Books: Lightning

As much as I enjoy reading Dean Koontz’s novels, I haven’t read several of his older books. Those are the ones that gave him his reputation as a writer of horror novels, and I don’t like horror. Suspense is fine, eerie is fine, but I simply don’t find it entertaining to dread what’s coming next.

Lightning was one of those that I had avoided up until this week, based primarily on the title. What word could more perfectly convey the fear that some terrible fate is always waiting to strike, and impossible to avoid? The back cover calls it “Adventure Suspense” (rather than Horror) and gives an idea of the plot, but it wasn’t enough to convince me that I wouldn’t find my stomach tied in knots reading it. One or two of the other Koontz novels have been pretty gruesome, and I don’t like gruesome either.

But I do like Large Print, and I did want another Koontz novel to read. I decided to give Lightning a chance. It has enough chilling moments, especially in the first half, that I chose not to read it close to bedtime. I finally finished it today (avoiding late evening reading meant it took a whole week to finish), and while I wouldn’t call it my favorite Koontz book, it’s up there near the top.

The main character, Laura, is a writer – which in itself is a plus. Her childhood was filled with tragedy, but also love, first from her father and then from twins who befriend her in the orphanage. Rather than let suffering beat her down, she rises above it, buoyed by the good memories of her father and the black humor she shares with the twins.

Her books are the kind I love to read and wish I knew how to write. As her best friend Thelma tells her,

“You can put feelings on the page, and anyone, anywhere, can pick up that book and feel those same feelings, you can touch the heart, you can remind us what it means to be human in a world that’s increasingly bent on forgetting.”

Sometimes Koontz succeeds in that way better than others; I think in the first half of this novel he does. I’ve read about and seen TV shows depicting what it’s like to be in foster care, but Koontz really makes it come alive. He makes it make sense why those kids, bounced around from one home to another, become so unwilling to trust, unwilling to let themselves hope that this time they might find happiness.

I had an unhappy childhood in some ways, and I’ve been told that I have difficulty trusting people now because I didn’t learn to trust then (or perhaps because I learned to distrust), but on the whole I think I grew up thinking of the world as a relatively safe place. It wasn’t until I was in my twenties, living in an apartment on my own, that the world suddenly stopped feeling like a safe place on the night I was raped.

I can only try to imagine how much worse that would have been for me if I had not grown up with a good degree of stability in my life, and the knowledge that my parents loved me – even if their love didn’t translate into what I would consider (as a parent myself now) good parenting. For several months after the rape I jumped at every sound (I still startle easily, and amuse people by how I jump when a phone rings), and felt compelled to check closets and the bathtub upon returning home to be sure no one was hiding there. I don’t know that I’m as resilient as Laura, but by now the rape is little more than a distant memory.

Of course, I don’t have a time-traveling visitor showing up at key points in my life either. I’ve always enjoyed books that include time travel, and I think Koontz does an excellent job dealing with the paradoxes that time travel raises. He makes it clear under what constraints time travel is possible, and does an excellent job of blending the time travel and WWII history with the mystery, suspense, and a bit of romance.

As some reader reviews at amazon.com note, the second half of the book is probably not written as well as the first, but it’s so full of action that I enjoyed it anyway. By then I cared about the main characters, I wanted to understand how the whole time travel thing worked, and of course I wanted to see how things worked out.

On the whole, it’s a very life-affirming novel, despite all the deaths that take place. Unlike one of the girls at the orphanage, Laura never withdraws into herself. She is full of spunk and fights for life and for those she loves. As she tells her son at one point (after she has killed some bad guys), refusing to fight the bad guys who are attacking you and those you love is no better than being one of those bad guys yourself. You don’t want to initiate violence, but you have to fight back when you are attacked.

The book does have its shortcomings. As several readers at amazon.com point out, the dialog – especially of the children – is not all that believable, and Koontz tends to tell us what characters are feeling rather than show us (as a good writer is supposed to do). But it’s good enough that I’m going to go check out some more of those older Koontz novels from the library.

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