Saturday, June 7, 2014

Odd Interlude

Odd Interlude
by Dean Koontz
Recommended Ages: 14+

This book bills itself as "A Special Odd Thomas Adventure." Its main character describes it as a "detour from the main arc of my journey." In this list of the works of Dean Koontz, extremely prolific horror maven that he is, it is listed separately from the canonical series of (so far) seven Odd Thomas novels. And before being published in a single paperback volume, it was originally rolled out as a three-part series of novellas. Its publication date puts it between Odd Apocalypse and Deeply Odd. But both in canon order and on the author's website, it fits between Odd Hours and Odd Apocalypse. To make it simple for myself, I'm going to think of it as the fifth Odd Thomas novel, taking place within about 24 hours after the events of Odd Hours. Feel free to disagree.

This book is an exception to the rule as Odd Thomas adventures go, even apart from its origin as an e-book serial. Until now, Odd has used his paranormal abilities—seeing dead people, psychic magnetism, the occasional prophetic dream, etc.—mainly to stave off merely mortal monsters. His powers have helped him to stay alive while killing evil people before they can carry out their plans to cause death on an even more massive scale. He cut short an attempt to shoot up and bomb a shopping mall. He saved a hostage from a witchy woman and her wacko minions. He protected a schoolful of monks, nuns, and disabled children from a mad scientist's killer experiment. And he defused a conspiracy to nuke several American cities and use the chaos to take over the country. Though the mysterious power that keeps pulling him from one crisis to another has been picking up speed and magnitude like an avalanche—though Odd very reasonably suspects that he can't survive much more of this—he can at least take comfort in the fact that, apart from his psychic powers, he has only had to cope with normal human wickedness. More or less.

Well, there was that hint about reanimated corpses in Forever Odd. And those quantum bone beasties in Brother Odd did defy rational explanation. And he hasn't really had time to sort out that business about passing dreams to other people by touch, which started happening in Odd Hours. And there is definitely something off-bubble about his new companion, the mysterious Annamaria. But still, nothing on his resume so far would seem to qualify him to go up against extraterrestrials with mind-control powers, or a self-aware computer program that presides over a mothballed secret government project in a vacuum-sealed bunker strewn with desiccated corpses. Luckily, Odd's winning strategy has always been to roll with it.

Odd and Annamaria have just left Magic Beach, California, in a borrowed Mercedes, hoping to make it to Santa Barbara before anyone spots the hero who stopped World War III. Instead, just an hour or two down the Pacific Coast Highway, the pull of death leads them to stop at a wide spot on the road called Harmony Corners. Almost immediately, Odd picks up on something weird going on. "There's no real harmony in Harmony Corner," he says. Annamaria warns him, "But there's a corner in it. Make sure you're not trapped there, young man."

The people of Harmony Corner—really, just one big extended family—have been prisoners in their own home for the past five years. The presence that terrorizes them is a man, and then again he isn't. He can listen to their thoughts, sift through their memories, plant false memories in their place. He can take control of their bodies, jumping from one person to another. He can kill them with a thought, or force them to kill each other by direct mind-control; but mostly, he just terrorizes them into doing whatever he wants, by threatening to punish them (or to make them punish themselves) if they step out of line. No one can help these people. Police and rescue, if called for help, could be sent away with false memories. Until Odd and Annamaria came along, no one has ever been able to resist the bad guy's mind control. Anyone who even showed the slightest ability to do so has been killed. And one of those people—a twelve-year-old girl named Jolie Ann Harmony—will certainly be killed by the end of the day, simply for helping Odd Thomas.

So, as little as he likes killing, it's up to Odd to kill this guy. He's got to do it today. And while doing it, he's got to avoid members of the Harmony family, who will either kill him or be killed by him the moment the villain sees him through their eyes. Somehow, he has to get into the mansion, where he will face scenes of stomach-turning horror and freaky alien menace. And the only people who have his back are a wise-ass tomboy and an AI with an IQ just short of HAL 9000. You don't want these pod bay doors to open. Clever and resourceful though he always is, Odd won't get through this adventure without troubling his conscience. The things he has to do to save Jolie, himself, and Harmony Corner will seem extreme even for him.

Dean Koontz's career as an author of horror stories rivals that of Stephen King, both in longevity and in productivity. From 1968 till the present day, he has dreamed up many nightmares for readers to share. I don't think I would have the stomach to read most of them. But this particular series of horrors is moderated by the presence of a paladin-like character in Odd Thomas, who is gradually and reluctantly learning to accept his mission to terminate fiends with extreme prejudice. Like all the Odd stories until now, this one is decidedly odd—creepy, weird, violent, fast-paced, yet at the same time contemplative, touched by warm humanity and a reverence for sacred mystery. Odd, who in this outing for the first time shares narrating duties with another character, is not an egotistical tough-guy hero, but a soft-spoken, humble one who often reveals charming character details and lends the benefit of compassion and understanding even to the less sympathetic characters. In Odd Hours, for example, he holds the hand of one villain he has shot while she dies; another thanks him for not making fun of his bad teeth, shortly before Odd kills him. He's not just a holy killing machine, as his suffering conscience bears witness. But in his well-calibrated blend of strength and weakness, Odd is a beautiful being.

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