Critical Companions to Popular Contemporary Writer
by Joan G. Kotker, English Faculty, Bellevue College
Published by Greenwood Publishing
Copyright © 1996 by Joan G. Kotker.
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Koontz's mastery of the written word has never been better. It is as though the simplicity of the plot has led him to a simplicity of language that, in its pared-down sharpness, adds to the intensity of the title and the story line. Some few examples are his description of silence that "drifted down like a snowfall" (18), his use of the term "hot phase" (54) to describe a psychopath out on a kill, and his vivid image of "stark white bones of lightning" (102) to describe a thunderstorm in the redwoods.
The initial plot complication comes when, later in the evening, Chyna cannot sleep; as a child she was dragged by her mother from one unstable household to another, and as a result the adult Chyna slowly accustoms herself to new places. She is sitting by her unmade bed when she hears a scream, followed by someone moving in the house. She starts to investigate the sounds but then realizes that whoever is moving through the rooms is coming toward her. She hides under the bed, as she so often did in her troubled, abusive childhood. At this point the intruder enters the room and examines it, even opening the closet to make sure that it is as uninhabited as it seems. Because Chyna has not yet felt comfortable enough to even unpack, the intruder finds no evidence of her presence. He goes out, leaving drops of blood behind him. Chyna listens for him to leave the house, and then goes to the Templetons' bedrooms. She finds both of the parents dead, and a violated Laura who has been bound and badly hurt, but who is still alive. Chyna then discovers that the phone lines have been cut, and while she is trying to work out a way to get help for her friend, the intruder returns. He gathers up Laura and takes her out to his large, old motor home. Chyna sneaks aboard the home, determined to rescue Laura, and then realizes that Laura is now dead. She also discovers a second body in the closet of the motor home, arranged in a tableau. The killer, Edgler Vess-does not realize that Chyna is on board. Her plan now is to wait for her chance to get away, and then call the police.
It seems that Chyna has found her chance when Vess stops for gas at a convenience store and Chyna is able to slip, unseen, out of the motor home. She goes into the store but before she can do anything, she realizes that Vess is coming in behind her. With no time to explain anything to the clerks, she says, "Please don't let him know I'm here" (72) and disappears between the aisles, hiding once again. Vess begins talking with the clerks, alternating between normality and the surreal in his conversation. At one point he tells them that he keeps a fifteen-year-old girl captive in his basement, ripening her, and he even shows them a picture that he claims is of the girl. Then he takes out a gun and shoots both of the clerks, carefully counts out the money for his purchases, places it on the counter and leaves the store. After Vess has left Chyna comes out of hiding and finds that here too, the phone lines have been cut and there is no way for her to call for help. At this point she finds the picture of the young girl and realizes that the girl is in all probability real and being held captive. Chyna feels that she must do something to try to save the girl, and when Vess leaves, she takes one of the dead clerk's cars and follows the motor home so that, if nothing else, she will at least know where to send the police, if and when she can contact them.
Vess now detours through a national redwood forest, still unaware of Chyna. Complications build when, deep into the forest, Chyna realizes that she will soon be out of gas. She decides to stage an accident that will force Vess to stop and investigate, and at that point see if she can stow away in the motor home once again and so discover where it is that he lives. She pulls ahead of him and a few miles later, puts her plan into motion, wrecking her car in such a way that it blocks the highway. She leaves the scene and moves in among the trees, waiting for Vess to come upon the accident. While she is waiting, coastal elk appear, gliding among the redwoods. Their presence here, so far from the coast, is most unusual, and Chyna, at first mistaking them for angels, sees them as emblems of hope and protection. Her plan works out exactly as she had envisioned it, and she boards the motor home. This time, however, Vess sees her doing so. He says nothing, deciding to wait and see what it is this woman is doing. (His first assumption is that she is in shock because of the accident and has wandered into the home because it is the nearest shelter. He is looking forward to her reaction when she discovers Laura's corpse.)
Vess drives on to his home in Oregon. Chyna leaves the motor home, still thinking that her presence is unknown, and enters Vess's house, where she finds that he does indeed have a girl captive in his cellar, a special chamber filled with dolls. She promises to save the girl and at this point, Vess knocks her out, chains her to a chair in the kitchen, and tells her that he will be back to have psychotic fun with her (the implication is that he will rape and torture her) and that he will do so in the presence of Ariel, the fifteen-year-old captive. Vess subsequently leaves, explaining to Chyna that he needs to carry on with his normal daily life, one that serves as a cover for his activities, and that he will be back in six hours. With much hard work, creativity, and ingenuity, Chyna succeeds in freeing herself and then Ariel while Vess is gone, fending off in the process a pack of dobermans who have been trained to kill. Again Chyna finds that Vess has left her with no way to communicate to the outside world (there are phone jacks, but no telephones), and so she and Ariel leave in the motor home, their only source of transportation.
The climax occurs when Chyna sees a police patrol car as she is driving and flags it down, only to find that the driver is Edgler Vess-he is, of all things, a policeman. Chyna rams the police car with the motor home. She and Ariel attempt to escape into the forest, with Vess following and gaining on them. As a result of the ramming of the police car there is now gasoline spilled all over the roadway and Chyna manages to set fire to it with a lighter that she's carrying as a weapon of last resort. Vess is caught in the flames and dies, a human torch still attempting to reach Ariel and Chyna.
In the denouement, Chyna has gained guardianship of Ariel and there is a strong sense that Ariel will overcome the great psychic damage Vess's captivity has done to her. Chyna has changed her major from psychology to literature. She and Ariel spend long days on the shore of San Francisco Bay as Ariel slowly heals and Chyna comes to the conclusion that caring about and for one another is our purpose for existing.
When we first meet the adult Chyna, she is studying for a master's degree in psychology, with the goal of understanding psychopathology, and plans to earn a doctorate in criminology. She spends a good deal of time going back over the events of her childhood, and in particular, of the actions of her beautiful mother. One scene she revisits many times is the thrill murder of an older couple by her mother and the mother's lover that took place when Chyna was seven. Her mother forced her to watch the deaths, saying to her, "We're different than other people, baby. . . .You'll never understand what freedom really means if you don't watch this" (12). On the evidence of her flashbacks and her college studies, Chyna has spent her adult life attempting to understand her mother. The fact that Chyna is a dynamic or changing character is established when she realizes that there is no understanding Anne, that Anne was as Anne chose to be, just as Edgler Vess is as he has chosen to be. It is at this point that Chyna abandons the study of psychology and becomes a literature major. She has accepted that evil exists in and of itself, and that the best that human beings can do is to protect one another in the face of this knowledge, just as she has protected Ariel.
The second major character is Edgler Vess. He too is a well-rounded character, although we know less about him and his background than we do about Chyna. Vess is a classic psychopath who kills his victims for the sheer pleasure of inflicting pain. He believes that he is motivated by his commitment to intensity of feeling, both physical and mental, and that it is only this intensity that allows a person to be truly alive. Like many psychopaths who see themselves as superior, he believes that he is on the verge of a transformation to a superhuman state, one that will be brought about by his actions rather than by divine intervention "because he has already chosen to live like a god-without fear, without remorse, without limits" (62). He has the typical psychopathic history of torturing and killing animals as a child and then moving on to people, murdering his parents when he was nine and then, two years later, his grandmother. He describes himself as "a homicidal adventurer" (176), but Chyna sees him as only a man "living at one extreme end of the spectrum of human cruelty, but nonetheless only a man" (184). Koontz provides no easy excuses for Vess in terms of giving the reader justification for what he is. When Chyna asks him if he was abused as a child he assures her that on the contrary, he was a loved and even an indulged child. There is no "understanding" Edgler Vess-a thoroughly evil person. The irony here is that according to conventional wisdom it is Chyna, with her abusive childhood, who should be the psychopath rather than Vess, with his normal, loving upbringing. Unlike Chyna, Vess is a static character, since he dies as he lived, glorying in pain.
Of the minor characters, the most significant never appears in the novel as a living person, but only in flashbacks. This is Anne, Chyna's mother, a very beautiful woman who saw violence as glamorous and romantic. Chyna describes her to Laura at the time of the double murders: "I can see her standing there. . ., so ravishing. . ., glorious. . ., like a goddess from another world" (13). She lived with a series of violent men, gun and drug runners, and through her, Chyna witnessed at least three murders. Anne is basically a flat character, since the reader is given no information on her background or on how she came to be enthralled with violence. We do not even know who Chyna's father was, nor why Anne chose to keep the girl with her. Laura asks Chyna if she will ever see Anne again and Chyna says that she would like to, so as to try to understand her, but she adds that it is unlikely, since she has no idea where Anne is. She thinks it very likely that Anne is either in jail or dead, telling Laura, "You can't live like that and hope to grow old" (13). Anne's presence hovers over the book, providing a paradoxical element of optimism in that Chyna has lived through the horror of Anne, and so perhaps she will live through the horror of Edgler Vess, too-she is accustomed to psychopaths.
The fourth character in Intensity, Ariel, is a very beautiful fifteen-year-old girl who has been kept captive by Vess for a year when the book opens. He has killed both her parents and has tortured her younger brother to death, probably in Ariel's presence. He is keeping her to "ripen" her for himself, with the implication that when she matures (she is, we are told, almost there) he will rape and torture her as he does his other victims. Meanwhile, he delights in telling her the details of his crimes, even going so far as to give her before and after Polaroid pictures of the victims. We do not know how Ariel initially responded to Vess, but when we meet her in the novel, she is in a state of catatonic detachment. Chyna recognizes that in response to the daily horror of her life, Ariel has retreated into an imaginary world where no one can touch her, a protective response that Chyna herself resorted to at various times when she was living with her mother. By the end of the novel Ariel has become a dynamic character, since she has moved from the catatonic state to one where she can write, "I want to live" (307).
The novel's two natural settings are both sources of peace and spiritual renewal. The first is the redwood forest, an extraordinary place that is described in terms of grace and salvation. When Chyna first enters the grove of trees, she experiences it as a place of safety, "a fortress erected against all the rage of the world" (111), and she senses that she is not alone. She sees what she believes to be angels in the redwoods, and then comes to recognize the angels as a herd of coastal elk, huge, beautiful creatures who approach her, lift their heads, and stare directly at her. Their presence here is magical: they are much farther from the coast than they could reasonably be and, because they are timid by nature, they would surely never approach this closely to a human being. Seeing them gives Chyna the strength to continue with her plan of stowing herself on board the motor home, although when Vess sees them, he reacts differently. To him the elk are ghostly rather than angelic, and he is uneasy that they show no fear of him. In their most unusual appearance in these woods, there is a suggestion that something in nature has taken notice of the likes of Edgler Vess and that in the coming confrontation with him, Chyna may have support beyond her own resources. This suggestion is reinforced when Chyna is chained in Vess's kitchen, on the verge of despair, and one of the elk appears to her again, staring at her through the window, giving her the courage to go on.
The second use of natural setting is at the end of the novel, at a beach in San Francisco. Here Chyna and Ariel spend many hours, with Ariel staring out at the water and standing in the surf. At this beach Chyna meets a man and his son who subsequently become friends with her and Ariel, forming a sort of family, and it is then that Ariel begins to come out of her catatonic state. Thus, the natural world is seen as a place of peace and healing, and, for Ariel, a return to the human race.
Another advantage of the third person omniscient point of view in Intensity is its ability to heighten the tension by showing what each character knows or does not know. When Chyna is hidden for the second time in Vess's motor home, she believes that he is unaware of her presence. However, because the reader has access to Vess's thoughts as well as to Chyna's, the reader knows that he is well aware of her being on board and that he is amused by this situation in which fate has presented him with a ready-made victim. This increases the suspense, since the reader now knows that Chyna cannot possibly take Vess by surprise, as she had intended to do. Were the story told only from Chyna's point of view, this particular source of fear would be missing from the story.
In the same way, third person omniscient allows the reader to understand the meaning of Chyna's words when she encourages herself with the phrase, "Chyna Shepherd, untouched and alive" (120). We know that this is a prayer left over from her childhood, one that served to protect her then and that perhaps will protect her now. However, when Vess hears the same words, he has no idea what they refer to. They sound to him like a mysterious code and he, who is afraid of nothing, suddenly feels that there is something supernatural and ominous about Chyna. This is in turn a very effective use of foreshadowing, since Chyna's childhood prayer will help her to survive, just as it did when she was with Anne, and Vess is quite right to see her as ominous, since she will bring about his death. Were the story told from Vess's point of view, we would not understand the meaning of Chyna's prayer; were it told from Chyna's point of view, we would not know how Vess interprets the prayer. In each case, the story would lose in terms of its suspenseful buildup.
A second underlying theme of Intensity is that just as we can determine our own lives, we also have an obligation to help others determine theirs. Chyna feels that she is absolutely obliged to at least try to rescue Ariel, that the defining characteristic of what it is to be human is the quality of caring for one another. Koontz is repeating a theme here that has appeared many times in his work, and which is most specifically articulated in Watchers (see Chapter 5), a book that ends stating that we are all watchers, charged with watching over and for one another. When Chyna thinks back on how much she risked for a girl she did not know, how reckless it was of her to care so strongly about what happened to the girl, she comes to the realization, "It is the purpose for which we exist. This reckless caring" (308).
First, in Koontz's fairy tale, there is a brave heroine, Chyna, who fights against all obstacles to rescue Ariel, a beautiful young maiden imprisoned in the dungeon of an ogre, Edgler Vess. (Note that the name "Edgler" sounds a good deal like "ogre"). In her efforts to rescue the maiden, the heroine must face many challenges. Chyna confronts the first of these when she must overcome her fear and go into the lair of the ogre while he himself is there, and she must do this not once but three times, since she goes twice into the motor home and once into his house, in each case knowing that he is inside. This is reminiscent of poor Jack who, having climbed the beanstalk, finds himself in the house of the Giant. The fact that Chyna faces three challenges is significant in the world of the fairy tale, where three is always a magical number. The repetition of such elements as three wishes, three chances, three guesses, and the like is characteristic, as is the fact that there are often three sons, daughters, or trolls. For example, Cinderella has three young girls, the heroine and her two stepsisters.
On her way to confront the ogre, the heroine must pass through an enchanted wood, again a staple of the fairy tale, a form in which forests, woods, and woodsmen abound. In the wood the heroine receives the blessing of magical animals, sometimes in the form of a talking bird or animal, and in this case in the form of the coastal elk, whose mysterious appearance is specifically related to the supernatural when Chyna sees them as angels and Vess as apparitions. The elk appear a total of three times, once in the wood, once at the window of Vess's home, and again as a footprint left in Vess's yard. That they are most surely not creatures familiar to the area is emphasized when Vess's pack of trained killer dobermans does not react to them, suggesting that they carry no scent. Only a magical animal has no scent. The power of the enchanted wood is also invoked three times: once when Chyna first sees the elk, again when the wood is the scene of Vess's fiery death, and finally at the end of the book, when Chyna is trying to help Ariel return to a normal life and takes her back into the wood so that she can be healed and thus, symbolically reborn. This circular resurrection pattern is another common element of the fairy tale, as are all forms of magical circles, including characters turning in circles while making three wishes.
Other echoes of fairy tales abound in the novel. When Ariel goes into her catatonic state, she is like Sleeping Beauty, a maiden who is alive but totally unresponsive, just as Ariel is. Vess characterizes Ariel's condition as "magically evasive" (171). Another pervasive element of the fairy tale is the chant said as a charm to ward off evil, and this too appears in Intensity in the form of the childhood prayer that Chyna says over and over again to protect herself from the ogre: "Chyna Shepherd, untouched and alive." When Vess hears the chant, it makes him uneasy, as though unconsciously he recognizes its magical power, one that will bring about his destruction. Finally, Vess's horrible death has the graphic detail of the deaths of the orgres in traditional fairy tales, where evil characters come to such horrible endings as being forced to dance in red hot slippers until they die, a fate reserved for Cinderella's step-mother, or being hacked to pieces with an axe, the lot of the wolf in Little Red Riding Hood. True to this tradition, Vess is consumed in a pillar of fire when he steps onto a gasoline flooded roadway and Chyna ignites the fuel. It is indeed an ending suitable for a fairy tale monster.
What makes this fairy tale unusual, and what puts it into the category of a feminist fairy tale, is the casting of a young woman in a role usually reserved for a young man. Usually it is a charming young prince who rescues the fair young maiden, and they marry and live happily ever after. In Intensity, there is no charming young prince and no marriage, but there is every indication that there will be a happily ever after ending, with Ariel returning to normalcy and Chyna discovering the meaning of life, all as a result of her adventures in the magic wood and the lair of the ogre. In Intensity, young women now have the magical power once reserved for young men, the power of protecting the innocent and of defeating evil.
The dedication to Intensity is, like the novel itself, simple and compelling. Koontz writes, "This book is for Florence Koontz. My mother. Long lost. My Guardian." It is most fitting that Koontz should chose the fairy tale as his tribute to his mother, and that he should make the hero of this tale a young woman, who perhaps represents his mother, the person who, he has said, protected him throughout his childhood from the ogre who was his father. Surely any mother would be moved and humbled to be remembered as a guardian and a watcher, a protector of the mythic proportions first described in the simplest, oldest tales we have.