Call Dean Koontz 's latest blockbuster an anti-psychological thriller. For much of the past decade, the best-selling suspense novelist has put forth the notion that evil is a conscious choice, not the result of a villain's environment or bad toilet training.
In "False Memory," he takes on psychodynamic therapy and wonders if many of the "cures" it proposes aren't worse than the supposed diseases.
So-called Recovered Memory Therapy has been the basis by which many nonfiction writers have questioned modern talk therapy. The idea that the trauma of abuse is so far buried in one's head that only a psychologist with special training can find it has taken a beating in several criminal cases of late - but only after lives were ruined.
Koontz poses this question: If various well-meaning quacks can alter people's perceptions of their past to such a radical degree, what could an ingenious and evil manipulator do from a therapist's vaunted position of trust?
Martie and Dustin Rhodes seem like a well-adjusted couple. She's a video game designer, he's a housepainting contractor. Each is even the rock of stability in the life of a disturbed friend. Martie does everything she can to support her friend, Susan, a severe agoraphobic, and Dusty is trying to straighten out Skeet, his junkie half-brother.
Every week, Martie takes Susan to see Dr. Mark Ahriman, a famed psychologist and best-selling author of self-help books. When Martie asks the doctor why Susan seems to be getting worse, he assures her that Susan needs to get worse to get better.
But Ahriman is really the cause of Susan's problems. A cunning psychopath, Ahriman uses hypnotic suggestion to make his patients more dependent on him. He plants a verbal trigger in their brains that enables him to immediately put them under his control, while he makes them commit all manner of vile acts.
As a joke to amuse himself, Ahriman uses names from "The Manchurian Candidate" as the triggers.
But then somebody leaves a copy of the book lying around for Dusty, who is already suspicious of the strange goings-on around him and the small gaps in time he is experiencing.
Meanwhile, Martie begins having visions of violence and seeing every household item as a possible weapon. Terrified of herself, she turns to Ahriman, who diagnoses her as having autophobia - a fear of oneself.
Soon, however, she learns it would be prudent to have shrinkaphobia as she and Dusty race to expose Ahriman before he can destroy everything and everyone they love.
Koontz weaves his own hypnotic spell in "False Memory," taking the time to build his story - 185 pages pass before the first act of violence - and fashioning very appealing lead characters.
Combining the themes and atmosphere of his two least science fiction-ish thrillers, "Dark Rivers of the Heart," and "Intensity," "False Memory" combines the deep paranoia of the former with a bad guy worthy of the latter into one of his finest and most gripping efforts.
But "False Memory" is hardly all work and no play. Like the book it openly pays homage to, "The Manchurian Candidate," there is a sly wit at work, as Koontz satirizes his targets - such as when one of Ahriman's pampered patients develops Keanuphobia. That's right, a fear of Keanu Reeves.
Unlike many authors who have become marquee names and, under the pressure of putting out yearly best-sellers, fall into formulaic writing, Koontz continues to experiment, grow and not take his readers for granted.
That's why his fans are so crazy about his addictive thrillers and are unlikely to break the habit anytime soon.