Published in paperback by Fawcett in 1976, NIGHT CHILLS is one of Koontz's earliest novels and perhaps one of its best. It can be somewhat difficult reading at times. The first few chapters bounce back and forth in time like a Tarantino movie, and although Koontz clearly delineates the date in which the chapter takes place, it can still be tough to keep up. Also, some of the violence is terribly shocking. A boy is brutally murdered, and a main heavy commits several rapes. I wouldn't describe the rapes as overly violent or brutal in the conventional sense of the words, but the perpetrator's motivations and method of rape give the acts an appalling sleaze factor that actually works in the story's favor. Rapists don't have to be depicted as drooling madmen, as they usually are in popular fiction. The way Koontz does it in NIGHT CHILLS is infinitely more chilling.
Wealthy Leonard Dawson, influential General Klinger, and scientist Ogden Salsbury concoct a truly sinister plot to take over the world using subliminal hypnosis. Koontz provides a lengthy reference list of technical articles and studies that supposedly back up his seemingly outrageous plot, giving it more plausibility and, hence, making it scarier. By drugging America's water supply, Salsbury believes he can turn anyone who drinks it into his puppet, who will do anything he asks them to, including murder and suicide. As the ultimate test of his experiment, he transforms a small Maine town, Black River, population 400, into his zombies.
Everyone lives their normal lives until Salsbury approaches them with the key, which is literally the phrase, "I am the key." Hearing this instantly puts whoever hears it into a trance, answering, "I am the lock." Salsbury maintains total control over his subject at this point. Only a handful of folks in Black River are immune to Salsbury's drug, including widower Paul Annendale, his daughter, and his son, as well as Sam, the friendly general store proprietor, and his daughter Jenny, whom Paul is courting. Koontz spends the first half of the book building the various relationships, giving us a bird's-eye view of the town and his residents, and explaining the complicated plot machinations that really kick in during the second half.
NIGHT CHILLS has no ghosts or monsters or slashers, but is one fucking frightening book, mainly because of its sense that everything that occurs could possibly happen in real life. Ogden Salsbury, a pudgy middle-aged man, is a true monster, and though Koontz attempts to somewhat soften the character by giving him an abusive childhood, there's no punishment he could receive that would make you feel as though he got what he truly deserved. Same goes for Klinger and Dawson, really, but Salsbury, who created the experiment, is the biggest heavy.
I'm truly stunned that no Hollywood studio has made a movie out of NIGHT CHILLS. I know a few Koontz adaptations were getting made for awhile, probably by companies that couldn't land the rights to any Stephen King properties, but NIGHT CHILLS wasn't one of them (PHANTOMS was a major bomb made from a Koontz novel). In the hands of an accomplished thriller director like Gregory Hoblit or maybe even Chris Carter, NIGHT CHILLS could really be something special, even though it reads like a typically '70s paranoia thriller. Alan J. Pakula would have been perfect for it.