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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars There are characters, and there are characters.., 8 April 2014
This review is from: Phantoms (Paperback)
Sisters Jenny and Lisa Paige, two sisters, return to Jenny's small hometown of Snowfield, California only to discover no one alive. The few bodies they find are either mutilated, or reveal some strange form of death. Something appears to be lingering in the darkness, on the end of all the telephones, and very quickly the truth begins to unfold. I don't really understand People slating Phantoms for being cliched and derivative, when there are far more glaring issues with it. I thought the plot was decent, it jumps right in, and rolls along nicely and the actual detail of it is written well with some nice evocative description. The problems come as soon as there's a requirement for tension, suspense and horror and within about five pages the whole thing self destructs.

For starters, Koontz falls into really lazy, matter of fact descriptions: "she felt terrified", etc. Secondly, there's zero sense of pace to any of the suspenseful moments, some of these are just terribly written (for example, the bit where Lisa discovers what is in the ovens at the bakery. She screams, then points, then there's a paragraph of description, punctuated by what she was actually screaming at). It's all so laboured and drawn out, it destroys it's own shocks. Then there's the characterisation. What an absolute masterclass in how not to write characters. The 14 year old Lisa, after an initial introduction, descends entirely into the role of "I'm here to ask questions on behalf of the reader", and "please bounce another theory off me" where she suddenly behaves entirely like an adult whilst Jenny appears to become whatever the author requires at that moment. A doctor by profession, she also has detailed knowledge of crime scene investigation, ballistics, cooking, telephone engineering, and elementary astrophysics. Okay so that's a minor exaggeration, but you get the point. Koontz just rams detail into her POV that just doesn't sit at all with what we know about her character.

But worst of all, and the sure fire way to completely destroy a horror novel is to have your characters behave in an absolutely ridiculous and entirely unrealistic manner. They find a body, it's weird, distended, suffering trauma and has died suddenly. So what do they do? Try the phone. GOOD. No dial tone. Okay. So what do they do? Go next door, where there's no one. In fact they soon realise there's no one in the town at all. Fair enough. So what now? Go to the sherifs. Good call. But there's just more bodies chaos and weirdness there. There's no cops, no phones and no one to help them! And having bounced a hundred ideas and theories off each other (one of them is even a 'contagion' of sorts) it's very clearly time to get the hell out of there. So what do they do? Go to the bakery. In the bakery is the most horrific discovery yet, something that would actually have you running for the hills. So surely now they LEAVE THE TOWN! Right? Ermm.... No. It's time to run through an alley with a dark presence in it that they both experience. Having encountered the dark presence, and the trauma of the 15 dead bodies, and severed limbs under the threat of contagion, mass murderers, evil and with no one to help them, they SURELY leave the town and go for help now? Not quite yet no, because they need to talk about their theories in the street for a few minutes, discuss how scared they are, and then just pop in to ONE more house to discover more bodies, barricades and horror. Ok right, that's it. Got to run now, surely? SURELY? Nope. Because there's a window here to ask each other lots more questions and ponder causes and theories as if stacks of bodies, evil presences, severed limbs disease and chaos are an everyday occurrence.

I can suspend my disbelief for the horror of a horror novel, because without it, you can't really allow yourself to be horrified, but what I can't do is suspend my disbelief for the characters in a horror novel. If they behave in a manner so blatantly unrealistic and inconsistent with their character, then any sense of tension or threat is lost. The whole first act of Phantoms is plot driving character in the most horrible clunky way. Koontz needs to show you things to horrify you, but does it by making his characters act in an utterly unrealistic manner both in terms of the unfolding situation and their own characterisation. It will never work. It doesn't take a writer to understand that someone responding stupidly in the face of horror, no matter what it is, is totally negating the impact of that horror.

That aside, if you can forgive that rather massive central hole, Phantoms is a reasonably entertaining read, but I have to say for such an accomplished and widely published author as Dean Koontz, I was really amazed at how poor a lot of it was. Because of it's huge flaws, it nets out as being more intriguing than horrifying, but if you can overlook the inconsistencies and occasional horribly glaring writing mechanics, it will certainly keep you entertained, but even then, I would still stick rigidly to Stephen King or Clive Barker given the option.
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