Still Death: Dean Koontz’s Photographing the Dead

Nameless2-Photographing-KoontzContinuing the adventures of his new series character Nameless (first seen in the novella, In the Heart of the Fire), Dean Koontz returns to the California stomping grounds he knows so well with Photographing the Dead. This time, we get a new psychopath in the form of Palmer Oxenwald, a lad with a senator for a father, a massive trust fund resource pool to draw from, and a love for not only torture and murder of random victims, but the photographing of the same. He revisits his crimes through these photos in order to relive the high of those moments. Oxenwald might be a narcissist and a psychopath, yes, but he is also the first one to tell you he is not, not, not a damned pervert:

He sits naked in bed, with this gallery for amusement. He does not need to touch himself. He isn’t one of those low kind who touch themselves of want others to touch them in private places. He needs no stimulation other than the photos and the memories they evoke. The more images that the screen presents, the more excited Palmer becomes. He spasms with intense pleasure, crying out in his rapture.

He has not touched himself. His pleasure is pure. (location 240)

Methinks he doth protest a little too much, huh? While there is some truth in the assertions that he is not interested in sexual contact, he still manages to find a kind of physical release while revisiting his former crimes. All together now: “Ewwwww!”

If that does not sell you on the novella . . .

Oxenwald is a dangerous predator with regular hunting grounds, several human victims on his psychopathic resume and quite a few hidden lairs to hole up in. Nameless and his equally unidentified backing organization hope to identify one of these hiding places, lure the killer there and then take care of him. Photographing the Dead might be the second in the Nameless series of short tales, but it stands pretty well on its own. As with comics and classic format television shows, all the details are present to give us a glimpse into Nameless and his world with no requirement to read that first piece.

To recap the setup for those joining us for the first time with this installment: Nameless is a man who only recalls the last two years of his life, time he has spent with a mysterious group hunting down some of the worst predators. Although he cannot quite recall the specifics, Nameless has convinced himself that he volunteered to receive the amnesia, suggesting there are either past pains or wickedness (or a little of both) he would rather forget. As a secondary effect, whatever scientific process made him what he is today has also granted him the paranormal ability to see clairvoyant flashes of things that have happened or will happen to people around him (and, as we will see in novella three, occasionally to himself). These psychic post- and precognitive experiences both help him on his current missions and point a way toward the future. Nameless is a man driven by his mission, though his organization’s goal is not necessarily “justice” as he explains in this volume:

Nameless and those who support his missions are, as far as he knows, not any branch of law enforcement. They serve justice only to the extent that they serve truth. Justice is often in the eye of the beholder; what is justice to some can look like injustice to others. Justice can be politicized, but truth cannot; truth is what it is. (location 303)

For each of his missions, Nameless adopts a temporary identity. Here he takes the name Kenton Paul Mallory, gets himself a land rover, and sets out to track down the villainous Oxenwald. While this pair of protagonist and antagonist are the core of the tale, Photographing the Dead also features some additional characters to give Nameless something to work off.

The major secondary characters in this volume are a pair of fraternal twin sisters:

Mia and Kara Benton are twenty-six, fraternal twins, therefore not identical, but equally attractive and athletic and high-spirited and in love with nature. Mia teaches middle school English; Kara teaches high school English. Both are engaged to be married. They are not just sisters; they are also each other’s best friend. (location 13)

While they might seem like your typical damsels in distress, they are anything but. Sure, this unlucky pair find themselves in the villain’s path as though, alluded to in their initial appearance (right there in Chapter 1) with language that casts them as the main characters in a quirky revisionist fairy tale:

Once upon a time, the woods were safe. The only threats were mountain lions or bears, and they were rate. Anyway, they could be frightened off by an Attwood signal horn, an earsplitting klaxon in a little aerosol can. These days, stranger beings haunt the wilds. (location 18)

They might be in jeopardy, this bit suggests, but they are not characters without agency or capacity to help themselves. After all, they have thought to bring a gun with them this time around. Sadly, that opening chapter culminates with some black foreshadowing about what lies ahead for this plucky pair:

They are familiar with the trail. They expect to lose about five pounds each, but Mia is not concerned that anything could go awry. Neither is Kara. They are both optimists. The possibility that one or both of them will be dead before reaching Millerton Lake does not even occur to them. (location 23)

Their regular reappearances in the narrative are like a subtle countdown timer. It is only a matter of time before these paths converge. Few story elements provides an immediate sense of suspense like a ticking clock. It is a staple of the thriller genre, in fact, and Koontz uses these two characters as a sort of organic timer.

Another character, who gets less screen time but is nevertheless intriguing for his arrival, is an individual who also works for the same organization as Nameless. In the first book, our hero-protagonist operated alone, getting a bit of guidance from locals but generally doing the dirty work with his own hands. Not so this time. When needed, the mysterious organization can and will bring in additional operatives and resources.

The specialist for whom they’ve been waiting, Salazar, either has no first name or no last, and perhaps Salazar is a nom de guerre, in which case he is almost as nameless as Nameless. (location 364)

Salazar’s task is to bring in a special tool Nameless will need in his final encounter with this volume’s maniac. Salazar might also missing his past, but this is not specified. Between him and Nameless, I get the impression the mysterious group are repurposing psychos for a more socially positive purpose. Nameless might be a hero in these works (a finder of truth and punisher of the wicked who operates by necessity outside the confines of the law) but he is no saint. The organization he works for has turned his affinity for mayhem toward more acceptable targets than the fiends he faces, but he and they are flipsides of the same coin. Likewise, Salazar has no compunctions about killing the wicked, and here he identifies both himself and Nameless as “hard men”, a description that gives the protagonist pause for a brief consideration:

One thing he broods about is whether he is a hard man only in the sense Salazar meant it. The specialist did not mean hard as a synonym for cruel, but instead for unsentimental, unforgiving of evil, stoic. (location 625)

Methinks Nameless doth protest too much, eh? Only time will tell.

The final secondary character worth noting is a genuinely unlikeable sort. Through this character, Koontz shows continued dislike for the wealthy sleaze balls who wind up in high political positions. In Photographing the Dead, Palmer Oxenwald’s father makes a brief appears in a lengthy taped conversation with Oxenwald’s psychiatric consultant. The recording serves several purposes. It fills in the blanks on the killer’s history for the reader. It also provides an alternative to the conceit found in the 1980s breed of serial killer horror novels that mandated flashback chapters to explain how creepy killers got that way. Finally, it shows just how fallen the world Nameless is operating in, how deep the corruption has set—the highest authorities operate as though above the law and the killers are allowed to run free despite being identified early on . . . Is this sequence completely necessary? Not really. Koontz tries to use it as a ploy for Nameless to distract Oxenwald while he stalks closer to the bolt hole, but this does not require us to hear the entire taped conversation. Is it entertaining? For the most part it is. Here are a couple of reasons.

First off, it is a single chapter, and it is not terribly long. These Nameless books are fast reads. The prose is streamlined. Second, Koontz has a way with language that pulls the eye along. His language is uncluttered, and yet it allows time for occasional poetic turns. The taped session is not only readable; it is a tug of war between two powerful egos and is a pleasure to read from a dramatic perspective. Third, it also provides a mirror to a character Koontz wrote in his sometimes creepy, sometimes wonky, often entertaining 2011 novel, 77 Shadow Street, a drunk-ass California Senator who in a fit of pique gets the words FUCK YOU tattooed on his middle finger. That character has more money than sense, and so too does Oxenwald’s father. Koontz has little patience with people who believe wealth and power make them above responsibility to their fellow mankind. It is a lesser degree of the kind of Narcissism (the actual psychosis, not the innocuous version often applied to the vain) that fuels many of his better psychopaths.

If In the Heart of the Fire riffed on John D. MacDonald, Lester Dent, Jim Thompson, Joe R. Lansdale and a bit of Andrew Vachss, this book offers no shortage of acknowledgements to other authors as well. I caught tips of the hat to Max Allen Collins (who wrote a wonderful series of historical mysteries starring a guy called Mallory). As well, I caught hints of novelist Brian Garfield’s thriller work here. Garfield is perhaps best known for the novel Death Wish, which gives an architect a reason to hunt down the evil predators that assaulted and murdered his wife and daughter. His second best known work is probably Hopscotch, which finds a former CIA operative writing a tell-all memoir and ending up as the target of hunters. Both books were turned into films. However, Garfield’s work with thrillers (and westerns) is much broader than either of these works, and this book aligns with a few of that author’s themes. These take the form of the responsibility of the individual when societal machinery fails, the inevitability of polar opposites coming together (this could be the Sheriff and the outlaw of The Last Good Hard Men or general truth versus lies) as well as the consequences to be had from brutal acts and the lack of the same. Likewise, the camping girls put me in mind of a couple of Richard Layman’s works, such as Darkness, Tell Us or Dark Mountain or No Sanctuary.

While reading Photographing the Dead, I caught a stray connection with a bit of 1990s pop culture that I was once rather taken with. In fact, this series has some tenuous connections with another series that I rather enjoyed with a similar premise, one made for television. Does anyone remember the show Millennium? In that series, genre veteran Lance Henriksen plays a man with a gift for getting inside psycho killers heads, and he used this talent for a mysterious organization (the titular Millennium Group) to find the killer of the week through three seasons of horror and mystery. Well, really, he did it for the first season and a half, and then the show veered off into conspiracy territory that was making showrunner Chris Carter’s other series (a little thing you might have heard of called The X-Files) so popular. Millennium and the Nameless series are not carbon copies of one another, but they both draw from similar inspiration. Both tackle similar topics, not the least of which is a shadowy organization that makes it a mission to oppose human evil, but they come at it from different directions. Where that show was dark and brooding, this series of novellas is as content to take place in well-lit scenarios as it is shadow drenched ones. Evil does not hide during the daytime in Koontz’s world. It is right there, sitting at the bar beside you or snapping photographs of popular tourist spots.

The Nameless series still has my attention. I look forward to seeing where the series and its roaming character go next.

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Photographing the Dead is available in eBook and audiobook editions. I believe there might be a collection of these individual stories in the works as well; for now, they are individual tales.

On Thursday, we will return to this mini-reading series to consider the third novella, The Praying Mantis Bride. This one finds Nameless squaring off with a spin on the femme fatale of noir fiction (a sort of Phyllis Diller gone nutso). Grab an eBook or audiobook edition today.

One week from today, we will hit on the fourth book in the series: Red Rain.

WORKS CITED

Koontz, Dean. Photographing the Dead. Amazon Original Stories: 2019.

“Still Death: Dean Koontz’s Photographing the Dead” is copyright © 2019 by Daniel R. Robichaud. Cover image and quotes taken from the Amazon Kindle edition.

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