Author: Dean Koontz
Genre: Horror / Science Fiction
Oh Dean Koontz, what have you wrought upon us this time? Me and Mr Koontz go way back – before I was strong enough to handle the sheer epicness that can be a Stephen King novel, and before I became fully engrossed in the works of James Herbert, I had Dean Koontz. And Dean Koontz had some amazing books, Phantoms being the obvious standout. But then things started going downhill and I realised I was just reading the same book with slightly tweaked locations and characters over and over again. The final straw came when I read The Taking (I must have been about 16 at the time). At first I was enraptured, I was engrossed, I had no idea what was going on and honestly felt that this might have been a return to form. Then I got to the end, and I have never been so infuriated by an ending that I ended up literally throwing the book out of a window.
This brings us to 77 Shadow Street. I had successfully managed to avoid reading any Dean Koontz novels for the better part of a decade, and this one looked like it had potential. And that, dear reader, is exactly why it is so frustrating – it does have AMAZING potential, and a spin on the haunted house genre that you’re unlikely to find anywhere else. Unfortunately the characters and the actual story are thinner than the paper the book is printed on (and my copy’s a mass market paper back, so you must know how thin that is) and the overall tone so overly dramatic that it becomes painful to read. The next time Dean Koontz has a good idea I implore him to send it on to an author who can do more justice to the concept.
Welcome to the Pendleton, the book’s eponymous location, wherein you will be subjected to this novel’s excellent ideas and tepid execution. The Pendleton of today is a series of luxury apartments, originally designed as a rather immodest family home. The problem with the Pendleton, unbeknownst to its original occupants or anyone who has subsequently had the misfortune of living there, is that the building is located on a fault in the space-time continuum. I will give Mr Koontz credit here – this concept is introduced far better and made a lot less silly that it sounds just blurted out like that. Every 38 years this fault opens, and the spirits of the past are lurched forward into the future. The year is 2011, and the fault is about to open up once again, jettisoning the Pendleton’s inhabitants into a complete hell from which they may not return.
It all starts out simply enough – shadows in the corners, rooms morphing so that they’re still kind of the same but something isn’t quite right, all standard enough. The problems start coming in when the Pendleton’s original inhabitants, most of whom were murdered and whose bodies were never recovered, begin turning up looking a bit dazed and confused but otherwise healthy. After them, the monsters begin turning up. Again, I will give Mr Koontz credit for these – the creatures are very vividly and eerily constructed, and they aren’t the sorts of things that you would want to trifle with. To begin with everything happens in brief, momentary lapses before returning to normal, but eventually the Pendleton and its inhabitants become stuck in this hellish otherworld inhabited only by these monstrosities, where everything moves in unison, and where they are the only humans, and the Pendleton the only building, anywhere on Earth.
Popping in for the occasional narration, but otherwise not directly involved in the majority of the plot, is an elusive character that refers to itself as The One. The One appears to be an omniscient observer of this alternate world and the entity that controls the creatures living in it. The Pendleton inhabitants need to find a way to outsmart these creatures and make their way back to their own reality without becoming a light snack for a grossly mutated cat. This will be remarkably easier than it ever should have been.
The Writing Style
From the above you may be questioning, if this genre is your thing, what exactly is wrong? Well, let’s take a particular little section from the book and analyse it. This one stood out in particular for me, but there were many more like it:
Movement in the courtyard drew his attention. Something appeared around a bend in the winding walkway, a creature previously concealed by the riot of wicked vegetation. [He] hissed involuntarily through clenched teeth, because although he didn’t know what kind of beast revealed itself below, he knew at once and without doubt that it was hostile to human life, and evil.
Really? You’re standing in a building, looking through dirty windows at an overgrown garden in the dead of night with no lights to be seen. From this overgrown garden a creature that you cannot clearly see emerges, and you know instantly that it is evil and hostile to human life? Come off it!
Then there are moments like this:
He felt rejected, after all, as he’d felt when the cocktail waitress humiliated him fifteen years earlier. Now the world was rejecting him. He had felt small and stupid when she dissed him, but so much better when he took what he wanted from her, her sister, and her girlfriend…
Really? We’re going to brutally rape (as the novel describes) three young women because one of them, in your words, ‘dissed’ you? Come off it!
I could go on and on until I’d quoted the better part of the book, but I hope I’ve made my point. The melodrama in this book is more palpable than the supposed pure evil floating around the Pendleton. Then there’s the fact that it’s written in such a way that the characters can decipher things that they really shouldn’t be able to. When you get to just over halfway through the novel you find out exactly what is going on and who The One is. Again, credit to Mr Koontz for coming up with a really good idea. Sadly, what Mr Koontz giveth, Mr Koontz also taketh away. Once you know what’s happening everything that has already taken place makes a lot of sense, but you have to wonder how all the characters are going to figure it out. Well, it sure as hell isn’t going to be through a long journey of discovery – not two pages after you find out what’s happening, one of the characters just blurts out ‘this must be the answer!’ and solves everything. BELIEVE me, there is no conceivable way ANYONE would have been able to just figure out what was happening. Ugh.
And this is my general problem with the book as a whole. Along the way there are some genuinely creepy moments and some exceptionally clever twists that keep the plot going, but the way that the characters interact with themselves and this alien environment are utterly unrealistic. After all the trauma the novel is also wrapped up in such a nice, shiny pink bow that it actually feels insulting to those of us who plodded through it.
Frustration mainly. Frustration mixed with the feeling that this could have been so much more than what its underwhelming delivery amounted to. My issue is that I don’t have time for crappy books – my reading time is precious and I don’t have nearly as much time to devote to it as I’d like, so I feel hurt when I’m suckered in by a good concept and then repeatedly beaten by poor choices on behalf of the author. Of course this is partly my own fault because I can’t just stop reading a book once I’ve committed to more than two chapters.
All that being said, I do think that 77 Shadow Street has its place – were I still a teenager and still acclimatising to horror novels I would probably have been enraptured with its story. If you fall into this category (and I don’t mean that in an insulting way) or you feel like reading a haunted house book that doesn’t require a lot of thinking (again, I don’t mean that in a derogatory way – we all need that mindless book from time to time) then this may just whet your appetite. Unfortunately it probably won’t do much for you if you are used to reading authors of a greater calibre than Dean Koontz.
My Final Rating: 3 / 10
Buy 77 Shadow Street at Amazon.com