Dean Koontz was dead to me. After a lackluster 77 Shadow Street, a pedestrian Innocence, and a virtually unreadable The City, I began to wonder if the maestro had lost his touch. To me Koontz always meant the supernatural, but nothing hokey or unrealized, but two out of the three books mentioned above were just that — hokey, and unrealized. I could see kernels of possibility and creativity in all three, but they seemed more like first drafts than final copies. In fact, I didn’t even finish The City because of the plethora of cliches and rampant jump-the-shark moments. And for the casual Dean Koontz reader, you’re probably wondering what I expected from him in the first place.
Yes, he’s the same guy who wrote Dragon Tears, Odd Thomas, and Mr. Murder, three novels that took dark and unexpected turns into the occult and dark matters of the twisted heart, but those novels had characters who were believable. They weren’t about dark, twisted souls for the sake of being about dark, twisted souls. I actually CARED about the protagonists of those books, and for good reason. Dean Koontz obviously cared about the protagonists of those books, whereas these recent main characters are mere acquaintances, and not ones I would want to spend too much time around for fear of getting dirty.
He’s my favorite author, so it was with much difficulty that I put down The City, never to return to it. It was the first Koontz book I started that I didn’t finish, and it was not for lack of trying. I spent so much time dredging through each page, each line, every single word, looking for something, anything that made me feel like I was reading a Dean Koontz book and not some schlock by a lesser author, and I could find nothing. There was nothing in that book that stirred something deep inside my soul, nothing but a surface so boring I fell asleep in the middle of the day while trying to focus on its vapid language.
I figured: “The man’s lost it.” After 77 Shadow Street and Innocence I had to at least entertain the sad idea that the man whose work I had fallen in love with in the ’90s just didn’t have it anymore, that he had burned out like so many before him. In fact, I was in mourning, so I went back and read Sole Survivor again to calm my jangled nerves. It did the trick. So when my wife brought home his latest from the library — Ashley Bell — I was actually in a good enough place to give it a shot without worrying about The City and the dark specter it had cast over me at the time. I had “good Koontz” as a marker, and I went in it with great expectation.
The book has not disappointed so far. I am 265 pages in (about a hundred pages past where I had given up on The City), and the pace of the book is good. Really good. There’s just something about a Dean Koontz classic that doesn’t force the pace, that reveals just enough in its good time, but never too late, and Ashley Bell has that in spades. We aren’t even introduced to the titular title character until page 146, and by then the book was already firmly in my head, the protagonist already a friend of mine. That’s good reading in a way that I haven’t had in a while from a Dean Koontz thriller.
So I’m savoring it, this revival of my favorite author, because odds are it won’t last. Odds are this is a one-off, and I’m enjoying it too much to try and think ahead, to try and anticipate what’s coming next. I’m savoring it like that last piece of cheesecake, stretching it out to make it last me as long as it must until I’m forced to read the next one, and cross my fingers that this is a true revival and not something else. For now, though, I’m in heaven. Or as Dean Koontz would say, I’m One Door Away From Heaven. And that’s close enough for me.