Dean Koontz: Hometown Boy Makes Good

Dean Koontz, like John D. MacDonald and Kurt Vonnegut before him, is one of science fiction's ambiguous success stories. After an apprenticeship in sf, he has become a regular on the hardcover bestseller lists with works usually described as "horror" or "suspense." Inevitably, there are those who say he sold out and those who say he is still one of us. The truth would appear to lie somewhere in between.

Dean Koontz first appeared in print as a science-fiction writer in the late 60s. It was soon obvious that he was following in the footsteps of those earlier sf writers who had begun by grinding out vast quantities of product, insofar as there were any such footsteps left. There were, for instance, many fewer sf magazines than in the 50s, and probably no opportunities to write entire issues under pseudonyms. There were still Ace doubles, however, and Koontz was probably the last major writer to serve his apprenticeship in those.

The early hackwork is not without interest. Like much of the field then as now, it tended to be deficient in prose and characterization (though Koontz was significantly ahead of the curve in presenting strong, intelligent women--being married to one helped). The novels would often begin well, but soon devolved into mindless chases, with many of their most interesting aspects left undeveloped. Still, Koontz brought fresh images and ideas into the field: the adaptation of Marshall McLuhan's theories in The Fall of the Dream Machine (1969), the music-centered society of The Dark Symphony (1970), the colonized Earth of Beastchild (1970). Other books, like The Crimson Witch (1971), had little to recommend them. At that time, Koontz may have been best on religious (or more precisely antireligious) themes, writing stories where God turned out to be a worm, a deranged child, or an ill-programmed robot.

He also was appearing as something of a countercultural figure. In 1970 Aware Press, a subsidiary of a West Coast porn firm, published The Pig Society and The Underground Lifestyles Handbook. Although those books were as critical of straight society as their titles would indicate, Koontz made clear that he was not part of the counterculture's sex and drug excesses; indeed, he appears to have suffered lasting effects from one of the drug hallucinations of the 60s that were almost exclusively found in nonusers: the belief that psychedelic use would lead to monstrous offspring. This particular fantasy has recurred in his work to this day.

In 1972, Bantam published The Flesh in the Furnace, a tale in which living puppets justly kill their creator and then have to figure out what to do without him. It was by far Koontz's best sf book to that date. The puppeteer was a compellingly evil combination of Koontz's mad God and an abusive earthly father, but he was a suffering human, too. The book had a richness of character, invention, and imagery that represented a major advance over his earlier work.

By this point, though, Koontz was already looking outside the sf field. The money was a problem, but Koontz also was growing tired of repeating himself. He gained hardcover publication--then much more of a Promised Land to the sf writer than it is now--as K. R. Dwyer. If Chase (1972) and Shattered(1973) were merely competent suspense novels, the third Dwyer, a spy novel called Dragonfly (1975), offered convincing evidence of another Koontz talent: a gift for conspiratorial recomplication. He was also appearing under a variety of other names. "Deanna Dwyer" was the one he used for a few standard entries in the then-popular gothic genre. "Brian Coffey" and "Anthony North" wrote caper novels and adventures, while "John Hill" and "Aaron Wolfe" did minor sf, perhaps below the average of the work he put his own name on.

In propria persona, he first showed up between hard covers as a humorist. The delightful Hanging On (1973) managed to be a funny war novel that was not overly reminiscent of Catch-22or MASH. After the Last Race (1974) was a skilled and witty caper novel. These books amused, but did not sell, so Koontz looked elsewhere. The horrific and conspiratorial Night Chills (1975), not funny at all, may have been most notable for its portrayal of sexual obsession, another theme he was learning to make his own.

In the late 1970s, Koontz appeared to be going nowhere under his own name, and in fact no novels of his appeared in 1978; but the next year he launched a career in romantic suspense under the deliberately epicene pseudonym of Leigh Nichols. The first such book, The Key to Midnight, published as a paperback original by Pocket Books, was both artistically and commercially successful, again showcasing Koontz's gift for plot complication and reversal, and selling better than anything he'd written before. Unfortunately, the next Nichols book, The Eyes of Darkness(1981), suffered distribution problems, and that particular subcareer lost momentum.

The tide, however, was beginning to turn. In 1980 Berkley published Whispers, a paperback original, but one that was given the best-seller treatment, complete with metallic cover. That and the single-word title became the external signs of Koontz novels for the Eighties. More important, Whispers is where Koontz began staking the claim to his own fictional territory.

Koontz insists that if his work is to be labeled by a single word, "suspense" is more appropriate than "horror." However, one thing about the "horror" tag is that it has come to embrace works where the menace turns out to be science-fictional (like a new superweapon) or nasty but explicable within current paradigms (a really efficient serial killer or secret government agency), rather than invoking the usual tropes of supernatural menace. Indeed, the suspense often comes from waiting to learn which of these types of book we are reading. Much of Koontz's work falls into this zone of ambiguity.

Whispers can now be seen to be typical: the strong competent woman facing menaces that might be supernatural, the hero trying to protect her with the aid of other good people, the Doppelganger (which has proved to be a major Koontz theme), the suspenseful chase at the end. Typically, too, it drew on several categories: mystery and romance, as well as horror and suspense. Done with professional skill, rather than high artistry, the book was an immediate hit. One can trace the career of Koontz the Best Seller from here.

Koontz the Best Seller resembles some of his colleagues, such as Stephen King and Tom Clancy. Bernadette Lynn Bosky and others have written that one reason for King's popularity is that he postulates a nice world, filled with courageous, compassionate, and just plain likable people. Martin Morse Wooster has suggested that one reason for Clancy's success is that, like good science-fiction writers, he carefully analyzes the ramifications, logical consequences, and likely results of his innovations. Koontz shares both these traits.

Whispers was followed by Phantoms (1983), Darkfall (1984), Strangers (1986), Watchers (1987), Lightning (1988), and Midnight (1989). Koontz continued to master his craft. Midnight may be as good as mass-market fiction gets to be. It was formula fiction, but the formula was a good and complex one.

Along with fairly standard male and female leads, the cast included an adolescent, spunky but not emetically so, and a Vietnam vet in a wheelchair, with a talented dog (the latter another recurring Koontz theme). The high-tech horror unleashed upon the world by New Wave Microtronics is a chilling one. At first it may seem to be just another example of Nasty Old Science and/or Nasty Old Business, but it turns out to be something far more interesting and complex than that, and the tale of how the book's chief villain got to be that way is one of the novel's most fascinating elements.

Koontz's success under his own name inspired him to close down his pseudonymous efforts. "Richard Paige"'s The Door to December (1985) was a competent effort in the Leigh Nichols mode, while Shadowfires (1987), the last book attributed to Nichols, was more like a typical Koontz-brand book, even down to the single-word title; and indeed the author's identity was something of an open secret at the time of publication. Thereafter, Koontz resolved to publish only under his own name, and some earlier pseudonymous efforts, including the Leigh Nichols books, have been reprinted as by Koontz, becoming paperback best sellers.

The successor to Midnight, The Bad Place (1990), represented several changes. For one thing, the title was more than one word, and that in itself was seen by some at his publisher as a dangerous fiddling with a winning formula. Instead of the usual boy-meets-girl, there was an already married, very loving couple. In this book Koontz also moved into the V.C. Andrews® territory of supernaturally dysfunctional families and added an element of metaphysical speculation, or as some would prefer to call it, woo-woo. This latter has recurred and gained importance in Koontz's more recent work.

The next few books--Cold Fire (1991), Hideaway (1992), Dragon Tears (1993), and Mr. Murder (1993)--seemed to indicate a period of stagnation in Koontz's career. They were competent, often witty, but all too predictable. Standard elements from earlier books recurred. Koontz was getting restless, and he soon signed a major deal to change publishers, from Putnam to Knopf.

Koontz stated that he would now be able to write what he really wanted to, an announcement that is greeted with some foreboding, no matter who utters it; and indeed Doc Rivers of the Knicks Dark Rivers of the Heart(1994) struck many readers as excessive and overwrought, from its soap-operatic title to the author's postscript reiterating the importance of the book's theme of The Government Is Armed and Dangerous. (This was dropped from the paperback and subsequent editions.) It was followed by the even more heavy-handed Winter Moon (1994), whose cop protagonist becomes a media pariah after being gratuitously shot by a producer of nihilistic films who is high on cocaine and PCP.

But Koontz still showed a willingness to tamper with his best-selling formula. Intensity (1996) is deliberately shorter and less complex than what we have come to expect from its author. It focuses tightly on a villain, a victim, and a heroine. Far less talky than Dark Rivers, it brought only one message, an attack on those who would say we are entirely determined by our childhoods. The villain is just a nasty guy who enjoys being a nasty guy, rather than a victim passing along the horrors that were done to him. Ticktock (1997) is a further departure from expectations, as Koontz joins Connie Willis and John Kessel in adapting the screwball comedy approach to fantastic subject matter.

If Koontz has been reasonably successful in avoiding the constraints of category, he has still fallen into a kind of predictability to those familiar with his earlier work. His recent books often tempt the reader to go through them with a checklist: Supersecret government agency--check. Evil twin--check. Faithful dog--check....Still, he remains ready to confront both publisher desires for what has sold in the past and his own tendency to repeat what has worked before.

Koontz at his best has much to offer: His protagonists are admirable and well-rounded; his villains are complex; he can be incisively witty (check out the encounter between his female protagonist and a poet in the early pages of Cold Fire ); and like Robert A. Heinlein and Robert Anton Wilson, he can conjecture about nonphysical realities without sounding like The Weekly World News. He has just switched publishers again, and his new book, Fear Nothing , promises a different sort of protagonist, one who will reappear in further works. I'm going to give it a try.

Koontz has previously been discussed in a Starmont Press collection, Sudden Fear, edited by Bill Munster (1988). In 1994 Munster, along with Ed Gorman and the indefatigable Martin Harry Greenberg, put together The Dean Koontz Companion, a book that contains brief discussions of its subject, but is almost half Koontz's own nonfiction, including appreciations of fellow writers, discussions of writing and the state of the field, and a number of bits of "absurd humor" which have their own charm, but all in one place like that may exceed the LD50 for whimsy. Now Katherine Ramsland, best known for her biography of Anne Rice, has written Dean Koontz: A Writer's Biography (New York, NY: HarperPrism, 1997 $24.00 hc, 508 pages), the first full-length look at his life and career.

Born in 1945 in Everett, Pennsylvania, Koontz suffered a difficult, but not brutal childhood. His alcoholic father's grandiose schemes never worked out, so the family lived in genteel poverty. He always knew that he wanted to write.

He met Gerda Cerra in 1962; they married four years later. They are still together, and Koontz has often praised her support and influence. In the late 1960s, after college and a brief struggle with work in the educational and poverty bureaucracies, he set out as a full-time writer, beginning in science fiction.

Ramsland's account includes some of the quintessential sf-writer experiences. On the one hand, he was paid less than half the advance for a particular Ace Double with the explanation that he'd written a shorter book than the other writer (in this case, Emil Petaja), only to learn later that Petaja had been told the same. On the other, at a moment of self-doubt and depression, there was useful advice and encouragement from one who'd trod a similar path before him--Robert Silverberg. In the account of Koontz's later career, we see his struggles with those who want him to keep turning out the sort of highly salable product he's been generating. Lightning, for instance, included a well-thought-out time-travel/alternate-worlds theme; Koontz's editor warned that this was far too science-fictional for a mass audience. Koontz persevered, and Lightning sold every bit as well as his other work. There are tales of his problems with adaptations of his work in other media, often by people with a unerring instinct for finding and expanding whatever is most hackneyed in a given book.

This biography is thorough and informative. Appropriately enough, it is written in serviceable prose, with an occasional ill-assimilated expository lump. ("Yet, when The New York Times announced in the middle of 1984--the same year that Reagan was reelected, the AIDS virus was isolated, and teachers at a Los Angeles preschool were charged with over two hundred counts of child abuse--that the horror market had dried up . . .") A few old confusions are perpetuated; once again we are told that "Theodore Sturgeon" was a pseudonym, rather than a legally changed name, and Vaughn Bode's ambiguous autoasphyxiation is characterized simply as suicide. I'm a bit put off by the consistent reference to "Dean," rather than "Koontz," but that may just go to show that I'm an old fuddy-duddy.

Perhaps the book's most controversial aspect is that Ramsland shares Koontz's post- or anti-Freudian approach, and agrees with him at great length in these pages. Biographer and subject repeatedly attack what they take to be the two central dogmas of Freudianism: that good and evil are meaningless, and that we are all determined by what was done to us in childhood. The denunciations grow a bit tedious, especially if one feels that this "Freud" is something of a straw person. Other Freudian images in Koontz's early work, like caves representing the subconscious, are not refuted but simply brushed aside as unworthy of discussion because of their association with the old discredited paradigm. (The present work's repeated references to "codependence" and "toxic intimacy" might not be assured a better fate.)

Despite these flaws, however, the book can certainly be recommended to those who already are interested in Koontz's work. It offers more than that, as well: a look at the big-time publishing world and a sense of what it is like to be not merely a writer but a brand name.