4.5 out of 5
First things first, let’s break out the checklist to see how Koontzian this book is.
1. Blond lead/love interest - Nope
2. Dog(s) – Yup (but these Fidos aren’t smart)
3. Government conspiracy - Nope
4. Aliens - Nope
5. Serial Killer – Nope (but there are a few psychopath so I’ll let you decide if they count)
6. Bougainvillea plant - Nope
7. Sodium-vapor streetlight – Yup (numerous times! In fact, this might have the most mentions of sodium-vapor out of every Koontz book ever)
8. Precocious child - Nope
9. Town gone crazy – Nope (but kinda? Again, not sure if it fits…)
10. Psychic(s) – Nope
So…two? Unless you wanna get nitpicky, then…four? Live or die, make your choice. Or whatever. On with the review.
Books like PHANTOMS is a perfect example of why I rag on Koontz as much as I do. We all know he’s capable of writing fantastic books, but he’s also always been about quantity over quality. For every amazing novel we get three to four piles of hot garbage. This era of Koontz’s output is almost entirely devoid of fuckery, though, because when we did come across a piece of steaming excrement, it was usually a rewritten/repurposed novel from yesteryear, like THE HOUSE OF THUNDER or THE EYES OF DARKNESS. All of the new books he released during this decade of productivity (the mid-to-late 80s and early 90s) were highly enjoyable. At some point in the early 2000s, he found a formula that he proceeded to flog like the dead horse that it was. From what I remember, this trend started with INTENSITY (his last great book) and rolled downhill from there.
I say all that because people insist I hate Koontz. You see them in the comments of my updates: “Why do you insist on torturing yourself???” or “I THOUGHT YOU WERE FINISHED WITH KOONTZ SQUEEEEEEEE!!!” What these fine people do not understand is that Koontz was, at one point in time, one of my literary heroes. I grew up reading him, and the point of this rereading project with my good friend and opposing debate team, Delee (I honestly love it when we disagree), is to find out where and when everything went wrong, because at some point Koontz went from writing a good book every year (if you ignore the reprints and rewrites of pseudonym works) to going completely off the fucking rails into a land populated by wordmills far as the eye can see. Again, quantity over quality.
And, yes, I understand there are legions of Koontz fans that think he's still pumping out pure literary cocaine. Suffice it to say, I disagree with you. But we're allowed to agree to disagree and move on, so calm your fucking chest meat, Beatrice.
What I didn’t expect to find while rereading this book was much of the inspiration for Stephen King’s IT. From the voices in the drain to the final conflict, there are note-for-note recreations of scenes in this book inside of King’s masterpiece. That doesn’t make me love IT any less, by the way, but the similarities are far from coincidence. They’re too many to note here, but I will be making a video about it for anyone who’s interested. One thing’s for sure, tho, King blurbed Koontz’s book, so we know (or we can safely assume) that King read it. And, although the version I read was a 1996 “variant” that had it’s pop-culture references (to things like the OJ trial) updated in anticipation of the film adaptation’s release in 1998, the original version of PHANTOMS was released in hardcover in 1983, a whole three years before IT was published.
(I plan to read FLOATING DRAGON soon, Anthony, I promise. In fact, I'd like to do a whole series of videos on books people feel inspired King's 1100-page epic.)
The one criticism I have for PHANTOMS is the Fletcher Kale storyline. It felt unneeded in the worst possible way and caused the ending to drag on 30 pages past its welcome. I’m only deducting a half a star for it, which is why I’m at 4.5 stars rounded up to 5 because, like high-school E., Goodreads can’t figure out fractions. I do wonder if the Kale subplot was added to strengthen the satanic-panic theme of the novel. Sure, religion is mentioned throughout the book, but the theme was much heavier in Kale’s later chapters, and it truly felt like an afterthought. Something doesn't jive with me in those sections. They feel farther removed from the main storyline for some reason I can't pin down. The film completely removes the Kale character and story arc, and is all the better for not including it.
Hands down, there is some marvelous writing in this piece, some of his best work, and I have to tip my hat to Koontz for some impressive speculative fiction. Donna Tartt once said that a novelist’s first job is to entertain, and that’s what this book does. It entertains, consistantly. I was able to shut off my inner content editor and suspend my disbelief, and that’s all I can really ask for out of a work of fiction.
In summation: If you only ever read another Dean Koontz book, you should probably read this one. While it is not my favorite, it is a terrific example of Koontz when he’s firing on all cylinders. Mind, most of his work is a broken down jalopy with a cracked head and four flats, but this one? Man, does she purr. Final Judgment: The reason I fell in love with Koontz and mourn his decline.
Video review: https://youtu.be/Y13y3OOynro