INNOCENCE by DEAN KOONTZ
HARPERCOLLINS 338 pages
Dean Koontz is one of writing’s heavy hitters, in or just outside the top ten dollar earners ( $ 20 million or so last year). He writes suspense, horror and supernatural thrillers. His output is prodigious, at least sixty five novels under his own name and a further canon from the past, including some disputed ones, under a variety of pennames. He is sixty eight and continues to churn out novels, fourteen of which have topped the New York Times bestseller lists. Most people will have read at least one of his books; I’ve read quite a few, though none recently before I tackled his latest, “Innocence.”
Koontz is very much a “what you see is what you get” writer. His books are good, attention holding, page turners, well plotted. Some critics have pointed to an underlying moral tone in his works in which right normally triumphs, suggesting that links can be traced to Koontz’ personal life. He and his mother were abused by his father, an alcoholic, which undoubtedly influenced his writing, as did his admiration for his mother and his early conversion to Catholicism. Yet despite his very considerable financial success, Koontz has never really received the critical acclaim accorded to his contemporary, Stephen King, with whom he is often compared. I’m not sure if “Innocence” will do much to redress the balance.
I was reminded at the outset of “Innocence” of the great H.P. Lovecraft short story about a ghoul which lives deep underground, surfacing at last, craving human company only to be shunned in horror by humans, so dreadful is its appearance. The book’s hero, Addison Goodheart, is a freak, a young man with a facial appearance so terrible that any person who sees him reacts with horror and violence, seeking to kill him. Goodheart lives in a secret windowless apartment deep in the bowels of a large city ( taken to be Manhattan) from where he ventures forth only in the dead of night, masked and muffled, to forage for food and, occasionally to explore the city library.
One winter’s night in the library he encounters a beautiful young woman, Gwyneth, fleeing a malevolent evil man, the murderer of her father, intent on raping her. Addison befriends her and together they set out to frustrate the villain, their pact being that she does not look and he does not touch. On the way they encounter strange, supernatural, or at any rate non-human, entities: Clears, positive or good spirits, but nonetheless not to be approached, and Fogs, evil and malevolent wraiths which feed and interact on humans’ basest desires.
The story is obviously allegorical, with echoes of Beauty and the Beast, but with exquisitely written passages which make for easy reading. The book appears to be grinding along towards the inevitable conclusion – the triumph of good, after much travail – until, with about seventy pages left, there is a gear-change. A philosophical interlude on the nature of time in the universe is followed by quite a breath-taking build up to the novel’s climax. It would spoil it for the reader to reveal too much. Suffice to say that there is an all too plausible scenario suggested towards the end, something that gave me food for some uncomfortable thought, something I’m pretty sure other readers will share.