A couple of posts back, I mentioned coming upon a new Dean Koontz book in the grocery store and impulsively buying it, seeing as it filled a need I had decided I had that same morning — the need for a good book to read that would keep me from getting too active and exhausting myself in my “recovery” from surgery. That book was What the Night Knows.
I love the title. And the cover!
As I also mentioned, I read pretty much all that afternoon — not straight through the story, but skimming over all the “irrelevant” scenes to find the answers to questions I just couldn’t wait for. AFter all, I wasn’t “officially” reading the book yet, just dipping my toe in the water. In this case, it was a good thing, because I was hoping something would happen that didn’t, was in fact, the opposite of what he was doing.
After that, other things, including continued bouts of tiredness, took up my time and I made minimal progress until this weekend. Starting from where I began skimming, I read it all the way through and finished it last night.
Koontz is, as multiple reviewers point out, a master at what he does. His characterizations, descriptions, pacing, humor, plot twists… are all top of the line. In this book I especially loved how he gave each of the protagonist’s three children a distinct voice when he was writing from their point of view. There was the 13-year-old wanna be Marine, Zachary; the 11-almost-12 diva, Naomi, who was in love with life — and hats — her perception cloaking almost everything in her periphery with an aura of magic and wonder; and 8-going-on-9 Minette, or Minnie, the wise beyond her years “baby” of the family who alone of all of them had the best grasp of the evil that stalked them. They are great kids — funny, individual, typically kids in the way they interact with each other, annoying, pestering, teasing… but also loyal and loving. Probably a bit more thoughtful and mature than the general run of kids, but seeing as they’ve been homeschooled, this was not too much of a stretch for me. They reminded me in a way of the Narnia kids…
The story begins with their father, Detective John Calvino, investigating the recent group-murder of an entire family that eerily echoes in numerous precise details the first of a string of family murders that occurred twenty years previously. John’s parents and sisters had been the fourth family to die in that previous string, before John himself, at age 14, shot the murderer dead in their home. Now he increasingly comes to suspect the ghost of the original murderer has somehow come back from the grave to start anew, and he fears his own family is on the list of new victims-to-be.
There was much to ponder as I read, and after I finished, as well. Koontz explores the depravity of man, demon possession, the intervention of God, guilt, sacrificial love, and redemption — this latter not, I’m sorry to say, through the agency of Christ, but rather a man’s willingness to lay down his life for his family as a sort of penance… But regardless of whether I agree with Koontz’s position there, it still draws my thoughts to the subject and provides occasion for contemplation and clarification of my own understanding.
One of the things I was particularly interested in was the unfolding of what is in essence a spiritual battle against forces of evil, a battle our culture has managed to delegitimize. Battles against evil spirits and tales of possession, vampires, etc, might abound in movies, books and video games but mostly people don’t believe any of that is real. Granted the true battle is largely invisible and involves thoughts and words more than the physical attacks of a possessed psychopath, but even an invisible battle is difficult for many to swallow, perhaps because the physical battles as portrayed in the above mentioned outlets are so outside of anything they’ve ever seen in real life they can’t help but throw the baby out with the bath water.
Koontz played off this reluctance to believe in supernatural battles. When John is finally forced to tell his boss not only what he suspects but why (to explain why he has been breaking regulations in the things he’s been doing) his boss immediately assumes he’s having psychological problems and gives him thirty days’ leave.
When he goes to his parish priest, he is told, “We’ve come a long way in the past hundred years, and further with every passing decade. But the full flowering of the faith in our time is delayed by medieval ideas that make the Church seem hopelessly credulous. Faith isn’t superstition, John. Superstition is a stain on faith, a perversion of the religious impulse and possibly a fatal corruption of it.”
When John attempts to clarify what he takes for a misunderstanding, the man adds, “In an age of nuclear weapons, we don’t need Hell and demons, succubi and incubi and hungry vampires on the doorstep. We need food banks…thrift shops, homeless shelters and the courage to express our faith in social action.”
He then gives John the name and number of a psychiatrist who is a “good man” and will be able to help him.
John’s partner later comes to believe the threat is real, as do all the members of John’s family who have each experienced their own encounters with the evil spirit. Naturally, the reader does as well, having been present with each viewpoint as the story unfolds and in that experience willingly suspending disbelief.
Late in the tale John speaks to another priest, a defrocked former exorcist who does believe in demons and evil. The ex-priest brings up the matter of divine interventions in delivering people from demon possession, implying that is the only real hope he can offer John in the matter. He even points out the disparity that exists between believing that a demon might actually be tormenting them, but not that God might also be present and willing to deliver them.
“Is your willingness to believe so elastic,” asks the ex-priest, “that it can stretch that far?”
“I’ve seen the demonic,” John replies. “If it’s real, so is its opposite.”
Sort of. Because the opposite reasoning can also be applied. That is, “I don’t believe in demons — I’ve never seen any actual manifestation of demon activity — and so I don’t believe in God, either. Nothing supernatural for me. All truth resides in the mind and understanding of man and must stand up to the rigors of the scientific method, must give measurable physical proof of its existence in order to qualify as truth.”
Or, slightly less antagonistic, believing only in a God who is impersonal, remote and primarily occupied with things other than what’s going on on earth.
Oddly, in the end Koontz seems to buy into the latter notion, for even as he writes in some detail of the personality, motivations and nature of the demon, who is extremely up close and personal with his victims, God on the other hand is portrayed as largely uninvolved, deigning to intervene only occasionally and only in the most dire circumstances — though even in those He is not consistent. When He does intervene, He does so by means of proxies — either “innocent” children or loyal animals or both — and apparently requires some sort of worthy action on the part of at least one party among the rescued.
In fact there is much made in this story of innocence and purity being the protection against possession, while sin and weakness and deception are the doorways for it. By this template, any adult or adolescent male child can, almost at any time, be possessed, if a demon is about. We all have weaknesses. We all sin. We are all deceived in some way or other. Only the truly saintly, of which there are almost none, says the former exorcist, can be assured of protection.
This is the God of religion, I think. The God of the natural mind, for the natural mind always wants to make things hinge on itself, on things the creature has done, rather than celebrating what the Creator has done. On the power and integrity of the creature rather than that of the Creator.
More and more God is showing me that it is the latter that is the only thing that really matters: What He has done. Who He is.
And that is not the message of this story; instead it celebrates the basic goodness of a man, the power of human love and a man’s decision to sacrifice for his family. That is what we are to applaud.
It is a common theme in Koontz’s work, and, I’m sure, one of the reasons he has become a best-selling novelist. But ultimately, man is not basically good, human love is weak and while self-sacrifice is laudable, it’s nothing compared to the sacrifice of the King of Kings and Lord of Lords, particularly when you consider that it was done for those who were at the time His enemies.