One of my first, and one of my first disappointments. Dean Koontz’s Phantoms is one of a slew of books the author published during the proliferation of horror fiction during the late 1970s/early 1980s, largely cultivated by the phenomena of a certain Mr. Stephen King, amongst others.
I was young, very young, when I first started to delve into that phenomena; thanks to my Mother’s own obsession with it, material was always available; good, bad and mediocre, none of which was off limits to me. Phantoms, along with Darkness, by John Saul, occurred whilst on a family holiday in some sunny, European clime (Corfu, Majorca; somewhere like that) in which I, being the pallid, shadow-loving child that I was, would often retreat from the heat and oppressive light with whatever reading material I could lay hands on. Having exhausted my own supply of high fantasy (Tolkien, Lewis et al), my mother allowed me to select from her own small library.
Phantoms captivated me from the very beginning, being one of the earliest pieces of “adult” fiction I ever consumed; its set up, its situation; the incredible tension and mystery established in its earliest chapters (an isolated mountain town seemingly abandoned or depopulated in an incredibly short space of time, meals left on tables, clothing and personal effects all left behind. An obscure message scrawled on a bathroom mirror) something I’d rarely experienced before, exciting my imagination in ways that little else ever had.
Then our explanation:
A big monster did it. Disappointment as profound as the excitement and tension that preceded; a sense of hollow frustration that I’d rarely encountered up to that point. It didn’t make sense to me; the book was in my hands, the words on the page; how could it feel so wrong, so empty? Being so young, this more than any subject described within the story (which gets quite graphic at times) distressed me to the point of losing my temper. I recall vividly having heated conversations with my Mother about it in our hotel room: why wasn’t it right? Why did it feel so wrong?
It wouldn’t be until many, many years later that I began to appreciate the benefits of that experience. Other disappointments began to accrue as my appetite for written and cinematic fiction waxed beyond all bounds or containment. So much that felt somehow skewed or hollow in my mind; endings that didn’t fulfil the promise of opening chapters or pages. It was at this point that the first embers of the writer in me began to flare, as, I believe, they do in many: I can do better than this; I can fulfil the promise that others can’t.
So many of us are born there; in the bowels of that disappointment, that little despair; when something that urges us to love it proves unworthy of the emotion, the investment. That’s what inspires so many of us to begin dreaming; to imagine alternatives to what is written or recorded. Many of these become stories in their own rights; ideas flourishing from those that fail; those that disappoint.
Regarding Phantoms specifically, having gone back and re-read the book with adult eyes a number of times, I find that the disappointment derives from the need to explain; whilst the situation remains mysterious, it is terrifying; the setting itself becomes almost sentient; a threat. We, as the reader, do not know where the townsfolk went or why; we do not know what will happen to those who discovered their predicament. All we know is that something terrible has happened; something watching, slowly closing in . . . explanation codifies and contains the phenomena; makes it definable and, ultimately, vulnerable. This is a problem that pervades a great deal of horror fiction; an unwillingness or inability to rely on the imagination of the audience; to allow for a little in the way of ambiguity. Of course, a certain degree of explanation is necessary in order to define parameters; to prevent the story from flying apart of collapsing in on itself in a mire of abstraction, but the manner in which explanation is provided and the degree to which it occurs is key.
Thanks to Phantoms (and a number of others, sometimes by writers and authors I generally respect and enjoy hugely), I have evolved as both a writer and as a human being; learned to treat my readers and all who interact with me with a degree of respect. As a reader, I like subtle ambiguity; I enjoy the spaces between sentences in which wider mythology proliferates like fungal spores. As a writer, I have learned to capitalise on this; to allow the reader’s imagination to breathe and express itself through what I write, rather than attempting to direct and impose upon them as one might children. When handled with deftness and respect, readers will respond well to this; when treated as though they are inferior; as though they do not have minds to make up or imaginations to express, they will react negatively. I certainly did and continue to do so.
This is the benefit of disappointment; of consuming fiction that doesn’t meet particular standards or expectations: it obliges us to put ourselves in the imaginer’s place; to consider what we would do differently and how. It also means we have to put out money where our mouths are; if we insist that we can do better, then we must do better; it drives us to respect ourselves and others; to realise what we are prepared to allow in our own experiences and what we should expect others to allow of us. It makes for better artists in exactly the same way that considered criticism often does; providing experience that allows us to step back from immersion in the fiction; to see why and how it doesn’t work for us. This is an invaluable tool, especially when it comes to editing or redrafting one’s own work; to look at it as a reader would, rather than in the throes of passion that elicit its creation. The experience also allows us to evolve in terms of what we want from our relationships with fiction; what we are willing accept and what we are not.
The worth of fiction doesn’t necessarily derive from whether we enjoy it or not, but how we respond to the experience of inspiration or disappointment, both of which are equally worthy, and for that, Phantoms will always remain significant to me.