As promised, to celebrate the release of my first short story in print, today marks a very special edition of Literal Daze. As usual, we’re going to look at a print book and an audiobook (sorry folks, no movie review today), and this time they both fall under the horror genre. Are you ready to be horrified, terrorized, dread-taculated? Then let us forge ahead into the great unknown…
Midnight (Dean Koontz)
Believe it or not, I have never read a single Dean Koontz novel before this one. I know, right? What kind of person calls himself a horror fan but somehow misses Dean Koontz? I think part of it was the fact that, for a long time (especially after high school), I only wanted to read the best of the best – the books with the highest literary acclaim, the best reviews, etc. Book snobbery, if you will. It’s not a bad plan in theory. After all, there are so many book out there, a person has to use some sort of filtering method to decide which ones to read. Dean Koontz has always had a stigma attached to him, this idea that his books, though wildly popular, are the mental equivalent of junk food. Something to pick up when you’re bored or getting ready for a long airplane ride.
In recent years, however, my thoughts on this matter have changed somewhat. I still look into reviews and everything, but I’ve found that critics don’t, and shouldn’t, account for personal taste. Filet Mignon is wonderful, but sometimes I just want a good old fashioned cheeseburger. And sometimes, I just want a pulpy horror read, and I finally decided that it was time to stuff my face with Koontz. Or rather… eh, you know what I mean.
As it turns out, in small bites, Koontz is pretty tasty.
Midnight starts off as many horror stories do; somebody gets killed. In this case, the killers are a ravenous group of monsters who seem to be infesting the sleepy coastal town of Moonlight Cove. When a hardened FBI agent pays a visit to investigate this and other shady murders that have taken place, he walks into a bit more than he bargained for. Through the eyes of several different characters, some more nefarious than others, we see a plot unfold involving technology run amok, societal devolution, and fighting the internal forces in us all.
I’m hesitant to say that Koontz writing is bad exactly, because… well, he’s published like fifty novels and I’ve published one short story, so I’m in no way qualified to critique him. However, I will say that I wasn’t a huge fan of everything in the book. Many of the characters were one-dimensional, never changing throughout the novel (which admittedly takes place in about 24 hours, but still, a lot happens in those 24 hours). In addition, there were several threads brought up that just kind of didn’t go anywhere, or ended in an unsatisfying way.
Still, overall, it was an enjoyable read. A straightforward horror story that doesn’t pull any punches, and for that I have to give it some credit. Will it make me a Koontz fan for life? I don’t know, probably not yet, but it does at least make me want to pick up more of his stuff in the future.
The Ruins (Scott Smith)
This one was written by another somewhat well-known author who was new to me, Scott Smith, who also wrote the novel and screenplay for A Simple Plan. Reviews for this one were wildly split online, which piqued my curiosity. Many loved it, many hated it, but there were few middle-of-the-roaders. Still, the premise looked interesting, so I took the plunge.
If nothing else, I now understand the split. I think my own opinion of the book is split, so it’s no wonder that the critical response is so polar on this one.
The Ruins begins with a simple premise. Two young couples take a trip to Cancun as a final fling before they all move onto new stages in their lives. While there, they meet up with an athletic German fellow and some fun-loving Greeks who don’t speak a word of english. When the German’s brother runs off with some girl he just met to investigate an archeological site of some ancient ruins, the German convinces the two couples and one of the Greek fellows to go after him. They eventually find the site, and after some Mayan villagers round them up onto the ruins at gunpoint and don’t let them leave, the story really gets moving.
Of course, as you would expect, there are horrors at the ruins worse and more deadly than the mayan villagers. What’s interesting though is that, almost from the very beginning, we know what these horrors are. There is no dark secret they all have to eventually uncover – the deadly beings stalking them are known right from the start. The horror here comes in this overwhelming sense of dread that covers the story like a blanket, a sense that their doom is inevitable and we’re simply along for the ride as it happens. Like watching a forty-car pileup in slow motion. By the end of the story, you feel that catharsis, the knowledge that at least it’s over now and you have nothing more to invest. And of course, that’s when the gut-punch comes.
Frankly, I thought it was great. However, I can understand where some of the hate comes from. Many of the negative comments I’ve read about the book are related to the characters themselves. Specifically, that they are too much alike and that they act in some stupid ways throughout the story. I don’t agree that they’re too much alike, personally. Some of them have similar personalities, especially the two girls, but there are important differences between them which are subtly exploited as the plot moves along. As for their actions… yeah, sometimes they act like idiots, both individually and as a group. But isn’t that true in real life too? People act in differently based on their personalities, and not always in a good way. I don’t think the characters are stupid as much as they are simply true to real life.
So yes, I fall solidly in the “liked it” camp. I can’t say I would always recommend it, though. Some of the scenes here require a strong stomach and a stronger will to keep reading to find out what happens next. But, for horror fans such as myself who can appreciate it for what it is, it might worth picking up.
As promised, The Hobbit radioplay and The Wise Man’s Fear are still forthcoming, but they have been pushed down the road a bit. Otherwise, look for Neil Gaiman’s American Gods and the audiobook for Iain M. Banks’ newest Culture novel, Surface Detail, to appear in the coming weeks. Until then!