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Spoiler review of a supernatural return
on 24 September 2012
It has been a long time since Dean Koontz wrote a supernatural story. With "What the Night Knows", he returns to his old ways and gives us the haunting we have been awaiting for years.
Twenty years ago, John Calvino shoots a serial killer who has already slaughtered his family. Now a cop, John is faced with a series of murders very similar to those of his past. The murderer, however, is a boy possessed by the lingering spirit of the man John killed; the spirit is out for revenge and set on completing his original murderous spree.
There's a lot of stuff going on in this novel, with plenty of interesting characters, yet here and there it lacks a bit of explanation. The lead is once again a homicide detective, but one with a family similar to those we have seen in Koontz's more recent stories like "Life Expectancy" and "Relentless". John's wife Nicky isn't as colorful as other leading ladies, however. A bit lacking in feisty personality, sometimes it seems she's only there because the story needs a wife.
Their two daughters reminded me of the girls in "Mr Murder". They're your typical pre-teen Koontz kids with an uncanny understanding of the world and a very extensive vocabulary.
The son, while a very different character in every regard, still reminded me of Fric in "The Face". In fact, there are many more similarities, not in the least the "man-in-the-mirror", with that novel.
What set me off a bit in this story was the setting, the house where most events take place. Here we have a family of five, and two helping hands on the household staff, but the property is so huge they rarely see or hear each other; in the novel's finale, there are several more people hidden all over the place, and still nobody hears the others being attacked. For me, Koontz didn't describe the house as well as he did the mansion in "The Face"; there we really get a scope of the mansion, a sense of its size, while in "What the Night Knows" it's simply assumed and taken for granted.
Alton Blackwood is a very interesting villain and I really liked how we got a glimpse of his life and point of view through his journal entries. This is a very interesting technique, interweaving the backstory with the current events. The chapters told from the point of view of Blackwood's spirit and his "horses" are in the present tense, which Koontz has done several times before.
Blackwood's backstory made me think of Walter Sullivan, the villain in the survival horror video game "Silent Hill 4: The Room". The entire book has the same dark, oppressive atmosphere about it; there's hardly any witty dialogue or other attempts at humor in it. The way he uses other people to do his bidding reminds me of the brainwashed people in countless other Koontz books, and also a bit how the A.I. in "Demon Seed" takes control of the convicted murderer. But what it really made me think of, was that old Denzel Washington movie "Fallen", where it's the angel/demon Azazel switching human bodies by any contact to do his killing.
The whole business with the Calvino kids being targeted, and John having to sacrifice himself, reminds me of "Darkness Comes"/"Darkfall". Blackwood's deal with the demon Ruin is similar to the voodoo practices, though I did wish we could have seen a bit more of the actual procedures, how he actually succeeded in coming back.
Then there's what Koontz himself describes as "machina-ex-deo", the portal made from Lego blocks, and the returning spirit of the family dog. I had this feeling that Koontz wanted to achieve or even top the same effect of the "rewind" featured in "Relentless", but for me personally he fails in doing so. Perhaps it's simply because this time it's down to divine intervention instead of the scientific genius of one of the characters. While the earlier chapter hinting to this climax - John talking to the priest - was very interesting, the way the ending was finally worked out didn't really do it for me.
Yet even with a few flaws, "What the Night Knows" is a very engaging ghost story, far better than his previous books "Breathless" and "Lost Souls". Even with a lot less time to read, I flew through the novel at a very fitting breathtaking speed.