There is another world, but it is in this one.

Paul Eluard. Œuvres complètes, vol. 1, Gallimard, 1968.

Sunday, July 26, 2020

50 years of Dean Koontz: Night Chills (1976)

[Spoilers]





In Koontz, every sentence is perfectly articulated as the framework of a great building.


Night Chills (1976) begins on a weighty note of mystery and utmost poignancy:


Sunday, August 7, 1977


After working all week on the midnight shift, Buddy Pellineri was unable to change his sleeping habits for the weekend. At four o'clock Sunday morning, he was in the kitchen of his tiny, two-room apartment. The radio, his most prized possession, was turned down low: music from an all-night Canadian station. He was sitting at the table, next to the window, staring fixedly at the shadows on the far side of the street. He had seen a cat running along the walk over there, and the hairs had stood up on the back of his neck.


There were two things that Buddy Pellineri hated and feared more than all else in life: cats and ridicule.


For twenty-five years he had lived with his mother, and for twenty years she had kept a cat in the house, first Caesar and then Caesar the Second. She had never realized that the cats were quicker and far more cunning than her son and, therefore, a bane to him. Caesar—first or second; it made no difference—liked to lie quietly atop bookshelves and cupboards and highboys, until Buddy walked past. Then he leaped on Buddy's back. The cat never scratched him badly; for the most part it was concerned with getting a good grip on his shirt so that he could not shake it loose. Every time, as if following a script, Buddy would panic and run in circles or dart from from to room in search of his mother, with Caesar spitting in his ear. He never suffered much pain from the game; it was the suddenness of the attack, the surprise of it that terrified him. His mother said Caesar was only being playful. At times he confronted the cat to prove he was unafraid. He approached it as it sunned on a window sill and tried to stare it down. But he was always the first to look away. He couldn't understand people all that well, and the alien gaze of the cat made him feel especially stupid and inferior.


He was able to deal with ridicule more easily than he could deal with cats, if only because it never came as a surprise. When he was a boy, other children had teased him mercilessly. He had learned to be prepared for it, learned how to endure it. Buddy was bright enough to know that he was different from others. If his intelligence quotient had been several points lower, he wouldn't have known enough to be ashamed of himself, which was what people expected of him. If his I.Q. had been a few points higher, he would have been able to cope, at least to some extent, with both cats and cruel people. Because he fell in between, his life was lived as an apology for his stunted intellect—a curse he bore as a result of a malfunctioning hospital incubator where he had been placed after being born five weeks prematurely.


His father had died in a mill accident when Buddy was five, and the first Caesar had entered the house two weeks later. If his father hadn't died, perhaps there would have been no cats. And Buddy liked to think that, with his father alive, no one would dare ridicule him.


Ever since his mother had succumbed to cancer ten years ago, when he was twenty-five, Buddy had worked as an assistant night watchman at the Big Union Supply Company mill. If he suspected that certain people at Big Union felt responsible for him and that his job was make-work, he had never admitted it, not even to himself. He was on duty from midnight to eight, five nights a week, patrolling the storage yards, looking for smoke, sparks, and flames. He was proud of his position. In the last ten years he had come to enjoy a measure of self-respect that would have been inconceivable before he had been hired.


Yet there were times when he felt like a child again, humiliated by other children, the brunt of a joke he could not understand. His boss at the mill, Ed McGrady, the chief watchman on the graveyard shift, was a pleasant man. He was incapable of hurting anyone. However, he smiled when others did the teasing. Ed always told them to stop, always rescued his friend Buddy—but always got a laugh from it.


That was why Buddy hadn't told anyone what he had seen Saturday morning, nearly twenty-four hours ago. He didn't want them to laugh....





*     *     *


Night Chills (1976) closes the first decade of Koontz's writing. Behind him are the initial SF novels and stories, some fine imitations of Richard Stark under the name Brian Coffey, and the service comedy Hanging On, to name a few. 1977-1986 would see Koontz become a Brand Name novelist. Night Chills has all the ingredients of future successes on a small- scale, along with some shocks and surprises. 


The community of the good


Paul Annendale: widower, veterinarian.

Mark Annendale: Paul's nine year old son.

Rya Annendale: Paul's eleven year old daughter.


Sam Edison: Pharmacist and owner of Edison's General Store in Black River, Maine. Sam is also an amateur scholar of how totalitarian governments shape their "willing executioners" and "little Eichmans."

Jenny Edison: Sam's adult daughter, a divorcee who has returned home to Black River. Love interest of Paul Annendale.


Buddy Pellineri: Night watchman at the Big Union sawmill, principal employer for Black River. A young man with low I.Q. 


Bob Thorp: Black River police chief

Emma Thorp: His wife, a former Miss America contestant.



The men from Futurex International


H. Leonard Dawson: Owner of Futurex, he never let his love of the Lord get in the way of financial success.


Ogden Salsbury: Leading authority on subliminal mind control.


General Klinger: Pentagon liaison for Futurex security at facilities working on government projects.


*     *     *


Night Chills is a techno-thriller about the science of mind control and its practical applications. It is also about how best-laid plans get fouled-up by the human factor.


It begins as an off-the-books scheme:


....Dawson said, "You've been working on subliminal perception up there in Connecticut for the last ten years?"


"Yes."


"Perfecting the science?"


"That's correct. "


"The Pentagon sees a weapon in it?"


"Definitely. Don't you see it?"


Quietly, reverently, Dawson said, "If you've perfected the science ... you're talking about total mind control. Not just behavior modification, but absolute, ironlike control. "


For a moment neither of them could speak.


"Whatever you've discovered," Dawson said, "you apparently want to keep it from the Defense Department. They might call that treason."


"I don't care what they call it," Salsbury said sharply. "With your money and my knowledge, we don't need the Defense Department—or anyone else. We're more powerful than all the world's governments combined."


Dawson couldn't conceal his excitement. "What is it? What have you got?"


Salsbury went to the windows and watched the snow spiraling down on the city. He felt as if he had taken hold of a live wire. A current buzzed through him. Shaking with it, almost able to imagine that the snowflakes were sparks exploding from him, feeling himself to be at the vortex of a God-like power, he told Dawson what he had found and what role Dawson could play in his scenario of conquest.


Half an hour later, when Ogden finished, Dawson—who had never before been humble anywhere but in church—said, "Dear God." He stared at Salsbury as a devout Catholic might have gazed upon the vision at Fatima. "Ogden, the two of us are going to—inherit the earth?" His face was suddenly split by an utterly humorless smile.


Dawson and Salisbury soon bring General Klinger into their conspiracy. They target Black River, Maine as their test site: a small one-company town whose company is a subsidiary of Futurex.


*     *     *


Koontz divides Night Chills in half. The first half he divides again. Chapters alternate between 1977 Black River, seen through the eyes of the vacationing Annendales; and the period 1975-1977, as Salisbury completes his research plans and initiates the Black River test.


The novel's second half takes place exclusively in Black River. Chapters alternate: Salisbury testing the response of locals to subliminal programming;  the Annendales and Edisons slowly figuring out the cause of the horrific calamities they witness.


And horrific they are. Salisbury is the joker in the Futurex deck: a brilliant behavioral scientist driven mad by childhood sexual abuse and pathological misogyny. 


The chapters portraying his tests are not for the faint of heart. One example, in which Salisbury ultimately collides with the Annendale children, will suffice:


9


Friday, August 26, 1977


Tat-tat-tat-tat-tat-tat ... Since his experience with Brenda Macklin on Monday, Salsbury had been able to resist temptation. At any time he could have taken full control of another good-looking woman, could have raped her and erased all memory of the act from her mind. He took strength from the knowledge that the bitches were his for the asking. Whenever he could honestly conclude that the field test was a smashing success, and that no danger of discovery existed, he would screw every one of them that he wanted. The bitches. Animals. Little animals. Dozens of them. All of them. Because he knew the future held an almost endless orgy for him, he was able to cope, if only temporarily, with his desire. He went from house to house, using the key-lock code phrase, interviewing his subjects, observing and testing. Denying himself. Working hard. Doing his job. So strict with himself ... He was proud of his willpower.


This morning his willpower shattered. For the past four nights, his sleep had been disturbed by grotesque dreams that featured his mother and Miriam and sudden violence and blood—and an eerie, indescribable atmosphere of perverted sex. When he came awake this morning, shouting and flailing at the bedclothes, he thought of Emma Thorp—deep cleavage in an orange sweater—and she seemed to him like an antidote for the poisons that had churned through him while he slept. He had to have her, was going to have her, today, soon, and to hell with self-denial.


The smooth stream of power in him was again transformed into a rhythmic, alternating current, crackling across countless arcs, a hundred million synapses. His thoughts ricocheted with great energy from one subject to another, submachine-gun thoughts: tat-tat-tat-tat-tat-tat-tat ...


At 7:45 he left Pauline Vicker's rooming house and went to the cafe on the square.


The sky was cloudy, the air humid.


At 8:25 he finished breakfast and left the cafe.


At 8:40 he reached the Thorps' place, the last house on Union Road, next to the river.


He rang the doorbell twice.


The chief of police himself answered. He hadn't gone to work yet. Good. Wonderful.


Salsbury said, "I am the key."


"I am the lock."


"Let me in."


Bob Thorp stepped out of his way, let him by, then closed the door after him.


"Is your wife here?"


"Yes."


"Your son?"


"He's here too."


"Anyone else?"


"Just you and me."


"Your son's name?"


"Jeremy."


"Where are they?"


"In the kitchen."


"Take me to them."


Thorp hesitated.


"Take me to them!"


They went along a narrow but brightly papered hallway.


The kitchen was modern and stylish. Mediterranean cupboards and fixtures. Coppertone refrigerator and upright freezer. A microwave oven. A television set was suspended from the ceiling in one corner and angled toward the big round table by the window.


Jeremy was at the table, eating eggs and toast, facing the hall.


To the boy's right, Emma sat with one elbow on the table, drinking a glass of orange juice. Her hair was as golden and full as he remembered it. As she turned to ask her husband who had rung the bell, he saw that her lovely face was still soft with sleep—and for some reason that aroused him.


She said, "Bob? Who's this?"


Salsbury said, "I am the key."


Two voices responded.




At 8:55, making the weekly trip into town to lay in a fresh supply of perishables, Paul Annendale braked at the end of the gravel road, looked both ways, then turned left onto Main Street.


From the back seat Mark said, "Don't take me all the way to Sam's place. Let me out at the square."


Looking in the rearview mirror, Paul said, "Where are you going?"


Mark patted the large canary cage that stood on the seat beside him. The squirrel danced about and chattered. "I want to take Buster to see Jeremy."


Swiveling around in her seat and looking back at her brother, Rya said, "Why don't you admit that you don't go over to their house to see Jeremy? We all know you've got a crush on Emma."


"Not so!" Mark said in such a way that he proved absolutely that what she said was true.


"Oh, Mark," she said exasperatingly.


"Well, it's a lie," Mark insisted. "I don't have a crush on Emma. I'm not some sappy kid."


Rya turned around again.


"No fights," Paul said. "We'll leave Mark off at the square with Buster, and there will be no fights.




Salsbury said, "Do you understand that, Bob?"


"I understand."


"You will not speak unless spoken to. And you will not move from that chair unless I tell you to move."


"I won't move."


"But you'll watch."


"I'll watch."


"Jeremy?"


"I'll watch too."


"Watch what?" Salsbury asked.


"Watch you—screw her."


Dumb cop. Dumb kid.


He stood by the sink, leaned against the counter. "Come here, Emma."


She got up. Came to him.


"Take off your robe. "


She took it off. She was wearing a yellow bra and yellow panties with three embroidered red flowers at the left hip.


"Take off your bra."


Her breasts fell free. Heavy. Beautiful.


"Jeremy, did you know your mother looked so nice?"


The boy swallowed hard. "No."


Thorp's hands were on the table. They had curled into fists.


"Relax, Bob. You're going to enjoy this. You're going to love it. You can't wait for me to have her."


Thorp's hands opened. He leaned back in his chair.


Touching her breasts, staring into her shimmering green eyes, Salsbury had a delightful idea. Marvelous. Exciting. He said, "Emma, I think this would be more enjoyable if you resisted me a bit. Not seriously, you understand. Not physically. Just keep asking me not to hurt you. And cry."


She stared at him.


"Could you cry for me, Emma?"


"I'm so scared."


"Good! Excellent! I didn't tell you to relax, did I? You should be scared. Damned scared. And obedient. Are you frightened enough to cry, Emma?"


She shivered.


"You're very firm."


She said nothing.


"Cry for me."


"Bob ... "


"He can't help you."


He squeezed her breasts.


"My son ..."


"He's watching. It's all right if he watches. Didn't he suck these when he was a baby?"


Tears formed at the corners of her eyes.


"Fine," he said. "Oh, that's sweet."




Mark could only carry the squirrel and the cage for fifteen or twenty steps at a time. Then he had to put it down and shake his arms to get the pain out of them.




"Cup your breasts with your hands."


She did as she was told.


She wept.


"Pull on the nipples."


"Don't make me do this."


"Come on, little animal."




At first, upset by all the jerking and shaking and swinging of his cage, Buster ran in tight little circles and squealed like an injured rabbit.


"You sound like a rabbit," Mark told him during one of the rest stops.


Buster squealed, unconcerned with his image.


"You should be ashamed of yourself. You're not a dumb bunny. You're a squirrel."




In front of Edison's store, as he was closing the car door, Paul saw something gleam on the back seat. "What's that?"


Rya was still in the car, undoing her safety belt. "What's what?"


"On the back seat. It's the key to Buster's cage."


Rya squirmed into the back seat. "I'd better take it to him."


"He won't need it," Paul said. "Just don't lose it."


"No," she said. "I'd better take it to him. He'll want to let Buster out so he can show off for Emma."


"Who are you—Cupid?"


She grinned at him.




"Unzip my trousers."


"I don't want to."


"Do it!"


She did.


"Enjoying yourself, Bob?"


"Yes."


He laughed. "Dumb cop."




By the time he reached the edge of the Thorp property, Mark had found a better way to grip the cage. The new method didn't strain his arms so much, and he didn't have to stop every few yards to rest.


Buster had become so upset by the erratic movement of his pen that he had stopped squealing. He was gripping the bars with all four feet, hanging on the side of the cage, very still and quiet, frozen as if he were in the woods and had just seen a predator creeping through the brush.


"They'll be eating breakfast," Mark said. "We'll go around to the back door."




"Squeeze it."


She did.


"Hot?"


"Yes."


"Little animal."


"Don't hurt me."


"Is it hard?"


"Yes." Crying.


"Bend over."


Sobbing, shaking, begging him not to hurt her, she did as she had been told. Her face glistened with tears. She was almost hysterical. So beautiful ...




Mark was passing the kitchen window when he heard the woman crying. He stopped and listened closely to the broken words, the pitiful pleas that were punctuated by long sobs. He knew at once that it was Emma.


The window was only two feet away, and it seemed to beckon him. He couldn't resist. He went to it.


The curtains were drawn shut, but there was a narrow gap between them. He pressed his face to the windowpane....


*     *     *


There are several contexts for Night Chills.


As a publishing product, it appeared within the first decade of the techno-thriller's inauguration. Crichton's The Andromeda Strain (1969) and The Terminal Man (1972) were already successes; Robin Cook's Coma (1977) would appear a year after Night Chills


All their horrors were non-supernatural. Some presented SF threats in new clothing; others gave us doctors as intentional or unintentional antagonists.


In addition to novels, the same themes can be seen in films as diverse as The Manchurian Candidate (1962), The Anderson Tapes (1971) and The Parallax View (1974). 


The presentation of trusted U.S. institutions (government, scientific, biomedical) as points of inception for horror attested to the 1965-1975 impact on mass psychology of the Vietnam War, revelations about government spying (Cointelpro), and Watergate. 


*     *     *


No surviving characters will live happily ever after when Night Chills concludes. The losses, the revelations, have cut too deep. Make no mistake, Night Chills is an often ferocious novel.


The reader is warned.


Jay

26 July 2020






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