Once again I have to clarify… not the 1998 movie “starring” Ben Affleck, but the 1983 Dean Koontz novel that inspired the movie. Even though the credits say that Koontz himself wrote the screenplay, he obviously did not and DO NOT WATCH that movie. I find it hard to believe that any author would miss the point of HIS OWN novel so much. Or perhaps he did write it, and Disney (well thru Miramax and Dimension Films) hit it with the edit razor so hard that it didn’t seem like Koontz wrote it. Either way, all of the good things I’m going to say about the book do not apply to the movie and were totally mishandled or overlooked for the terrible film.
First things first, I’m not a big Koontz fan. Don’t let that sound too much like an insult though, I’m also no Koontz novel expert. I’ve read fewer than 10 (I think 7 or 8) of his over fifty novels. Why I’ve not read more is because I’ve only really liked 3 of the ones I’ve read. I did enjoy “Twilight Eyes” and “Dark Rivers of the Heart” and recommend them for fun and thrilling reads. But his 1983 novel “Phantoms” is VERY dark, VERY frightening, and gets several of the “rules for writing effective horror” EXACTLY right.
The story set up is pretty simple. Our main character Dr. Jenny Paige is taking custody of her 14 year old sister Lisa after the death of their grandparents (or something like that.) Upon arrival to Jenny’s home (and practice) in Snowfield Colorado, the sisters find the town totally silent and devoid of life. In some houses, bodies with strange injuries and no normal cause of death are found. In others, Jenny’s neighbors have simply vanished without a trace. And in a couple of cases a person vanished or died inside a locked and sealed room, sometimes leaving cryptic and creepy messages that were cut off by whatever took them. The character cast is added to when Jenny manages to call the next town over for help from the county sheriff’s department and the search for answers continues.
And that’s one of the “horror rules” Koontz gets right with Phantoms… three fourths of the book is spent trying to figure out what the “monster or bad guy” even IS. That’s one thing many horror novelists and screenwriters seem to forget. What you DON’T see is more frightening that what you do. Too many times a movie (generic example) will show what a monster looks like (or reveal the identity of a villain) much too early. When that mistake is made you change from the horror aspect of facing the unknown, to the usually more action oriented aspect of “defeating the bad guy.”
Another plus is the character of “little sister” Lisa. Lots of times horror, suspense, or action authors use children as a crutch. They exist only as a plot device to be saved, rescued, or protected and don’t have to be likeable or well defined characters because “they are just kids and need to be saved, rescued, and protected.” Well, maybe you have to be a parent to “get it,” but personally I hate child characters who are just empty plot devices lazy authors use to tug at heart strings and to add motivation to a character that does not have to be explained. And (in the book only) Lisa rises above that. She’s vulnerable, sure; but she’s also more than just a whiny boat anchor around a protagonist’s neck. She’s insightful, calm under pressure, and mature for her age when she needs to be. It makes you WANT the other characters to protect her instead of just EXPECTING them to. And it makes the scenes where she is in danger just that much more disturbing.
A few of the other strengths of Phantoms. It “makes it more real” by referencing actual historical events similar to the events in the novel. It layers on “hopelessness” as a theme thick at the start and only dumps on more and more as the story continues. It’s only in the last couple of chapters that there’s any glimmer of hope that somebody could survive. And even though the monster IS similar to monsters that have been written about in stories already, it isn’t “just a rip-off.” The book spends so much time with the characters and readers clueless about the nature of the villain that by the time you could draw the comparison between it and another story… it’s three quarters over.
And no, I won’t say what it’s similar to. Read and find out for yourself, I highly recommend it.