Dean Koontz has published more than 60 novels that have sold an estimated 450 million copies worldwide. If you’re among his legion of fans, you’ll probably greet his new book, “Ashley Bell,” with open arms.
If, however, you don’t know his work, let me offer two observations. First, Koontz’s prose can be exceptionally fine. Second, the man has long since moved beyond realism. He began his career writing science fiction, and his work abounds with magic, miracles and the supernatural. His most famous character, Odd Thomas, is a short-order cook who talks to the dead. How you react to “Ashley Bell” may well depend on your tolerance for events that crowd the outer limits of probability.
Koontz’s heroine, brave, beautiful Bibi Blair, is a talented writer of 22 who lives near the ocean in Newport Beach, Calif., and is suddenly afflicted with incurable brain cancer. Then, in a seeming miracle, the cancer goes away. At this point, Bibi’s loving parents insist that she meet with a woman called Calida Butterfly, a “diviner” who supposedly can uncover “hidden knowledge by supernatural means.”
Butterfly uses “the occult art of Scrabblemancy” to discover why Bibi’s life has been spared. She has Bibi select Scrabble tiles at random, and they form words that command Bibi, in exchange for her good fortune, to save the life of someone named Ashley Bell. Who Ashley is, where she is (Bibi is convinced she’s female) and why her life is threatened are all unknown, but Bibi gamely sets out to find and save her.
Bibi soon receives a phone call from a neo-Nazi psychopath who announces that he intends to kill both Ashley and Bibi. She learns that this fellow, when a teenager, raped and murdered his mother and has since “fancied himself the heir of Hitler.” Rather than flee this madman, Bibi vows to destroy him. Much of the novel recounts her efforts to save Ashley while avoiding the Nazi and his many sinister followers.
It’s a hectic chase, and along the way Bibi encounters such unlikely characters as Dr. Solange St. Croix, Marissa Hoffline-Vorshack and Chubb Coy; the first two were once Bibi’s teachers, and Coy is a gun-wielding former detective. They all intend harm to Bibi. On the brighter side, we meet Bibi’s boyfriend, a Navy SEAL named Paxton Thorpe, who’s off pursuing terrorists but sees in his dreams the dangers that afflict Bibi and intends to fly to her aid.
Koontz’s increasingly bizarre story is enhanced by his colorful prose. A woman’s “blue eyes were two jewels of hatred.” A woman smiles at a naive man “the way a fox smiled at a tender rabbit.” At evening, “the sun balanced on the sea, a fat round bead of blood.”One peculiarity of the novel is Koontz’s endless evocation of the fog that rolls in off the Pacific; it’s variously “the white eclipse . . . cataracts of fog . . . headlight-silvered fog . . . the claustrophobic fog . . . the long fingers of fog . . . the hampering fog . . . a towering slow-moving tsunami of mist through which headlights swam like golden koi.” There are perhaps 50 such phrases, and they make the story increasingly otherworldly. Is anything real here, or are we adrift in a world of dreams?
The confusion reaches a peak when we find ourselves reading about two Bibis, one in a coma in a hospital bed and the other out pursuing evildoers. This development is variously attributed to her exceptional brain waves and to the duality that novelists share with their characters. When the wide-awake Bibi finally confronts her Nazi nemesis, she could just put a bullet in his head. But instead, the two of them exchange mumbo-jumbo about what’s real and what’s imaginary. Bibi is given to such musings as “There was the known world and the supernatural world that shadowed it, and the veil that had been deteriorating between them now began to dissolve entirely.”
By then, my view of the novel had progressed from an admiring “What lovely writing!” to a weary “What pretentious hokum!” There’s much to treasure in magical writing, but “Ashley Bell” is hardly an example of the style at its best. Still, one reader’s hokum is another reader’s happiness. I imagine that countless Koontz fans will delight in Bibi’s strange adventures, and I’d be the last to begrudge them their pleasures.
Patrick Anderson regularly reviews mysteries and thrillers for Book World.
By Dean Koontz
Bantam. 560 pp. $28