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PHANTOMS
By DEAN KOONTZ (Berkley; 1983/2001)

A novel the indefatigable Dean Koontz now calls "one of the ten biggest mistakes of my life." It's one of his few balls-out horror fests, and the book, Koontz says (in a newly written afterward), that got him typed as a horror writer, a label he never wanted. I, however, believe it's one of Koontzís strongest novels, with the sappy romance that tends to mar his works toned down and the nasty business allowed to take center stage. In fact, I'd say PHANTOMS is a terrific display of Koontz's strengths as a novelist: it's well paced, cunningly plotted, original (even though much of its imagery is redolent of John Carpenter's THE THING) and contains several brilliantly horrific set-pieces.

     The setting is the Northern California town of Snowfield, much of whose population has inexplicably disappeared. Those residents left behind are dead, but the corpses don't evince wounds of any sort. Nor do there appear to be any signs of break-ins anywhere, while an investigation by the many policemen and scientists who descend on the town rules out biological contamination.

     Clearly a supernatural manifestation is afoot, as evinced by the many unearthly creatures that appear in the abandoned city, and the fact that whatever did the killing is evidently still going about its nasty business. The answer, it seems, is that a shape-shifting monstrosity is afoot, a hateful entity that has been with us since the dawn of time, being responsible for wiping out the dinosaurs and also providing the impetus for the concept of Satan. This "Ancient Enemy" (as it's eventually named) communicates with its human adversaries via profanity-laced computer messages, and takes on a local psychopath as its disciple. Clearly the deck is stacked against the novelís heroes, and humanity in general, but this being a Dean Koontz novel you can bet that a happy ending is in store.

     I haven't mentioned any of the protagonists, who include Jennifer, a 31-year-old physician, and Lisa, her plucky teenage sister, as well as a bevy of gruff cops. None are developed any more than they need to be, with the Ancient Enemy being PHANTOMS' most fully rounded and memorable personage--which I guess is precisely as it should be. 

     

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