Dean Koontz
Review by Paul Melko

Chyna Shepard is used to being alone. Her mother, involved with one shady character after another, dragged Chyna across the country as a child, emotionally wrecking the girl, placing her in physical and emotional danger from the violent people she stayed with. And now Chyna, a graduate student in psychology, has finally begun to open up to someone for the first time, her college roommate Laura.

The story opens with Laura and Chyna driving to Laura's parent's home to stay the weekend. This is Chyna's first vacation in a long time, and she is tense, nervous at meeting Laura's parents. But all goes well, and she is welcomed graciously into Laura's home. It is a picture of home life that Chyna has never seen.

But that night will be the last peaceful one Laura's family sees, for a killer, calculatingly vicious, is stalking them. Chyna hears a muffled scream in the middle of the night, and only the fact that she is there by chance allows her to live, playing cat and mouse in her friend's home.

This is the start of Chyna's psychological battle with the demonic Vess, a killer who is his own god, who lives for the intensity of any emotion, any pain, any experience. Chyna is forced to protect herself, and also the young Ariel, one of Vess' victims, still alive, but buckling under Vess' physical and psychological assault.

To say the least, this book deserves its title. It's a page-turner, and I read the thing within 24 hours, oddly the same length of time that passes during the novel. Koontz has written a gripping story here.

The story itself, one of struggle between Vess and Chyna, with Ariel as the prize, is primed by the character of Chyna. She is the underdog, repeating her mantra of "Chyna Shepard, alive and well" as she faces one obstacle after another. Chyna is one of the most sympathetically developed characters I've ever read about. She is driven, no super human, both fragile and strong.

Vess is a moderately interesting villain, but paling in comparison to some other villains of the past. His Nietzschian philosophy seems cliched, weak. His machinations appear sometimes clownish. He and his actions are seldom horrifying.

This indeed is no horror novel; it is action/adventure, the story of Chyna's struggle. The supposed horror in this novel, that of imprisonment of innocence, has been done better before, as in John Fowles' "The Collector." Koontz seems to draw directly from this source, and this spoiled the psychological intensity of Ariel's plight.

Nonetheless, this is a gripping read, if expensive for a paperback.

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