Saturday, December 4, 2010

The Second-Best Novel I've Ever Read

Yay, I thought of something, and within the same day I said I couldn't. Actually, this has been on my mind. I've thought about writing this review for a little while now, but never had the interest in writing it just then because I'd have another, different idea that I thought deserved more priority.

Not a long time ago, I'd written an review and synopsis on the novel Lightning, by Dean Koontz. I'd described it as my most favorite novel above all others, and I stand by that. This novel that I'm going to talk about here is Watchers, which, actually, is by the same author.

I'm not a huge fan of Koontz but I like several of his novels, including Lightning, Watchers, Life Expectancy, the Odd Thomas series, The Husband, and The Good Guy. I spent a large amount of time in auto class during grade 12 calmly reading The Good Guy while my fellow students worked on engines and transmissions and got their hands disgusting.

Watchers is the second-greatest novel in my opinion, second only to Lightning. I love that book. It has three main characters and several secondary characters, and it's a very fun, sweet, frightening, adventurous read.

Before I review and discuss it, here's my synopsis. Spoiler alert for anyone who hasn't read it and would rather read it themselves other than see the plot here:

The novel likely takes place in 1987 (the year the book was published). While Koontz often states a date in his prose and then further states that this date was a Sunday or Wednesday, no date with that day matches the date in 1987 or any proceeding/succeeding year so it is strictly ambiguous. I just assume it's 1987. It begins in 1987 and ends in 1991. The setting is southern California (as with most of Koontz's books). More specifically the book takes place in Santa Barbara.

A secret government-funded lab called Banodyne has conducted a genetics experiment to create the world's most secretive and intelligent spy, as well as the most efficient soldier. Called the Francis Project, one of the scientists, Dr. Davis Weatherby, succeeds in producing a golden retriever of near-human level intelligence. Meanwhile, Dr. Elizabeth Yarbeck, another scientist, genetically alters the appearance, intelligence and strength of the baboon to create a monster that's intelligent and deadly, particularly for combat in war. Successful, this result is called 'The Outsider,' and it is viscous and horrifying.
In May, the dog manages to break out of the lab and sets loose in the foothills near Irving, where the lab is located.
Driven nuts by the dog's escape as one of the largest instincts of The Outsider is hatred of the dog, it manages to escape the lab as well. The dog is seen as the favorable product of the experiment, and The Outsider is acutely self-aware and knows it does not belong.

On May 18th, his thirty-sixth birthday, Travis Cornell wakes up extremely early and drives down the coast to the Santa Ana foothills, to revisit his childhood experiences in hiking them. This is the opening of the book. He has lived a life of loss and pain, and has been in depression for the last couple of years. Growing up, he lost his mother in childbirth, and his older brother drowned in an ocean undertow when they went swimming unsupervised. When Travis was a teenager and begged his father to take him to tennis camp, he died in a traffic collision while Travis came out with only a couple of scrapes. Joining the army as a young man and then the 'elite' anti-terrorist group Delta Force, he lost his entire unit on an anti-terrorist mission, with him being the only survivor. Later, running his own real estate firm after doing extremely well in the business, he fell in love with and married his first wife; she died barely a year later due to cancer. Isolated and feeling empty, and lack of purpose, he hikes the foothills to recapture a long-lost youth and innocence.

In a sunny clearing during the hike, the dog appears to him. It's been running for days and seems delighted to run into Travis. However, the dog unusually gets snappy and hostile when Travis attempts to exit the clearing and start down a another, darker trail. It becomes obvious that something dark and viscous is down there; eventually Travis realizes the nature of the dog's sudden personality switches and they both run for it.

Travis takes the dog home with him after he witnesses hints of its human-level intelligence: it responds to Travis's joke that there's a chocolate bar in the truck and finds it; it's unusually assertive and attentive; it seems to understand everything Travis says.

Meanwhile, Nora Devon, an attractive woman of thirty, lives alone and is afraid of the outside world. Being raised by her dominating, reclusive aunt Violet who shunned the world beyond the house, and particularly other people, since she was two, Nora is self-loathing and never leaves the house, even after her aunt as been dead for two years. Instantly afraid of the TV repairman she called, Art Streck, she keeps herself isolated and alone. Unfortunately, Streck comes on to her, and after he fixes the television and leaves, he starts repetitively calling her with erotic fantasies in which he envisions her. Completely inexperienced at confrontation and by nature of her aunt Violet an obedient person, she has no courage in standing up to him.

Another character, Vince Nasco, is a mob assassin who takes huge pleasure in his work and believes that he can absorb the 'life energies' of the people he executes, eventually leading to him becoming immortal. He is contracted by the Soviets to assassinate all of the leading scientists of the Francis Project at Banodyne, but he breaks the rules and decides to interrogate them once he discovers a pattern in the people he's been hired to kill. Realizing the potential having the dog could have, he begins the search for the canine, and the people who have it.

Travis and the dog bond and become closer as it continues to show him its amazing intellect and awareness, and he christens it Einstein. Eventually, Travis takes him to the park, where he meets Nora Devon. Nora, having forced herself to spend the day away from home in a desperate attempt to get to know the outside world and perhaps gather courage to meet other people and be rid of her dead aunt's worries and expectations, has been detained on a park bench by Streck, who reveals he'd been following her and watching her. Streck is the perfect example of aunt Violet's teachings of what men are expected to be like, and Nora has no courage to stand up to him. Einstein spots them and comes barking fiercely at Streck just as he's about to force Nora to leave with him.

This scares Streck away and Nora sees the dog as something of a protector. Travis introduces himself, expresses his concern for the man with her, and she ultimately leaves in shyness.

(Note: I know, I'm getting too descriptive, I'll pick it up).

Finally, Lemuel Johnson is an NSA agent who is the leader in the search for both the dog and The Outsider. He and his partner Cliff Soames track The Outsider with every killing it commits, whether on people or animals; The Outsider has a constant habit of ripping out the eyes of every victim it kills, and they know it's heading north.

Nora returns home and eventually finds Streck lying on her bed, waiting for her. Meanwhile, Travis returns home with the dog, which for some reason starts to get agitated. Eventually Travis figures out that the dog is worried about Nora, and they end up driving to her house, only to find Nora and the man struggling on the floor as she has tried to run away from him. Travis breaks in, Einstein subdues Streck, and the police is called.

Nora and Travis ultimately develop a friendship wherein she begins to experience what life is like on the outside; Travis is genuinely interested in her and takes delight in her often childlike awe at new sights and sounds. Very soon the dog begins to show its intelligence to her, and by June, realizing its self-awareness, they try to learn things about it. Nora transforms from the obedient, reclusive, self-loathing woman she was into a very outgoing, optimistic, patient person with whom Travis falls in love with (likewise Travis leaves his depression and finds new joy in life being with her). Eventually, Nora finds herself trying to tell him she loves him over a game of scrabble, and he proposes marriage.

They teach Einstein to read throughout this time as well, and learn of The Outsider, as well as Einstein's worry that it's coming for them. Travis acknowledges that this might be another likely attempt by fate to wipe out all the people he loves from him, like it did before.

Returning from their honeymoon, Travis is confronted with The Outsider in his house, in which it has killed Travis's landlord and ruined the place, and they manage to escape. They get advice from Nora's lawyer, Garrison Dilworth, who agrees to wire them all of their savings. Knowing that the government is probably going to find out about The Outsider's presence in his house and connect them to the dog, he and Nora change their identities in San Francisco and buy a cabin south of Carmel. With Travis's background knowledge and experience in Delta Force, they prepare the place with defense mechanisms and security measures. Nora becomes pregnant with their first child. Bad times hit as Einstein unfortunately contracts canine distemper, and they both spend over a week at the vet, not leaving the dog's side. (The dog "changed their lives and brought them wonderfully together" in their own words)

As Einstein begins to recover, the vet, Jim Keene, eventually notifies them that he knows Einstein is a lab animal (the NSA had been sending out flyers to every vet/pound/licensing institute with a fake cover story of the dog being vital to cancer research) and they tell him the truth. Einstein recovers, and after Jim sees the dog's extraordinary intelligence, he burns the flyer in ecstasy.

Eventually Vince figures out and successfully tracks Travis and Nora, forcing himself into Nora's pickup as she finishes her appointment with the obstetrician. He forces her to drive back to the house, where he intends to kill them both and take the dog. Unfortunately for Vince, Nora manages to shoot him in a rare moment of inattention, then Travis finishes him off as Vince insanely regards him with humor under the belief that he's now immortal.
Throughout all of that, The Outsider uses the distraction to gain entrance to the second floor of the house. Travis and Nora try to dispatch it, but it grabs Einstein as Travis wildly shoots at it through the walls of the room it disappeared into. It escapes through the window and flees to the barn, where Travis, after pitying it when it amazingly shows mercy for what it did, finishes it off.

Two weeks later, Lem Johnson and his men arrive, but Travis threatens Lem about going to the press and informing him the dog is dead, and they leave. They dig up The Outsider and take it with them.

The story ends several years later, in June of 1991, as the Cornells celebrate their son's third birthday. Einstein actually survived (but has a limp) and has a female partner with whom he's had offspring, all of which are as smart as he is. Nora is pregnant with a baby girl.


For me, I often tend to read the parts in which Travis and Nora's relationship buds. I love reading Nora's transformation from mousy recluse to outgoing, social, happy optimistic. I often wish I were Travis - in the book, he takes to Nora immediately, and helps bring her out into the world. He gives her confidence and lets her grow socially at her own pace. Einstein helps out very much as well; if it weren't for him, Nora would have been raped by Streck, and Travis would have had his eyes ripped out by The Outsider.

The character of Lem Johnson was also interesting as well; I didn't say very much about him above as I wanted to finish my long synopsis, but he's probably the most strained, uptight character in the book. Committed to success, driven to the job at all times, he's ridiculously joyless. He grew up under his father's constant philosophy that a black man has to do twice as much work to equal that of a white man's, which may have been true in those times, but which drove Lem to abhor leisure and have a workaholic lifestyle he cannot escape from. Throughout the novel, he is always stressed out, unlike his colleagues at the NSA. 

I particularly liked reading the bit where Nora's lawyer, Garrison Dilworth, manages to get past Lem and phone the Cornells from an unsecured phone to tell them to break off all contact with him. When Lem realizes Travis might have been coming back from a honeymoon after finding his abandoned pickup truck, he figures out that the woman is Nora Devon (now Cornell) and connects them to Dilworth, their lawyer, who is almost 71. I virtually laugh out loud reading "after his frustrating and unsuccessful questioning of Dilworth..."
To contact Travis and Nora on a phone the NSA isn't monitering, Dilworth actually jumps out of his boat as a friend pilots it, to swim around a breakwater, onto a public beach, and to the payphones there. When Lem figures his strategy out, he manages to hitch a ride with teenagers on the beach who take him to one of their homes where he can use a phone.
Just as Lem is about to question Dilworth's friend on the boat as she pulls back in, Dilworth re-appears behind them before they can say a word, and all Lem does is glare at them before turning away.

Often when I read the book I just read all the sections that have to do with Travis, the dog, and Nora. They really are great parts. It's probably a romance I long for myself, the kind where I meet a girl who's shy or something and kind of introverted, and we love our own company. In fact I sort of had a romance like that - sort of.
The sections on Vince aren't my favorite parts but they aren't awful either. If they were I wouldn't consider the book so great. The guy is very good at what he does, and also very impassive and calm. His fantasies are horrible of course; his aspiration is to kill a pregnant woman, something he longs to do, because in his thinking he'd absorb not only the woman's life energy but the unspoiled, untainted, pure life energy of the unborn child. The man finds anything sexual disgusting - the only clever, informed, normal side I see of that character is of his knowledge and awareness of sexually-transmitted diseases and his disgust of them - although that disgust is so upfront in him that he detests anything sex-related at all. I find it kind of funny that you can get a guy who thinks he's the child of Destiny, yet he's repulsed by the very idea of sex because of the diseases that could kill him. But his interests and hopes and dreams are despicable and horrible, and the idea that his immortality would render him perfectly able to freely conduct acts of child and infant murder to his delight as much as he wants is not something to entertain (and it's thankfully not possible). He clearly goes completely insane at the end, laughing at the Uzi pointed at him by Travis and yelling 'look at me, look! I'm your worst nightmare!' All because he thinks he's immortal.

For the whole part, the novel really is amazing. I just love reading the romance between Nora and Travis, the dog, Garrison Dilworth's efforts (I picture him exactly as Morgan Freeman in voice and visually) and I may have pointed out in a previous post that I envision Nora as looking like someone I'd immediately be attracted to or fall in love with. Her hair color, demeanor, personality, the voice I hear (the same voice as the female vocals of that song I talked about in that post) and the face I see. I guess it's another reason I wish I could be Travis.

Watchers was the very first Dean Koontz book I read and it has a lasting impression on me. It's just a fun adventure with a lot of sweetness and romance on the side, but with the lingering evil and unspeakable acts on the other.

They made a movie out of the novel, but I have absolutely no use for it at all. Whoever wrote the screenplay shouldn't have had the liberty to say 'based on the novel.' It's not based on the novel at all. The only things similar to the novel and the movie is that the lead character's name is Travis, there's a smart dog and an Outsider. "Travis," played by Cory Haim, is instead a teenager, I don't think there's a Nora or if there is, she's "Travis's" girlfriend in the beginning, and Lemuel Johnson is an evil white man. Cliff is black instead, and unsuspecting. There is no Vince; Lem is part-Vince in the movie. It was obviously filmed around Vancouver, I recognize the scenes and scenery, and there's a particular shot filmed on the Capilano Suspension bridge, which I've been on myself.
I do not think Dean Koontz was happy with the movie either; two sequels were made as well, but I never had the interest in watching them.

The book, though, as I will always say, is wonderful, and a great read. Travis and Nora are just amazing. Einstein is fun and full of humor and wisdom as a dog as well. I can only wish that someday I'll meet and fall in love with my own Nora. That's my big aspiration - not killing pregnant women. Or being a workaholic.

Novel: A

I highly recommend this book. Highly.

Justin C.

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