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From the Corner of His Eye by Dean Koontz
(Bantam, $7.99, 729 pages, paperback; first published December 2000; this edition December 2001.)

Dean Koontz is probably, right now, the most underestimated writer at work in the field cover scanof fantastic literature. The reasons are not hard to fathom. Unlike most authors, who go through the learning process before they ever see print, Koontz had the misfortune -- although of course it must have seemed far from that to him at the time -- to find publishers for his early, clumsy attempts, which, again unfortunately for his status within the field, sold pretty well; one of them, Demon Seed (1973), an sf novel of risible implausibility, was successfully made into an even worse movie (1977). His movie novelization The Funhouse (1980; initially published as by Owen West) is another to be recalled with the wrong sort of shudder. Through these and other books he gained a dubious reputation -- and good sales figures -- as a sort of poor man's Stephen King, a reputation that ignored the fact that he was slowly carving out his own individual and quite distinctive niche: his novels, which got steadily better, grew less like horror novels and less even than like dark fantasies, instead becoming what might best be described as dark technofantasies. Horrors there might be aplenty, and they might seem to be rooted in the fantastic, but almost always there was a sub-sciencefictional rationalization somewhere. By the time of a book like Mr. Murder (1993) -- which is not far short of an excellent novel -- he had more or less mastered his art. It can be read as a technofantasy response to Stephen King's The Dark Half (1989): in both books the central character is a writer being persecuted by a doppelganger, but in Koontz's novel the doppelganger has been manufactured rather than generated from the psyche.

Bestsellerdom greeted many of his novels of the later 1980s and especially the 1990s, but by that time many readers of fantastic literature had given up on him, having been more than once bitten by his earlier efforts. This was a great shame.

And it would be a great shame were such readers to miss From the Corner of His Eye, because, although not blemish free, this is a fine novel by anybody's standards. Although not as elegantly polished, it has the air of the novel that John Irving, perhaps, might write were he ever to stray into Dean Koontz territory.

Most of the book is set in the latter part of the 1960s. Harrison White, a black preacher, writes a long and powerful radio sermon based on the little-regarded disciple Saint Bartholomew. This sermon provides important motivation for much of the plot, as is slowly revealed. For example, a rehearsal of it is playing in the background as psychopath Junior Cain is brutally raping the younger of White's two virginal daughters, Seraphim; she dies bearing the resultant child, a girl who, christened Angel, is adopted by her elder sister Celestina. Although Cain barely listens to the tape, the name Bartholomew imprints itself upon his subconscious. Elsewhere, at about the time of Angel's birth, the broadcast sermon much affects Joe Lampion, whose wife Aggie is expecting their first-born; he dies in a car smash while taking her to hospital for the birth, his dying wish being that the baby, if a boy, be called Bartholomew.

Cain does not stop his psychopathic career at the rape of Seraphim. Less than a year later he moves on to murder, the victim being his fairly recent bride; he fakes her death as an accidental fall from a rickety tower and is awarded millions in an out-of-court settlement by the authorities whose task it should have been to keep the tower in a proper state of repair. Not all are entirely convinced by Cain's explanation, among them his lawyer, Simon Magusson -- seemingly seedy but in fact with a moral core -- and most particularly a maverick homicide detective, Thomas Vanadium, who can make coins (quarters) disappear in a seemingly sleight-of-hand trick that in fact is real: he has accidentally learned the knack of flicking the coins into parallel universes. (As an aside, this offers a wry counter-explanation of the celebrated Randi-Geller dispute: what if it's not Geller who's doing conjuring tricks but Randi who's performing paranormal feats?) Vanadium hears Cain talking in his sleep, and discovers that the murderer has a subliminal fixation on the name Bartholomew -- a fixation that he begins to exploit after Cain has very nearly killed him. Cain, you see, believes that he has killed Vanadium, rather than putting him into a months-long coma; and it is because of this false assumption that Cain's psychopathic career begins to unravel; tormented by occasional, deliberately staged glimpses of Vanadium's "ghost", by incongruously "materializing" quarters and by snatches of a meaningful song "spectrally" broadcast into his luxury apartment, he becomes obsessed with the notion that the child born of his rape must have been a boy called Bartholomew, the murder of which infant will bring him release from all the "paranormal" persecution he is suffering.

As they grow through infancy, both Bartholomew -- who proves to be a child prodigy -- and Angel discover that they have Vanadium's ability to interact with parallel universes, only much more so; in Bartholomew's case this becomes even more pronounced after, at the aged of three, he must have his eyes surgically removed to halt the spread of retinal cancer. To help him move about without accident, he can let his mind briefly camp in closely similar realities where he was never stricken by the cancer and so still possesses his sight.

Cain is the star of the show. Koontz is obviously irritated by the fallacy perpetuated in almost all serial-killer chillers that serial killers are phenomenally intelligent -- all Hannibal Lecters. In real life this is total nonsense: serial killers are almost always pretty dimwitted but their psychopathy leads them to believe themselves to be more intelligent by untold orders of magnitude than the "common herd"; this false belief is what leads them to getting caught, usually through repeated acts of thundering stupidity. Koontz, going against the literary trend but more accurately reflecting reality, portrays Junior Cain as an exceptionally stupid and gullible, if at the same time cunning and certainly lucky, psychopath, and he does so through often hilarious, laugh-out-loud satire. Cain has pretensions to Culture, and is completely hoodwinked by the stances of the bad modern-art cliques of the late 1960s: no painting is acceptable to him unless it is utterly hideous, preferably stomach-churningly so, and thus he squanders much of his ill gotten gains on the dire but fashionable artworks produced by idiot poseur Sklent. In his sexual life, Cain, physically handsome but affectingly vile, is convinced of his magnificence as a lover and that he is completely irresistible to women; he is perplexed by the fact that so few of his ex-lovers ever plead with him for a reconciliation and by the way so many of the women lusting after him play the game of pretending to resist, but chooses to dismiss these facts as just quirks of happenstance. And throughout everything he is guided by the ludicrous but bestselling self-help writings of the crackpot guru Cyrus Zedd, which have titles like Act Now, Think Later and which advise that one should live always in the future, never in the present or the past. As example, Zedd's prescription for the recovery of lost memories is to stand in a cold shower for as long as it takes, tightly pressing a fistful of ice cubes to the genitalia. Cain discovers that the technique does indeed eventually help him recover a specific lost memory, and thereafter, for some reason, he becomes generally much better at not forgetting things. There are other books in Cain's library -- almost all purchased from the Book of the Month Club, of which he is inordinately proud to be a member -- but somehow he has never quite had the time to read more than a page or two of any of them, obviously believing that, through their very possession, he has transformed himself into Literary Man through some sort of osmotic process.

But Cain is not the only character in this long and much-woven novel to leap out of the page and permanently imprint on the mind. Celestina White is another delightful discovery. A highly talented artist, she becomes successful creating paintings of the type that Cain has learnt to detest and despise: only morons could like paintings that uplift the heart and display brilliant technique, after all. More to the point, having initially, briefly hated the baby whose birth "killed her sister" -- the newborn who, while half the offspring of the loved Seraphim must also be half the offspring of the deservedly loathed (but unidentified) rapist -- takes her in and sacrifices much to be an ideal mother to her. It might sound as if Celestina could read as a nauseatingly good goodie (and the portrayal of Agnes Lampion does on occasion veer this way), but in fact she emerges as a charming and extremely intelligent woman, someone one wishes one had as a best friend. While it is hard to control a grin of derision, if not outright laughter, when Cain is at centre stage, in Celestina's case it is hard to control a warm grin of affection.

As noted parenthetically, the depiction of the one-woman charity movement Agnes Lampion is less successful, and, oddly, the same can be said for the unkillable cop and retired priest Thomas Vanadium, who really should be the tale's Immutable Force of Good. Perhaps part of it is to do with the name. As will be obvious, there's quite a lot of coding going on in terms of the book's names: Cain, the black Whites, Simon Magusson, Angel, Bartholomew, and so on, and this is by no means limited to the central characters. But Vanadium -- harder, of course, than steel ...? It's a highly artificial surname, and the effect is a bit hokey, damagingly so in that it colours our perceptions of the rest of Vanadium's characterization, which would be just on the verge of clichéd caricature even without the name, which pulls it (only slightly) too far in that direction. It's possible, of course, that this was a deliberate gambit on Koontz's part -- to set a caricatured Force of Good against his inspiredly caricatured Force of Evil -- and certainly in the rest of the novel Koontz displays a sufficiently attuned intelligence that this may very well be the case, but in this instance, at least for this reader, it is a minor irritation rather than an effective literary stratagem.

Fantasy, technofantasy, science fiction, chiller thriller or comedy of manners? From the Corner of His Eye is all of these, to a greater or lesser extent. Although it has occasional clumsinesses (almost inevitable in such a very long novel) -- the final, inevitable despatch of Junior by the kids is, for example, hurriedly and rather flatly done -- these are just about irrelevant in the context of the whole, which is a splendid achievement. Do not be deceived by the book's trumpeted bestseller status, or by the bizarrely misleading blurb, or by any memories you might have (no need for cold showers and ice cubes here) of early experiences with Koontz's novels: give this one a try and you will be richly rewarded.

Review by John Grant.

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© John Grant 8 December 2001