January 05, 2000 at 05:00 AM EST

False Memory

Current Status
In Season
Dean Koontz

Dean Koontz’ setup in False Memory makes other preposterous thrillers seem rock solid by comparison. In the bucolic (aren’t they always) Southern California town of Corona del Mar, Martie Rhodes, a freelance videogame designer, becomes concerned when her best friend, Susan Jagger, unaccountably turns agoraphobic — petrified to leave her locked house. Even more unnerving, Susan swears she’s being sexually assaulted night after night while she sleeps. As if all THAT isn’t bad enough, Martie suddenly develops a phobia of her own: First she becomes scared of her own shadow, then of her own reflection, and finally of herself, irrationally convinced that she’ll give in to violent impulses and murder her husband, Dusty.

Simultaneously, Martie’s stoner brother-in-law begins to hear voices in his head commanding him to commit suicide. Longtime Koontz readers know that what at first appears supernatural will later prove to be something else entirely — and that, once again, is the case here. But since the novel is cast as a mystery for a few hundred pages, let’s just say the outcome involves drugs, bogus therapy, hypnotism, ”trigger” words, and a suave villain so completely malign he makes previous Koontz psychos seem barely neurotic.

At half its length, ”False Memory” might have been the best Dean Koontz thriller since 1996’s ”Intensity.” Instead, at 600-plus pages, it’s erratically paced, slackly written, and overwrought. Some passages work well — including one in which Martie becomes traumatized by everything in her well-stocked kitchen from potato peelers to meat-tenderizing hammers. But the sheer bloat — scenes that should’ve taken a paragraph ramble on for pages — stifles Koontz’s gothic imagination.

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