Phantoms

By Dean Koontz

66,812 ratings - 3.95* vote

“Phantoms is gruesome and unrelenting…It’s well realized, intelligent, and humane.”—Stephen KingThey found the town silent, apparently abandoned. Then they found the first body, strangely swollen and still warm. One hundred fifty were dead, 350 missing. But the terror had only begun in the tiny mountain town of Snowfield, California.At first they thought it was the work of “Phantoms is gruesome and unrelenting…It’s well realized, intelligent, and humane.”—Stephen KingThey

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Book details

Paperback, 448 pages
February 5th 2002 by Berkley

(first published March 1983)

Original Title
Phantoms
ISBN
0425181103 (ISBN13: 9780425181102)
Edition Language
English

Community Reviews

Alejandro

It's amusing how I ended reading this novel. And maybe this will be the most humorous review of a truly scary horror novel. If you read it, you'll understant what I mean.

First, I didn't know that it was a novel, a long horror story book, when I bought it. Honestly!

Back then (1992), I was in a local bookstore. I read the title "Phantoms" (well in reality it was "Fantasmas" since I bought in Spanish first the book) and I thought that it was an anthology of ghost stories and that Dean Koontz (I didn't know the author at that moment) was the editor or something of the book.

I started to read the book and honestly I didn't realized that it was a novel until I got to the third chapter! :P In my defense (hehe) each chapter has titles, so I still was thinking that they were horror short stories, but quite odd since they didn't have some climax or good ending (hahaha!) when I started to read the third chapter and I met again the same characters of the first "short story" (hahaha) it was when I realize...

Oh!!! This is a horror novel!!! Hahaha, honestly, this is a true story. I hadn't read any horror novel until that moment. I had read a lot of anthologies of horror short stories with several specific topics and it was like my current reading type of books at that moment. However, I supposed that this book wanted me, and I took the call.

The humorous stops right here... bring on the terror!!!

It was the start of a great reading story of me with Dean Koontz's novels. I love his style of making books, those cool details that they repeat on each book in some way or other.

And maybe because it was the first that I read, but this novel keeps to be my favorite book of Koontz and my favorite horror novel. If you ever had the bad experience of watching the dreadful film based on this book, please, don't let that that keep you away from the wonderful experience of reading this masterpiece of literature on the horror genre.

Snowfield, a typical American town where in one night, everybody just dissapeared, every single person and animal are nowhere to be found, a real "ghost" town that was full of life just one day before. The young Dr. Jenny Paige along with her younger sister, Lisa, will have to explore this deserted town and try to find a clue of what happened.

Welcome to Snowfield. You wouldn't be able to leave!

Jonathan Janz

I'm fiercely competitive. Like, ridiculously competitive. To the point where I choose a favorite, and from that point on I'm squarely behind that favorite until the bitter end.

The Chicago Cubs.

Star Wars.

Stephen King.

You get the picture.

Problem is, this causes me to miss out on things that threaten the supremacy of my favorites. For several months I avoided The Lord of the Rings movies because I was afraid they'd be better than the original Star Wars trilogy. Then, when they were better, I decided to avoid watching the Harry Potter movies because they represented a new threat to my new cinematic darling. Eventually, I broke down and watched the Harry Potter films (after reading the books with my firstborn), and now I'm a diehard Harry Potter fan, as well as a diehard Lord of the Rings fan, as well as a diehard Star Wars fan. It really shouldn't have been this complicated, but what can I say? I have problems.

Speaking of problems...

I'm as a big a fan of Stephen King as you can imagine, and it's no secret that on any bookstore shelf, King and Koontz are situated right there together, each with his own section of literary real estate. For many years I've been told I should read Koontz, but that silly, childish, competitive side of me dug its heels in and refused. *King* was my favorite, so I didn't need to read Koontz. So there!

*shakes head at self*

Pitiful.

Well, I'm happy to report that I've finally matured enough to give Koontz a try. My opinion of him?

He's really, really good.

While Stephen King will always be my favorite writer, I will unquestionably be reading more Koontz novels. His prose is deceptive. At first glance I thought, "What's the big deal? This is good, but it's not *that* good. It's not I-get-my-own-bookshelf good."

Then Koontz sucked me in. By the time the lawmen from the neighboring town came to investigate the problems in Snowfield, I was hooked good and proper. I enjoyed where Koontz took the story, and I found his writing more and more engrossing the further and further I delved into the narrative. I also found the tale quite creative, which is saying a great deal. The whole affair reminded me a little of the marvelous Preston and Child novel THE RELIC, which I absolutely loved.

So...I give this epic novel the rating it deserves--five stars. And I recant my embarrassing stubbornness and promise to keep maturing so I don't miss out on great writers and movies.

But I still won't root for anyone but the Cubs.

Edward Lorn

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

Maciek

In 1979, Dean Koontz wrote a novel called Whispers which catapulted him to the bestseller list. Koontz's status in the publishing world shifted drastically; from a rather unknown suspense producer he became the hot stuff, and in 1981 Whispers rose to the top five of the New York Times paperback bestseller list.

But this article is not about Whispers. While I'm not a fan of the mentioned novel, and consider it to be largely tedious and overwrought with banal drama and sentimentality, it shows potential in one field: the creep field. There are sections in Whispers that are genuinely disturbing to this day, and it's been three decades since the original publication - that's saying something.

However, as big a success the book was, it didn't made Koontz a millionaire, nor a cult writer. His publisher told him that if he wanted to build his career he'd have to write a horror novel - Whispers was marketed as horror, despite having little to do with the genre - horror was popular at that time. Koontz wrote four novels under various pseudonyms (all largely forgotten, more or less deservedly) and after two years he finally gave in to the urgings and in 1983 came up with Phantoms.

Now, in 1983 Koontz wasn't interested in angelic dogs and some weird new age philosophies, and most importantly he was still fresh with ideas and hasn't succumbed to the formula of rewriting the same book over and over. Phantoms was the novel which gave Koontz the label of a horror writer - a blessing or a curse? Seems like a bit of both. The book was an enormous success, earning praise of both audience and critics, who then returned to read his later work and were disappointed that it didn't had much in common with Phantoms.

Koontz opens the novel in the Hitchcockian way. With a bang - the opening estabilishes the tension and introduces the reader to the nightmare which will most certainly follow.

The scream was distant and brief. A woman's scream. - Deputy Henderson is sitting alone in the town jail of Snowfield in California, a small lazy town, when he hears the scream. The duty is dull; not much happens in Snowfield in September, and the deputy is bored. He listens intently but cannot hear anything; a quick glance at the peaceful main street makes him think that he might have imagined the scream. He almost wishes that somene had screamed; being young and brave he's ready for some action.
He sighed, looked down at the magazine that lay on his desk—and heard another scream. As before, it was distant and brief, but this time it sounded like a man's voice. It wasn't merely a shriek of excitement or even a cry of alarm; it was the sound of terror. The deputy gets up from the chair, ready to investigate, and when he's almost halfway to the door he hears a sound in the office he has just left.
That was impossible. He had been alone in the office all day, and there hadn't been any prisoners in the three holding cells since early last week. The rear door was locked, and that was the only other way into the jail.
When he turned, however, he discovered that he wasn't alone any more. And suddenly he wasn't the least bit bored.


Phantoms opens as a locked room mystery - what happened in the Deputy's office? How could someone enter the place that was empty seconds before he left it? Koontz restricts the action in the opening to a single place and a single protagonist, who is faced with danger that is shown but not explained, therefore making it intriguing and pushing the reader to the edge of his seat - this drastically increases the tension, a feat that requires considerable skill to perform on such small space.

The second chapter is titled Coming Home and introduces two characters - Jennifer and Elisabeth Paige. The two weren't close; Jennifer's work as a doctor didn't allow her to spend much time on bonding. However, on the death of their mother, Jennifer decides to take care of Lisa. The sisters drive to Jennifer's home in Snowfield, and quickly notice an unusual quietness in the town. Koontz does a great job with describing the surroundings in vivid detail, and thrusting two average people into a strange situation (another Hitchockian trope he uses).
The town is not merely quiet - it looks dead.

The sidewalks, balconies, and porches were deserted. Even in those shops and houses where there were lights burning, there was no sign of life. Jenny's Trans Am was the only moving car on the long street.

Snowfields appear to be uninhabited. The sisters are scared, but decide to find out what has happened. Koontz employs the best type of terror in this section of the book - something sinister has apparently occured in Snowfield, but neither the reader nor the two sisters have a clue what is going on. And it's not because of the lack of evidence; soon the sisters find plenty of evidence, but it produces more questions than explanations. The terror in Snowfield has occured for no apparent reason, and there is no explanation for ir. Or is there?

The silently crushing presence of a dead town is one of Koontz's best suspense in his whole career. It's difficult to discuss the book without going into spoiler territory, so I'll refrain from it. Have you ever wondered what might have happened on Marie Celeste, or who wrote Croatoan? The same mystery of mass disappearance is employed masterfully by Koontz in the first section of Phantoms. The horror employed by Koontz is the best one; no boogeyman shouting "BOO!", but a silently malevolent presence, or an imagination of this presence serves for the unrelenting sense of slowly unfolding terror. I started reading Phantoms when I was alone at night, and I was so into this section that I jumped when stray wind hit my window. It is the best setting to read this novel; silence equaling that in Snowfield, where little happens but the terror just mounts and mounts. This is Koontz at his best, a writer enjoying fresh success and experimenting with joy in the genre that offers unlimited possibilities. "You want horror?" - he asks. "All right - I'll give you horror! I'll give you the mother of all horror stories!"

Unfortunately, the first part is the only flawless one. In his previous novels, Koontz switched the narrative between protagonists, and does it again in Phantoms - in chapter 9, Jenny uses the telephone to call a sheriff from the neighboring town. From now on, the narrative will switch between a cast of characters, and this very technique largely destroys the brilliant creepiness of part one. The horror that ratcheted up with each revelation is largely diminished by the entrance of new characters and the insight into their perspective; now there's a sense of companionship and the two sisters are not alone, and when you're not alone in the dark the fear of the unknown largely disappears. Each chapter offers a new perspective; and the time spent with each character is too small to grow attached to them and to share their uneasiness and fright.

It's not the biggest disappointment, though. Koontz approached writing Phantoms with Whispers fresh in his mind; he wanted to provide a logically consistent explanation of the happenings in the town. From the afterword:

I thought I would cleverly evade their horror-or-starve ultimatum by making Phantoms something of a tour-de-force, rolling virtually all the monsters of the genre into one beast, and also by providing a credible scientific explanation for the creature’s existence. Instead of fearless vampire hunters armed with wooden stakes, instead of werewolf trackers packing revolvers loaded with silver bullets, my protagonists would save themselves by using logic and reason to determine the nature of their mysterious enemy and to find a way to defeat it.

Employing essentially the same tactic (and sharing the same sentiment) as Stoker in Dracula - Ancient Darkness against Modern Wizardry of Technology - destroys the book potential. Phantoms would become a timeless horror classic if it did not try to be too much - Phantoms would be a horror story, yes, but it would also be science fiction, an adventure tale, a wild mystery story, and an exploration of the nature and source of myth. Koontz tries to handle too many genres, too many subplots at once for the thing to work. The incredible, slowly unfolding horror of Part One disappears once the reader is shown what the protagonists are up against and how they mean to deal with the situation. I'm pretty sure that this section of the novel was spoofed in a certain movie that came out just a year later. The end of the novel retreats to the mediocrity and disappointment of most of Koontz's work.


Nevertheless, this is the novel that made Koontz known as a horror writer, and propably his sole title that has been influential in the genre and other media. I'm a big fan of the Silent Hill videogame franchise, and the influence of this work in the first installment is obvious and clear (not to mention that the titular town has a "Koontz street"). If only Phantoms held the mood of the first part, promised on the cover of my paperback edition - a mountain-country house constructed from wood, surrounded by ominous white fog, under a brooding red sky - but I'm sad to say it does not. It's a real shame, because conceptually this is one of Koontz's very best books; and it could be so much, much more. A wasted opportunity that will not be repeated.

Karl Marberger

Some pretty creepy parts, and a cool monster.But it dragged. Most of the novel is the characters speculating, theorizing, deducing and discussing the nature of the monster. There could have been less of this and more monster action.Working toward the climax turned into a chore because I was turned off.

Michael Sorbello

Jenny and Lisa are two sisters who love each other very much, but neither of them has had the opportunity to properly connect because of their large age gap. While one was off studying to be a doctor, the other was still in middle school. After graduating, Jenny decides to invite her sister to her lovely hometown of Snowfield in California, which doubles as a friendly ski resort. The two are excited to start making many wonderful memories, but the girls find the town to be completely devoid of people. Then they found the first body in the place they were planning to make their home.

The body is strangely swollen and still warm, their face frozen in a permanent scream. 150 were found dead, 350 missing. A great catastrophe has struck Jenny's beloved home, but the poor sisters have no idea that the terror has only just begun in the tiny mountain town. At first they thought it was the work of a maniac or a group of terrorists or cultists, or perhaps even some kind of unknown plague. But then they found the truth. They saw it in the flesh, and it was worse than anything any of them had ever imagined.

This book had trouble catching my attention at first. The dialogue was awkward, the setup seemed a bit cliche, and the way the characters reacted to death and horror seemed very hollow and unrealistic. However, after the first hundred pages or so, the quality of the writing skyrockets and the source of the catastrophe becomes much more complex and interesting then the premise would lead you to believe. Once Jenny calls the police from a nearby town, receives backup from a military Biological Investigations Unit and an eccentric British professor who was fired from his position for inventing all kinds of theories regarding an ancient enemy who has been responsible for countless mass vanishings all over the world for centuries such as the disappearance of the Roanoke Colony, Shaanxi Village, Mayan civilizations and ghost ships, things become way more exciting and interesting.

The combo of many mysterious tragedies from real history, a band of unlikely do-gooders in a desolate mountain town and a terrifying shapeshifting monstrosity that's like a fusion of Pennywise, Azathoth and Satan himself makes for a compelling horror thriller. It has a rough start, but the last 75% is great and presents many interesting questions and answers regarding religion, the origins of the Satan myth, historical tragedies, and whether humans are more capable of kindness or evil.

***

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Rabbit {Paint me like one of your 19th century gothic heroines!}

This reminded me so much of old school King that it's automatically in the keeper pile.

10/10 would read again. :D

Matt

Reading Dean Koontz is some kind of a mixed bag for me. I only read a few his books and there were hits and there were misses. This one was the best. I read it 25 years ago for the first time (in German) and liked it quite a bit. Now that I read it again (in English) I liked it even more.

A horror novel as it should be.

Probably – or should I say hopefully? – it’s not a novel that is inducing nightmares. In fact, it was quite the opposite for me. A few days ago, the night before I read the book, I had a bad dream. Not some horrible nightmare from which I woke up screaming, but bad enough. It left me with some kind of irrational fear in the morning, a fear of something bad that’s going to happen, but I couldn’t say what it was. Being my own dream interpreter, I guess the whole Corona crisis is to blame. While pondering my dream I recalled my reaction to this very book, which was kind of odd, because I haven’t thought about it for a long time. Obviously something from the book has stuck in my subconsciousness and was triggered by my dream to surface again. Or maybe it was the other way around?

In any case, after reading I found that two of the main characters, at the beginning of the story, find themselves in a situation not dissimilar to the one I felt in my dream. Jenny Paige, the physician in the small alpine town of Snowfield CA (pop 500), and her kid sister Lisa, return to the town to find it completely empty and devoid of life. Their notion of something terrible going on is confirmed when they discover a couple of dead bodies, strangely disfigured (not in my own dream), and it takes the two of them and others quite a while to find out who or what the enemy is, or if there even is an enemy to fight. The tension until one finally knows what it’s all about, what is actually going on, is maintained here for quite some time and very skilfully executed.

Of course, with novels like these, you have to check your passion for literary merit at the front cover and put on your hat for believers of the unbelievable. After that you’re in for a wild ride through this alpine town in California during which there are some interesting things to discover that are actually true, and some which might be true. There’s a whole lot of themes from religion and myth to science and medicine, the fight between good and evil, a little history, strong women, brave men, heroes and villains and a somewhat crazy professor who wrote an incredible book, which, alas, was never published (or else I would surly read it).

Recommended horror!

A small side note: Dean Koontz is in a certain way a competitor of Stephen King and I was a little surprised to see a quote in the “praise” section of the book in which King says ‘Gruesome and unrelenting – it has atmosphere, character and story. I couldn’t let it alone until I was done. It’s well realised, intelligent and humane’. Maybe he skipped the section in which a dead person is discovered whose name was Father Callahan, the main character of his own SALEM’S LOT?


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Aaron Nash

I don't yet understand the hate for Koontz. Currently I have read three of his novels ; midnight, watchers and now this one, and I have thoroughly enjoyed each of them. Maybe I peaked too soon with his best works. Hopefully not.

For me, this was a cracking read. The first 100 pages or so were filled with dread, and so tension filled. I felt like I was there with the two sisters, as they explored the town and discovered the horrors within. It was damn creepy and really atmospheric. As more characters were introduced the tension just kept on building until finally the " ancient enemy" struck.

The less said about the enemy the better, but it is one of the most malevolent forces in fiction I have read about. A disturbing creature that has a terrific backstory and is well researched. It is such a frightening presence throughout.

Finally I believe this was written around five years before Stephen kings IT. I can't help but feel that King read this, and found a lot of ideas here that went into his own masterpiece. There are just too many coincidences. I mean the enemy in this novel is even referred to as IT many times!

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