By curious coincidence, I finished Dean Koontz’s ‘The Eyes of Darkness’ on the day it was announced that vast swathes of south-eastern England would be placed under “high” alert for risk of Coronavirus infection, which means tough restrictions on moving around and socialising.
The reason I mention the Koontz novel in the context of the Coronavirus is that it’s become one of the more popular must-read books for this dystopian time, in which a global pandemic rages for which there is no cure nor vaccine.
In fact, try as I might, it was hard to get my hands on a copy of the Koontz book from the local library. All that I eventually managed was a waitlisted booking for an electronic copy and it took three months to finally secure that too. I read it on Overdrive, the digital book provider, which is not as good as a Kindle. Overdrive supplies an ebook to be read on a laptop or phone browser, a more painful process than holding a Kindle, which is somewhat like a paper book.
Anyway, I did it, finishing ‘The Eyes of Darkness’ in a couple of days. This is not a book review, so I will simply say one word about whether or not you should make any attempt to read Mr Koontz’s rather strange story about a shadowy wing of the US government holding a young boy captive because he is the only human being to have survived a manmade killer virus: Don’t.
It’s not worth it. It’s not particularly well-written and can best be described as a more trashy sort of airport thriller. In fact, in his afterword, the novelist himself ruefully acknowledges ‘The Eyes of Darkness’ as one of “my early attempts to write a cross-genre novel mixing action, suspense, romance, and a touch of the paranormal”. He also admits that “it doesn’t have the intensity, depth of characterization, complexity of theme, or pace of later novels…” You have been warned.
But what drove me to make assiduous attempts to read the Koontz novel was its sudden popularity after the global pandemic was declared.
In the early months of the Coronavirus outbreak social media was rife with rumours that Mr Koontz had predicted the pandemic back in 1981. It was said that the novel mentioned a virus, Wuhan-400 and quoted from Chapter 39, the penultimate chapter: “They call the stuff ‘Wuhan-400’ because it was developed at their RDNA labs outside of the city of Wuhan… It was the four-hundredth viable strain of man-made microorganisms created at that research center”. The novel’s description of Wuhan-400 as “China’s most important and dangerous new biological weapon in a decade” is also frequently quoted.
So, does ‘The Eyes of Darkness’ belong in the category of pandemic fiction?
First, it’s not about a pandemic. Wuhan-400 appears only in the closing pages of the novel and that too as a weapon of biological warfare that has fallen into American hands by means of a defecting Chinese scientist.
Second, the novel really wasn’t about alleged Chinese dirty tricks with a virus, the favourite schtick of Donald Trump and some social media users. The first edition of ‘The Eyes of Darkness’ (1981), published under Mr Koontz’s pseudonym Leigh Nichols, named the fictional virus Gorki-400, after a Russian city. According to the South China Morning Post, the virus was renamed when the novel was re-released in 1989, toward the end of the Cold War.
Third, as Reuters has also said, the symptoms and behaviour of Mr Koontz’s Wuhan-400 are very different to Covid-19. His novel gives the virus an incubation period of “only four hours” and the disease it causes has a 100 per cent kill-rate: “Once infected, no one lives more than twenty-four hours. Most die in twelve”, the novel says. We know that’s not true for the Coronavirus.
The fictional virus also causes symptoms markedly different to Covid-19. Wuhan-400 (or Gorki, as it was originally named) causes the secretion of a “toxin that literally eats away brain tissue” causing loss of control of bodily function. “The victim simply ceases to have a pulse, functioning organs, or any urge to breathe”, the novel says. But Covid-19 has quite different effects. It causes fever, coughing, shortness of breath and breathing difficulties. Mild cases mean cold-like symptoms; severe cases can cause pneumonia, severe acute respiratory illness, kidney failure and death.
The novel describes a Wuhan-400 infection as “infinitely worse” than Ebola but we now know the Coronavirus is a great deal less fatal.
Finally, the novel says the virus was created in a lab, something that is alleged about the Coronavirus too by people on the darkest fringes of the internet. But there is no proof of that and I’m loathe to believe that anyone on the planet would really be so inhuman as to do such a thing.
All in all, ‘The Eyes of Darkness’ is not pandemic fiction, not about the Coronavirus and more importantly, not a particularly good read.