The specter of mental illness is frightening enough on its own. In the hands of the master of suspense, Dean Koontz, it's both epidemic and horrifying. Never has the saying "There is nothing to fear but fear itself" been more true. And never has fear been so, well, frightening.
In False Memory, a bone-chilling tale of fantasies, phobias, and false memories, Koontz has crafted yet another masterpiece of subtle terror, an all-too-plausible tale with the most powerful and devious of enemies -- one's own mind.
Martie Rhodes is married to a man she adores and has a successful career as a video-game designer and a life many would envy. But there are a few hitches. Once a week, Martie escorts her best friend, Susan, to a psychiatrist's office, where Susan receives treatment for the severe case of agoraphobia that suddenly took over her life 18 months before. And Martie's husband, Dusty, has a younger brother who is sweet, naive, and addicted to drugs.
Still, Martie's life is relatively stable until the morning she awakens with a sudden and inexplicable fear of her own. It is a fear unlike any she has ever encountered or even considered. It is a fear she may not be able to control. It is a fear of the one thing she should be able to master but can't. It is a fear of herself.
It begins innocently enough with a sense of disquiet that Martie experiences while walking the dog, an odd feeling of fright when she sees her own shadow. But things quickly escalate, and within hours, horrifying images fill Martie's mind, images of blood and violence committed by her own hands, committed against herself and the one person she loves most: her husband, Dusty.
Martie soon learns that her condition has a name: autophobia. When she shares her fears with her husband, Dusty finds himself torn. On the one hand he is desperate to be there for Martie, to learn the cause of her mental condition and try to find a way to fight it. On the other hand there is his brother, Skeet, whose recent backslide has led to a suicide attempt -- a harrowing scene that nearly costs Dusty his life as well.
It's while caring for his poor, drug-addled brother that Dusty accidentally stumbles upon a quirk, a quirk that suggests Skeet's problems may not all be of his own making. When Dusty discovers that the same quirk may be behind Martie's mental illness, he is thrown into a nightmare of astonishing proportions. To save those he loves, Dusty must confront a monster whose power over him, Skeet, and Martie is unthinkable, a monster who has already destroyed dozens of lives and thinks nothing of racking up a few more.
Koontz has tapped into the most fertile and terrifying source possible for psychological suspense -- the human mind. As the filter that defines all we see, all we experience, and all we are, it is what makes us most vulnerable to both harm and evil. But its capacity for love combined with the will to survive can also be a formidable weapon. The fear of madness lurks within us all. Leave it to the master of suspense to capitalize on that fear and turn it into yet another deliciously chilling and haunting tale.
Read an Excerpt
On that Tuesday in January, when her life changed forever, Martine Rhodes woke with a headache, developed a sour stomach after washing down two aspirin with grapefruit juice, guaranteed herself an epic bad-hair day by mistakenly using Dustin's shampoo instead of her own, broke a fingernail, burnt her toast, discovered ants swarming through the cabinet under the kitchen sink, eradicated the pests by firing a spray can of insecticide as ferociously as Sigourney Weaver wielded a flamethrower in one of those old extraterrestrial-bug movies, cleaned up the resultant carnage with paper towels, hummed Bach's Requiem as she solemnly consigned the tiny bodies to the trash can, and took a telephone call from her mother, Sabrina, who still prayed for the collapse of Martie's marriage three years after the wedding. Throughout, she remained upbeat--even enthusiastic--about the day ahead, because from her late father, Robert "Smilin' Bob" Woodhouse, she had inherited an optimistic nature, formidable coping skills, and a deep love of life in addition to blue eyes, ink-black hair, and ugly toes.
After convincing her ever hopeful mother that the Rhodes marriage remained happy, Martie slipped into a leather jacket and took her golden retriever, Valet, on his morning walk. Step by step, her headache faded.
Along the whetstone of clear eastern sky, the sun sharpened scalpels of light. Out of the west, however, a cool onshore breeze pushed malignant masses of dark clouds.
The dog regarded the heavens with concern, sniffed the air warily, and pricked his pendant ears at the hiss-clatter of palm fronds stirred by the wind. Clearly, Valet knew a storm was coming.
He was a gentle, playful dog. Loud noises frightened him, however, as though he had been a soldier in a former life and was haunted by memories of battlefields blasted by cannon fire.
Fortunately for him, rotten weather in southern California was seldom accompanied by thunder. Usually, rain fell unannounced, hissing on the streets, whispering through the foliage, and these were sounds that even Valet found soothing.
Most mornings, Martie walked the dog for an hour, along the narrow tree-lined streets of Corona Del Mar, but she had a special obligation every Tuesday and Thursday that limited their excursion to fifteen minutes on those days. Valet seemed to have a calendar in his furry head, because on their Tuesday and Thursday expeditions, he never dawdled, finishing his toilet close to home.
This morning, only one block from their house, on the grassy sward between the sidewalk and the curb, the pooch looked around shyly, discreetly lifted his right leg, and as usual made water as though embarrassed by the lack of privacy.
Less than a block farther, he was preparing to conclude the second half of his morning business when a passing garbage truck backfired, startling him. He huddled behind a queen palm, peering cautiously around one side of the tree bole and then around the other, convinced that the terrifying vehicle would reappear.
"No problem," Martie assured him. "The big bad truck is gone. Everything's fine. This is now a safe-to-poop zone."
Valet was unconvinced. He remained wary.
Martie was blessed with Smilin' Bob's patience, too, especially when dealing with Valet, whom she loved almost as much as she might have loved a child if she'd had one. He was sweet-tempered and beautiful: light gold, with gold-and-white feathering on his legs, soft snow-white flags on his butt, and a lush tail.
Of course, when the dog was in a doing-business squat, like now, Martie never looked at him, because he was as self-conscious as a nun in a topless bar. While waiting, she softly sang Jim Croce's "Time in a Bottle," which always relaxed him.
As she began the second verse, a sudden chill climbed the ladder of her spine, causing her to fall silent. She was not a woman given to premonitions, but as the icy quiver ascended to the back of her neck, she was overcome by a sense of impending danger.
Turning, she half expected to see an approaching assailant or a hurtling car. Instead, she was alone on this quiet residential street.
Nothing rushed toward her with lethal purpose. The only moving things were those harried by the wind. Trees and shrubs shivered. A few crisp brown leaves skittered along the pavement. Garlands of tinsel and Christmas lights, from the recent holiday, rustled and rattled under the eaves of a nearby house.
Still uneasy, but feeling foolish, Martie let out the breath that she'd been holding. When the exhalation whistled between her teeth, she realized that her jaws were clenched.
She was probably still spooked from the dream that awakened her after midnight, the same one she'd had on a few other recent nights. The man made of dead, rotting leaves, a nightmare figure. Whirling, raging.
Then her gaze dropped to her elongated shadow, which stretched across the close-cropped grass, draped the curb, and folded onto the cracked concrete pavement. Inexplicably, her uneasiness swelled into alarm.
She took one step backward, then a second, and of course her shadow moved with her. Only as she retreated a third step did she realize that this very silhouette was what frightened her.
Ridiculous. More absurd than her dream. Yet something in her shadow was not right: a jagged distortion, a menacing quality.
Her heart knocked as hard as a fist on a door.
In the severe angle of the morning sun, the houses and trees cast distorted images, too, but she saw nothing fearsome in their stretched and buckled shadows--only in her own.
She recognized the absurdity of her fear, but this awareness did not diminish her anxiety. Terror courted her, and she stood hand in hand with panic.
The shadow seemed to throb with the thick slow beat of its own heart. Staring at it, she was overcome with dread.
Martie closed her eyes and tried to get control of herself.
For a moment, she felt so light that the wind seemed strong enough to sweep her up and carry her inland with the relentlessly advancing clouds, toward the steadily shrinking band of cold blue sky. As she drew a series of deep breaths, however, weight gradually returned to her.
When she dared to look again at her shadow, she no longer sensed anything unusual about it. She let out a sigh of relief.
Her heart continued to pound, powered not by irrational terror anymore, but by an understandable concern as to the cause of this peculiar episode. She'd never previously experienced such a thing.
Head cocked quizzically, Valet was staring at her.
She had dropped his leash.
Her hands were damp with sweat. She blotted her palms on her blue jeans.
When she realized that the dog had finished his toilet, Martie slipped her right hand into a plastic pet-cleanup bag, using it as a glove. Being a good neighbor, she neatly collected Valet's gift, turned the bright blue bag inside out, twisted it shut, and tied a double knot in the neck.
The retriever watched her sheepishly.
"If you ever doubt my love, baby boy," Martie said, "remember I do this every day."
Valet looked grateful. Or perhaps only relieved.
Performance of this familiar, humble task restored her mental balance. The little blue bag and its warm contents anchored her to reality. The weird incident remained troubling, intriguing, but it no longer frightened her.
From the Hardcover edition.