Book Review: Frankenstein- Prodigal Son, By Dean Koontz

This book has been on my reading list for some time. In fact, the paperback in the photo above has been on my shelf for nearly six to seven years, and finally I have gotten around to reading it. I’ve been hesitant with Koontz. Partly because my last reading experience with him was not good. The first of Koontz’s catalog to reach my hands was a novel called Tick Tock, which attempted to mix slapstick comedy with horror. For me it was the literary equivalent to smearing ice cream and cake into Spaghetti. Left a bad taste in my mouth. Plus, any time I would hear someone talk about his books, they always emphasized how hit or miss he is, and it seemed, at least based on the opinions I experienced, that he was more miss than hit. Well, I must say, with Frankenstein, I lucked out with a hit.

The story introduces us to Deucalion, a mysterious sleight-of-reality artist who has isolated himself in the Tibetan mountains for some time, living the lifestyle of a monk. Deucalion is well acquainted with suffering. “I don’t fear pain,” Deucalion says at one point before his departure from the Tibetan hideaway after receiving bad news from a messenger. “Life is an ocean of pain.”

Meanwhile, Detective Carson O’Connor and her partner Michael Maddison are investigating a string of victims in an ongoing serial killer case. Nicknamed the Surgeon, the killer removes different parts of the body with surgical precision, hoping to find the element of humanity he is lacking. When Deucalion and Detective Conner’s paths cross, they learn of a far greater threat to the city. As Deucalion describes it, Victor Helios (the scientist once known as Frankenstein who created Deucalion two hundred years prior in Austria), has created “machines of blood and bone”, an entire race of killers described by Victor as The New Race. Stripped of human passions and emotions, these beings are meant to replace the imperfect Old Race and assert a new society. However, many of Victor’s creations, once released into society, become confused as they realize they lack a completeness that the Old Race exhibits, which drives some of them to kill and dissect in the search of understanding the happiness and contentment they lack.

It’s truly an inspired play on the Frankenstein narrative, updated to a modern audience. Instead of creating this new race by harvesting body parts from corpses, Victor does it through synthetic biology. Yet Deucalion remains a link to the old Frankenstein narrative. Two hundred years ago he was formed using the body parts of criminals. Starting out as a brute monster, he develops humanity over time. His creator, Victor Helios, demonstrates a reversing arc. Originally a man, driven by his obsession, he becomes a monster. I really enjoyed the reverse dichotomy between the creation and creator. Victor views all passions, emotions, and religious beliefs to be imperfections, along with physical flaws. Using direct-to-brain downloading, he programs his creations to be free of human passions, running strictly on the program he designs. Even sex becomes merely a means of venting stress for the potential New Race, animalistic and instinctual, free of any feelings of love or infatuation.

The struggle between domineering rationality and emotional passions became a common conflict throughout the novel. Victor Helios reveres rationality as the path to enlightened perfection and sees human passions as a distracting pollutant to human progress. Even Detective Carson O’Connor, driven by a job that requires the proficient use of reason and analysis, struggles to repress her feelings for her partner Michael, believing such feelings will be a distraction, negatively effecting her job performance. A theme is pronounced from this conflict that seems to say that human passions and cold rationality lessen the human condition when one or the other is deprived of the other. One driven and possessed by human emotions alone becomes reckless and harmfully volatile. While one driven by indifferent rationality becomes the merciless, selfish tyrant represented in Victor Helios. Emotions of love and compassion temper the brute instincts and create a more enriching human experience. Meanwhile, rational proficiency motivates the competencey necessary for productivity in society. Both are needed for healthy function, but both must be bridled.

Overall, I give book one of Dean Koontz’s Frankenstein a 4.5 out of 5. I marked it down half a point because something seemed off concerning the narrative tone in the novel. Perhaps some of this had to do with the flippant banter between O’Conner and Michael throughout the story, which made it feel more like a cheap Hollywood cop movie at times. At one point, after O’Conner has opened up about her encounter with Deucalion, and they are on route to meet him at the old movie theater, Michael says, “Do his palms grow hairy when the moon is full?” O’Conner replies, “No. He shaves them just like you.” Har de har har. Roll your eyes. Perhaps I’m being too sturm und drang, which is something I’m guilty of in my own writing, but some of these quips didn’t work for me.

Overall, book one of Dean Koontz’s Frankenstein both thrills you and provokes thought, the chief delights of great fiction. I highly recommend it.

Frankenstein Prodigal Son is available on Amazon.

Lessons Learned While Writing A Short Horror Story

I published “Lights Out” back in the Spring of 2010, but I wrote the rough draft back in 2007. This story went through many incarnations. Most of them were completely ridiculous. Let me tell you why.

Beta readers can be a wonderful asset. Sometimes writers can get too close to their work, falling so deeply in love with their own writing that they miss major plot holes or wonky characterizations. Or the complete opposite occurs and the writer thinks their story is a total drag, an embarrassing mess that should be deleted to the void and forgotten about forever. The beta reader can help us writers in a few ways.

1) They can bring us to the realization that our literary darlings aren’t as dazzling as we think they are, bringing us back down to earth from our ethereal writing heaven.

2) They can emphasize what is working when we falsely think every word is dead on the page.

3) They can drive us crazy, sending us in a vicious cycle of endless revisions and editing.

Number three is what happened to me. At the time I was writing “Lights Out”, I was also taking my first creative writing class. The idea for the story had been on my mind for some time and I decided I could use it for the class and find ways to really improve the story from class instruction. Early on, the instructor for the class, a stocky bald man who went by Dr. Armstrong, emphasized the importance of dramatization, especially when writing a short story of eight pages. In the first draft I summarized too much. You know the old saying every writer gets pounded on the head with now and then: “show don’t tell.” I was telling too much. “Too much exegesis. Dramatize. Cinematic rendering.” I think these were some of the comments my instructor wrote on the first draft.

When it came to my fellow classmates’ comments, they had a far different issue with my story. Their issue had something to do with my use of enigma. “Lights Out” is a story about a detective investigating a scene where a young boy’s parents have mysteriously died. Blood seeps out their ears, darkness has engulfed their eyes. The boy feels certain he is the cause of their death, and Detective Palmer believes this troubled guilty reaction is just the trauma talking. He plans to take the boy to his grandma’s after further investigation at the police station. Matters turn very bad on the drive to town. A deer runs out in the road, causing the detective to wreck the car into a tree. Stranded and waiting for backup, the boy unveils to Detective Palmer that he has a strange light inside him, a power, an entity, that when awakened can cause devastating effects. This power is demonstrated, and when other detectives arrive on the crash scene, Detective Palmer is dead (exhibiting the same death signs as the boy’s parents), and the little boy is gone, until they get a clue of his whereabouts, a mad cackling in the woods.

Fellow classmates liked the story. They were fascinated by the concept and the eerie atmosphere of it, but the enigmatic ending bothered them. Many of my classmates deluged me with numerous ideas of how the story should end; they wanted it wrapped up in a pretty bow. Others suggested the eight pages written were the prologue to a novel (this I have considered, though I haven’t seen the rest of the story yet). I took every one of their comments seriously. I wanted to please every one of them. Let the maddening vicious cycle begin. I ended up rewriting the story nearly a dozen times, trying to correct what everyone saw wrong with the ending. My various incarnations of the story grew so out of hand that they no longer resembled the original draft.

One day Dr. Armstrong flat out told me just to ignore them. I was hesitant to do this. Wasn’t that rude? Didn’t they have something helpful to add to my story? My instructor insisted, “Ignore them.” I did.

A couple years later I returned to the original draft of this story, polished it up again, and submitted it to Dark Gothic Resurrected. The chief editor, Cinsearae S. appreciated it, replying in the acceptance letter that it was “creepy as hell.” I was glad it found a home. All these years later it has found a new home, a reprinting in Dark Dossier.

I learned a couple lessons from writing this story. Even though beta readers are invaluable for the purpose of helping you see your story in new ways, at the end of the day you’re not going to please them all. You’re the boss of your story when it comes down to the bottom line. Also, not every suggestion they make is correct. I think the enigmatic ending of my dark tale works better than a more unambiguous ending. The enigma sends that thrilling shiver up your spine and stimulates conversation amongst readers, allowing them the pleasure to puzzle over together what happened in the ending.

If you’d like the pleasure to puzzle over this dark mystery of my imagination, you can find my story in two locations below:

Dark Gothic Resurrected

Dark Dossier

A Bit About Me: My First Story Publication

Do you remember the first time one of your short stories was accepted for publication? Your baby, the work of art you spent hours, days, even months perfecting finally found a home. Science fiction author Philip K. Dick (Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, A Scanner Darkly) claimed that the publication of his first story was the most magical moment of his life, and remained so even later in his career after he published dozens of novels.

While I can’t claim that my first publication was the most magical time of my life, I definitely can say it was still very exciting. I had spent the past three years writing stories and submitting, piling up those rejection letters, the expected process every seasoned writer tells you about. “Old Woman” was my first publication, but it was not the first story I had written, nor was it the best. I had gotten lucky, I think, in finding a fledgling magazine and making the submission at the right time. I launched a dart in the dark and by good fortune hit the target, so to speak. Not that I want to put the story down, either. No, I like this story. I like the frenzied, dizzying imagery and the sense of paranoid drama developed in the first person narration.

“Old Woman” came to me one morning in a quick flash. I saw in my mind’s eye a haunting image of a witch-like woman, beautiful and alluring when you first meet her, until she possesses you, and then she becomes a malevolent old hag, wreaking havoc to your mind, driving you insane. I wrote the first draft in about an hour, then polished up the draft over the next couple days. The main character, a man named Gordon, rants and raves in paranoid madness about the entity that has called his mind home, building a castle using his thoughts and dreams. Ultimately, she is destroying him in this diabolical takeover.

My euphoria seemed uncontainable that morning when I received the acceptance letter from Dark Gothic’s chief editor Ms. Cinsearae S. I called my mom, some of my brothers, cousins. I paced the living room, exclaiming celebratory remarks. Later that evening at work I was telling random strangers the good news. I could finally say I was a real author. Someone else liked my work well enough to exhibit it in their magazine.

What was the experience like for you when you received that first publication acceptance letter?

If you’d like to read my story along with other great tales about vampires and the paranormal, you can get a copy of the Dark Gothic Resurrected Magazine Fall 2009 issue here.

White Mountains, Wyoming

I recently returned from a backpacking trip in the White Mountains of Wyoming. It was amazing. Last year I went on a trip to the Uintas and summited King’s Peak, the highest point in Utah. The White Mountains are very similar, except they are rockier and the lakes are much bigger. I like how my hiking partner (brother in-law) described it, “The White Mountains are like the Uintas on steroids.” The hiking was a bit longer on this trip, several miles longer overall. We camped at Island Lake and hiked to Titcomb Lake, then did some fishing in the evening and morning. My brother in-law caught a rainbow trout. Golden Trout swim these lakes as well. We learned this from someone’s celebratory cries on the other side of the lake: “Oh, my gosh! It’s a golden!” With so little noise pollution, we could practically hear another person’s conversation from hundreds of feet away. Good times. Thankfully we didn’t end up a bear’s dinner or a missing 411 case.

Curiosity: A Short Work of Narrative Nonfiction

I’d like to share with you a bit of flash creative nonfiction. A clunky term to describe it, but I guess this long, unwieldy title is the technical definition for what I’m presenting–the retelling of a true event in my life using the elements of fiction writing. What I have for you is a memory of how I and some of my hometown friends chose to cope with boredom when we weren’t occupied with some worthier task of wholesome hard work in our Podunk little town. We didn’t have movie theaters or amusement parks. Sure, we had home movies, toys, a playground and video games, but those things got old quickly. Nothing was more entertaining than what the natural environment could provide for us. Looking back on this memory, I feel a little guilty. Our behavior was brutal, but I don’t think malevolence was the motivation behind it. Our motivation was simply childhood curiosity.

My friends and I played amongst the timothy grass behind the school playground. This was grasshopper territory. The air buzzed with their sporadic flight. An ant hill protruded amongst the grass like a sun-dried pimple.

We spent a good amount of time watching the ants go about their busy lives, gathering tiny rocks and twigs. Rows and rows of them marched back and forth like platoons of soldiers. We were fascinated by this strange and wondrous world around our feet, having grown bored of the endless repetitions found on the slides and swing sets of the playground. We wanted to explore this new world, touch it and feel it. The only way to further satiate our curiosity, to gain understanding, was to become a literal influence upon this other world, become a part of it, not just a detached observer.

I collapsed my palm upon a grasshopper and winced at the prickly texture of it’s writhing body beneath my palm, then managed to pick it up by curling my fingers beneath it to gently squeeze it between thumb and forefinger. My group of friends huddled around me to examine the grasshopper now within my grasp. Some of them snickered in amusement. One of them talked about it in amazed fascination, delineating the different parts of the creature. Another expressed disgust and turned away as green goo oozed from between the insect’s wriggling mandibles. I dabbed the leaking substance with my finger and grimaced at the sticky texture. The spiny legs–hopper legs, as many of us kids called them–kicked about frantically, the grasshopper utilizing every defense mechanism available to try to escape.

We decided to raise the stakes. Experimentation was the tool for discovery. What would happen if x, the grasshopper, was combined with y, the ant hill? What would happen with the collision of these two worlds?

I disabled the grasshopper by yanking off the prickly hopper legs. Then I dropped the crippled, trouncing body amongst the ants and watched the ant army converge. The systematic swarm of ants was stunning. Most of us kids watched in awe as we observed brutal nature unfolding before us. A group of six or so ants smothered the grasshopper’s body and dragged it down into their home, where, my young mind imagined they dismantled the grasshopper for consumption, piece by piece, the head, thorax, and abdomen.

A heady mixture of emotions surged throughout me. I was stunned! Enthralled! My stomach also sank with the cold heaviness of mild horror because of what I’d done. However, this was more exciting than any slide or swing set! We rushed the field of timothy grass to play our newly discovered game once more.

Whipple Trail Hike

Nothing better than getting out and enjoying the artistry of our natural world. I get so many terrific ideas for writing projects while out on a hike. Doesn’t the knot on the trunk of the Aspen look like an eye. Surely I can come up with a story from that image.

Horror…Why Did It Have To Be Horror?

Don’t be fooled by the title. I’m a big horror fan. In fact, it’s my mainstay. When a work in progress of mine gains fruition, and I see a horror story emerging, I tend to say to myself, “Horror…why would I have imagined it to be anything else but horror?”

It’s a question horror authors are often asked. What attracts us to pondering those hidden dark corners of the universe? What drives us to explore the baser parts of human nature? Horror writers come up with all kinds of answers to this question.

Robert Bloch, the author of Psycho, answered this question with some irreverent humor. He said, “People hear that I’m a horror writer and they think I must be a monster, but actually I have the heart of a small child. I keep it in a jar on my desk.” Enough said. The ghoulish connotation causes the questioner to hesitate about pursuing the question further. Yet the tongue in cheek sarcasm allows for good-natured conversation to continue. Nice deflection. The truth is, writers of horror don’t completely know why they’re attracted to that which goes bump in the night. Does it give us a thrill? Sure. Does it help us understand the darker workings of the human condition and the universe? Maybe, although I wouldn’t say we understand beyond a mere conjectural, academic point, despite all the research we might do on some horrific topic. For many of us, we’ve been courting it since childhood. Horror almost seems to be a built-in part of the original package.

Some authors have tried to to give a more meaningful answer to the questioners. Stephen King even wrote a near 500-page book on the subject called Danse Macabre. One of the book’s overarching themes seems to say that “imaginary horrors help us deal with the real horrors.” There’s some truth to this. If we understand a fictional story to be a vehicle for exercising our emotions, the horror story allows readers to overcome their anxiety along with the characters they’re reading about. We feel the same relief a main character feels when they escape or destroy the monster. It also allows the reader to confront that which they’re afraid of, allowing for the possibility to learn to cope with said fear. As a child, I was terrified of sharks after seeing the film Jaws. However, a gripping fascination accompanied this fear. I became compulsively driven to learn all I could about sharks. H.P. Lovecraft stated that “…the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.” You could say my terror of the ferocious beast in the Steven Spielberg movie compelled me to learn if real sharks were just as seemingly malevolent. The more I learned they were not, the more fascination replaced the feeling of terror. I guess you could say that which was “unknown,” in Lovecraft’s terms, updated to “known,” allowing me a greater control over my fear. A useful emotional exercise. However, not all the fear is gone. A healthy amount of it remains. You won’t ever find me swimming in the ocean. Sometimes real sharks show flashes of the mythic Leviathan’s ferocity.

Richard Laymon, author of The Woods Are Dark, claimed that, “Horror writers are specialists in the worst case scenario.” This is true. The horror writer envisions a situation and asks the question, “How bad can it get?” Then the horror writer puts a set of characters in the bad situation and watches whether they make prudent decisions to overcome the worst case scenario, or bad decisions that cause them to sink deeper into the unfortunate muck. More often than not, we see the latter. The characters in a horror story are commonly more frightening than the monsters. The unworldly monsters serve to reveal the monstrous in the human characters, consider stories like Stephen King’s The Mist.

I personally prefer Robert Bloch’s tongue in cheek boyish irreverence. His answer admits that he doesn’t have an exact answer to why he writes horror, and he doesn’t care. Nothing in Robert Bloch’s answer feels like a stretch. Nothing about it seems to be trying too hard. Nothing about it emanates the pretension of self-importance. He’s comfortable in his own horror writer skin. All of us horror writers should be.

Danse Macabre by Stephen King- Available on Amazon.