Tag Archives: Dean Koontz

‘Between Time and Terror’ – A Review

Not long ago my local library had a major book sale, and I went hog-wild, picking up a metric crap-ton of mostly old sci-fi and fantasy paperbacks (a quarter for paperbacks, fifty cents for trades, a dollar for hardbacks—you can’t go wrong with prices like that), including a few anthologies. This one, Between Time and Terror, edited by Robert Weinberg, et al, got the honor of being my first read from that glorious haul.

Granted, many of these stories were already familiar to me,  but all-in-all it was a worthwhile trip through memory lane and nice introduction to some other stories I’d not yet read. The theme of the book was science fiction meets horror, and boy were there some doozies in here. The stories were mostly arranged in the chronological order of their writing, so it was no surprise that the first entry was from the man who practically invented this sub-genre, H. P. Lovecraft, represented here by one of his best pieces, The Colour Out of Space.  Decades after it was written, this story still contains one of the single most chilling lines ever put on paper:

Questioning tactfully, Ammi could get no clear data at all about the missing Zenas. “In the well—he lives in the well—” was all that the clouded father would say.

Even out of context, the line makes me shiver. Second up was Frank Belknap Long’s The Man with a Thousands Legs, which, following such a timeless masterpiece as the Lovecraft story, came across as quaint and a little too smirk-worthy for this anthology. In another anthology—say, Old-Timey Science Gone Wrong or some such—this would’ve been a fine entry, but while it technically fit the theme of the book, I just felt there were better choices that could’ve been made from this author (The Hounds of Tindalos anyone?) Then we had Clark Ashton Smith’s atmospheric extra-planetary tale The Vaults of Yoh-Vombis, which really should’ve been the follow-up to Lovecraft.

For my money, however, the star of this collection was the fourth entry, John W. Campbell, Jr.’s Who Goes There?, the novella on which several film adaptations, including most notably John Carpenter’s The Thing, have been based. I’d heard of this story but never read it before, figuring it was probably something akin to the mediocre 1950s film. Boy, was I ever wrong. Of the three films based on the story (so far), Carpenter’s comes the closest to capturing the tension and paranoia of a story that was remarkably first published in 1937 and that still holds up to this day. Indeed, if I hadn’t known the date of its initial publication, I would swear this story had actually been written within the last thirty years. This alone was worth the quarter I paid for the book.

After this, the short if effective Robert Heinlein piece They felt almost like an afterthought. In fact, overall this book could’ve done with some more thoughtful editing. With three editors running the show, I suspect it was a bit of the too-many-cooks problem, but there you go. Heinlein’s short is followed by Robert Bloch’s It Happened Tomorrow, a story that, although not badly written, definitely shows its age in a number of ways. Asleep in Armageddon by Ray Bradbury was an original and nicely creepy if not all that scary tale of an astronaut biding his time on a strange world as the alien voices in his head attempt to drive him mad.

Arthur C. Clarke can always be counted on to give an entertaining story, and A Walk in the Dark, while fairly simple and straightforward, delivers with excellent timing and atmosphere to spare. Philip K. Dick’s The Father-Thing was probably my  second favorite entry in this collection, after Who Goes There? A young suburban boy has good reason to believe his dad has been replaced by some kind of body-snatcher and decides to investigate. Richard Matheson’s Born of Man and Woman, about an abused mutant child,  was more sad than frightening, and Isaac Asimov’s Hell-Fire, a two page short-short, recasts the beginning of the Nuclear Age in very sinister terms.

A couple of the stories in this collection really felt like a stretch as far as the science fiction aspect went. Dean Koontz’s Nightmare Gang answers the question, what would happen if a sadistic psychopath with horrible mental powers became leader of an outlaw biker gang? Not a bad story (I’m generally not a fan of Koontz’s novels, but he’s more successful in short form); it just felt out of place here. But the real head-scratcher here was David Morrell’s Orange Is for Anguish, Blue for Insanity. First, I have to point out that this is one of my all-time favorite horror stories, and it’s always a pleasure to read. In this piece, a Vincent van Gogh analog named Van Dorn who went insane and took his own life provides the backdrop for the tale of a college art student who watches helplessly as his best friend, an aspiring Van Dorn scholar, inexplicably falls into the exact same patterns the Victorian painter did, and begins to repeat the path that led him to insanity. It’s a complex story with a hell of a payoff, but nothing about it suggests science fiction, and it really didn’t belong in this anthology.

But I’m getting out of order now. After the Koontz piece came the truly disturbing Soft by F. Paul Wilson, about a new disease that’s picking off humanity by dissolving their bones and turning them into immobile blobs. Meanwhile, John Shirley’s Ticket to Heaven, an early cyberpunk offering, wonders what would happen if we developed the tech to vacation in Heaven while our bodies remain safe and alive back on Earth. (The short answer: it’s not as great for humanity as you might think.) Dan Simmons Metastasis, which is also found in his excellent Prayers to Broken Stones collection that I recommend highly, deals with invisible cancer vampires—invisible, that is, to all but the story’s protagonist. And last but not least is Clive Barker’s The Age of Desire, a modern day take on mad science where the subject of an experiment develops uncontrollable sexual desires for . . . everyone and everything.

Overall, not a terrible collection. Some bona fide classics offset the lesser entries, and a couple of baffling inclusions with respect to the book’s theme could easily have been replaced with, say, Stephen King’s The Jaunt, Harlan Ellison’s I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream or even Connie Willis’s haunting All My Darling Daughters. At any rate, all of these stories can be found elsewhere, but what really appeals about collections like these is seeing where the editors’ heads are at and comparing the stories to see how the theme has progressed. Between Time and Terror was released in 1995, and I’d be curious to see which pieces would be collected by the same editors in 2017.

Grade: B+

Five Horror and Dark Fantasy Novels That Need to Be Movies Now!

With the movie industry apparently stuck in remake/reboot mode and desperately cannibalizing itself, there’s probably little chance that studios will take risks on books that either nobody in that myopic little world has ever heard of or won’t touch because they don’t understand the books or how to market them (witness what happened with Clive Barker’s Nightbreed), but the following novels should be relatively easy sells, and if I was King of Hollywood, here are some books I would fast-track for films.  Failing that, this is how I would pitch them to studios.  And really, given how abysmal Hollywood’s trajectory seems to be lately, I think I could do pretty well by them.  These are offered in no particular order.

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Robert R. McCammon – Stinger: McCammon is one of those writers you really get enthusiastic about in your youth but find mostly amateurish with a few years of healthy cynicism under your belt.  Still, there is a certain vibrant appeal to his best work that is difficult to summarize, and even moments of sheer brilliance on occasion.  McCammon really hit his stride in the late eighties and early nineties with the novels Swan Song, Stinger, Wolf’s Hour, Mine and Boy’s Life, as well as the short story collection Blue World, all of which garnered him several award nominations and a few wins.  Although Swan Song, his first New York Times bestseller and arguably his masterpiece, is really much too sprawling and visually complex to translate well to film, Stinger is tailor-made for the big screen.  It’s action-packed from start to finish, the story is simple and straightforward, and the finale is a real humdinger.

When Daufin, an innocent alien being on the run from a monstrous interstellar bounty hunter known only as the Stinger, crash-lands in a little town on Earth that’s seen better days, horror is unleashed both on and below the streets of Inferno, Texas.  Here a group of assorted misfits and miscreants once written off by society will at last have their chance at redemption when they are forced to band together and face off against Stinger to save their town.

I would pitch this to studios as Tremors meets The Thing, with a tasty dollop of The Outsiders tossed in.  There’s an adorable little girl who spends most of the story housing the consciousness of Daufin, a subterranean alien with a penchant for making creepily imperfect copies of whatever lifeforms it devours (including humans), rival street gangs battling it out, a nicely drawn smattering of colorful Texas characters, and just the right amount of violence and terror so that studios could keep their precious PG-13 rating.  The story has topnotch B-movie appeal written all over it, and half of its charm is in the author’s enduring faith in humanity to conquer its own prejudices and problems and come together in a time of need in the face of the unknown, a message that we could all desperately use right about now.

Moreover, since most of the story takes place in an economically depressed and isolated Texas town in the 1980s (and yes, the movie makers really must keep the era intact for full impact), negating the need for elaborate set decoration, much of the film’s budget could go towards the alien horror that is Stinger itself and its oddly deformed clones of humans and animals that serve as its agents.  I envision old-fashioned makeup effects à la John Carpenter here–for which this movie could certainly be a fitting tribute–to further enhance the built-in nostalgic appeal of this pre-CGI sci-fi horror story.  There are even some obvious nods to actors of the era; the two gang leaders, for example, are clearly modeled on the teenaged Kiefer Sutherland and Lou Diamond Philips.  Really, given all it has going for it, it almost beggars belief that Stinger hasn’t yet become a movie.  So, seriously, someone make that happen, please.

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Robert R. McCammon – Boy’s Life: Yet another McCammon work perfectly suitable to the big screen, Boy’s Life (a play on the title of the scouting-affiliated magazine Boys’ Life popular throughout the 20th century) is McCammon’s vivid and wistful tribute to his childhood years in Alabama. Every horror writer seems to have at least one of these (with supernatural/horror elements added, of course): Douglas Clegg has Neverland, Dan Simmons has Summer of Night, and the perpetually nostalgic Stephen King has several, most prominently It, Hearts in Atlantis and The Body, the novella on which the film Stand by Me is based.  Being a fan of both dark fantasy and the bildungsroman, I really adore these kinds of stories.  This is McCammon’s contribution to that subgenre, and a masterful one it is.

The plot centers on the adventures of Cory Mackenson, a 12-year-old native of mid-sixties Alabama and a blossoming writer, and his best friends Davy Ray, Ben and Johnny.  McCammon throws in everything but the kitchen sink here–an enigmatic murder case, a terrible flood, a pair of bullying brothers who target Cory and his buddies, a wise and spiritually gifted matriarch of a segregated black community, a Boo Radley-esque space case with a taste for streaking, the KKK, a family of sinister moonshiners, an ex-Nazi in hiding, and not one but two legendary local creatures, the supposedly unkillable white stag Snowdown and a frightful river monster affectionately known to the locals as Ol’ Moses–and somehow makes it all work.

Again, one of the great appeals of this novel is its ardent hopefulness and belief in the basic decency of most people, and McCammon really knows how to sell it, as we see it all through the eyes of a bright, sensitive young boy on the cusp of adulthood in the Civil Rights-era South.  Of course, being a child with an overactive imagination (and then some), Cory is the quintessential unreliable narrator, but that only adds to the story’s magic and mystery.  Despite his flawed perspective, if everyone saw the world the way Cory Mackenson does, it would be a much better place to live in.  But there is genuine hardship, sorrow and tragedy here too to leaven all of the flights of fancy and keep the book grounded just when it threatens to take off into parts unknown and never return, a balancing act McCammon pulls off with aplomb.

A personal selling point for me: with the exception of Davy Ray, the group of boys that drive the novel reminds me so much of myself and my own misfit pals during my childhood years in the Deep South it’s scary, particularly Johnny (I too had a half-Native American friend who was astonishingly like this character; his name was Matthew); and of course, like Cory, I was a highly imaginative and creative kid, though not nearly as adventurous as the young hero of Boy’s Life.

In approaching the studios with this one, I would frame it as Stand by Me meets To Kill a Mockingbird meets Big Fish, with a dash of E.T. and The Boys from Brazil for seasoning.  I would also point out that the book has been endorsed by no less than Peter Straub and, as noted in a review on Amazon, has been offered as part of a middle school teacher’s curriculum–who found it to consistently be his students’ favorite assigned reading–for years.  Really, what else do you need for a blockbuster movie?

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Peter Straub – Shadowland: This one just made My Top Six Haunted House Novels of All Time list as well, and it was really Shadowland that prompted me to write this article.  I’ve already given details of the plot of this novel in that article, so if you haven’t already, you may want to read it first.  At one time this book pretty much fell into the unfilmable category, or at least it would’ve been much too expensive to make properly, but with the costs of special effects falling steadily, including CGI, this novel is certainly doable these days.  There are some wonderfully eery daydream sequences that could really elevate this one above the horror film crowd, not to mention some scenes that are sure to make even the steeliest of fans cringe.  The scenes in the bathroom with the Collector . . . holy crap.

The cast consists primarily of five  important characters: teen buddies Tom Flanagan and Del Nightingale, Del’s magician uncle Coleman Collins, psychopathic school menace Steve “Skeleton” Ridpath, and Rose Armstrong, a mysterious girl who seems to live on or near Collins’s estate and becomes the boys’ companion at Shadowland.  Okay, I’m not up on the current batch of teen stars, but it’s not too tough to picture the waifish Elle Fanning in the role of Rose Armstrong.  Rose, apparently mature beyond her years, is a complex character, but Fanning certainly has both the ideal look and the acting chops to pull off the role.  The boys are a little tougher.  Del, who is small for his age, olive-complected and dark haired, could go to Cameron Ocasio, and for the all-American Tom Flanagan I can easily imagine Chandler Canterbury.  Skeleton Ridpath should be toothy and super-thin, perhaps requiring some strict pre-production fasting on the order of what Jared Leto underwent for his Dallas Buyers Club role.  Although long past his teen years, with his boyish (but oddly proportioned) face and his scrawny build, DJ Qualls could add something interesting to this role that maybe a younger actor would struggle with, although whoever made this film had better get a jump on it if they want Qualls in the role, as he is fast approaching a point when even he will look too old!  By and far the most important casting decision, however, would rest on who is given the role of Coleman Collins.  My choice would be Jeremy Irons, Alan Rickman or John Malkovich, all of whom have played highly memorable villains and possess the dark gravitas the part would require of its main antagonist.

The most difficult part of filming Shadowland would be simplifying its many-threaded Gordian Knot of subplots and sub-subplots into a cohesive storyline without losing the essence of what makes it such a fantastic book: it’s bewitching sense of discomfiture and the growing unease that comes with the realization that time and space are beginning to unravel around Coleman Collins.  In the right directorial hands this could be a brooding, slow-burn horror masterpiece on par with Kubrick’s The Shining or William Friedkin’s The Exorcist.  Yes, it’s that good.

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Clive Barker – The Thief of Always: Long before Neil Gaiman’s Coraline there was Barker’s The Thief of Always, a book that’s been unfairly ignored by Hollywood for far too long.   In fact, Barker’s story, published a full decade before Gaiman’s book hit the shelves, bears a  remarkable amount of similarity to it–a lonely, bored child looking for adventure; a strange house hidden away in an alternate reality of sorts and fashioned to appeal to children; the house’s devious owner who uses sorcery to trap children there; and a wise feline that helps the children escape.  Sound familiar?  Don’t get me wrong: I love Gaiman’s book too, as well as the film based on it (both are in my library), but it’s pretty clear that he ripped off the basic concept of Coraline from this much earlier work.

Harvey Swick is your average preteen who finds himself increasingly jaded and bored with his own mundane world, and so when the enigmatic Mr. Hood sends an agent to tempt the boy into visiting Holiday House, where every day is Halloween and Christmas rolled into one and children can have all the treats and toys they could ever want, Harvey finds himself drawn to that mysterious house perpetually clouded in mists, where things are a bit topsy-turvy but never boring.  Of course, Mr. Hood, like Gaiman’s Other Mother, is not nearly as benevolent as he presents himself to be, and he has plans for young Harvey. Plans that involve his soul . . .

Make no mistake, Barker’s book is darker and grittier than Gaiman’s.  In some ways it is the perfect compliment to Straub’s Shadowland, only aimed at younger readers.  Although both books carry an implicit warning about chasing after greener pastures, where Gaiman’s story is about the dangers of loved ones neglecting each other, The Thief of Always comes across almost as a meditation on solipsism and losing one’s sense of wonder to the corrupting forces of the media and other flash-in-the-pan realities of the modern world.  Heady stuff for a kids’ book.

Well, perhaps I’m reading too much into it, yet I can’t help but feel Barker’s novel has some context lacking in the other work.  Of course, Coraline likewise addresses some things that are absent in The Thief of Always, namely the magic and beauty that can hide behind the withered, shabby facades of those we think of as past their prime.  In the end both works are worthwhile, but I think this novel may appeal more to boys and older children than Coraline does, as well as kids with a taste for darker tales, and pitching it as a film would be easy: a scarier Coraline for older kids.  As it turns out, no less than two films based on the novel had been planned at one time, a Disneyesque animated musical in the nineties (I’m pretty happy that one fell through) and a live-action film that was intended for release in 2010 but never materialized.  So, um, what’s the hold-up, guys?  Somebody make this movie already!

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Dean Koontz – The Door to December: I confess I’m not a huge Dean Koontz fan.  Oh, I read my fair share of Koontz back in the early nineties, when King and Koontz pretty much monopolized the supermarket paperback aisle and before the internet allowed me to bypass the more mediocre stuff.  But even then, as desperate as I was for interesting reading material, I quickly discovered that Koontz was hopelessly formulaic and most of his novels were nigh interchangeable; they generally involve someone being abused, children and animals in peril, and/or people on the run from horrible villains.  The characters tend to be one-dimensional, the heroes way too good to be real people and the villains almost laughably clichéd.  That said, in sifting through the metric ton of material Koontz has written over the decades, one is bound to find a few gems in there.  This novel, first published in the mid-eighties under one of Koontz’s gazillion pseudonyms, is one of them.

The story is a supernatural murder mystery focusing on a little girl named Melanie who, after being found wandering alone and frightened in the street, leads investigators to the discovery of a heinous experiment.  As a dark metaphysical force pursues and destroys everyone involved in the experiment, the protagonists race against time to stop the murderous entity as it heads inexorably towards its final intended victim, the last piece of the puzzle . . . Melanie herself.  Koontz is generally one of the worst offenders when it comes to portraying kids as less than fully-rounded characters, but here the child is believable enough as kid characters go.  The real star of this novel isn’t the characters anyway but the nicely paced plotting, which keeps the suspense front-and-center all the way through.  And the twist ending is both original and quite believable in the context of the story. (Hint, hint, Shyamalan!)

To make the case for this one: perhaps, say . . . Stephen King’s Firestarter as conceived by Alfred Hitchcock?  Yeah, I guess that would about do it.