Dean Koontz is a complex writer, so his books are complex as well, featuring the best of humanity as well as the worst. In “House at the End of the World,” Koontz continues his much repeated theme about a valiant individual fighting against the government and/or a science experiment gone wrong. Here we meet a woman, Katie, who has retreated from society because of a horrific wrong done to her. She and her peaceful way of life on her isolated island are threatened by a mysterious entity that escaped from a government laboratory which threatens not just Katie, but the world as we know it.
Katie is everything that we might hope to find in a superhero. She is intelligent, strong, clever, good with weapons, and yet kind, compassionate and principled. She has lost everything in her life to something not named at the beginning of the book, and we know she is living her life because of an also mysterious “Promise” she made to someone, but we don’t find out about either of those until we have read much of the book. Koontz delivers that information sparingly and in dribs and drabs so as to keep the suspense building.
At times, Koontz’s writing is so bleak that you might think he despairs of the human race. Yet at other times, he presents a different view of humanity. Koontz spends paragraphs disparaging those in power who serve government in their quest for more and more power and who care nothing for truth and justice. He also has nothing but contempt for those who are amoral either because of a defect in their makeup or because of extremely poor parenting (by the rich or the poor). Yet he believes that half of humanity does have redeeming characteristics. When Katie must decide whether to escape the evil threatening mankind or to face it, Koontz writes, “These recent events have summoned her from a dream of permanent escape to the reality that in a well-lived life, there is never any escape from commitment, from responsibility not merely for family but also for others whom the violent would sweep away. She has been awakened as well to the realization that though perhaps half of humanity has no such sense of responsibility, their indifference is no justification for her to retreat into a life of self-interest.” And some of his descriptive prose is just beautiful and demonstrates his devotion to rewriting each page until his narrative is exactly what he strives for. For example, he lovingly describes the shore of the lake along which Katie resides, “Below Katie, gray tongues of water lick the shore stones that centuries of wet caresses have worn as smooth as the granite of grave markers.”
In a tongue-in-cheek nod to regular readers of his work, Koontz offers an inside joke when one character has a favorite novel that features “a girl named Leilani Klonk, with whom Libby identifies. Leilani has a twisted leg that requires a brace and a deformed hand that surgery can’t correct; there are other things about her and her situation to which Libby can relate.” She is referring to “One Door Away from Heaven” by, of course, Koontz.
Koontz’s descriptions of characters are pitch-perfect, and the language gives the reader almost immediate insight into the characters. He describes a particularly despicable minor character in beautifully colorful detail: “Her eyes are black olives in the well-worked dough of her face, and her hair is not pure white, as you might expect, but in part pale yellow and peppered with gray, as if she washes it in urine and finishes it with a small spray of soot.” He goes on to say that “these days, most grandmothers wear pink jumpsuits or the equivalent, but Grandma Giana insists on housedresses, as if it’s still 1955…” A grandmother (like me) might wonder what kind of grandmothers Koontz meets in his California home. Most of the grandmothers I know (also like me) have never worn a pink jumpsuit and have no idea where or why anyone would wear a housedress. Yet we can’t accuse him of misogyny because, as in this story, many of his heroes are female and show more bravery and heroism than many manly male main characters. (Speaking of which, Koontz loves his alliteration, and it’s featured often in his descriptions.) For example, he writes that “Libby is just a girl, but it was a girl of her age who raised the siege of Orléans in 1428 and broke the English army, and no one can say what a girl might have the capacity to endure or achieve.” Koontz definitely appreciates a strong, principled female.
He seems to reserve his greatest enmity for those who follow the orders of unscrupulous leaders whose goals are selfish and whose desires are venal: those who care nothing for others, those who allow violence to hold sway to further their means, those who will cover up crimes committed by the connected or wealthy. For those people, Koontz has nothing but contempt. In this novel, as in others, he makes no secret of his disdain for government workers and for what he perceives as abuses of power.
While Koontz’s prose isn’t for the faint of heart, there are also places where his humor and sense of delight shine through. Journeying away from the island, Katie and her companion must stay offline. So they can’t use GPS for navigation. Katie has maps from AAA, and the teenager Libby studies them “with a sense of wonder.” Katie explains that these maps “are for those big, bold, pioneering souls who love complexity—explorers, adventurers, lovers of byways and alternate routes!” Although try explaining that to any youngsters these days, and they will stare at you blankly. The beauty of empty spaces and roads leading into them completely befuddles most people, but, as I was delighted to learn, not Koontz.
Koontz has written bestsellers over and over and over again because he writes books that are filled with action, with characters we wish we were as noble and brave as, and with other evil villains we hope never to meet even in our worst nightmares. And while there is often an overwhelming sense of doom in his novels and his narrative, there is also often a silver lining in the dark and looming fog that shows us a hopeful light. This story of good versus evil provides a lot to consider. There is the dilemma about law enforcement and the military where we see Katie’s former Marine husband, moral and determined to find justice, alongside corrupt federal agents. And yet we also know the current reality regarding the Marines who participated willingly in the January 6th insurrection and the current news that a chief in the FBI was perhaps providing material and traitorously working on behalf of Russia while in the FBI. Koontz’s writing points out that irony in which the worst criminals have access to weapons of death, but so does Katie. It’s a conundrum for sure, and that’s why you will continue to think about this book and the action long after you’ve finished reading.
Please note: This review was first posted on Bookreporter.com.