Written by: Matt Molgaard
I’m not sure how mind control via subliminal influence could possibly go right, but Dean Koontz sure as hell knows how to ensure it spirals out of control and goes horribly awry. Night Chills, one of Koontz’s earlier offerings, remains one of his finest novels to date, and it achieves such status as a result of a pitch perfect balance between character development, conflict (a great deal of conflict I should note) and final resolution. This is one damn emotional tale that confronts a number of taboos, tosses them in the face of the reader, and revels in the unease such actions conjure. And boy does it all work like a charm.
Night Chills pits a trio of power hungry, greedy wolves (one who prefers to traipse about in sheep’s skin, while the other two have few qualms with the vile creatures they are) against the residents of the small mill town, Black River. There’s a deeper combative angle at work, but I don’t intend to spell out the entire tale for you. What’s important and appropriately vague of me to say is this: These three felonious creeps – known as Dawson, Klinger and Salsbury – are out to seize power by implementing mass mind control methodically aligned through food and water contamination accompanied by subliminal manipulation. While a solid 99-percent of the town’s population is successfully brainwashed, rendering them, in affect human puppets, a small group go unaffected by the scheme, which ultimately results in the unraveling of one seriously sinister plan.
The novel’s heroes and heroines, Paul, his children Mark and Rya, his romantic interest, Jenny and her father Sam, are all engaging characters that are difficult not to love. Kind, thoughtful and considerate of others, they play the perfect counter to the story’s greatest monster, Salsbury, who’s anxious to unleash violence and torment on any who cross him, especially women who bear even a hint of resemblance to his abusive mother. It’s an exercise in what could be perceived as a form of fragmented revenge, as he was dealt a brutal hand as a child (which, for just one moment renders readers sympathetic to his twisted existence), but he becomes so intoxicated by his newfound power that he quickly draws the ire of the reader. This is a cruel, vicious bastard, and after a few unnecessary acts of ultra-violence, a full blown hatred for the man is guaranteed to overtake anyone holding this novel. It’s inevitable, and Dean intended that. Well done sir, well done.
The depth of savagery in which Koontz delves is borderline offensive, but, that is in some ways exactly what horror is all about, right? Stir the pot. Ruffle the feathers. You know, throw the fox in the hen house. The iconic Koontz manufactures a legitimate rage directed at the story’s antagonists, and it aids in the joy we experience as our protagonists gain eventual redemption. Dean doesn’t always flirt with the overtly extreme, but in the case of Night Chills, not a single punch is pulled and that’s where the story wins on a grand level. This is an insanely well-crafted character study, thoroughly well thought out and delivered in mirrored fashion. While Phantoms will likely always be my number one Dean Koontz pick, Night Chills trails extremely close behind.
If you’re fond of Dean’s more recent works, and haven’t dug too deep into the crates of his past treasures, I recommend doing so immediately. Much like Stephen King, some of his earliest efforts resonate on a far stronger level than a few of his contemporary novels. Don’t let a good thing go unnoticed. Embrace the Night Chills.