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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A good example of a work that would seem to place Koontz firmly within the horror genre is the novel Darkfall (1984). In this story Baba Lavelle, a voodoo priest who has dedicated himself to the black arts, is seeking revenge on a New York City Mafia family for the death of his brother. The brother was a crime reporter and had done an uncomfortably accurate series on drug running in the city, and on the people responsible for it, and so the crime lords had him killed. Now the voodoo priest is seeking to kill them in return, using as his weapon minor demons that he calls up from hell. When the police set up a task force to investigate the weird series of deaths in which various members of the mob have been sliced, torn, and gnawed to death by animals that cannot be identified (and cannot be stopped with bullets), Detectives Jack Dawson and Rebecca Chandler are named as its heads. Lavelle calls Dawson and explains to him that he and Dawson have the same goal, the eradication of drug pushers, gamblers, pimps, murderers, and the like, and therefore Dawson should call off the investigation. Dawson explains that he cannot do this, that he cannot condone the killing outside the law of anyone, even if that person does belong to the mob. Lavelle then says that if Dawson does not cooperate, he will kill Dawson's two children, eleven-year-old Penny and seven-year-old Davey.
At this point, Dawson goes to a Houngon, a practitioner of white magic in the voodoo rights, for information and help. The Houngon tells Dawson that he will be safe, that he is a righteous man and that evil spirits do not have the power to kill a righteous person. However, the protection does not extend to his children: while they are innocent, they have not yet proven themselves to be righteous. Grotesque creatures from hell begin tracking the children-in their bedroom, at their school, and later in a car. Dawson and the Houngan work to close the gates of hell and deny the creatures access to this world, and Chandler takes the children into a cathedral for protection, where they huddle before the altar while the creatures watch them, perched on the altar rail. When Dawson succeeds in his mission, the creatures turn to clumps of dirt and the children are saved.
On the surface, then, this is a scary story involving the supernatural and demons from hell, but there are more than superficial reasons for considering it a good example of horror. In The Penguin Dictionary of Literary Terms and Literary Theory (1991), J. A. Cuddon says that in the hands of "a serious and genuinely imaginative writer the horror story. . .explores the limits of what people are capable of doing and experiencing," and certainly Koontz does this in his terrifying descriptions of the attacks of the creatures on the children and of the physical extremes that Dawson, Chandler, and the Houngan go to in order to save them. Cuddon also says that the good horror writer works within the areas of "psychological chaos, emotional wastelands, psychic trauma, abysses opened up by the imagination," all of which also apply to the character of Baba Lavelle who, as a result of the murder of his brother, is in psychological chaos, is living in an emotional wasteland, has suffered a psychic trauma, and is literally calling up creatures from the abyss to assuage his intense grief. Cuddon further describes the horror story as one that "explores the capacity for experiencing fear, hysteria and madness, all that lies on the dark side of the mind and the near side of barbarism," and again, this description applies to Darkfall, a large part of whose terror lies in the extreme fear of the monster-stalked children. Finally, Cuddon sees such stories as representing "various kinds of hell-taking 'hell' to be a more or less universal symbol of an extreme condition" such as "intense grief. . .irredeemable loss, acute fear, irrational foreboding or physical pain" (417). This is a work where not only the antagonist Lavelle but also the protagonist Dawson and the two innocent victims, the children, are living in the hell of intense grief-Lavelle because of the loss of his brother and Dawson and the children because of the death of his wife and their mother. The latter is a death with which, throughout the course of the novel, all three finally come to terms after having suffered fear, foreboding, and pain. Thus, although there are elements of the police procedural and the love story in Darkfall, the focus of the novel is on the terrors of the psychological and the supernatural; for this reason, it is indeed accurate to place Darkfall in the horror genre.
Alternatively, a work such as Cold Fire (1991), which on the surface also seems to be a conventional horror story and, as such, helps to explain Koontz's reputation as a writer of horror, is on examination best categorized as a work of science fiction. Its unifying plot device is that of parapsychology and its horrors are specifically seen as emanating from the mind of one person rather than from the gates of hell. Thus, Cold Fire focuses on the horrors created by individual mortals rather than on those that are supernatural. In doing so, it suggests that all horror is ultimately capable of being understood and, therefore, controlled.
Unlike most Dean Koontz novels, Cold Fire has very few characters, and of these, only two are significant, the protagonists Holly Thorne and Jim Ironheart. Jim considers himself to be the agent of a higher power, either God or some supreme being. This power warns Jim ahead of time when certain people are going to be killed so that he can intervene and save them. Holly Thorne, a reporter for an Oregon newspaper, witnesses one of the rescues and starts researching Ironheart, who will give no interviews and withholds even his name. She finds that he has saved a number of people across the country, and that there seems to be little pattern to who is rescued: they are of different ages, incomes, professions, and so on. Just as she is about to confront Ironheart at his home, she sees him leave very quickly and assumes that he is setting out on another mission. Following him, she ends up on an airplane a few seats behind Ironheart. He recognizes her from Oregon and tells her that the plane will crash and hundreds will be killed. It does indeed crash, but through Thorne's persuasion and Ironheart's intervention, most of the people are saved. Characteristically, Ironheart disappears again, but Thorne follows him back to California and confronts him there, asking him how he knows when someone is in danger and why he helps some people and not others. How does he choose who will be saved? He tells her that he doesn't know, that a voice tells him where to go and, once there, who to save.
As this is going on Thorne begins to have nightmares in which she is in a windmill and evil creatures are oozing through the walls with the intent of killing her; at the same time, Ironheart has similar dreams. He believes the origin of the dreams is something he calls The Enemy, a 10,000-year-old alien that lives in a deep pond next to a windmill on the farm he grew up on.
So far, we are very much in the world of horror, especially with creatures coming out of walls in old, deserted mills. But as it turns out, there are no creatures-they are only the projections of Jim Ironheart's mind. As a young child he demonstrated psychic powers. His parents formed a stage show around him in which he would take objects from people in the audience, hold them, and then tell the owners something about themselves. When Ironheart was ten years old his parents were killed in a shoot-out in a restaurant, and he was the only survivor. He went to live with his grandparents on the farm with the windmill, and handled his grief-as well as the feeling that he should have been able to stop the killer, maybe by freezing the trigger on his weapon, maybe by mentally forcing him to drop it-by retreating into a fantasy world based on ancient creatures living at the bottom of the pond. A year later his grandmother was killed, breaking her neck in the mill, and when his grandfather blamed him for her death, Ironheart retreated even further into his fantasy.
Some twenty-five years after these events, Holly Thorne helps Ironheart to see that there are no creatures out there, that "The Enemy is the embodiment of your rage over the deaths of your parents. Your fury was so great, at ten, it terrified you, so you pushed it outside yourself, into this other identity. But you're a unique victim of multiple-personality syndrome because your power allows you to create physical existences for your other identities" (350). Instead of just creating other personalities that live only in his mind, Jim can actually project them as physical phenomena, as nonhuman entities.
Once he accepts that this is the source of his and Holly's terrifying dreams, Ironheart is a whole person, a single personality. And because he still has his paranormal powers he can continue to save people, only now he has Holly to help him. Together, they are a sort of psychic Superperson and Assistant Superperson (Holly specifically rejects the role of Lois Lane; she wants a more active role than that of recorder of someone else's brave deeds). In terms of genre, then, the novel best fits the science fiction subgenre that focuses on stories of extrasensory perception. This is a branch of soft science fiction, a term that refers to stories based on the social sciences of psychology, sociology, anthropology, and the like, as opposed to the hard sciences of physics, chemistry, biology, and so on. In Cold Fire the explanation for the demons is psychological, and their physical appearance is based on the fact that Jim Ironheart has extrasensory perception: he has precognition, since he knows what will happen before it actually happens, and he also has the powers of clairvoyance and telekinesis. Basically, this novel investigates what would happen if a person who had a split personality also had paranormal powers, and it is therefore a projection of a known soft science, that of psychology, mixed with a classic staple of science fiction, the positing of the existence, at least in some people, of extrasensory perception.
Where the novel Darkfall creates a good case for considering Koontz to be a writer of horror stories, and Cold Fire contains enough elements of that genre to at least make it understandable that critics would continue to see him in this way, a novel such as Midnight (1989) shows that the horror category is an oversimplification when applied to Koontz's work as a whole. His writing is too complex in terms of the conventions he uses to be conveniently placed in any single genre. Midnight is an excellent example of such complexity. It is a mystery, and it opens with one of the classic mystery devices: was a suicide really a suicide, or was it murder? It is a technothriller in its careful descriptions of weaponry and computers. It is a horror story in its descriptions of human beings taken over by predators. It is a science fiction story in its exploration of the theme of cyborgs. It is a love story in the development of the relationship between Sam Booker and Tessa Lockland, the major protagonists. And like Watchers (1987) and Dragon Tears (1993), it also features a wonderful dog, making it an animal story, too.
At the same time, other mysterious deaths have occurred in Moonlight Cove, those of a trio of union workers who supposedly died in a car accident. Their bodies have also been cremated, and the FBI have come in to investigate because the deaths may be related to the victims' union activities and therefore may be an infringement of their civil rights. The FBI agents learn nothing, but they feel that there is some sort of conspiracy going on in the town on the part of the police and the citizenry to see to it that the FBI is pacified and, at the same time, is given no information. This causes yet a further complication, when the FBI agents obligingly leave but send in an undercover agent to find out what is really going on in Moonlight Cove.
Complications increase further when a young girl, Chrissie Foster, witnesses something terrifying about her parents (her assumption is that they have been taken over by aliens) and is locked into a pantry by them for hours, until she can be "converted." It then turns out that conversions, whatever they may be, are taking place all over Moonlight Cove and that some of those who are converted regress to a primitive state where they become predators who prowl the surrounding area, delighting in the hunt and the kill. At first these regressions are seen as an aberration, but it soon becomes apparent that more and more of the "converteds" are regressives and that they cannot change back into human form. Chrissie escapes from her once-parents and there is a hunt to find and convert her before she can report what she has seen. At the same time, Tessa Lockland is nearly attacked in her motel and escapes to a laundromat to wait for daylight, where she meets Sam Booker, the undercover agent. Booker arrived in town only to discover that his presence and agency affiliation are known to the police, who mount a search for him and for Lockland. Booker has been sent into town as the result of a letter to the FBI from a Moonlight Cove resident, Harry Talbot, a disabled Vietnam veteran. In the letter Talbot alleges that something very strange is going on in Moonlight Cove and that it involves the police and all those in positions of power. Booker and Lockland go to Talbot's house for sanctuary while they figure out what to do and eventually, they are joined there by Chrissie Foster, who succeeds in escaping her hunters and chooses Talbot as a last resort, since everyone else in town seems to be in league with her parents and the police.
When this group is all together they are able, because of what each has seen, to piece together what must be happening in Moonlight Cove: Booker has the FBI reports and has broken into the police computer files, where things are definitely not right for a town of this size (the police have sufficient computer access to run a small country, and this is a town of only 3,000). He learns through doing this that all of the police computers are linked to the main computer at New Wave Microtechnology, a cutting-edge computer firm that employs most of the people in the town. Foster has seen the physical changes in her parents and, later, in her priest, and has heard discussion of the "conversions" and of the need to convert her. Lockland has heard the attacks in the motel and has seen one of the attackers. And Talbot, who is confined to a wheelchair and who partakes of the life of the town by observing it through his telescope, has seen a large number of bodies-at least twenty-taken into the funeral home and cremated. In some cases, he has seen the state of the bodies, terribly torn and ravaged, as if by a powerful, vicious animal. The four of them decide that something is being done to change people, that it involves everyone in the town including all the members of the power structure, and that it is centered at New Wave. They work out a plan to communicate with the FBI offices, and Foster, Lockland, and Booker leave to carry it out, with an armed Talbot waiting to fend off the converters who are scheduled to come for him that evening.
In the climax, Thomas Shaddack, the owner of New Wave Microtechnology, discovers through his computer hookup what Booker is doing in the high school and goes there to confront and kill him so that Shaddack's plans for converting the entire town, a prelude to converting the entire world, can continue. Loman Watkins, the town's chief of police, makes the same discovery about Booker through his computer hookup and, realizing that Shaddack will be at the high school, goes there to confront and kill him in order to stop the conversions. Shaddack takes Tessa and Chrissie hostage but is killed by Watkins, instantaneously causing the deaths of all the converted in Moonlight Cove. This also saves Harry Talbot, since he was on the verge of being killed by one of the converted who died in the split second before he would have succeeded.
Finally, in the denouement the reader learns that Tessa, Sam, and Chrissie Foster will form the nucleus of a new family that will include Sam's alienated son Scott who, it is strongly suggested, will no longer be alienated, and that Harry and his dog Moose will join the family in the near future. As to what will happen to the peaceful little town of Moonlight Cove, each reader is left to draw his or her own conclusion.
Tessa Lockland, sister of one of the first victims of the regressives, is also a well-rounded character. We know of her relationship to her mother and sister, and why she has come to the town. A gutsy, intelligent woman, she is blonde, petite, and beautiful, and so is usually assumed to be a bimbo. By profession she is a maker of film documentaries and, therefore, she is accustomed to dealing in facts, a background that helps her confront what is happening in Moonlight Cove. Like Booker, she has come close to death-in her case during her filming of revolutions and uprisings throughout the world. But unlike Booker, her experiences have added to her positive outlook on life, making her appreciative of being alive to experience a new day tomorrow. She is a static character, ending the novel with the same insights and perceptions as she began it.
Chrissie Foster, the eleven-year-old attempting to escape her parents and the converters, is also a well-rounded character. We have a good sense of how she feels about her parents, herself, her situation, and how she views the world. She is typical of many of Koontz's young women characters (see, for example, the Ackerson twins and Laura Shane of Lightning, discussed in Chapter 6) in that she is brave, resourceful, and funny. In some ways she could be considered a stock character, since Foster conforms to a type found repeatedly in literature-the prepubescent girl who, at least for this time in her life, enjoys the prerogatives of being a boy, prerogatives that open the world of adventure to her. However, Foster's fantasy life-in which she envisions herself as an author commenting on, shaping, and forming her experience-takes her outside of the bounds of stereotype and makes her a self-motivating character. Like Lockland she is static, since she ends the story as the same bright, positive, life-affirming person that she began it, despite the horrors she has been through.
Harry Talbot, the disabled Vietnam veteran who takes in Booker, Lockland, and Foster, is also a well-rounded character, although he plays a smaller role in the novel than do the other three. The characteristic that most distinguishes him is his response to his disability. His use of the dog Moose as his assistant is fondly and imaginatively described, so that we are able to understand, without having to be directly told by the author, what a source of companionship and even humor Moose is to him. The description of how Talbot uses his telescope in order to feel a part of the life of the town is equally imaginatively described, so that it is seen as a tool that makes him feel part of the community rather than something that makes him a nasty man spying on his neighbors. Like Lockland and Foster, Talbot is also a static character, ending the novel with the same strong affirmation of life as he began it.
Loman Watkins, the town police chief, is a character who begins as an antagonist, but at novel's end becomes a protagonist. He is a flat character in that all we know of him is his reaction to the events in Moonlight Cove, but by the same token, he is a dynamic character, since he begins the novel thoroughly approving of Shaddack's conversions and ends it in absolute disgust, recognizing that Shaddack has destroyed the humanity of the residents. An agent of law and order, he himself becomes a murderer, killing not only Shaddack but others who have been monstrously changed by the conversions, including his eighteen-year-old son, Denny, whom he loves (or did love, when Watkins could still feel emotions other than fear).
The novel's final protagonist is the dog Moose, a service dog who has been trained by the real-life group Canine Companions for Independence, described by Koontz as "a nonprofit organization that provides its furry assistants at nominal cost to those who need them. All dogs give us love and loyalty, but these splendid animals give even more than usual: they literally transform the lives of the disabled people with whom they are paired, serving as their arms or legs or eyes or ears, and allowing them to venture into the world with confidence" (471). Koontz invites readers to make a contribution to this organization, and his description of Moose, a brave dog with, believe it or not, a sense of humor, will make anyone who gives to charities seriously consider donating to Canine Companions. As animals go Moose is a round character, since we know about his training, his priorities, and even his sense of fun, and he is a static character, ending the story with the same excellent qualities as he began it.
The novel has three antagonists: Thomas Shaddack, Running Deer, and, arguably, Sam Booker's son, Scott. Of these, the major character is Shaddack, an extraordinarily wealthy man who has developed a very successful, cutting-edge computer firm and is now using his wealth and expertise to put into place the Moonhawk Project, a plan dedicated to making humans and machines into cyborgs-that is, into one conjoined being. Shaddack is a well-rounded character in that his childhood background is given, making believable his adult actions. His motivations, his hopes and dreams, and those experiences that led him to become the person he is are sufficiently sketched. Although he is dominated by his lust for power, the source of the lust is clear, making Shaddack more than one-dimensional. He dies convinced of the rightness of the Moonhawk Project, gaining no insight into the horror he has brought upon the town, so he, too, is a static character.
Running Deer is an Indian who worked for Shaddack's parents and who has long been dead, appearing in the novel only as a vivid memory of Shaddack's. Running Deer seeks vengeance against Shaddack's father, a judge who let go the men who killed one of Running Deer's brothers and severely disabled a second. His instrument for this vengeance is to be the young Tom Shaddack. However, Running Deer's plan backfires: he succeeds in convincing the boy that he is a chosen person-someone who is beyond the normal moral confines of human beings-but when he then turns the boy on his parents, he is too successful. Tom kills both parents and does so in such a way that Running Deer is blamed for the deaths. In Shaddack's adult fantasies of Running Deer the character is dynamic, since he comes to the realization that what he did to the boy was wrong. However, this insight happens only in Shaddack's imagination and so, ultimately, Running Deer is static.
The final antagonist is Booker's sixteen-year-old son Scott, a sullen boy who is hostile, confrontational, and interested only in Satanic music. He is very much a stock character-the young person who escapes into a world of rock and roll and drugs rather than face reality-but there is some indication that he will be a dynamic character, since there seems at the end little chance that Scott will be able to resist the combined loving attentions of his father, Tessa Lockland, Chrissie Foster, Harry Talbot, and Moose. In fact, it is entirely possible that Moose the good service dog will help another disabled person besides Harry, the emotionally crippled Scott, which would then make Scott into another stock character, the boy brought to full humanity by his relationship with his dog. But that would be another story. . . .
Something is clearly wrong here, and the fact that it can be wrong in a place traditionally associated with everything going right-with rural, small-town America-makes the story that much more frightening: if something awful can happen here, then it can happen anywhere. The small-town setting also helps to make plausible the shutting off of the town to the outside world, since it is already an isolated place, bordered by ocean on one side, and therefore relatively easy to isolate. And finally, the size of the town adds to the plausibility of the cyborg experiment, since it would be far easier to "convert" people in a small, isolated place and keep the process secret than it would in a major city, since in a small town people know and trust one another. They will give one another the benefit of the doubt and will be unlikely to turn to outsiders if they have questions about what is going on.
Koontz makes good use of the weather to add to the sense of something mysterious, unseen or only half seen, in the town of Moonlight Cove. He emphasizes the fog that drifts through the town in tendrils, hiding and distorting what is there, making the characters always a little uncertain about what they have actually seen. The fog works as both a benefactor and a malefactor, doing good when it hides a protagonist such as Chrissie Foster from the view of the forces who are hunting her down, but doing evil when it covers up the predatory movements of the regressives. In this way, it adds to the mystery of the novel, since the reader never knows when the presence of fog signals good or evil and thus never knows when to relax, when to be tense and alert.
An inspired use of setting in Midnight is that of the architecture of the houses. The most detailed descriptions are those of Thomas Shaddack's house and Harry Talbot's. Both are radical, hi-tech, modern designs, emphasizing that the people who live in them are something other than the fishermen and surfers one might expect to find in a California coastal town. They are instead a bit out of the ordinary in their interests and tastes. The patterning of the two ultra-modern buildings-one the site of the source of evil in the novel, the other acting as a safe house or sanctuary for the protagonists-emphasizes the dual uses of modern technology. This is a technology that brings with it the promise of ultimate good and ultimate evil. Through its wise use, humans may be able to live almost forever; through its unwise use, humans may be eradicated from the face of the earth.
It is difficult to imagine another point of view working as well for this particular novel. First person would not work, since it would give the point of view of only one character, and the reader would know only what that character knew. Third-person limited is a possible choice, but would be difficult to follow, since the reader would be seeing the events from one person's point of view, then shifting to another's, then to another's, then to another's. Usually, third-person limited is reserved for one character because of the difficulty of keeping the reader on track when there are shifts in point of view. One other possibility is that of third-person dramatic, in which an unknown narrator tells readers what is happening, but does not allow the reader to become privy to any of the character's thoughts. This point of view would be an ideal choice for Harry Talbot, since he can only observe and make his deductions on the basis of what he sees; he cannot get into the minds of those he watches. However, if Harry were chosen as the novel's voice, much would have to be left out, since his vision, while greater than that of the average resident in Moonlight Cove, is necessarily limited to what he can see through his telescope. If it isn't in his field of vision, he cannot describe it for the reader, and so he could not see Foster locked in the pantry, Lockland in her motel room, and Booker in a patrol car. We would lose these strands of the plot until the denouement, when all suspense would be over and they could not add to our fear. Thus, third-person omniscient is both the most efficient and the most effective choice for telling the story of Midnight.
Koontz builds to his theme through his discussion of the two different types of change experienced by the characters who are converted, emphasizing that these are changes they themselves bring about. Because the conversion process leaves them unable to bear their existence as emotionless human beings, some become regressives and revert to primitive, predatory animal states where existence is based almost solely on emotion. Other converteds change in a different way, becoming more machinelike rather than more animallike. They physically attach their organs to their computers, sharing circuitry between human and machine, so that there is no longer a clear dividing line between what is human, what is machine. Loman Watkins finds his son Denny attached to his computer by "metallic cords, in which the boy's fingers ended, [that] vibrated continuously and sometimes throbbed as if irregular pulses of thick, inhuman blood were passing through them, cycling between organic and inorganic portions of the mechanism" (307).
When Watkins, remembering the boy his son once was, kills the creature he has become by shooting him, the computer screen fills with the message "NO NO NO NO NO NO NO" and Watkins realizes that the boy is only partly dead, that "the part of the boy's mind that had inhabited his body was extinguished, but another fragment of his consciousness still lived somehow within the computer, kept alive in silicon instead of brain tissue." Now the screen flashes the message, "WHERE'S THE REST OF ME WHERE'S THE REST OF ME WHERE'S THE REST OF ME NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NO"(312). Sam Booker, trying to find a computer that will give him access to the outside world, comes across people like Denny who have melded with their computers, and he realizes that there is a term for them, that such a person is a "cyborg: a person whose physiological functioning was aided by or dependent on a mechanical or electronic device" (335) such as a pacemaker or a kidney dialysis machine.
Clearly, there are some very good reasons for humans to become dependent on machines, but such dependancy can also be abused, as it has been for the characters who have melded with their computers. Booker sums this up when he says, "The greatest problem of our age. . .is how to keep technological progress accelerating, how to use it to improve the quality of life-without being overwhelmed by it" (347). He, Lockland, and Talbot then discuss the fact that machines hold great attraction for human beings, that a part of us wants them to take over our functions, make our decisions for us, be responsible for us. After all, Thomas Shaddack really believed that his conversion project was for the benefit of mankind, that people would have better lives if they could live logically and rationally, free from the turmoil of their emotions. Talbot wonders if perhaps humans should not meddle with the natural order. Booker says that since machines can be used to benefit mankind, we have to try to use them in this way.
Realistically there is no going back to a premachine age. The theme of the book is that we must become responsible for our own inventions and we must hope that we can keep them out of the hands of people like Thomas Shaddack. The novel's message is an equivocal one: Koontz's protagonist says that humans must try to contain and control their own inventions, but he makes no promise that we will be able to do so.
Well, what is its point? Most people reading it would assume that it was intended for sighted people, to warn them that the elevator was reserved for blind people accompanied by seeing eye dogs, and they would also assume that somewhere along the way, some sighted person would point out to blind persons that there was an elevator just for them and their dogs, and that this was it. However, while we might all agree that this is a reasonable interpretation, we would surely also have to agree that the sign can be read in other ways, as Lynn has so read it. And while it may seem that Lynn's reading is extreme-that no one would actually read the sign in this way, that everyone really knows what it means-such ambiguities of language are with us constantly. We simply overlook them as mistakes or errors to be quickly forgotten, since we have been conditioned to consider them as getting in the way of "real" meaning. Some wonderful examples of alternative meanings can be found in the responses of nonnative speakers to a second language. (I once had a Vietnamese student say to me, "I know what the verb 'to use' means-I use a pencil for writing, a typewriter for typing-but what does it mean when someone says 'I used to live in Seattle?'").
Also, there are examples of alternative meanings in the questions of children. One of my children, at about the age of seven, asked me what was wrong with us. I said, "There's nothing wrong with us, honey."
"Well," he said, "what's different about us?"
I said, "Different how? What makes you think we're different?"
And he said, "Well, why do we wear size Irregular?"
It's a funny story, and it is also a fine example of the mutability of meaning: if clothes are marked small, medium, and large, meaning that they are for small, medium, and large-sized people, and if one group of clothes has stamped over such markings one that says irregular, why shouldn't this group be for irregular-sized people? And if we pursue this, are queen-sized clothes really only for queens? Can I buy my baby a toddler size if my baby is not yet toddling? And what on earth is meant by a petite size 16? Is this for large petite people? And if it is, what is a large petite person?
Of course, as a general rule language really isn't as ambiguous as the examples quoted suggest. Most of the time, it is used by people who mutually understand the context and therefore are in agreement on its meaning. But for people who love language, deliberate misinterpretations or misreadings are fun. On a more serious level, they can reveal meanings that are in contradiction to the intention of the writer or speaker. This does not mean that the writer or speaker is secretly undermining the message, but rather that all messages are to some extent ambiguous; by recognizing this ambiguity, we gain a deeper perception of the possibilities of language.
In analyzing Midnight, a deconstructionist critic might explore the theme that human beings are incapable of forming sustaining bonds, whether in the natural or in the man-made world, since no one in the novel has what is usually thought of as normal family life. Sam Booker, for example, is a widower with one child, from whom he is estranged. His parents were divorced when he was young, and so he has effectively had only one parent-first his mother and then, on her death, his alcoholic father. He is an only child. Tessa Lockland has lost both her father and her sister, and has only her mother left, a mother who cannot come to Moonlight Cove to help her because she is recovering from a broken leg and so can be defined as an absent parent. Tessa is now an only child, since she had only the one sister. Chrissie Foster has lost her parents, since they have devolved into predators and are no longer human. She too is an only child. Harry Talbot has no family, since both of his parents are dead and he is apparently an only child. At least, no mention is made of any siblings in discussing Harry and his isolation. Loman Watkins has one child, Denny, whom he kills when Denny becomes a cyborg. Although there is one scene with Watkins's wife, she seems to have left the family subsequent to being converted, since Watkins does not consult her when he decides to kill Denny, nor does she appear in any subsequent scenes. Thomas Shaddack is also an only child whose parents had almost no relationship with him as he was growing up, leaving him in the care of servants. When the story takes place he is an orphan, since he has killed both his parents. He had a surrogate parent in the form of the Indian Running Deer, whom he also killed. He has not married, nor does he have any children.
In sum, then, in the world of Midnight no one has what we would ordinarily think of as a family, with mother and father, brothers and sisters, uncles and aunts, grandmothers and grandfathers. Instead, the characters have at best one family member, with whom they have either a long-distance relationship (Tessa Lockland) or are in conflict (Sam Booker). A usual literary interpretation of these incomplete family structures would be to look at them in the context of what they say about life in contemporary America, and to point out that they describe a society marked by the breakdown of the traditional family and, by implication, of traditional values and moral standards. However, another way of interpreting the structures would be to see them as pointing out the essential impossibility of creating relationships that will sustain us over time. It can't be done biologically, since no one here has succeeded in doing it, and furthermore, relationships with machines break down too-the humans in Midnight either revert to animals or become machines themselves.
Thus, a deconstructionist analysis emphasizes the essential loneliness of human beings-creatures doomed to be born and to die alone-and points out that such a state is a tragic one, since we try over and over again to establish relationships that are ultimately denied us by our very natures. In such a reading the novel's ending emphasizes the work's underlying tragic worldview: we are doomed to attempt to create that which it is beyond our means to create, and we see this when Sam Booker goes home, hoping to reconcile with his son Scott by taking with him an entirely new family for Scott, a family that will have a mother (Tessa Lockland), a sister (Chrissie Foster), an uncle (Harry Talbot), and even a family dog (Moose). This may seem an optimistic ending, but the deconstructionist would point out that it is in fact pessimistic. At the close of the work Scott has no mother, no sister, no uncle, not even a dog, nor does he give any evidence of welcoming these. For him to accept this ersatz family would be to change his nature, as it has been described in the novel.
However, since a deconstructive interpretation can include many possible interpretations, the novel does not have to be read pessimistically. On the basis of the text's internal evidence, the reader can just as easily conclude that Koontz's point is that the emotional needs of human beings can be met only by other humans. If our society has changed in such a way that the traditional family is no longer available to us, we must go out and create other families to take their place. Since the novel ends with the major characters setting out to do just this, the ending is optimistic. Its message is that human beings can take responsibility for themselves and, one way or another, can create the relationships they need in order to have happy, meaningful lives-and even the attempt to do so brings fulfillment. Thus, in deconstructing the text of Midnight the reader can read it in two opposed ways, one pessimistic, one optimistic. And as to which interpretation is the correct one, a good deconstructionist knows that the word correct is just as ambiguous as any interpretation it might be applied to, and therefore there is no need to be concerned with correctness.