us with the thought that ”He’s always at least watching from the corner of his eye”? Or note that ”coincidence is the result of mysterious design and meaning”?
In short, Koontz has gone halfway to the land of Oprah – this is his Waiting to Exhume, his Slay It Forward.
Comfortingly, we at least begin with carnage. Lots of it. A saintly baker loses her husband in a car crash. A budding madman heaves his wife off a rotting observation tower. A 15-year-old girl, the victim of a horrifying rape, dies in childbirth. And the only thing these violent acts have in common – other than their abrupt, brutish nature – is that each of the women is expecting.
Slowly – very slowly – the story unfolds. Agnes Lampion, the beatific widow, has her son in 1965, a brilliant tot named Bartholomew who seems to possess the power to step between dimensions. The sister of the 15-year-old moves to San Francisco to care for her supernatural baby, Angel. And the wife killer, Junior Cain, spirals (well, limps slowly, anyway) into madness, extending his rather tame killing spree from Oregon to San Francisco and back again. Koontz tosses in such a dizzying array of other characters (Lampion’s two hilariously morbid brothers, the hard-boiled back-from-the-dead detective, the widower who walks hundreds of miles for no apparent reason, the hard-boiled-but-was-never-dead detective, a random piano player at a bar, Jonas Salk…) that the novel starts to feel like watching TV with a bored teenager who can’t find anything he wants to stick with on the 350-channel satellite dish.
As time ticks toward the 1970s, the stories converge. With a few murders under his belt, Cain threatens the two brilliant babes – convinced they’re destined to do something really bad to him – and before you know it, everyone is miraculously united through divine metaphysical planning. It’s an unappetizing stew of religious overtones and avant-garde physics: Everything Happens for a Reason and We’re All Connected on This Crazy Planet stuff.
Full disclosure: I’m with Bull Durham’s Crash Davis; I don’t believe in quantum physics when it comes to matters of the heart.Which raises the question, When fans discover their old faithful burbling up holy water instead of blood, how are they going to react? And, who really wants this Chicken Soup for the Dismembered Soul from Koontz, anyway? The man is a plotter, a truly fine story architect. His best constructions can be thrillingly fast and efficient. Yet, buckling with pop-psych goofiness, the plot girders of From the Corner of His Eye collapse under their own weight. That might be forgivable if the book entertained. But, like a trick balloon, this pulp blows up and up but never goes pop; you’re always fully prepared to put it down. And if you’re stuck in the airport, what good is that? C-