Midnight, by Dean Koontz
November, 1989 Berkley Books
Dean Koontz was one of those ubiquitous horror authors in the ‘80s; I’d see his name everywhere, but I never read any of his books. Of course at the time his image was that he was a second-rate Stephen King, or some other dismissive impression, and I didn’t know any kids in school who read his books. Of course, they lapped up VC Andrews and stuff like that, but that’s another story. All I mean to say is, you’d always see Stephen King books in my middle school and high school in the mid-‘80s to early ‘90s, but you’d never see a Dean Koontz book. In fact the only place I ever saw one was my mom’s copy of Twilight Eyes, which I never read.
But, as has been documented in recent reviews, I’ve been on a random horror kick lately…and I was looking for a “creature feature” read…and I stumbled upon this Koontz novel, which seems to be the epitome of a creature feature. Indeed the contemporary Kirkus
states this bluntly. So I decided to make Midnight
my next horror read, even though it was pretty long – which seems to be typical of horror novels in general – coming in at an unwieldy 470 pages of small, dense print in this Berkley paperback edition. Long story short, Midnight
served up the creature-featuring I wanted, with the caveat that the abundant description and character introspection ultimately ruined the impact, turning the novel into a chore of a read. Also, most curiously of all, the abundant description did not extend to the creatures
. Lots of description of the fog and the mist and the forest, sure, but when it came to the werewolves, monsters, and even cyborgs
who populated the tale, for the most part – at least for the first 300 or so pages – Koontz would only provide slight description of them. This I guess is akin to a monster movie where the monster stays in the shadows for the majority of the film.
First off, this is the horror novel Burt Hirschfeld
never wrote. Koontz’s prose style, with the heavy atmospherics and introspection, is uncannily reminiscent of Hirschfeld’s, at least in this novel. But then it occurred to me that Koontz was the guy who, the decade before, published Writing Popular Fiction
, a book which gave specific directions on how
to write like Burt Hirschfeld. However I mean this solely in the way the narrative unfolds, not in the content; unlike a genuine Hirschfeld novel, Midnight
is not overly concerned with the sex lives of its characters. In fact the novel is relatively anemic in the sexual arena. What a bummer, man! But in the constant probing of its characters’ thoughts and emotions it is very reminiscent of something by Burt Hirschfeld.
But whereas this constant probing of emotions works in a Hirschfeld novel, where the emotions of the characters compel them in their sexual urges and whatnot, it unfortunately becomes a drag in a horror novel. I mean when you have werewolves, cyborgs, and a creature that’s literally stated as looking like the titular monster from Alien, the last thing you want is to incessantly be informed about how people feel, or what they think, or what incident in the past caused them to think and feel the way they do now, and etc. I mean the plot Koontz delivers requires a fat-free delivery to really work. Instead it becomes a ponderous bloat with way too much extranneous detail and stalling. The monsters are lost amid the rampant navel-gazing.
That said, the writing is very good…it’s just too much of a good thing. I did enjoy the atmospheric word-painting, with Koontz very much bringing to life the coastal Californian town in which Midnight occurs. I also dug the glimpse into the inner views of the cast of characters. But around page 150 I felt like I’d hit a brick wall. Even crazier was that Koontz wouldn’t let up on it; I mean the novel is split into three parts, the entire thing taking place over a day or two, and part one gradually (very gradually) builds up the creature feature you’ve been wanting. Then part two takes three steps back with immediate and obtrusive flashbacks for the main characters – even an egregious dream sequence that goes on for several pages. I could only imagine what a more streamlined author could’ve done with the plot setup.
For make no mistake, Midnight is straight-up pulp horror in its conceit: it’s literally about a mad scientist who conducts Island Of Dr. Moreau style experiments on the populace of a small town. But Koontz clouds the pulp fun with way too much introspection and discussion, explaining everything away to the point that it’s not nearly as fun as it should be. I mean even late in the game, when the few heroes have finally found one another, the sole humans in this monster-plagued town, and decide to do something about it…even here we get long-winded discussions on the “nature of man” and how “not all scientists” are like the crazy bastard here in town who has patterned himself after Dr. Moreau. I mean who gives a shit? Go kill a friggin’ werewolf or something!
But man those first hundred pages or so I was really into Midnight. Koontz sets the scene with an evocative opening in which a young woman goes running at night through Moonlight Cove, a closeknit community on the coast of California. Soon she is chased by creatures, and here Koontz’s “keep them off the page” motif actually works, because they’re just shadows with luminescent eyes. The poor young woman soon meets her fate, which starts the story proper. Hers is not the first murder in town; Sam Booker, the character who comes closest to being the main protagonist, arrives in Moonlight Cove shortly thereafter to figure out what’s going on. Sam is an FBI agent, and the Bureau has taken stock of the untoward amount of “random deaths” in the small town.
Another new person in town is Tessa Lockland, “cute” blonde thirty-something documentary filmmaker who happens to have been the sister of the young woman killed in the opening scene. She too will soon learn that there are monsters about. Also there’s Chrissie Foster, an 11 year-old who has experienced first-hand the weirdness that has taken over Moonlight Cove, given that her parents have turned into monsters(!). Along with a disabled ‘Nam vet named Harry Talbot (and his service assistant dog Moose), these four people will be Moonlight Cove’s only hope.
Meanwhile there’s the villain of the piece: Thomas Shaddack, a Bill Gates type who is mega-wealthy due to his work in the tech field and lives in a mansion in an exclusive area of town. I thought this book was right up my alley when Shaddack was introduced in what could’ve been a scene out of Altered States, floating in a sensory deprivation tank and literally getting off on the thoughts of his own grandeur. But Shaddack too is undone by the dense onslaught of introspection and narratorial padding; he starts the novel like a pure villain but ends it as a whimpering narcissist. On the villain side there’s also Loman Watkins, police chief of Moonlight Cove and one of the prime movers of the “accidental death” lies which have brought Sam Booker to town.
Long story short, Shaddack has devised methodology for advancing the human body, turning them into “New People” via injections which shoot various technology into the system, making people undergo “The Change” before they are reborn as supermen and superwomen with all kinds of augmentations. But one doesn’t get much choice when it comes to “the jab.” First Shaddack forced the change on Loman and the rest of the cops, then injections were given to the public in random groupings. The title of the novel has to do with Sam’s discovery that Shaddack plans to have injected the entirety of Moonlight Cove by “midnight” of the night after Sam’s arrived in town. Personally I felt the title was not suitable for the novel; “Midnight” implies almost a Gothic sort of vibe and doesn’t convey the glut of monsters one will encounter in the book.
It takes quite a while for Sam, Tessa, and Chrissie to learn all this, though. The first hundred-some pages concern the three of them trying to make their way across a strange and dangerous Moonlight Cove. The stuff with Chrissie definitely has a Stephen King vibe to it, first with her parents – who are apparently werewolves – chasing her out of her house, and the plucky little girl making her laborious way through the woods, hiding underground, hitching rides, and etc as she tries to get to safety. One might say Chrissie is a bit too plucky for an 11 year-old, though Koontz has it that she’s an avid reader (one who dreams of being a writer one day), but I was an avid 11 year-old reader (not too many years before this book was published, in fact), and I certainly wouldn’t have been able to handle myself as well as Chrissie does.
Koontz really goes for a slow burn in this opening part, with Sam and Tessa slowly realizing something very disturbing is amiss. But the suspense angle is blown for us readers due to the sequences that focus on Thomas Shaddack and Loman Watkins, as we immediately know what’s going on in town. Thus there’s a feeling of “figure it out already!” when we get back to Sam and Tessa trying to deduce why everyone’s acting so weird. Oh and also there’s Harry Talbot, confined to a wheelchair, who snoops Rear Window style on the community with a telescope; he too knows something is going on, and in fact it was his letter which brought the FBI onto the scene. I have to say, though, I had a hard time understanding how a crippled ‘Nam vet was able to afford a three-story structure on a hill that provided a view of the entire town.
Only gradually do the monsters come out of the shadows. For the most part they’re werewolves, and we do get a nice horror sequence where Loman and his fellow cops take on a local who has “regressed” to werewolf state and can’t turn back into a human. Here too though we get that onslaught of explanation; even though this werewolf is snarling at them and ready to pounce, we have a lot of dithering on what caused him to turn into a werewolf in the first place. Here too we learn that Koontz is basically taking monsters from contemporary films and putting them in the novel; the werewolf’s hand reminds one character specifically of the werewolf in The Howling, and soon after Chrissie encounters a character who mutates into a monster specifically compared to the titular Alien.
But man, the forward momentum is just constantly lost. Like that part with the werewolf. After Loman handles things, Shaddack shows up to appraise the situation…and he and Loman get in a practically endless conversation about the nature of “the change,” just right overtop the werewolf’s corpse, and it’s just…dumb. And like I said, Part 1 builds up momentum, taking place over the span of a few hours, and when Part 2 opens the next morning Koontz gets back into the introspective stuff instead of continuing on with the momentum he painstakingly built up. Even here, with all the heroes congregating in Harry’s house, we don’t get to any action…Koontz clearly had a movie in mind, as he has all this “movie moment” stuff in here, like Chrissie singing pop songs the morning after she was nearly killed by monsters as she prepares a hearty breakfast. It just comes off as contrived, like “I could see Goldie Hawn playing this part!” And made even worse because Goldie Hawn is constantly referenced in the book itself.
At least we get more real monster stuff here, but it’s repetitive. We have back-to-back sequences in which two different characters meet two different cyborgs, both of whom (both of which?) are literally connected to their computers. But on that point Koontz is really ahead of the curve; he writes about computers and technology way beyond what I expected from a late ‘80s novel. The only thing that sets Midnight in its era is that Moonlight Cove has been shut off from the rest of the world by Shaddack’s closing down of the phone lines. This entire subplot would be undone in our modern cell phone era. Oh I forgot to mention Koontz also throws The Blob into the mix, with a weirdo bit where three of the monster-people regress even further, into a protoplasmic ooze which hungers, of course, for human flesh.
That said, the book seems like it wants to end somewhere in the 300s, but it continues on for another 100-plus pages. Like for example one character vows to personally kill Shaddack…and this subplot just churns. Meanwhile Shaddack becomes increasingly dumb an ineffectual to suit the demands of the plot; there’s a ridiculous part where he says he doesn’t know who “Dr. Moreau” is. It just goes on and on, losing the power and mystique it had in the opening section, to the point that it’s a relief when things finally wrap up. There’s also a Maguffin about Shaddack’s heart being tapped into all those who underwent the change, or somesuch, a dead man’s switch sort of thing that would kill everyone in town if Shaddack himself were to be killed. But again, as buffoonish as this guy acts in the finale you wonder how he ever even thought of any of this stuff.
Special note must be made of the end, though. It’s so reactionary it’s hilarious. So Sam has a teenaged son who listens to “heavy metal rock” and he and Sam don’t get along much. Sam worries about the kid, hinging all his concerns on that damn heavy metal. Meanwhile, we learn in one of those incessant flashback/introspection deals that Sam’s wife – ie the kid’s mom – died of cancer a few years ago. Gee, do you think the kid might just be dealing with his mother’s death in his own way? Regardless, Midnight ends with Sam stomping on his son’s heavy metal CDs and then forcing him into a bear hug. I mean even the producers of the ABC After School Special would’ve thought that was too much. But then maybe Koontz had his tongue in his cheek.
Otherwise, I found Midnight too bloated to recommend. But Koontz was/is incredibly prolific, so I don’t think it would be fair to judge the guy on just this one book. And hell, others might enjoy it more than I did. I just wanted more creatures and less atmospheric word painting about the fog, mist, and buried emotions.