As seems to be the case with many of Dean Koontz’s novel releases since the 2010s, an eBook hit the marketplace right around the time when the author’s novel The City was due to see its initial hardback release in 2014. The Neighbor might have a disarming or sinister title, depending on how you relate to those two words. For my money, being a longtime reader of horror and suspense from Ray Bradbury through Bentley Little and beyond, I feel a touch disturbed when I see the word “The” followed by any noun. It makes me ask, What should I be paying attention to about this particular jar, Store, house, fog horn, etc. Reading Koontz’s title, I immediately set to wondering about the folks living next door as well as myself. After all, anyone and everyone living in towns and cities all fit the bill of “neighbors” while being surrounded by them at the same time. It seems a tad obvious to state that, but for whatever reason, I often use neighbor as a title for the Others I interact with. So too does that term apply in this brief novella.
In this tale from the summer of 1967, we meet young sibling protagonists Malcolm and Amalia. Sadly, they are the products of a rather cold family:
Amalia and I didn’t have a home life that would be suitable for a TV show like Ozzie and Harriet or Leave It to Beaver. Out old man was a machinist, a foreman for an entire shop of lathe operators, most of the time as silent as a rock, a cold man who by his stare alone could convey his disapproval and his arfent wish that he could hold you to his lathe and shape you into something more appealing. Chesterfield cigarettes were to him what the Eucharist is to devout Catholics. Amalia insisted he wasn’t cold, but only wounded by life and emotionally isolated. Our mother lived TV around the clock, interludes of neighborhood gossip with Mrs. Janowski, who lived next door, and Lucky Strike cigarettes, which she burned through as if the fate of the Earth depended on her chain-smoking even through meals, which she usually took on a TV tray in the living room. She prided herself on being a fine housekeeper, by which she meant that she efficiently delegated all the work to Amalia and me. (location 49)
The dad is a pressure keg who seems unable to communicate short of hollering, the mom has no interest in being a part of her offspring’s lives more than might be mandated by state and local laws. As such, the kids have to rely on themselves pretty much. This is never more evident than the morning after lights and sounds suggest someone moving in late the night before into the house next door. Said sounds and lights did not really kick off until 3AM, which is kind of weird. However, the parents see nothing wrong with this. It’s the kids who do. But hey, a new neighbor is a new neighbor and therefore should be welcomed, right?
Well, maybe not so much. The house originally belonged to a pillar of the community who was taken far too early. Prior to his untimely but nevertheless natural death by heart attack, Rupert Clockenwall was a teacher. He was good enough to receive a Best Teacher of the Year honor on two occasions, and he had been nothing but well-regarded by the neighborhood. Well, maybe that’s not quite true:
He had never been married. Some people thought he might be gay, but he had never been seen in the company of a companion of that persuasion. Those were the days when people were ignorant enough to think that all gay men minced or lipsed, or both, and had no bones in their wrists. Mr. Clockenwall exhibited none of that behavior. (location 263)
Then, he was found dead at his kitchen table and, well, that’s the end of the Teacher of the Year. There would be no third repeat of that particular title for him. No anything, really . . . Or would there? These lights and sounds the children see and hear might well be opening a new chapter in the well-regarded man’s life and home. In truth, they don’t open a new chapter so much as continue the previous one, casting aside a few veiled secrets and showing the man to be something quite different than public opinion might have suggested.
When our plucky protagonists head over to the house with a plate of cookies to meet the new neighbor (which is the title of a Ray Garton sexy vampire novel, come to think of it), they find the doors open and no one home. No signs of new residents. None of the boxes or the new furniture or anything. Instead, they get to have a spooky encounter with the wind whispering Amalia’s name and perhaps obscenities only she can hear, but which nevertheless chases the kids out of the abode. Is the house haunted? Is something else happening here?
Following this initial encounter, Amalia confesses a run in with their former neighbor from the time when she was a child of thirteen:
She stepped to the small single window, which faced toward our deceased neighbor’s house, and the distilled sunlight of that early June evening gilded her lovely face. “There was this time I was in the backyard, standing at the picnic table, working on an art project for school. I was really into it, and after a while I looked up and saw Clockenwall just on the other side of the fence, staring at me. He was very … intense. I said hi, and he didn’t respond, and he had this look, it almost seemed like hatred, but it wasn’t just that. The day was warm, I was wearing shorts and a tank top, and suddenly I felts as it … as if I was naked. He wasn’t anything like he’d always been before. He wasn’t Teacher of the Year, that’s for sure. He licked his lips, I mean, he made this huge production of licking them, staring at me so bold, I can’t even describe how bold, with this need. Maybe there was hatred on his face, hatred and rage, but not entirely that, if you know what I mean.”
I knew what she meant, all right. “What did you do?”
“I picked up my art supplies and took them inside.”
“You didn’t tell anyone?”
“I was too embarrassed to talk about it. Anyway, who was I going to tell? Dad was at work. When he comes home, he doesn’t want anyone to get between him and that first beer. Mom was glued to afternoon game shows. I’d have rather put my hand in an alligator’s mouth than distract her from Bill Cullen and The Price Is Right.” (location 303)
Okay, so the pillar of the community was not the great man others thought. Only little girls got the opportunity to see the man he really was. Amalia orders her brother not to go back into that house, and he verbally agrees but he cannot wait even a full day before breaking that promise. Nothing ignites a kid’s desire to know quite as quickly as being told not to do something or go someplace. What he learns about the neighbor is chilling. Driven by a power outside of himself, Malcolm discovers some hidden scrapbooks that paint the teacher of the year in a whole new light. Not only was he a creep, he was an out and out fiend. His secret journals tie Clockenwall to the disappearance of several young girls over the years. Also, his body might be gone, but he has somehow returned to the world. It’s repulsive details, and yet Malcolm cannot turn away. The more Malcolm delves into the man’s horrible crimes, the more of a foothold the fiend gets on the boy.
Not coveting a neighbor’s possessions is one of those basic, Biblical tenets. This story turns that notion on its ear and asks, with a mischievous grin, what you’re supposed to do when your neighbor covets your sister and longs to possess your body in order to take her.
In the end, The Neighbor is a supernatural suspense piece that casts communities as protective shields psychopaths can and will take full advantage of to hide their deeds. It then tasks the least likely of heroes, children ages 12 (Malcolm) and 17 (Amalia) to survive an encounter with the ineffable and to triumph over it.
Longtime readers of Dean Koontz will see plenty of cross talk between the author’s works. By this, I do not mean to suggest the books belong to a single universe, such as the Ceder Hill cycle by author Gary A. Braunbeck or the Dark Tower books of Stephen King. Instead, I look underneath the hood of various books. While considering the Nameless series, for example, I identified a passage about the three kinds of people that character interacted with, and I expanded that to be a mini-Bible of sorts for the characters that Dean Koontz likes to write. Throughout that series, I also identified similarities between antagonists in at least five of the six works, they are narcissists of the most psychopathic kind with commonalities such as atheism and other hallmarks of that sin of pride.
With The Neighbor we see quite a few of these elements, these thematic obsessions the author falls back upon in book after book. Rupert Clockenwall gives Koontz’s readers yet another example of one of those neighbors with bodies buried in his cellar. Further, it gives readers one more father figure who ultimately perverts his role and abuses his authority to sate wicked lusts and desires while mistreating the innocent. From that standpoint, there is little different between this story, several entries in the Nameless series or The Moonlit Mind (the novella companion to 77 Shadow Street). The villains are not opposite sides of a single coin, they are the same side of the same coin. Their characters are woven from the same yarn skein, and though their methods might vary, they are nevertheless reflections of one another.
Where The Neighbor finds its legs is in the evocation of the two protagonists. These characters apparently return as secondary elements in The City (this novella’s narrator even refers to that book by name as being penned not by Koontz but by its own protagonist, Jonah), but here they take center stage for an odd encounter that Malcolm heralds in a rather self-deprecating way:
There isn’t any point in talking about my life, because most of the interesting parts are what happened when I was hanging out with Jonah; he’s already covered that territory. I do have one little experience to recount, however, a curious series of events that occurred a few weeks before I met him. Like his more engaging story, mine suggests that the world is a more mysterious place than it seems to be most of the time, when we’re plodding along from breakfast to bedtime in a reassuringly familiar routine. (location 35)
The mystical qualities of the book are enjoyable. The climax turns on a passive act of faith that I don’t particularly buy, but the remainder of the book is an intriguing blend of coming of age tale and an exploration of the mysteries to be found right next door.
As novellas go, it does not overstay its welcome. However, this also lends itself to what I consider a rushed conclusion that could have benefited from a little more foreshadowing. Like one of those mysteries the Lionel Twain character complains about in the 1976 mystery-comedy, Murder By Death, this story relies on a last minute revelation of an important fact that the characters knew about but did not tell us in order to wrap up. It is a bit of a cheat.
And yet, the opening three quarters of the book are an entertaining read, showcasing the author’s ease with establishing the mysterious, the mystical and well as likeable protagonists and a dastardly villain. Told with clarity and easy language, The Neighbor offers its readers a brief peek into a world where the everyday can be a product for wonder and its flipside horror.
The Neighbor is available as an eBook and audiobook offering. As well, it has been incorporated into paperback and eBook editions of The City. As to how this brief story relates to that one, I cannot say having never read it. One thing I can tell you: It stands well on its own.
This week, we continue the Considering Westlake series with The Hook, a satiric jab at the publishing industry which is available in an eBook edition. Artifact hardcover and paperback editions can be found for the curious.
On Sunday, we will continue our mini-reading series with Dean Koontz’s The Bone Farm: A Jane Hawk Case File. This audiobook only tale appeared between publication of The Whispering Room and The Crooked Staircase, offering readers a tease about series character Jane Hawk’s tracking down the responsible party behind the kidnapping and murders of several young women.
Koontz, Dean. The Neighbor. Bantam Books: 2014.
“Coveting Thy Neighbor’s Possessions: Dean Koontz’s The Neighbor” is copyright © 2020 by Daniel R. Robichaud. Quotes and cover image taken from the kindle version of the novella, released 2014.
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