It’s time for a dive into The House at the End of the World by Dean Koontz. Amazon says it’s a “science fiction adventure.” The cover doesn’t make it look like a science-fiction adventure, but perhaps it’s misleading. Alright, Koontz, let’s see what you got.
Skip the Schematics
First, the book opens with a big heading: “One Alone.” Well, yes, that is what “alone” means. Apparently, if you add a redundant number, it becomes more profound.
On the next page, there’s another heading: “The Last Light of the Day.” It’s a bit unclear why there are two headings since they aren’t marked as chapters, parts, or even those silly sections referred to as “books.” However, the second heading is smaller than the first, so I suppose One Alone must be part one and then The Last Light of the Day must be the first chapter of part one. The table of contents lists all of these headings at the same level, but I think it’s just formatted badly.
The lesson here is that no one is too cool to add “Chapter 1” to a heading, unless you want your readers to get distracted figuring out what your headings indicate before they even get to your first sentence.
Alright, first sentence, here we come.
Katie lives alone on the island. She lives less for herself than for the dead.
Yes, that is technically two sentences. However, I’m going to count them as one this time. They’re both pretty short, they’re closely linked conceptually, and Koontz has isolated them in the first paragraph together. Sometimes, it just makes more sense to add a period and leave your big hook to the second sentence. If a single sentence was always better, people would start making their first sentences ridiculously long and convoluted.
Anyhow, this is a great start. We meet the main character and hear some novel things about her. Living alone on an island is mildly interesting, but living for the dead is what’s really intriguing. It even implies selflessness. Four out of five stars.
This is just another day in April, a Tuesday defined by isolation and hard-won serenity—until it isn’t.
Koontz uses the future sight of his omniscient narrator to add a little hook. For extra emphasis, it’s at the end of a one-sentence paragraph and set off by a dash. That way, readers won’t miss it.
Built in the 1940s, her small house is a sturdy structure of stone. In addition to a bath, the residence has a kitchen, bedroom, living room, armory, and cellar.
The house is on a knoll, surrounded on four sides by a yard, on three sides by woods beyond the yard. The front door faces a slope to a shingle shore, a dock, a boathouse, and open water.
And now we have… house schematics? Don’t give your readers blueprints; it’s boring and very little will stick in their heads anyway. If any of this information is essential to setting up future plot points, it would be better to work it into a real-time scene. For instance, Katie could head out to the yard, and then Koontz could insert some evocative description of the yard, woods, slope, and water.
Granted, there should also be some kind of conflict while this happens, but since conflict has yet to occur, I don’t know what to suggest.
These schematics have one intriguing tidbit: an armory. But unlike the hook we had in the previous excerpt, Koontz is making no effort to bring this detail out. It’s merely mentioned in passing. I almost missed it.
Her domain is a quiet refuge. She has not heard any human voice but her own in a few months, and she rarely speaks aloud.
We already know she’s alone on an island, which makes this pretty evident without expositing about it. If Koontz wants to emphasize her isolation, it would be more interesting if Katie spoke during a scene, found her voice strange, and realized how long it had been since she last spoke.
Lacking television, radio, or internet, she hoards seven CD players with six-disc magazines, which are no longer manufactured. For a few hours a day, she has music, always classical—Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms, Chopin, Haydn, Liszt.
She has no interest in pop tunes or American standards. Regardless of how beautiful the voice, the lyrics too poignantly remind her of all that she has lost and all that she has forsaken.
Remarkably, these two exposition paragraphs took me from mildly liking Katie to disliking her. It’s not even Katie herself; it’s the obnoxious contrivances Koontz has created for the purpose of posturing. He can say she uses CDs and listens to only classical music because of her unique constraints, but this is obviously an appeal to Romanticism (an elitist, anti-intellectual art culture from the 1800s). The gist of these paragraphs is that Katie is so much better than the rest of us because she doesn’t use modern technology or listen to popular music.
CDs are the worst. They easily get scratched and stop working. Even if she doesn’t have internet, an MP3 player would be more convenient. And having “no interest” in pop music is not the same as thinking the lyrics are “too poignant.” I can only assume that the latter is an attempt to justify the former without making her seem like a snob. But if that’s what Koontz wants, the answer is to not describe her like a snob in the first place. He can say she finds solace in classical music without describing how she spurns everything else.
Koontz, can we hear about the dead people now? The ones Katie is living for? Because I’m starting to think you lied to us about that.
Prose Needs a Purpose
Set into the hillside, a flight of concrete stairs with a painted-iron railing leads to the shore. As she descends, a pied rock dove waits for her at the bottom, perched on the newel post.
The bird seems always to know when she will walk the shoreline or come down from the house for another purpose. It is not afraid of her, never takes wing at her approach, but seems merely curious.
Katie wonders if the scent of civilization has so faded from her that the creatures of the island now consider her one of them rather than either an interloper or a predator.
Or maybe it does that because you feed it, Katie.
While there still isn’t much happening, these paragraphs are at least atmospheric, evoking the feeling of a serene shore. They also focus more on the here and now. We even have a brief action where Katie descends the steps before Koontz returns to exposition again. The immersion is a little higher than in previous paragraphs.
Soon more than a thousand blue heron will migrate to a rookery on another island far to the north of Katie’s retreat. When breeding is done, one will now and then stalk the shallows of this shore for sustenance, like a beautiful descendant of the Jurassic era.
Amazingly, here we have a simile that is not actually a simile since it is literally true. The heron is, in fact, a descendant of the Jurassic era, as are we all. If a separate strain of life formed after the Jurassic era, scientists have yet to find it.
Of course, what Koontz is probably saying is that, as a bird, the heron is descended from dinosaurs. He’s just watched Jurassic Park too many times. Even if he said “dinosaur,” though, the statement would still be literally true. That “like” needs to be struck out. Alternately, “descendant” could be swapped for “denizen.”
The phrase “one will now and then” is awkward. This is because “one will now” makes it look like the sentence is headed in a different direction. I would fix this by removing “now and then”; the meaning barely changes.
Tied up in the boathouse, a twenty-foot cabin cruiser with an inboard-outboard engine controlled from the wheelhouse offers range and speed. She uses it two or three times a month, taking a cruise to nowhere and back.
As necessary—only as necessary—she goes to the mainland to have the boat serviced at the nearest marina. She has not gone into town in five months, since visiting her dentist.
Just what we wanted – more exposition! Koontz, for every paragraph of excessive exposition you write, another anti-exposition purist is born. Then editors like me have to convince them that exposition is actually important. Save the editors.
If it’s been five months since Katie’s been to town, how does she get groceries? Is she a subsistence farmer? Unlike all these boat logistics, that would actually be interesting. Tell me about that.
She parks a Range Rover in a rented garage there. She pays a local to drive it twice a month and keep it ready for her use. There is nowhere in the world she wishes to go, but experience has taught her to be prepared for all contingencies.
Even the islands at this remote end of the archipelago now enjoy cell-phone service. She rarely makes a call. She sends text messages to no one but Hockenberry Marine Services.
Hockenberry delivers groceries, tanks of propane, and other goods twice a month. They are pleased to carry any items up the stairs to the house, but she always declines, as she does today.
In response to my question about how Katie gets her food, Koontz offers the most uninteresting answer possible. A company just takes care of everything for her. Instead of paragraph upon paragraph of exposition about all this, Koontz could just state she has a boat in her boathouse, a rover stored on the mainland, and a company delivers supplies and maintains her vehicles. The end.
As is, I can only conclude that Koontz doesn’t write with intent. He’s spouting stuff that serves no purpose instead of focusing his narration on a method of raising engagement. He has several engagement options here.
- Delivering wish fulfillment. This fits the peaceful and isolated life Katie has, but Koontz would need more prose along the lines of his bird segment. He could describe how Katie sips her glass of Bardolino as she gently stirs the risotto she’s cooking and watches the gulls outside. Then she sets a table for one in view of the sunset and eats while she listens to Mozart.
- Bringing out novelty. An isolated island life could be fascinating. Maybe Katie engages in year-round subsistence farming. After a long winter, she’s run out of all the produce she preserved, so she has to fish every day to supplement her diet. She prods her teeth in view of several mirrors and only goes to the dentist if she sees something she doesn’t like. When she finally goes to the mainland, she discovers the president is a different person than she thought. She wonders when the election happened.
- Deeper characterization (and attachment). This would require getting into Katie’s head so we better understand her and the problems that drove her here. Currently, Koontz’s omniscient narration is incredibly distant, casting Katie as more mysterious than sympathetic. We still don’t know why she’s on this island. This sets Koontz apart from Stephen King, who also rambles but dives into the mindset and backstories of his characters while doing so.
Of course, he should also cover the tense stuff he teased in his first two paragraphs. You know, the dead people, or at least whatever disrupts Katie’s day. As is, this exposition is too long for setup and too boring for anything else. And it just keeps going. Now I feel a little bad for calling Crescent City full of exposition, though it certainly has its own problem.
Good Narration Requires Some Variety
Skipping over seven more paragraphs of exposition, we can at least look at some of Koontz’s description.
The sky is for the most part blue, though a filigree of white clouds decorates it randomly, like a long ribbon of lace unraveling. When the sun westers a little farther, those scrolls and arabesques will be transformed to gold in the oblique light.
Decades earlier, the water was murky. The introduction of zebra mussels, which feed on algae, improved the clarity. The rocky floor and some shipwrecks are visible to a depth of eighty feet or more.
While “randomly” breaks the mood a bit, the description of the sky is quite pretty; this book could use more of that. Koontz is losing an opportunity in the next paragraph, though. It’s neat to hear that the rocky floor and shipwrecks can be seen that far below, but it’s not the same as having them described. Description makes us feel like we’re looking at a rocky floor and shipwrecks under the waves rather than hearing about them secondhand. Koontz loves his exposition.
Also, zebra mussels do not improve water clarity! They are not only terribly invasive, but there’s also evidence they make algae blooms worse. Not just any algae blooms, but the blue-green algae blooms that are dangerous to swimmers.
What comes after this? More exposition, of course. We learn that Katie’s house was built by a veteran, which explains the armory, and that the island is about a half mile in diameter. Koontz also specifies there are two other small islands in sight, with residents Katie doesn’t know the names of.
The other interruption in the wideness of water looms two miles south-southwest of Katie’s position. It is four times the length of her property and perhaps twice as wide.
Watercraft and helicopters—some big twin-engine models—traffic between the mainland and that last, most isolate island, some days more frequently than others. The stone quay is long and formidable, with a deepwater port; on a few of Katie’s outings, she’s seen the dock bustling with workers off-loading vessels.
A facility of some kind lies at the heart of the place, but those structures can’t be seen. A dense pine forest encircles the island, needled palisades that screen out prying eyes.
These paragraphs are truly remarkable. They are describing a mysterious and possibly menacing island facility, yet they are so dry I am having trouble getting myself to read them.
Why are they dry? Well, first, there’s the classic mistake of technical description. The facility is two miles south-southwest, which means nothing to me since I don’t even know what direction the mainland is in. Then, it’s a specific number of times longer and wider than Katie’s island. Are readers supposed to recall that her island is half a mile wide and then do math? It’s better to simply say the mysterious island is big enough for a large manned facility or whatever else it has.
Second, the word choice is plain rather than evocative. Apparently, poetic description is reserved for the sky. There’s traffic “some days more frequently than others” and a “dock bustling with workers off-loading vessels.” Sure, that’s what I would expect from a large facility. Are normal variations in traffic supposed to be creepy?
That leads me to the third reason. Nothing that’s happening here is in the least bit mysterious, suspicious, or threatening. Koontz tries to present this forest encircling the island as secretive, but 1) Katie’s island has forest on three sides of the house, so a forest sounds pretty normal, and 2) large facility buildings are often taller than trees anyway. A tree screen isn’t impressive.
According to the Amazon sales blurb, this was written by the “#1 New York Times bestselling master of suspense Dean Koontz.” So suspenseful! Koontz screens his text from prying eyes by making it really dull. What secrets lie within?
The island is Ringrock, named for the immense pillar, a natural formation, on which it stands. Even the Hockenberry deliverymen know nothing more about Ringrock, and never go there.
If the helicopters bore the insignia of one service or another, that would be proof that Ringrock is a military installation. Except for the registration numbers on the aft section of the fuselage and shorter numbers on the engine cowling, however, none of the aircraft is ever identified. Likewise, the boats that visit there.
The island is on a huge natural pillar?! That would have been something to mention earlier and to describe rather than exposit about. Is it a tall and thin pillar, or is the whole island simply bordered by a moderate cliff? Either way, that seems like a much more significant privacy measure than some pine trees.
At least this exposition about unmarked vehicles makes it sound a little mysterious.
Romanticism and Objectivism? It’s More Likely Than You Think
[Katie’s] Realtor, Gunner Lindblom, implied that Ringrock was a research station operated by the Environmental Protection Agency.
That seemed benign.
It also proved to be a mere rumor.
Perhaps some residents on the hundreds of islands northeast of hers or those in the shore communities know what facility occupies that last island in the chain. However, Katie never associates with the other islanders, rarely with mainlanders, and when she does interact with the latter, she never gossips.
Of course Katie never gossips; naturally, that’s beneath someone who doesn’t use modern technology or listen to popular music. But if she doesn’t gossip, how does she know this isn’t the Environmental Protection Agency? Are they not allowed to have a bustling dock? Katie’s suspicious because she talked to a couple of people who didn’t know much and she refuses to look it up on the internet.
Her hope is that the mysterious island is nothing but a retreat for corporate honchos or serves some other purpose for a private enterprise. People who are driven by the profit motive do not scare her. With rare exception, their ultimate intention is to get rich by serving customers, not by crushing them.
Well, hello, Ayn Rand. Hilariously, Koontz can’t even bring himself to say that corporate honchos serve their customers – only that they intend to. In fact, they don’t even intend to; it’s just their “ultimate intention.” You know, the broad intention behind all the intentions that might include crushing customers. And there are exceptions to this extremely wishy-washy defense.
Some might argue that Katie is supposed to be wrong, but so far, there’s no evidence in the text for that. As the primary protagonist, readers are supposed to root for Katie. By default, they need to assume her opinions are correct. On top of that, Koontz has been glorifying Katie. If he wanted her to be a flawed protagonist, he might let her gossip or even just use the internet. His omniscient narrator could outright tell us that her trust is misplaced.
If the installation is under the auspices of the EPA, the CDC, the NSA, the CIA, or some federal black-op outfit with no name, that is more problematic.
Katie is suspicious of authority. She distrusts those who prefer power to money or who seek money not by working but by exercising their power.
Does Koontz not know that “EPA” stands for the Environmental Protection Agency?! Katie was perfectly fine purchasing an island next to what she thought was an EPA facility, but now that possibility is comparable to having a “federal black-op outfit” next door.
Also, those environmental-protection and disease-control people are soooo power hungry. In fact, they’re probably coming for your zebra mussels, Katie. You know, the ones that aren’t making your water clearer. You have to stop them!
She isn’t a survivalist, but she intends to survive. She’s not a prepper, though she makes preparations.
She does not believe that she’s living in the End Times, even if on occasion she wonders.
I’m pretty sure that’s what a “prepper” is, Koontz. Once again, he’s trying to make his protagonist look good by distancing her from things he considers beneath her. In this case, I bet he wants her to be a prepper but also hopes to dodge the stigma associated with it. This tactic is both pretentious and cowardly. If you like something, stand up for it. Show readers how her preparations are a fun hobby or help ease her anxiety; don’t raise her up by lowering everyone else down.
This book is the strangest mix of Romanticism and libertarianism. I never thought of those things going together, but here we are.
Protagonists Need Immediate Problems
Isolation is a wall against fear and despair. Only nature, quiet, and time for reflection can heal her. If she can be healed.
After twenty-six months on Jacob’s Ladder, her fear has largely faded, and her despair has gradually eased into a settled sorrow. She is not happy, nor is she unhappy; she takes pleasure in her endurance.
It looks like Koontz lied in his opening sentences, or at least misled us. Katie is clearly not living for the dead; she’s living for herself. She just happens to be grieving. If living for the dead was an interesting or important part of this book, Koontz would have looped back on it already. Using it as an opening hook and then not mentioning it again for the whole first chapter is breaking a promise.
Since the opening sentences have almost nothing to offer without this idea, I deduct two whole stars for this. They now have two out of five stars.
Do these paragraphs at least build sympathy for Katie or create interest in her? They might, if Koontz told us anything about what happened to her. He is telling emotions, not showing them, so it falls flat.
Katie is about to get dinner when she hears a bunch of noise and activity from Ringrock. I’ve abridged this next excerpt. You’re welcome.
As though they are elements of an elaborate Swiss clock as it strikes the hour, two helicopters abruptly rise out of the center of the island […] just as a flotilla of fiberglass racing boats departs the quay. […]
They appear to be searching for something on Ringrock, traversing the ground from right to left, then left to right. […] Two racing boats follow the shoreline to the northeast while two speed southwest, and the remaining pair sweep back and forth along the quay—a perimeter patrol.
Ringrock is not a prison. […] Most likely, she’s witnessing not an escape, but a penetration. If the facility is a high-security operation, those guarding it will react like this when an electronic fence is breached.
Whatever is happening, it is none of Katie’s concern. She is in retreat from the company of strangers and is acutely aware of the danger of calling attention to herself by being concerned about the activities of others.
That last paragraph is exactly why all of this isn’t tense – besides the monotonous wordcraft. We have no reason to believe any of this will negatively affect Katie, other than by ruining the atmosphere of her private island for an evening.
Sure, it’s foreshadowing. A brief mention of this activity in the background on page one or two might have set up for a real problem on page four. But this is on page nine of the paperback version. It’s too late and much too long.
Finally, look at this simile: “As though they are elements of an elaborate Swiss clock as it strikes the hour, two helicopters abruptly rise out of the center of the island.” It’s wordy and so vague that it took me several moments to figure out what Koontz meant: a cuckoo clock. They originated in Germany, but tourists often buy them in Switzerland.
So these menacing search helicopters are coming up from the island like two teensy birdies peeking out a little wooden door. This is why no metaphors are better than bad metaphors, folks.
She has no family in the outside world. They are all dead.
Life insurance proceeds and the sale of two houses were a significant contributing factor to her ability to buy this remote and little-valued island. Enough funds remain to support her longer than she expects to live.
Of course, anyone could buy their own private island if they just get a life-insurance payout and happen to own two houses they can sell. Katie isn’t super rich; she’s just like you and I, but with a private island.
Those must have been some expensive houses.
Let’s look at the last paragraph of The Last Light of the Day.
As Katie ascends [into the house], she sees a raven on the chimney cap. The bird faces east, as if it is a sentinel charged with welcoming the night that, just beyond the horizon, crawls up the turning world.
I appreciate that Koontz is building atmosphere, but this feels out of theme. Ravens and nights crawling up the world are very gothic, and this remote island is not at all gothic. Instead, perhaps a bunch of those rock doves could take off like something unseen frightened them.
Let’s skip forward to look at a couple of spots in the next chapters, because we have not plumbed the depths of this Romantic libertarianism.
After pouring a glass of good cabernet sauvignon, Katie does not at once begin preparations for dinner. Instead, she takes her wine into the armory.
She mocks herself by using the word armory. Unloaded and propped in one corner are a pistol-grip pump-action 12-gauge shotgun and an AR-15 that is often called an assault rifle by people who don’t know anything about guns. She also keeps a substantial supply of ammunition for each weapon.
Wine and guns – of course, the perfect evening. The guns feel like they come out of nowhere, but we don’t know anything about Katie. So why not?
Also, the wine is “good.” Thank you, Koontz, now I can imagine it perfectly.
Most of the room, however, is furnished with a large drawing table and adjustable stool, an artist’s easel, cabinets containing art supplies, and an armchair into which she sometimes sinks to contemplate a work in progress.[…] Since her adolescence, Katie’s art has been one of her reasons for being. In her life on the island, art has become her only inspiration.
During her twenties, she enjoyed a flourishing career. She achieved major gallery representation at twenty-two. Her paintings sold at steadily increasing prices.
Currently, she creates solely for herself, because not to create is to die inside. She has no intention of returning to the art market. She destroys more finished works than she keeps. None hang on the walls of this house.
Wine and guns and painting. Naturally, Katie is an art prodigy who could make a living with her paintings if she wanted to, but instead she lives on a remote island painting only for herself. Just to prove this, she destroys most of her paintings. You see, thinking about money or her audience would cheapen her art, but her art is worth tons of money and is critically acclaimed as well.
Like a good Romantic, she has to live alone on an island, because any outside influence would make her art derivative. So what type of art does she paint?
She paints in rebellion against abstract impressionism and all the soulless schools of modernism and postmodernism. Her signature style is hyperrealism, an attempt to capture everything a photograph might and then much more: what the mind knows about a scene that the scene itself does not reveal; what the heart feels about the subject before it; how the past lives in the present and how the future looms real but unrevealed; what any moment on the Earth might mean, if it means anything at all.
At this point, saying realism is rebellious is like saying Hollywood movies are rebelling against small artsy films. Abstract works may be popular in galleries, but they are often mocked by laypeople, whereas people usually respect art with high realism. This is why I never claim that speculative fiction is rebellious, even though the literary-genre folks deride it. They have lots of cultural influence, but our works are more popular.
However, the most amazing part is that Koontz calls other schools of painting “soulless.” That is some gonads right there. It answers the question no one was asking: how can an art philosophy be both populist and elitist at the same time? I guess Koontz needs to reassure his libertarian audience that Katie is a true artist but not one of those stuffy art types with their abstract paintings.
The Opening Overall
Judging from what I’ve seen so far, Koontz has one tone: Koontz tone. He has one style: Koontz style. He has one perspective: Koontz perspective. He just Koontzes all over the place, heedless of what’s happening in the story. And since exposition is his favorite hammer, every passage is a nail.
If his omniscient narration were funny, that might not be so bad. Instead, his vampiric style stalks each passage and sucks the life out of it. I know, I also wish his style was literally vampiric. That would be interesting.
Perhaps Koontz can do better, and he simply isn’t trying. Aside from the first two paragraphs, he rarely bothers to emphasize his most important lines by shortening them, adding paragraph breaks, putting powerful words at the end, or using similar techniques.*
You can compare this to the prose of action-thriller writer A.G. Riddle. Riddle’s prose is nothing to write home about, but it’s efficient, and he knows how to adapt it to bring out tense moments. When the story gets more exciting, his paragraphs get shorter.
As for the content of the story, it has bits of novelty, wish fulfillment, and tension, but not nearly enough for the length. The first chapter is focused on Katie, who is defined by disdain for all corners of humanity. She’s a woman who’s not like other women, an artist who’s not like other artists, and a prepper who’s not like other preppers. I suppose readers who embrace this resentment might like her, but she could have kept all of her interesting traits without being pretentious about it.
It’s difficult for me to imagine this book would do well if Dean Koontz wasn’t already a big brand name with a following. And if this book is really a “science fiction adventure” like the sales blurb claims, the adventure has yet to appear. First, the protagonist would have to leave her home.
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