First published back in 1980 under the pseudonym of Owen West, US author Dean Koontz’s novel ‘The Funhouse’ was the first of just two novels to be published under this particular pseudonym (although Koontz has used many other pseudonym’s throughout his lengthy career as an author). The novel was published as a (very loose) novelisation from the Larry Block screenplay for the film ‘The Funhouse’ (1981) which was directed by Tobe Hooper (The Texas Chainsaw Massacre). Due to a prolonged period of production, the film was actually released after that of the novelisation.
It’s the 1950’s and Ellen Teresa Marie Giavenetto, is just a young twenty-year-old woman finding her way in the world. However her strict Catholic upbringing has pushed her away from her family and she impulsively joins a travelling circus. And now she finds herself pregnant with the child of a travelling carnival worker named Conrad Straker. A man she has chosen to marry. A man who has something evil within him.
When their firstborn arrives, Ellen Straker is utterly distraught to find their son, Victor, to be a twisted and what she sees as utterly blasphemous creation. Convinced that their mongoloid child is the work of the devil, in a moment of distraught madness, Ellen kills the baby with her own hands. But Conrad is far from understanding about the murder of his first child. And in learning of Ellen’s horrific act against his firstborn, he takes his powerful fists to her, beating the young woman within an inch of her life. Still not satisfied with his punishment on his murderous wife, he flings her out on to the streets, vowing to return one day and reap a further vengeance on any other children that Ellen may conceive.
Years later and Ellen has started up a new life in Royal City with her second husband Paul Harper. The couple now have two young children, seventeen-year-old Amy Harper and her ten-year-old brother Joey Harper. Her husband, being a workaholic lawyer, finds very little time for his family. Furthermore, and no doubt due to her own strict Catholic upbringing, Ellen has become somewhat of an overbearing and oppressive mother to their two children. So much so that the family has become quite dysfunctional. Home life is a day-to-day misery.
However, when alcoholic Ellen finds out that her teenage daughter Amy is pregnant, she becomes convinced that the unborn child will turn out to be a monster like her firstborn, Victor, was. In a rage, Ellen forces her somewhat promiscuous daughter to undergo an abortion, very much on the quiet. Amy agrees and has the abortion, which pretty much makes her available once again to return to her old practices – this time at the passing carnival.
But Conrad has kept to his word, even after all of these years. His temper has not subsided one bit since that fateful night. In the years since he cast his ex-wife away, the carnival worker remarried, this time to the fortune teller named Madame Zena. Their own son, Gunther, has much of the evil in him that Ellen saw in their first child Victor. But Conrad is more than happy with this. Although he still wishes further vengeance on the woman that killed his firstborn. And so he has set to tracking down the woman’s children. Looking out for telltale signs of their parentage. Searching for the children that will finally allow him to settle the score.
And, lucky for Conrad Straker, the circus is coming town...
Koontz begins his novelisation (however removed from the movie it may be) with a run-of-the-mill typical horror setting, mood and atmosphere that paints a picture of rebellion against a strict upbringing ending in an unplanned pregnancy and the clichéd birth of a severely defected child. Here Koontz takes the bull by the horns somewhat and adds a mildly gritty edge to the flow of the tale, pushing further with the continuation of Ellen’s lifelong downward spiral, with the murder of the child and then on to her subsequent beating and casting out of the travelling circus.
Jumping on to the 1970’s and Koontz sets down a pretty basic dysfunctional family setting, with little in the way of inspired originality or progressive character development. Indeed, this distinct lack of any characterisation, other than a very basic white-wash of the fundamental characteristics, remains a general problem throughout the entirety of the novel. As such it unsurprisingly severely limits any sympathy or connection with the reader, as well as dulling down the impact of any horrific scenes or moments of supposed tragedy.
However cardboard cut-out and neglectfully underdeveloped, Koontz’s characters do still have a small amount of gritty ‘tramp-ish’ charm about them. No one (other than young Joey Harper) is squeaky clean in the novel. They all have their crosses to bear. They all have their personal demons to exorcise. And seeing a novel so awash with modern day sins, taken on board in a pulpishly exaggerated fashion, is somehow quite entertaining (in a weird kind of voyeuristic way).
The results of an overbearingly religious upbringing scenario that we became so acquainted to in the likes of Stephen King’s classic debut ‘Carrie’ (1974) has a strong and pivotal role within the course of the tale. It’s at the very roots of the dysfunctional family. From generation to generation, the force fed religious upbringing has been the prime factor for the misery and resulting rebellion. Although a little overused, this recurring idea still maintains a certain gritty parallel with our own modern-day lives. Indeed we see degrees of it so often in families and friends the world over. And although shown in a real paint-by-numbers fashion here, there does still hold a slight hint of a gritty real-to-life edge in the very backbone of the novel.
Koontz clearly has a fond connection with carnivals and circuses alike. Indeed, he would later go on to revisit the ‘carnie’ ideas in his much more successful novel ‘Twilight Eyes’ (1985). And in a way, the later carnival scenes in ‘The Funhouse’ are some of the more captivating and entertaining parts of the novel. Although generally weak in all aspects of delivery, this ‘travelling circus’ element does pull on certain uncertain chords. It does ignite a small feeling of doubt about the setting and the characters. It does bring on a faint quiver of unease. But not much.
Ending wise, you might as well just give up thirty pages before the novel concludes and write your own. It’s pathetic, unsatisfying and (in the exact same vein as the rest of the novel) downright weak. Yeah, we’ve had some action thrown down in a hopeful attempt at spicing up an otherwise yawn-inducing tale. Clichéd predictability has been knocking at the door for quite some time now, and to cap it all off, Koontz just fumbles about with an unresolving and quite frankly blasé attempt at an ending. But goddammit if it isn’t absolutely befitting of the rest of the tale.
So I didn’t really think much of the novel. And after looking about at other reviews across the internet, thankfully I see that I’m far from alone here. So there must be a god.
The novel runs for a total of 333 pages.
© DLS Reviews