Rating: 3 stars out of 4
Not until I was well into this book did I realise it’s a novelisation, because that isn’t advertised anywhere on the book’s cover, nor do I suspect it’s mentioned before the author’s afterword. (It was originally published under one of Koontz’s many pseudonyms, Owen West.) Once, I would have resisted reading a novelisation. In my snobbery I assumed that the genre isn’t “real” writing, that it’s just synopses of screenplays knocked out by hack journalists for quick cash.
The novelisation that changed my mind was Halloween II by Dennis Etchison, an actual name in the horror genre and author in his own right. His Halloween II wasn’t just a cracking yarn – drenched in atmosphere and haunted Gothic images, with plentiful use of colour and perspective to create setting – it was actually better than the film it adapted. (John Carpenter’s Halloween II was a weak, flickering shadow of its predecessor, trading that film’s suspense for cheap gore set-pieces, and reducing the heroine, Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis), to a passive mute.)
Likewise, Dean Koontz’s The Funhouse is better than the 1981 Tobe Hooper (The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Poltergeist) film whose screenplay inspired it. The Funhouse isn’t a bad film. It even received a good review from the late critic Gene Siskel, of Siskel & Ebert & the Movies fame, a man who in the 80s hated slasher films so much he encouraged fans to send Betsy Palmer (Mrs Voorhees in Friday the 13th) letters questioning her choice of role, and with co-critic Roger Ebert hosted a “Women in Danger” special decrying a lot of the then-new slashers as misogynistic, and even anti-feminist. (To be fair to him, the few slashers he recommended, including the one that started the genre, Halloween, had in common their lack of leering at young women who are then brutalised.)
Tobe Hooper’s The Funhouse, however, is a very basic stalk’n’slash tale. Its best scene is its first, which quotes, borrows, and cobbles together various shots, ideas, and soundtrack snippets from classic horror films to create a humorous, affectionate tribute to the genre. If you watch the film (I watched it for free online) see if you can spot all the references. The rest of the film is fun in the same way an actual funhouse (or ghost train) is: things pop out of the dark, there’s some decent Fangoria-friendly images and special effects, and it’s all tied together with the loosest of narratives.
Dean Koontz takes this straightforward material and weaves a compelling story of revenge and religious fanaticism around it. Koontz is often considered a poor man’s Stephen King, perhaps because he didn’t become famous as rapidly as King did after Carrie, King’s début, and still isn’t quite the household name King is. This, however, is grossly unfair. Koontz is just as capable and talented as King, and probably has a similar good-to-bad, book-by-book batting average. The Funhouse is a credit to its genre because it’s a proper novel, containing rich characterisations and spiritual themes.
Koontz, a Catholic, uses the religion (not once even alluded to in the film) to discuss fate and moral responsibility. The long prologue is set in a carnival trailer, where a young mother debates if God will forgive her for killing her child, a strange, Satanic thing screeching in its crib not several feet away. This prologue is a story in itself, asking you to question the reality and coherence of a God who’ll let such a child into the world, and whether His dogmas are relevant. The woman’s own mother was a religious fanatic who tormented her child with images of Hell that would make Hieronymus Bosch proud. Is she destined for the place Bosch’s paintings described, where demons tear your living corpse apart for all time, or is killing the dark child a Christian duty?
After the prologue we meet our heroine, Amy Harper. In the film, played by Elizabeth Berridge, she was a pale and somewhat listless virgin. In the book, we meet her in her boyfriend’s car, where she’s trying to cajole him into paying for an abortion behind her staunchly Catholic mother’s back. She can’t access her own money because her mother controls it, but while her boyfriend wants the abortion, he doesn’t want to pay for it or even take her to the clinic.
The way Koontz handles this is compelling and suspenseful, especially when we meet Amy’s mother, a haunted drunk who’s described as using religion as a crutch, and drink as another. She’s an austere and hard to like presence, who dominates her husband and terrifies her young son, Joey. In the film these three characters – husband, wife, and son – were afterthoughts, especially the parents. The mother is shown drinking once, a shot Koontz probably took and ran with, needing to add personalities where none existed in the screenplay.
Joey in the film is a classic-horror fan and prankster. Koontz expands on this, and the relationship he develops between Amy and Joey, much more maternal than that between Mrs Harper and Joey (or Mrs Harper and Amy for that matter), is deeply touching. In the film Amy and Joey are antagonistic to each other, Amy responding to her brother’s pranks with threats. In the book they’re playmates who rely on each other for the emotional needs their parents don’t satisfy.
Amy also relies on her best friend, Liz. Liz is one of Koontz’s master-strokes. The film vaguely implies she’s looser and more sexually available than Amy. The book paints her as a libertine who loves sex and is loyal to Amy (in her way). In Koontz’s Catholic worldview, she represents one extreme, opposite to that which Amy’s mother represents. Where Mrs Harper is cold and repressed, Liz is so cheerfully amoral she’d have made Woodstock blush.
Though the book’s worldview is Catholic, it isn’t in any sense dogmatic, and openly questions what things are truly sinful, and why. Is abortion really a mortal sin, when a full term could destroy or even threaten the mother’s life? Are deformed children really punishments from God? Or could they be gifts from Satan? The various threads of the story presented by Amy, Joey, and Mrs Harper meet at the titular funhouse, operated by Conrad Straker, a handsome and charming carny with a deep, dark secret. When Straker’s carnival leaves town, a murder often happens to have taken place nearby…
Koontz’s novel is a terrific rattle-and-screamer, brimming with love, magic, terror, violence, and fear. There’s gore (more than there is in the film, which is oddly discreet for a slasher), some of it nasty and gripping, and an exploration of what forces in the universe guide which events. The Funhouse is, ultimately, an uplifting good-versus-evil tale, where fallen men and women are brought to either grace or damnation by the paths they choose.