June 2, 2008
‘WRITING IS A SPIRITUAL PROCESS’
The novels — and ideas — of Dean Koontz
JOHN J. MILLER
About 80 pages into Intensity, a 1995 novel by Dean Koontz, the heroine reflects upon her unlikely predicament. She’s trapped in the motor home of a homicidal maniac who has just slaughtered a family. Chyna Shepherd has to decide what to do. “For a long time,” writes Koontz of his 26-year-old character, “she’d known that being a victim was often a choice people made.” It was an alluring choice, too. “Victimhood was seductive, a release from responsibility and caring: Fear would be transmuted into weary resignation; failure would no longer generate guilt but, instead, would spawn a comforting self-pity.”
Chyna rejects victimhood. Her choice drives the plot forward as she engages in a battle of wits with a clever and resourceful killer.
Dean Koontz is the opposite of a victim. With more than 325 million books sold worldwide — about ten times the total number of volumes in the Library of Congress — he’s one of the most successful authors of all time. Koontz is at the top of his game, too. Last November, Bantam published The Darkest Evening of the Year, which went on to become his best-selling hardcover yet. And although Koontz could quit writing tomorrow and never worry about his next meal, the pace of his work has quickened. Since 2003 he has turned out, at minimum, two novels per year. The latest, Odd Hours, is hitting bookstores just now. It’s the fourth title in a new series that features what may be his most popular character.
A few living novelists, such as Danielle Steel, have sold more books than Koontz. Plenty of authors are more highly regarded, if only because critics tend to equate mass appeal with lowbrow taste. Koontz’s prose is perhaps best described as fast-paced rather than poetic — he won’t ever win the Nobel Prize. Yet he must be recognized as both a great storyteller and a novelist of ideas. His books grapple with vexing moral questions, such as utilitarian bioethics, the nature of freedom, and the reality of evil. The value of what Koontz has to say, combined with his deep reach into the culture, makes him one of the most important novelists writing today.
The 62-year-old Koontz lives in a magnificent home above Newport Beach, Calif., on a hill that overlooks the Pacific Ocean. The view from his office is splendid, but he faces away from it when he writes. The desk of this soft-spoken workaholic is strikingly uncluttered: It holds just a few objects, neatly arranged, including a framed black-and-white photo of Koontz and his wife, Gerda, attending a birthday party as young children. “You’ll notice that I’m smiling and she’s not — I see my future and perhaps she sees hers as well,” he jokes. Beside his computer rest several mocked-up covers for Your Heart Belongs to Me, the novel he’s currently writing. It’s due in August and is sure to land on best-seller tables around Thanksgiving. Just outside his office, there’s a 38-foot hallway lined on both sides with almost 5,000 unique editions of his books in different languages.
Bookstores generally stash Koontz’s novels alongside Stephen King’s on the horror shelves, a habit that began in the early 1980s when King, Koontz, and horror novels in general were starting to boom in popularity. “It was a marketing decision by one of my publishers,” he says. “I never agreed with it because I like to mix up genres.” Yet the label stuck. Many of his books are perhaps best described as suspense thrillers with dashes of science fiction, gothic terror, and screwball comedy. His stories always contain violence, but nothing unduly graphic. Lots of his novels have happily-ever-after conclusions. Others aren’t quite so rosy. What they never are is bleak or hopeless. “A lot of horror writers are atheists or secularists who dwell on the dark side of the supernatural,” he says. “I don’t find that convincing. I try to present a more rounded view, a sense of wonder and mystery about life.”
LEARNING, TEACHING, WRITING
His boyhood included a little bit of horror and a little bit of wonder. Koontz grew up poor in Bedford, Pa. His family didn’t have indoor plumbing until he was eleven. “My mom was a good person but sickly,” he says. “My dad was a monster — a nightmare figure for me.” Koontz describes a man who drank to excess, gambled away his income, and womanized. “Books are what saved me,” he says. “They took me out of that house and showed me that not everybody’s family was like mine. They gave me something to aspire to.” In high school, he also began to date Gerda.
As a teenager, Koontz worked at a supermarket and saved his money. Upon graduation, he enrolled at what was then Shippensburg State College. For an assignment in a creative-writing class, he submitted a short story called “Kittens.” It might pass for something by Ray Bradbury, with its jarring blend of innocence and the macabre. Whatever the inspiration, the tale was good enough to encourage a professor to enter it in a fiction contest sponsored by The Atlantic Monthly. It took a prize, though the accolade didn’t mean much to Koontz. “What really left an impression was that someone agreed to publish it for $50,” he says. “Before that, it had never crossed my mind that I could make a living as a writer.”
At first, he didn’t. Koontz became a teacher in the Appalachian Poverty Program. “I worked for Goldwater in 1964, but my political allegiance had started to drift leftward,” he says. “Then it was beaten down by the public-school system.” Koontz was supposed to tutor at-risk kids who showed flickers of academic promise. In practice, his classroom became a dumping ground for students with behavioral problems. “It was eye-opening,” he says. “I saw how government programs can have unforeseen consequences.” A year later, he became a regular English teacher near Harrisburg and grew frustrated with school bureaucracy. Away from his students, he continued pounding away at his typewriter and made a series of small sales. He wondered whether he’d be able to survive as a full-time writer.
In 1969, Gerda proposed a deal: She would support them both for five years, during which time Dean would devote himself entirely to writing. If he failed to establish himself, he would go back to gainful employment. “The offer was typical of her — generous and realistic,” says Koontz.
For the next four and a half years, Koontz churned out one manuscript after another. He wrote books and stories under his own name and several pen names. At one point, he wrote an entire novel in just a few days. His income grew steadily until 1974, when he and Gerda realized that he was in fact earning about as much money as nine-to-five work would have paid. Gerda quit her job. Ever since, she has acted as her husband’s business manager, handling submissions, negotiating rights, and promoting his books.
During the 1970s, Koontz was successful but not wildly so. He and Gerda moved west, spending a year in Las Vegas and then relocating permanently to Orange County, Calif. Close to Hollywood, Koontz began to work on scripts for movies and television. He once penned an episode of CHiPs, the police drama starring Erik Estrada. Offers for similar opportunities rushed his way. “The money was good,” he says, “but I worried that if I got more involved, I’d never go back to writing books.”
Around this time, Koontz started to show up on the paperback bestseller lists. In 1979, he charted with The Key to Midnight, under the nom de plume Leigh Nichols. The next year, Whispers became his first bestseller with his own name on the cover. Other big books followed, including Strangers, Watchers, and Lightning. By the end of the 1980s, he was writing exclusively as Dean Koontz and reissuing older titles under his name after reacquiring the rights.
‘MAKERS OF THEIR OWN LIVES’
Some of his ideas began to evolve as well. “My early novels were very Freudian and full of victimology,” he says. “They subscribed to the belief that you are what you are because of what your parents or society or capitalism did to you.” Koontz isn’t sure what made him come to this realization — he says there was no eureka moment — though he suspects it began around the time his father died. “I did a lot of thinking about what had made him the way he was. He had a wonderful father and turned out rotten. I had a bad father and turned out all right.”
By the 1990s, Koontz’s shifting views were finding a place in his books. He says that Mr. Murder, a 1993 novel whose autobiographical elements include a hero who is a writer, marked a break from the past. “My characters started to become the makers of their own lives, to become who they are through their own choices.” His protagonists are good-hearted and sympathetic even though they often come from troubled backgrounds. His villains are narcissistic and despicable and don’t have anyone to blame but themselves.
Koontz continued exploring these themes in his next novel, Dark Rivers of the Heart, whose hero is the son of a sociopath. “It’s astonishing how a theory as wrongheaded as Freudianism can capture a culture and get inside its institutions,” says Koontz. “It has deranged our criminal-justice system with the idea that everyone’s a victim of his past and ready for rehabilitation.” (The hardcover edition of the book also included an afterword that cheered libertarians with its criticism of asset-forfeiture laws, which play a role in the plot.)
When Koontz looks at modern society, he sees lots of derangement, and he doesn’t shy away from saying so. His books are full of asides that combine political opinion with humor. “I chafe at the injustice of the Nobel Prize Committee awarding peace prizes to the likes of Yasser Arafat while failing year after year to honor the person who invented the Velcro-sealed disposable diaper,” quips the narrator of Life Expectancy. In another book, Koontz comments: “Many murderous thugs just hiked across the unprotected border or used international airlines and — wearing T-shirts that proclaimed DEATH TO ALL JEWS in Arabic — breezed through U.S. checkpoints, where highly suspicious federal security personnel strip-searched Irish grandmothers and Boy Scouts on field trips.” Other novelists are a frequent target as well. In Brother Odd, Koontz satirizes The Da Vinci Code.
Despite these occasional sharp edges, the most singular quality of Koontz’s books is their sense of compassion. When the sadistic villain of Intensity outlines his murderous philosophy to Chyna Shepherd, she replies, “The most intense experience of all is showing mercy.” The presence of this sentiment in a Koontz novel should perhaps not be surprising: In real life, he operates a private foundation that assists critically ill children and the disabled, and promotes dog welfare (he is a great lover of canines).
A typical Koontz book features vulnerable characters, often children with handicaps such as Down syndrome or brittle-bone disease. The plots hinge on the need to protect them from harm. In Velocity, the hero must defend a Terri Schiavo–like woman not only from a killer, but also from a doctor who wants to yank out her feeding tube. The doctor means well but doesn’t know any better. As Koontz’s narrator explains, “the university that turned him out had infected him with what they call ‘utilitarian ethics.’”
“I can’t remember how I crossed paths with this worldview,” says Koontz. “It had to be something to do with Peter Singer and recoiling from some quote of his.” (Singer is a Princeton professor who has called for euthanizing crippled newborns.) Bioethics lies at the heart of One Door Away from Heaven, a 2001 novel and one of Koontz’s longest. It features a disabled girl, a ruthless stepfather, UFO sightings, a quest for redemption, and irreverent humor. In an author’s note at the end, Koontz lays out his concern:
Utilitarian bioethics as portrayed in One Door Away from Heaven is unfortunately not a figment of my imagination, but a real threat to you and to everyone you love. This philosophy embodies the antihuman essence of fascism, expresses the contempt for individual freedom and for the disabled and the frail that has in the past marked every form of totalitarianism. One day our great universities will be required to redeem themselves from the shame of having honored and promulgated ethicists who would excuse and facilitate the killing of the disabled, the weak, and the elderly.
Koontz goes on to recommend Culture of Death, a book by Wesley J. Smith that makes a similar argument. At the time, he didn’t know Smith (who has written for National Review). Since then, they’ve become friends. Koontz dedicated The Husband, a 2006 thriller, to Smith and his wife, Debra J. Saunders, a right-of-center newspaper columnist.
Some readers probably find Koontz’s beliefs backward and his advocacy of them grating. For his admirers, however, he balances the need to tell a good story with his determination to advance certain beliefs. One of his techniques is to create a narrative voice that’s utterly disarming, as he has done so effectively in the books featuring Odd Thomas, a fry cook who can see ghosts. “Odd was a gift to me,” says Koontz. He explains that, while he was writing an unrelated novel, this new character popped into his mind and compelled him to draft the first chapter of what is now a four-book series.
Odd is a charming and humble young man whose Sixth Sense–like powers throw him into harrowing situations that call for feats of selfless valor. Eccentric secondary characters populate his world, including an obese mystery writer with six fingers named Little Ozzie, a phone-sex operator who turns kidnapper, and Brother Knuckles, a monk who was once a mobster. The books also feature a scene in which the pajama-clad ghost of Lyndon B. Johnson steps off a bus and moons Odd Thomas.
After the publication of Forever Odd, the second in the series, Wesley J. Smith called the author. “I told him he was writing the story of a saint, of someone who continually simplifies his life and increases his service to others,” says Smith. Koontz, a Catholic convert, disagreed but kept writing about his ghost seer. “You know what?” says Koontz. “My friend was right.” He projects that the complete tale of Odd Thomas will unfold over the course of six or seven books.
“As I’ve gotten older, the spiritual element has come a little more to the fore in my books,” admits Koontz. “I’ve found that the act of writing is itself a spiritual process. You’re in communion with something greater than yourself. God created us in His image, and He gave us our creativity.”
That’s one trait Koontz has in abundance, and he keeps pouring it into a corpus of books whose purpose goes beyond mere escapism. Odd Thomas, a master of understatement, may have put it best: “I have learned a great deal from novels. Some of it is even true.”