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Dean Koontz is best known for novels in which he combines the popular literary genres of science fiction, horror, suspense, and romance. He is a prolific writer with more than seventy novels to his name in addition to nonfiction books, articles, and short stories. Throughout his career Koontz has built a large and supportive fan base while garnering little critical attention, except for the many book reviews published as each of his novels hits bookstore shelves.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
A Nightmare Childhood
Born in Everett, Pennsylvania, Koontz has described his childhood as ”a nightmare” characterized chiefly by his father’s violent behavior, alcoholism, and habitual unemployment. During Koontz’s young life, he was plagued by his father’s penchants for violent drunken rages and womanizing, a pattern of behavior that only worsened with age and was finally diagnosed as borderline schizophrenia, now more commonly called schizotypal personality disorder. According to biographer Katherine Ramsland, Koontz’s villains often mirror Ray Koontz, exhibiting patterns commonly associated with schizotypal personality disorder.
With Koontz’s troubled home life, he sought an escape in books, comic books, and movies. At the age of eight he began selling homemade books, which he wrote, illustrated, and fashioned himself. At twelve, Koontz entered a contest sponsored by a local newspaper in which he won $25.00 and a watch for his essay and thus began his writing career. Encouraged by a high school teacher to major in English at Shippensburg State College, Koontz won an Atlantic Monthly creative writing award in 1966. His professors were impressed; no one from his college had ever received any recognition from the contest.
While working as a high school English teacher, Koontz spent nights and weekends writing, getting several short stories published, followed by his first novel, a sci-fi tale called Star Quest, in 1967. Two more sci-fi novels followed, and in 1969, with Koontz’s wife agreeing to support her husband for five years while he tried to make a go of writing full-time, Koontz quit teaching and embarked on a career as a writer. Over the next five years, Koontz would branch out from sci-fi to write in a variety of genres, for each of which he would adopt a pen name. For Gothic romance novels he wrote as Deanna Dwyer, while Owen West wrote horror novels and Leigh Nichols wrote suspense novels. All told, Koontz wrote under no fewer than a dozen pen names over the course of his career. In the process, Koontz built up a successful writing career, to the point where he became self-supporting and his wife was able to quit her job.
Though Koontz continued to use pseudonyms throughout the 1970s and into the late 1980s, by the mid-1970s he also began using his own name for what he deemed “cross-genre” pieces. The first of these was Night Chills (1976). According to Koontz’s interview with Gorman, this new type of fiction was not well received by editors and publishers because it confused readers, and there was no single place for such volumes in bookstores. Publishing houses were convinced that non-genre-specific fiction could not last.
The Vision, published by Putnam in 1977, was originally promised to Random House. However, Random House did not like the new novel as written and wanted Koontz to rewrite it. Because he thought the novel could sell as it was, Koontz opted to pay back the advance he had received from Random House and gave the work to Putnam instead. The novel began as a horror novel but ended up as Koontz’s second cross-genre novel, combining the classic suspense novel with the plain language normally associated with detective fiction.
Koontz would have two of his books adapted into movies in the 1970s, but Whispers (1980) is the dividing line between Koontz’s early and later careers. Because it was the first novel published under Koontz’s own name to reach best-seller status and was a prime example of Koontz’s cross-genre style, it somewhat eased the criticism Koontz so often received from editors about writing this type of fiction. Koontz’s fortunes continued to rise throughout the 1980s as his cross-genre suspense and horror novels vaulted him into the category of best-selling author.
Typical of Koontz’s success is Strangers (1986), which he considers one of his best works along with Whispers. The novel was a departure from Koontz’s normal fiction and therefore surprised many of the critics who thought they could predict his work. Putnam paid
Koontz $275,000 for Strangers, and the novel was chosen as a main selection for both the Literary Guild and Doubleday Book Club. Less than a month after its first printing, the novel was on The New York Times and Publishers Weekly best-seller lists. It was Koontz’s first hardcover to be on any best-seller list.
Fighting the Pigeon Hole
After the success of Strangers, a new group called the Horror Writers of America was forming and convinced Koontz to become their first president. Though Koontz definitely did not want to be marked as a horror writer, he took the position; Koontz later regarded this move as one of the biggest mistakes of his career. The organization did not represent the solidarity of like-minded individuals as Koontz had originally hoped, but it was instead fraught with derision and politics.
Since that time, Koontz has continued to enjoy widespread popular success, publishing one best-seller after another. While continuing to write primarily in the cross-genre suspense format, he has also dabbled in children’s books and even wrote a collection of fictional quotations that have been referenced in his previous works.
Works in Literary Context
Koontz’s fictional characters are often pitted against unspeakable evil and insurmountable odds but nonetheless emerge victorious. Concerning this optimism Koontz has said that he finds ”the human species—and Western culture—to be primarily noble, honorable, and admirable.” He actively rejects the misanthropy common to the horror genre and has explained that that is why he does not wish to be called a ”horror author.” ”I am no Pollyanna,” Koontz has said, ”but I think we live in a time of marvels, not a time of disaster, and I believe we can solve every problem that confronts us if we keep our perspective and our freedom.” He has further elaborated that he believes fiction exists to allow people to examine their lives, determine their best traits, and come up with ways in which they might improve their lot in the world.
Reason versus Emotion
Critics observe that the most prevalent theme in Koontz’s work is the conflict between reason and emotion. Usually his characters learn to reconcile detached analysis with intuitive feeling, especially when dealing with technology. In Phantoms, for example, the protagonists initially turn to myth and religion when logic fails to explain the mass deaths in a resort town. That the characters in the novel finally use technology to defeat the ”Ancient Enemy” indicates to commentators Koontz’s fundamental faith in human resourcefulness. In Darkfall Koontz again presents religion and ritual as the foils of logic. For the protagonists to triumph they must believe in the potentially evil powers of voodoo and the ultimately superior powers of good. In Watchers Koontz explores the positive and negative potential of technology as represented by two genetically engineered beings: Einstein, an endearing golden retriever with human intelligence who prevails over the Outsider, a monstrous superbeing capable of horrific deeds.
Works in Critical Context
Critics consider Koontz’s work distinctive for its optimistic display of confidence in the ability of individuals to overcome extreme obstacles and hardships. Since moving from science fiction to cross-genre writing, Koontz has broadened his appeal and, according to critics, strengthened his storytelling. Bill Munster has suggested that Koontz’s examination of ”the tenuous nature of life and the tissue-thin barrier that separates us from sudden terror and tragedy” gives his work a resonance not often found in most popular fiction.
Critical reaction to Whispers (1980) was mixed. A Publishers Weekly reviewer argues that readers will need ”strong stomachs to tolerate the overheated scenes of rape and mayhem.” The reviewer praises Koontz’s portrait of Frye but finds the mystery too easy to solve because the author gives too many clues. Library Journal contributor Rex E. Klett sees Koontz edging ”dangerously close to a ruinous occultism” with Whispers, but also finds the novel a smooth read. Denis Pitts, reviewing the novel in Punch, calls Whispers a ”superior crime read.” Pitts advises: ”Whispers is not a book to be read by women of a nervous disposition living alone in a country house. Or men, come to think of it.” Though biographer Ramsland praises the novel overall, she still finds some fault: ”One flaw in this novel is the degree of explanation indulged in by characters who otherwise give no clue that they can be as sophisticated about complex psychological conditions as Hilary and Tony seem to be.”
- Costello, Matthew J. ”Films, Television, and Dean Koontz.” The Dean Koontz Companion, edited by Martin H. Greenberg, Ed Gorman, and Bill Munster. New York: Berkley, 1994, pp. 101-107.
- Kotker, Joan G. Dean Koontz: A Critical Companion. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1996.
- Munster, Bill. Discovering Dean Koontz: Essays on America’s Bestselling Writer of Suspense and Horror Fiction. San Bernardino, Calif.: Borgo Press, 1998.
- –. Sudden Fear: The Horror and Dark Suspense Fiction of Dean R. Koontz, Starmont Studies in Literary Criticism, no. 24. Mercer Island, Wash.: Starmont House, 1988.
- Ramsland, Katherine M. Dean Koontz: A Writer’s Biography. New York: HarperPrism, 1997.
- Silva, David B. ”Keeping Pace with the Master.” The Dean Koontz Companion, edited by Greenberg, Gorman, and Munster. New York: Berkley, 1994, pp. 57-73.
- Alexander, Paul. ”Dean Koontz.” Rolling Stone 789 (June 25, 1998): 46-47.
- Collings, Michael. ”Dean Koontz.” Mystery Scene 45 (January-February 1994): 46-50.
- Gillespie, Nick and Lisa Snell. ”Contemplating Evil: Koontz.” Reason 28 (November 1996): 44-49.
- Gleick, Elizabeth. ”Family Secrets: D. Koontz.” People Weekly 42 (November 28, 1994): 141-142.
- Springen, Karen. ”The Cheery Titan of Terror: D. Koontz.” Newsweek 117 (February 11, 1991): 62.
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