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Media Review : Books

Cold Fire by Dean R. Koontz
Publisher: Putnam January 1991
Pap Ed: Berkley July 1996
ISBN 0425130711


The Nitty Gritty:


Jim Ironheart, the noble and (as per usual) blissfully ignorant hero, a self-appointed vigilante with some sort of power to foretell unfortunate accidents.  Having at least an awareness of his unusual abilities, we are told he buckets about the country randomly in response to his visions of disaster, saving dear old ladies from train crashes before they happen and the like.
The Friend, a suspiciously ISH-ian fellow who presents himself as a formless alien upon a mission to 'help mankind,' and doles out plodding doses of New Age pablum in between his prophecies.
The Enemy, brandishing his affirmative-action card of Token Killer. Also manifesting as a formless force, he's evil, and possessed of all the depth of a puddle.


A few weeks ago, we ran across a used copy of a book which a few people in here recalled as ostensibly dealing with the subject of plurality. Being apparently, by common consensus, the literary critic of our collective, I was commissioned to take a few whacks at it (metaphorically, though I would gladly have extended the whacking to literal had we not been in the middle of a public store at the time). "Cold Fire" is, I am told, better than the majority of popular literature featuring plurals, which is not saying much.

Dean Koontz is one of those authors whose literary works frequent the best-seller lists in spite of having leaden plotting and prose as dull as dishwater.  "Cold Fire" was published in 1991, during those dark days when there were giants in the earth and multiples terrorized the lands with their mighty hordes of flying toasters.  It becomes rather evident later in the book that Koontz and his editors have expended little energy on research-- he refers at least once to 'multiple personality syndrome'-- although, given the time-frame of the book's publication, the reader should perhaps count himself grateful for that omission. Though toasters fly left and right, the audience is at least spared the maudlin, saccharine sentimentalising praise of 'highly creative survival techniques,' and of cookie-cutter traumatic pasts as per the notion of a singular 'recipe' for multiplicity.

But on to the plot, what there is of it.  The grand revelation of the story, after Ironheart and his unfortunately-named lover Holly Thorne have been warned of The Enemy's evil machinations, courtesy of the Friend, is that both the Friend and the Enemy are 'creations' of Jim's mind-- but being possessed of psychic abilities, Jim has unknowingly given them physical forms.  (Someone put me in touch with this fellow so he can give me my own body.)  Fair enough-- now they can all get to know each other, and perhaps the Enemy can take up ikebana or something and be less of a bother.

Koontz won't allow this, however; instead he insists first on dragging the reader through a starkly unsuspenseful discovery of Jim's past.  We learn that young Jim could make things float with the power of his mind, and his parents wanted to put him in a circus or something of the sort, if I recall correctly.  As is drearily standard for this sort of book, the Friend and the Enemy were not, of course, born with Jim, nor simply came to be as a result of the natural course of things.  No, we learn that when Jim was little he saw his parents shot to death in a fast-food restaraunt by some randomly mad fellow, which I will grant is a smidge more creative than baby-eating Satanists, but not by far.

So far as I am concerned, the chief tragedy of "Cold Fire" has nothing to do with the traumas of the protagonist's past, but rather that Koontz, intentionally or no, is at one point in possession of a genuinely inventive plot twist, and thoroughly squanders the chance to do anything remotely original with it.  The Friend and the Enemy, as it comes to pass, are revealed to be not strictly Jim's original creations, but rather characters from a science-fiction book he read as a child. -Ah!- Introjects, soulbonding-- whatever you prefer to call it! Far from mere 'voices in the head', they are realized people (though lacking in depth, they are not much more strikingly so than the other characters in the book) capable of independent thought and action.  Can you use this to say something, Mr. Koontz? Perhaps even draw some conclusion, in your unsubtle way, regarding the indistinction of the line between fiction and reality?

No.  No, he does not.

The characters of the book self-righteously echo a singular conclusion: Jim's creation of the Friend and the Enemy was a 'retreat into fantasy,' engendered by the fact that he couldn't cope with reality.  Having remembered that they were originally characters in a book, and ergo intrinsically 'fantasies,' Jim is mystically healed, remembers his entire past, and the Friend and the Enemy fly off to Never-Never Land or something (well, it's frankly a more plausible explanation than the author's insinuation that they spontaneously ceased to exist).  Quite a 'fiction,' wouldn't you say, considering that his 'fantasies' were capable of -taking physical form and killing people?- Yet instead of whacking Jim soundly upside the head with a toaster for dismissing them so, they simply vanish when proclaimed to be fictional.  If only it were so easy in reality.  I am also tempted to say that, having penned a novel in which psychics, monsters and aliens fly about with wild abandon, Koontz is not in the best of positions to be scolding his
characters for indulging in fantasy.

Final Result:

Whilst it's worth a few good laughs over the heavy-handed style, and earns a scarce few residual points from me based solely upon the fact that Koontz does not burden the reader with psychiatric gumbo and weepy survivor-tales, "Cold Fire" does nothing whatsoever for the public image of plurals-- especially those whose systems happen to include characters of 'fiction.'