The Dog who Played with Scrabble: Watchers by Dean Koontz

Countless years ago, when she was still editing The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, Kristine Kathryn Rusch wrote a really interesting editorial about her practice of keeping a list of all the books she reads. I don’t know if she still does it, but it inspired me to do the same. It was a habit that meshed especially well with blogging — my first list ended up on the internet in 2002, and I recently moved the entire list to my site, where it is very long but easily searchable.

Keeping said list has taught me many things. One of the big lessons is that there is always one book, each year, that I cannot remember at all. I’ll be browsing the list and I’ll come across a title that doesn’t spark anything. And it’s never the one I expect. (It’s never the one I want to forget, either.)

Which brings me to my second horror reread, Dean Koontz’s Watchers.

I read this book when I was in my teens — I know I did. It was in the house, on my shelves, for years. I remember the cover. So last week when I picked it up, I figured I’d remember the story as soon as I was a few pages in. But no — it was like reading it for the first time. I’d forgotten Travis Cornell and Nora Devon… and there was nary a trace in my memory of Einstein the wonder dog. The only thing that had left the faintest hint of an impression was Einstein’s eye-gouging foster-sibling, the Outsider.

And okay, yes, it was over twenty years ago, but it’s still a little embarrassing. Because other readers, I’ve realized, don’t forget Watchers.

For two weeks, since I embarked on this horror reread, every time I’ve mentioned that I was revisiting the sparkly eighties terrain of Straub, Koontz and King, someone’s asked if I was reading ‘Koontz’s dog book.’ The 2006 edition I picked up from Vancouver Public Library even has an afterword by Koontz which talks about how this is, far and away, the book his fans mention most often of all his works.

People love this book.

Amnesia aside, what did I find? Watchers’ curtain rises on Travis Cornell, former military tough-guy, who’s in a state of profound depression. He’s heading into the Santa Ana mountains to see if he can cheer himself up by shooting a few rattlesnakes. (If only they’d had World of Warcraft then, am I right?) Instead of snake carnage, though, he finds a super-smart golden retriever and a monster. The former helps him evade the latter, and soon enough Travis realizes that his new best friend can understand English.

Meanwhile Nora Devon, who’s been unforgivably sheltered, is having problems with a violent stalker. Einstein saves her, too. Then he introduces her to Travis and immediately gets to suggesting the two of them get married and have them some babies.

If all this sounds more like a rom-com set-up (you can almost see the movie poster, can’t you?) than a horror novel, don’t worry. The Outsider is determined to track down and slaughter Einstein, and he’s a terrifying and persistent monster. Conspicuous too: the National Security Agency is keen to capture them both, and the Outsider is pointing the way by leaving the Feds a bread crumb trail of mangled bodies to follow.

As if having a monster and the government after you wasn’t enough, the cast of bad guys is supplemented by a deranged assassin, Vince, who stumbles onto Einstein’s history by accident and smells a chance to profit by selling him.

There’s a sense in which this book is a first contact novel, a thriller, and a romance, but what Watchers really boils down to is a straightforward and almost innocent-seeming story about the viral nature of good. Einstein’s purity of spirit is so intense and infectious that it pulls Travis from the brink of despair. It draws Nora out of a very thick shell, and moves almost everyone the trio meets to impressive feats of compassion.

There are a few exceptions, of course — Nora’s would-be rapist is beyond redemption, as is Vince the delusional hit man. It wouldn’t be much of a story if everyone was benevolent. And, in a way, the most interesting character turns out to be the Outsider, who is rarely onstage — we see the aftermath of his clashes with civilians and police more often than we see him. When we do, it’s clear he’s more than just a killing machine. He’s a mightily abused, self-loathing killing machine, and if he didn’t want to tear Einstein limb from limb, one might almost pity him.

The narrative in this book employs simple language, giving it the fast pace of an action-adventure film, with big fights, true love, and few big surprises. I probably should have read it before Straub’s Shadowland — the prose really can’t compete, and Koontz’s characters don’t have as many layers.

What also interested me when I read Watchers now was how much the story structure reminded me of Stieg Larsson’s “The Girl Who…” series of novels. One of the frequently-made criticisms of that trilogy is that even though the forces of evil array immense resources against the heroes, much of what the good guys embark on unfolds as intended. Writers generally consider this a plot no-no, of course, because it tends to leech out the suspense.

Be that as it may, in the Lisbeth Salander novels, the journalists of Millennium Magazine and Salander herself seem to quietly pull together whatever they need to definitively crush their opposition. In Watchers, Travis, Nora and Einstein tend to charm their way out of most jams through virtue and simple force of personality.

For a reader, this may be the literary equivalent of being ringside at the David/Goliath fight. Sure, David may be scared, but from the audience point of view all you can do is turn to the guy sitting next to you and say: “Really? He just let fly with that one teeny stone… and… seriously, it’s over?

This is not to say I didn’t thoroughly enjoy seeing Einstein break through Travis and Nora’s respective emotional walls, and I’m a sucker for first contact tales. Watchers is a fast, pleasing read and for a horror novel especially it’s quite upbeat, a genuine antidote if you’re feeling glum.

As for how I forgot about reading it the first time, my excuse will have to be that I’m just that much of a cat person.


A.M. Dellamonica has a short story up here on Tor.com — an urban fantasy about a baby werewolf, “The Cage” which made the Locus Recommended Reading List for 2010.

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