WHEN reviewers write about scary books, they tend to offer praise by turning themselves into goggle-eyed, petrified children. What loftier encomium can a horror novelist receive than ”I was afraid to turn the page!” or ”It was so scary I slept with the lights on!”? Come on, folks, toughen up — we’re professionals. For my part, I can report that I finished Dean Koontz’s new thriller, INTENSITY (Knopf, $25), without once jumping out of my skin. However, I did check the cabinet under the sink just to make sure that a serial killer wasn’t crouching there, waiting silently for me to go to bed so that he could pop out, kill me in an unspeakably painful way, take a snapshot of my chopped-up remains, and then cut the photograph into little pieces and eat it so that he could feel my ”smile in his belly.” Why not take precautions?
Okay, I give: Intensity scared me stupid, which is the last thing I expected from a novel by Koontz, a veteran horror scribe who can be found next to Stephen King on alphabetically arranged bookstore shelves but who’s resided several notches below him in critical esteem. Koontz’s reputation surged last year with Dark Rivers of the Heart, a long, expansive thriller about renegade government agents, kinky sex, serial killers, and computer experts. In Intensity, Koontz scales his canvas down drastically and produces a work of lean, distilled terror that should enhance his status even more.
Intensity takes place over 24 hours and includes just two primary characters. One is Edgler Vess, whose propensity for munching on Polaroids of his victims isn’t even among his most unpleasant habits, which involve knives, blood, and needles and thread. The other is Chyna Shepherd, a 26-year-old psychology grad student working hard to avoid becoming Vess’ next victim. Chyna is spending a night in the guest room of a friend’s house when she hears ”a soft thump, as though a heavy object had fallen to a carpeted floor.” Then comes a silence that scares her; it sounds like ”the stillness before the pounce, the quietude of the coiled snake.” What next? Chyna, no dummy she, doesn’t run into the hall like some horror-movie teenager. She does what we would like to think we would do: She hides under the bed.
To reveal what happens after Vess enters the room would be to spoil the next 300 pages of a plot that Koontz has worked out with rigorous attention to the mechanics of building suspense. This isn’t new material: Although Vess never eats anyone’s liver with some fava beans and a nice Chianti, his meticulous style and polite demeanor bear the teeth marks of Hannibal Lecter. And as for his nemesis, Chyna Shepherd, even her initials seem a tip of the hat to The Silence of the Lambs’ Clarice Starling. (And who hangs out with shepherds? Lambs, of course.)
But so what? Practically every suspense novelist working has filched a trick or two from Thomas Harris in the last few years. The point is that Koontz does so much right: He creates a heroine who rivals Melrose Place’s Kimberly for no-more-victims resourcefulness, he almost never resorts to moments of head-slapping illogic, he ends every chapter with a cliff-hanger, and he stays relentlessly focused on the practical, horrible, terrifying particulars of how to survive a day and night with someone who wants to kill you. It’s been a long time since a thriller has offered such specific, credible attention to detail, from what a blood droplet on the carpet looks like inches from your nose (not pretty) to how to escape if someone should happen to shackle you to a heavy wooden chair surrounded by four angry Dobermans. Read Intensity, and kids, a few words of advice: Don’t try any of this at home — and check your closets before bedtime. A-