I was dying for a good thriller/horror read, but not an overly depressing one — but I was having some trouble getting into Koontz’s ODD THOMAS (I think because of the first person narrator, which doesn’t always bother me, and I really like the voice, but for some reason just wasn’t dragging me in) so instead I picked up INTENSITY (also partially because of a couple of mentions at SBTB, in the Halloween recommendations thread).
Anyway, I really like Koontz. Not all of his books have been hits for me (particularly some of his early work that has been reissued *coughDEMONSEEDcough*) but I do really like that, at the heart of his books, I can see the once-romance-writer in him. Unlike Stephen King, who I think is better at the thriller/horror stuff, I can count on a happy ending with Koontz. Not a perfect ending, always — and sympathetic characters are often killed — but at least a somewhat happy ending. When I’m in the type of mood I have been lately, I don’t quite want to take a King-level risk of walking away totally depressed, or with a sense of absolute futility.
So the comment that made me drag the book off my shelf was something about a really disturbing/scary scene about 50 pages into the book. (ETA: Hey, that was Rosario!) And I agree, the scene had that heart-pounding sense of terror and suspense that I really loved, and for the first hundred and fifty pages, I was totally into it.
Then he almost lost me. I almost put it down, and gave up.
Not because of any bad scene, or anything that offended me, but because the — forgive me — intensity was completely lost for about 150 pages, before it picked up again (after she got out of the chair).
Now, I don’t expect a book to carry that pulse-pounding pace for 400 pages. Really, any book that can accomplish that would be a) a miracle and b) exhausting. Plus, any book at that pace is likely to suffer from a severe lack of characterization and character development. There usually has to be a few slow scenes in a book. I’m sure I could think of exceptions if I tried…but I’m not really going to try all that hard right now.
Okay, upfront I’m going to say that I did end up liking the book — but at the same time, my almost-put-it-down experience taught me some very useful things.
- Spending too much time in the villain’s POV can suck the life out of the suspense.
In this book, the bad guy comes into the house where the heroine is staying the night, kills everyone, and takes off. She follows him, first out of vengeance, and then to save a young girl. The first part of the book is entirely from Chyna’s POV — then, after that first massacre and the great suspenseful scenes where she’s hiding from him — it switches to Vess’s POV, and we learn all about his psychosis (he lives absolutely for sensation, and considers nothing in a moral sense. Every experience is thrilling, and murder, all that kind of stuff, is the best of all).
But, after a while…well, I just didn’t care. Vess is effed up; I get it. For Vess to ruminate upon his psychosis in detail doesn’t really deepen his character, intensify the horror that is Vess, or make me more afraid for Chyna — because that scene at the beginning did all of that just fine. A deep look into a being who is absolutely amoral is great, but the scenes in which he’s actually acting out are far more effective than being told for pages and pages how effed up he is, and how he thinks.
(As an aside, this is my one problem with my favorite book of Koontz’s, WATCHERS. The scenes from … Vinnie’s? … POV where he’s tracking down the dog, and living out his delusion that taking people’s lives into his being and he’ll become invincible -ssssnap!- are supposed to, I think, heighten our fear for Nora and her baby when he finally catches up with them … but I end up skimming his scenes on every re-read.)
(As another aside, one of the interesting techniques Koontz used with Vess’s POV was to put it in the present tense. It echoes exactly what Vess is: someone who lives absolutely in the experience of the moment. It’s fantastic to see the language reflecting character at that level.)
Where Vess’s POV did work was in the scenes where we know that he knows Chyna is hiding in the motor home, but she doesn’t yet know it. He’s curious about her, and though him, we learn what she’s going to have to face to escape. That heightens the suspense. It works.
So, lesson learned: when in his POV, showing the villain’s badness is always better than telling us.
- Action is great, and showing is great; but taking twenty pages to get out of a chair is too much.
Showing is better than telling, but there is a point when the showing can be really, really, really frustrating, and it’s going to make me start skimming.
There is a moment in this book when Chyna, chained to a chair, thoroughly demoralized and losing all hope of escape, decides to fight back. And we are shown her fortitude, her intelligence, and her determination in a scene where she escapes from the chains. She hurts herself pretty badly in the process, and the scene is complete with flashbacks that strengthen her resolve not to be a victim again, and it’s a big turning point.
Yep, I started skimming. I get it. She’s tough and determined; she’s going to do this, no matter what. After the first five pages, I got it. But still, every movement, every victory, is almost excruciatingly detailed, and after a while the fortitude is not hers, but mine for reading through it. After a while, I don’t care WHY she’s doing it: I just want her to get out of the fucking chair so that the story can continue.
So, lesson learned: trust your readers. Let them share the character’s victories (and/or pain), but stop! when the point is made. Continuing on the same point, even if it’s shown with action, is not movement — it’s wallowing. Go on with the story.
- Even with those things that dragged it down, it’s still a good book.
Because Koontz rocks. And I can do a lot worse than learn from him. I’m already incorporating a few of the techniques I saw in the opening scenes to heighten some of the tension in the WIP. I can only hope it works half as well.