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Literature / Phantoms

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Phantoms is a 1983 horror novel by American author Dean Koontz. It takes place in the small Californian mountain town of Snowfield, where doctor Jennifer Paige is taking her younger sister Lisa to live after their mother died of an embolism. It's a picturesque little place, but it doesn't take the sisters long to notice that something's missing—all the people, for starters. They find a few corpses, but most of the town's inhabitants seem to have vanished without a trace. Many of the few bodies they do find obviously died completely terrified, though just how they died isn't immediately evident.

All the phones are down, but eventually they manage to make a call to the Santa Mira sheriff’s office, which sends up a small group of police officers, who in turn summon an army platoon to investigate the possibility of some kind of chemical warfare. What they find is much worse—an ancient creature that can shape shift into whatever it wants, which has come up to the surface of the Earth to feed and which, thanks to its ability to absorb the thoughts of its victims, believes itself to be the devil. If they can’t find a way to kill it, they’re all going to be lunch sooner or later….


In 1998 it was made into a film starring Peter O'Toole, Rose McGowan, and Ben Affleck.note 

Phantoms contains examples of:

  • Adaptation Name Change: For some reason, Jenny and Lisa's surname is Pailey in the film, and General Galen Copperfield's first name is now Leland.
  • Animalistic Abomination: The monster can choose any shape to hunt down its victims. A giant moth is one of them.
  • Age Lift: Lisa is 14 in the novel. She appears to be at least 17 or 18 in the movie adaptation.
  • Anyone Can Die: Demonstrated with Jake Johnson. He's given a backstory, explaining why he's a deputy and his pragmatic cowardice, making the reader think he'll be a major character. He's dead (or as good as) before the end of the next page, showing that even developed character are not safe.
  • Armies Are Useless: Played with. The actual soldiers of the Army unit sent into Snowfield are no match for the Ancient Enemy, but the scientists and equipment they bring with them prove vital in finding the Enemy's weakness.
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  • Artistic License – Biology: Oh so much, but see Rule of Scary. The book tries to avert this with Biosan (the biological weapon used to kill the monster), which is based on a Real Life organism made by Ananda Chakrabarty to dissolve oil spills (even then, the artistic license is in how effective it is, but the organism as a whole is still pretty close to reality).
  • Artistic License – History: Quite a few of the "unsolved mass disappearances" mentioned in the book have concrete or at least widely accepted explanations today, and some actually never even happened. They are all at least real myths, but the author's afterword asserts that all of them actually happened and remain unresolved.
  • Asshole Victim: Stu Wargle.
  • Back from the Dead: Stu Wargle, Copperfield (in the film adaptation), and anybody else The Ancient Enemy wants to use to demoralize or terrorize the protagonists with.
  • Beethoven Was an Alien Spy: The Ancient Enemy is apparently responsible for all sorts of real-world historical mass disappearances (including the Roanoke Lost Colony and the Mayans), and is the direct cause of many satanic/demonic mythoi, such as the Greek god Proteus.
  • Being Watched
    • While Jenny and Lisa are exploring the Santini's house, Jenny constantly has the feeling that they're being watched.
    • While Sheriff Bryce Hammond is going through a dark passageway, he experiences a tingle along his spine and feels that he's under the observation of unfriendly eyes.
  • Believing Their Own Lies: By the time of the novel, the Ancient Enemy seems to have convinced itself that it really is The Devil - i.e., an eternal supernatural entity, rather than a biological creature that can at least theoretically die. It naturally comes as quite a shock when it finds itself doing just that.
  • Big Bad: The Ancient Enemy.
  • Big Creepy-Crawlies: A giant moth flies in through the window, latches onto a guy, siphons out his brain, and eats his face. All in a matter of seconds. So, next time that Lunesta moth taps at your window, don't let it in. For the love of god.
  • Catchphrase: "Hey, wanna see something?" - Stu Wargle in The Movie.
  • Collector of Forms: The Ancient Enemy is capable of reshaping its liquid body into just about anything that it's devoured over the course of its lifespan, unwittingly indicating that it's been alive for millions of years when it manifests as a giant Carboniferous moth. However, it also absorbs the memories of its victims, so it can actually take on shapes that exist entirely within the human imagination - hence the winged serpent that menaces the team at one point.
  • Combat Tentacles: The Ancient Enemy uses one, coated with acid, to decapitate someone.
  • Composite Character: Several in the movie:
    • Deputy Steve Shanning is a combination of several of the deputies who accompany Bruce to Snowfield in the novel, chiefly Tal (he's Bryce's second in command), Frank (he has a mustache and his being ex-FBI mirrors Frank being former US Army) and Jake Johnson (he dies first).
    • Wilson and Hawthorne, the two FBI agents who come, to get Flyte in New York fulfill the dual roles of Flyte's publicist Burt Sandler (he's the one who fetches Flyte in the book) and have some traits of Isley and Arkham from the novel, although they survive the movie by not remaining in Snowfield.
    • Leland Copperfield. In addition to obviously being the movie's version of the novel's General Galen Copperfield, he like Wilson and Hawthorne has some traits of Burt Sandler, particularly in the scene where Flyte is giving him the skinny on the Ancient Enemy during the hectic drive to Snowfield in the thunderstorm.
  • Cruel and Unusual Death: Pretty much everyone who dies.
  • Curiosity Killed the Cast: Most of the early kills happen because someone heard or saw something and went to investigate. Invoked by the Ancient Enemy, because it's a dick.
  • Darker and Edgier: The novel is far more gory than the film adaptation.
  • Darkness Equals Death: The town is very, very dark and there is an Eldritch Abomination roaming the streets. Most of the kills happens in the shadows as a result.
  • Dead Star Walking: Averted. Anyone who read the novel will be expecting top billed Peter O'Toole to bite the dust in the final battle with the creature in the film, but even though he's Too Cool to Live, the film allows the character to survive.
  • Devil Complex: The "Ancient Enemy" (a living mass of primordial protoplasm that has eaten entire towns throughout history) definitely falls under a broad definition of "Eldritch Abomination" but it believes itself to be the actual Biblical Devil because so many of the populations of towns of people it has absorbed obviously thought it was something unholy as their final thoughts. The result is a tremendous arrogance that eventually brings its downfall.
  • Dirty Coward: Jake Johnson panics when the lights go out and tries to run away, which leads to him being devoured by the Ancient Enemy.
  • Disappeared Dad: In the book, Jenny and Lisa's father is dead, hence why Lisa goes to live with Jenny after the death of their mother. No mention is made of him in the film.
  • Dragon Their Feet/Post-Climax Confrontation: The Ancient Enemy's "disciples" Fletcher Kale and Gene Terr show up at the hospital and try to kill the protagonists while they're recovering from their successful final battle with the entity. This happens because the creature used its dying moments to command them to kill the protagonists as a last act of revenge.
  • Dwindling Party: Subverted. Of the main billed cast, only the Steve Shanning and Stu Wargle characters die.
  • Eat Brain for Memories: A gigantic protoplasmic monster consumes human beings and absorbs their memories from their brains.
  • Eldritch Abomination: The Ancient Enemy, made all the more creepy from the seemingly plausible explanation for its existence and biology.
  • Everybody's Dead, Dave: Literally. Everyone.
  • Evil Has a Bad Sense of Humor: The Ancient Enemy's idea of being funny is playing childish, petulantly cruel sleights of hand against its victims, such as posing dead bodies in ways designed to elicit spiritual horror, such as nailing the priest to the cross, or by switching things around in rooms that the protagonists have already through, like depositing Harold Ordnay's hand in the hotel lobby for the group to find when they come back through. That and making obscene phone calls. It finds those hilarious.
  • Evil Phone: The Ancient Enemy likes doing this.
  • Expy: The Ancient Enemy is a shape-shifting, sewer-dwelling, trash-talking Eldritch Abomination, not unlike a certain iconic Stephen King villain.
  • Food Porn: The meal Flyte orders during his talk with Sandler. He spends a good chunk of the chapter just ordering the food. He orders two bottles of Mumm's Extra Dry (he was originally only getting one but gets a second for Sandler), caviar, two kinds of fresh fruit, buttery, flaky croissants, toast, two "rather soft" eggs, "a rasher" of bacon, pork sausages ("Of the highest quality"), potatoes and "an assortment" of pastries.
  • For the Evulz: The Ancient Enemy's only reason to do anything.
  • Ghost Town: Snowfield, after the Ancient Enemy kills every living thing in the town.
  • Giant Enemy Crab: The protagonists are in the lobby of the Hilltop Inn after dark. The Ancient Enemy sends two crabs, each the size of a car, to harass them. It has one climb up the side of the building and the other appear in the darkness at the limits of their vision to frighten them.
  • Guns Are Worthless: Since the Eldritch Abomination has no major organs to disrupt, guns don't do a whole lot of good. Somewhat averted in the movie since instead of sprayers, the protagonists use impact delivery darts to deliver the bacterial agent that kills the Big Bad.
  • Hormone-Addled Teenager: Lisa, at first. At the novel's opening, she and Jennifer are arguing about what kind of boys she's allowed to date, and Jennifer thinks that Lisa's at "that age where most girls were obsessively concerned about boys, boys above all else." This falls by the wayside once they realize something's very wrong in town. (In the movie, she's been sent to live with Jennifer specifically to get her away from a loser boyfriend.)
  • Humanoid Abomination: The human-derived "phantoms" are this by default.
  • Humans Are the Real Monsters: Discussed. Since the Ancient Enemy absorbs its victims' knowledge and personality, it's implied its sadism and evil are learned behavior from humanity.
  • Hand Signals: The man in the helicopter uses them to ask where the supplies should be dropped, and Lisa Yamaguchi signals to the survivors to form a circle to show him.
  • Hell Hotel: It didn’t start out this way, but the Ancient Enemy turned the Candleglow Inn into one.
  • Heroic BSoD: Gordy Brogan in the novel. Immediately leads to his Curiosity Killed the Cast.
  • Humans Are Bastards: The novel states that The Ancient Enemy predates humans and the concept of the Devil and demons. It goes further to state that the creature fed on humans, gained their memories and intelligence, and became evil because of human nature. Hence, the real devil is us.
  • Ironic Nursery Tune: The Ancient Enemy uses a child’s voice to sing ‘Jesus Loves Me’.
  • It Came from the Sink: Before the story starts, the Ancient Enemy (a gigantic Blob Monster) invades the homes of the people of Snowfield by going through the sewer system and coming out through the drains in their bathrooms. It then kills them and either eats them or leaves their bodies as a snack for later.
  • It Can Think: There’s a nasty Oh, Crap! moment when the characters realize the Ancient Enemy is deliberately toying with them. It is revealed later that the creature absorbed the knowledge of its victims.
  • Lights Off, Somebody Dies: Jake Johnson gets killed in the grocery store this way.
  • Macabre Moth Motif
  • Make an Example of Them: The Ancient Enemy brutally kills Stu Wargle for daring to deny its existence.
  • Missing Mom: In the book, Lisa goes to live with Jenny because their mother died of an aneurysm; in the film, the mother drinks too much, and lets Lisa run around with a loser boyfriend.
  • Mistaken for Disease: After the entire population of a small mountain town is either killed by unknown means or completely disappears, a doctor investigating the situation considers the possibility that the cause of the disaster is a disease unknown to science. However, it actually turns out to have been caused by an Eldritch Abomination feeding on the minds of living beings.
  • Moth Menace: One of the forms taken by the Enemy is a giant moth (1-2 feet long with a 3-4 foot wingspan). When first encountered, it beats on a window of a building the protagonists are in. Later on, it attacks one of them and literally eats his face off, leaving behind a fleshless skull.
  • Never Give the Captain a Straight Answer: Deputy Frank Autry does this when he calls Sheriff Bryce Hammond on the radio after finding a room with bullets on the floor.
  • No Body Left Behind: Most of the victims are never found—those that are have often been left solely to freak out the living protagonists.
  • Nothing Is Scarier: It's over half way through the book before the Enemy reveals itself. Before that, we only see the aftermath of its rampage through Snowfield and its influence on the town. Lights going on and off, the church bell somehow ringing itself, and bodies appearing and disappearing. Then there's the dark alley where Bryce and Jenny feel something evil is watching them, but they can't tell what.
  • Orifice Invasion: Lots of it, in the movie.
  • Red Eyes, Take Warning: When appearing to Jeeter and Kale in the cave, several of the monstrous forms that the Ancient Enemy takes have red eyes.
  • Redshirt Army: None of the Army CBW division sent to Snowfield survive in the novel or the film. Most of the sheriff's department is also killed in the novel except Tal and Hammond
  • The Right of a Superior Species: The Ancient Enemy justifies preying on humans and other living creatures, including tormenting them for its own amusement, by claiming that its long life means it considers them inconsequential. Boasting of its seeming immortality, it insists that human lives are as brief and meaningless to it as the lives of mayflies are to them.
  • Rule of Scary: Sure, the Ancient Enemy is a biological impossibility, but it makes for a great story.
  • Sadly Mythtaken: Flyte claims that the Ancient Enemy was the inspiration for the god Proteus, referring to him as a constantly shapeshifting monster that burrowed through the earth, devouring whatever he desired... except the mythological Proteus was actually a sea god who commonly served as a herdsman to aquatic life, and by Greek god standards, he was quite reasonable; far from devouring anyone or anything in his path, the only point in which he interacted with mortals was when heroes sought him out for his prophetic knowledge - to the point that even his famous shapeshifting powers were mainly used in order to avoid being bothered.
  • Shapeshifter Longevity: The Ancient Enemy is a gigantic Voluntary Shapeshifter that has existed since the time of the dinosaurs, tens of millions of years ago - and the only reason why this is discovered is because said Ancient Enemy is in the habit of transforming into extinct monsters to terrorize its victims.
  • Shapeshifting: The Ancient Enemy.
  • Shout-Out: Snowfield is in Santa Mira county. Santa Mira was the name of the town in Invasion of the Body Snatchers.
  • Sir Swears-a-Lot: The Ancient Enemy.
  • Smug Snake: The Ancient Enemy, which believes itself to be a godlike (well, actually Satan-like) entity and commands Timothy Flyte (Fletcher Kale and Gene Terr in the novel) to be its "disciple".
  • Spared by the Adaptation:
    • Dr. Flyte and The Ancient Enemy survive in the movie but are killed in the novel.
    • Wilson and Hawthorne. In the novel, their counterparts Isley and Arkham get killed because they're with Copperfield's team when the Ancient Enemy cleans house and kills all of the military personnel and scientists. In the movie, Wilson and Hawthorne just drop Flyte off with Copperfield and then leave.
    • Jenny and Lisa's mother. In the novel, she died quite suddenly at home, which is why Lisa has come to live with Jenny. In the movie, Mrs. Pailey is alive and well and living in L.A. and the circumstances of Lisa coming to live with her sister are a little unclear (beyond "it's just for a little while").
    • Joe the deputy. A minor character from the novel, he is killed during Fletcher Kale's escape from jail. In the movie, not only doesn't Kale exist, but Joe takes Charlie Mercer's role as the police dispatcher and is the only cop besides Bryce to survive the story.
  • Stress Vomit: As a monster dissolves Gordy Brogan's body, Sarah Yamaguchi vomits into a nearby gutter.
  • Suicidal Overconfidence: The Ancient Enemy is so assured of its own power and obsessed with terrifying the humans that it orders them to study pieces of it so they can tell the world how invincibly powerful it is. This ends up giving them an idea of how to kill it.
  • Take Our Word for It: Several deaths, particularly of the soldiers, aren't seen — but they're heard, and the agonized terror of the victims is almost more effective than the deaths we see.
  • The Devil Is a Loser: Though it views itself as an ultimate evil, the Ancient Enemy tends to stoop to a combination of crass obscenity and brutal violence rather than the sort of grandiose scheming one would expect of an Ultimate Evil.
  • The Film of the Book: The movie was a lackluster trimmed version of the novel.
  • Time Dissonance: The Ancient Enemy perceives time really quickly, after having been around for millions of years, and the lifespan of a human is extremely brief and insignificant to it.
  • Ultimate Evil: The Ancient Enemy. It even thinks it’s Satan.
  • Uncanny Valley: In-universe; some of the shapes the Ancient Enemy creates are considered this by the characters.