Night Chills by Dean Koontz
Koontz is an author who revels in notifying his readers about the social issues that he feels most strongly about. Rebel Voice has previously reviewed his novel, One Door Away From Heaven – which can be found here:
which dealt with the horrific and callous concept of bioethics. In Night Chills (1977), Koontz explores the practice of subliminal and subaudial advertising and control, which can be described as the premeditated manipulation of our subconscious minds.
Paul Annendale’s wife, Annie, has died and he has been left to grieve and raise their two young children on his own. Mark is 9 and Rya is 11. They are understandably close, and Paul regularly takes his family to the rural town of Black River for some relaxation . Over the years, the Annendale’s have formed a close friendship with Sam Edison, owner of the only general store in the remote area in which Black River is situated. In the two years since Annie’s death Paul has forged a romantic connection to Sam’s recently divorced daughter, Jenny.
On their latest trip, Paul discovers that most of the population of Black River has taken ill with ‘night chills’, which includes flu-like symptoms. Sam and Jenny are two of the few who appear to have escaped the affliction. Strange things begin to take place in the area, and it all takes a turn for the worse when young Mark accidentally sees something he shouldn’t in a neighbour’s house.
There is a second thread in this tale and it surrounds the life of Ogden Salsbury, a nasty piece of work who is employed to run a top-secret government research program. Salsbury is an expert in behavioural modification, more specifically that aspect concerning subliminal programming. But he has grander plans than Uncle Sam will allow him. T o this end, he contacts billionaire, Leonard Dawson, a former college friend who sees profit and power in what Salsbury suggests. Dawson brings US General, Klinger, on board and the three plot to use Salsbury’s research and discoveries to gain control of local and, eventually, global societies. Unfortunately for Dawson and Klinger, Salsbury is a misogynist sexual deviant, which may cause unforeseen problems for the unholy triumvirate.
The central story-line is set in 1977 and the subplot two years earlier, although we follow its progression until both merge. Salsbury’s covert research has created a means of mind control using subliminal advertising and he has, for logistical reasons, selected Black River as his initial testing ground.
It’s an interesting premise and Kontz is good at selecting and basing stories upon such concepts. Subliminal advertising is real. It was and is used on TV’s, computers and the print media. Koontz spends quite a bit of time elaborating on how the procedure works. It is shocking to realize that advertising agencies are employing such a deceitful technique to encourage consumers to purchase their products. Although Koontz has used quite a bit of artistic licence in his portrayal of this practice, there is no doubting the frightening potential should subliminal messaging be refined to become more potent.
Rebel Voice is of the opinion – not proven – that, as there is precious little global regulation of the internet, subliminal messaging is being used to condition the minds of an unsuspecting populace. Imagine how effectively such brain-washing – for at its most potent, that is what it is – would be in selling unnecessary items to unwary consumers. If the tactic was expanded upon, then voters could also be unduly influenced as could the entire citizenry in a myriad different ways.
If we, the people, accept that governments will stop at nothing to gain complete control of their national populations, and if we accept that Capitalist corporations will also employ ruthlessly ambitious techniques to boost sales, then we must accept that the use of subliminal advertising and messaging will be, and likely is being, used.
As the population of Black River falls under the control of an out-of-control Salsbury, it is left to the Annendales and Edisons to stop him. This proves easier said than done as the wicked scientist has managed to gain control of a large percentage of the local populace. Paul and his family and friends race to counter the effects of Salsbury’s manipulations, as the evil trio of puppeteers try, in turn, to kill them.
Night Chills is a good read. There is, however, one plot point that Rebel Voice feels was wholly unnecessary and thus presented as abhorrent. It’s better not to give it away, but suffice to say that sometimes authors engage in gratuitous acts of violence against fictional innocents, when such does not contribute to the story. It may be that some writers feel that it is advisable to throw in an incident that will catch readers unaware, thereby helping with the overall presentation. As much as there may be merit in such a tactic, it only works if the shock is explainable and can be justified. In Night Chills, the emotional wallop cannot.
In general though, the plot is fast-paced and strong. The characters are fairly consistent and do engage the reader, even if they are a tad one-dimensional. The locations catch the imagination and there is enough action to make Night Chills a page-turner.
Rebel Voice can, at times, be critical of Dean Koontz. Yet he is capable of producing decent novels. Night Chills is one. He does get a little schmaltzy, as is his wont, but the story holds. As this is one of Koontz’ earlier efforts, it appears that he had not yet developed his dog-fixation. No mutt takes centre-stage in Night Chills… scrap that… Salsbury is a mutt. Give me a Golden Retriever any day.
Sult scale rating: 6 out of 10. Not his worst and not his best. He’s no King, but then, who is?