Dean Koontz used to be the most worthy successor to Stephen King in English language horror. Stories like Phantoms, Lightning and Strangers from the late 80s and early 90s all have the same hallmarks – great plotting, a strong backing premise, deep characterisations of ordinary people in peril and a lot of fine detail.
If you haven’t read Koontz for more than 10 years, be prepared for a shock. The only explanation for 77 Shadow Street being so different and such an acquired taste is that somewhere Koontz fancied himself a literary horror writer. The language used in the story is so unlike his older, digestible, more contemporary style you might not recognise him.
It’s the story of the inhabitants of an upmarket apartment building one stormy night in an unnamed city. It begins with a drunk ex Senator coming home, getting into the elevator of the Pendleton (the building of the titular address) to go upstairs and never coming out again. As the supernatural and the unexplained descend in the form of ghosts, strange creatures and morphing reality we learn a bestial entity known only as One presides over a shifting of the space time continuum occurring every 38 years in order for him/it to collect victims.
If only it were that easy. Everything about the plot is nearly invisible under the thickest blanket of florid word-love you’ve ever seen in a mainstream horror thriller. At times paragraphs or a page or more has passed before you realise Koontz has said little to advance the story, using his characters as expositionary stand-ins to dispense vast swaths of wisdom or homily.
It also doesn’t help that the characters are ironically underdeveloped and overbaked at the same time. You often hear the refrain to start the story at the beginning instead of before it, but 77 Shadow Street lacks a sense of context and set-up that might otherwise make you care who these people are and what they’re going through.
The other mistake Koontz makes is that in another seeming misnomer, he goes too deep into the characters. The opposite extreme in many books is bland everymen and everywomen, but every character in 77 Shadow Street is such an overwrought oddball in some way (a conspiracy nut, a professional killer for whom everything is sexy thanks to a screwed-up childhood, an eccentric doctor, the single mother to an autistic daughter who’s morbidly afraid of storms after lightning killed her father in front of her, etc) it detracts from the plot. Nobody’s just a common slob with an ordinary job and simple dreams and thoughts – everyone is too full of dark, kooky secrets.
The upside is that Koontz still does detail well. The horror starts from page one and we follow every character’s movements in real time, hundreds of pages depicting a single terrible night. If you can get past the English professor-standard syntax, there’s probably a ripping yarn in there somewhere.