Dean Koontz: Subtle patterns in the darkness

I haven’t done a “Horror Masters” post for a while, and it’s long past due!

Even if you’ve never read a Dean Koontz novel, you’re familiar with his work.  Airport bookstores are constantly stocked with his books; finding a horror author whose last name doesn’t start with “K” can be quite a challenge when traveling (King, of course, being the other one).

Broadly speaking, it is easy at first glance to dismiss Koontz as a “pop” horror author of no serious depth.  Many of his novels, especially his early work, follow a certain well-defined plot structure: boy/girl hero meets girl/boy love interest, both are threatened by some mysterious entity, they flee, they have a final confrontation with said entity in some isolated location and live happily ever after.  Furthermore, his short stories, such as those compiled in Strange Highways, often seem clumsy and somehow ‘inefficient’.

It would be easy to dismiss Koontz as another pop horror author showering the shelves with forgettable drek (I’m lookin’ at you, Preston and Child!), except for one important, undeniable, unavoidable reality:

Dean Koontz’s story ideas are incredibly, almost maddeningly, clever – and they’re executed brilliantly.

It’s a bit hard to explain what I mean by this without spoiling the stories of his novels, and they really should be read firsthand to appreciate them.  Almost every Koontz novel I’ve read contains one really ingenious, imaginative idea which forms a solid foundation for the rest of the book.  Building from this one clever idea, Koontz usually develops its implications and consequences in unexpected ways.  The end result is typically one of those “unable to put it down until it’s done” novels that deserves its dominance of the shelves of airport shops.

As far as recurring themes in Koontz’s work, only one stands out to me.  Koontz is possibly unique among horror authors in that he uses horror to explore a positive theme, which might be best characterized as the quest for meaning.  Sometimes this quest takes a material form, as in his book Intensity; other times it is much more subtle, but it always seems to be present.  Koontz himself seems to acknowledge this in his introduction to Richard Laymon’s book To Wake the Dead; after describing an unusually similar pair of car accidents he had been involved in, Koontz states:

The uncanny similarity of the details of these two accidents suggests to me – as do so many things in life – a world that operates not always according to the predictable laws of physics and chance, but also and perhaps as often under the influence of a mysterious power with a delightfully byzantine sense of story and with an agenda that is, though perhaps not inscrutable, challenging to analyze and understand.

I would guess that this attitude also accounts for some of Koontz’s mass appeal.  Unlike most horror writers, Koontz lets his readers “off the hook” a little by suggesting that even though horrible things can and do happen, there is some greater purpose to it all.

I should point out that Koontz never gets “preachy” with his views on spirituality.  Even though my opinion of religion has declined in recent years, Koontz’s stories still resonate with me.

Koontz has way too many novels to describe in detail.  I’ll just provide a list of some of my favorites:

1.  Watchers (1987).  Travis Cornell stumbles across a stray dog while out on a hike.  He takes the dog in, and quickly realizes that there’s far more to the animal than meets the eye.  Also, it begins to dawn on him that the dog is being hunted by something – and now he’s being hunted as well.

It’s weird to say this, but Watchers is an utterly charming horror novel.  Fans of canines will love it to death.

2.  Phantoms (1983).  Jennifer Paige returns home to the sleepy ski town of Snowfield with her younger sister Lisa.  They find the entire town seemingly deserted.  A contingent of county sheriffs arrive sometime later to investigate, and the entire group begins to be haunted by weird apparitions: flying, unnatural creatures.  The creatures begin to claim members of the party, and it rapidly becomes clear that they will not be allowed to leave – or live.

Phantoms is one of my favorite Koontz novels, and contains one of my favorite scenes in any horror novel.  Once the characters realize what they’re up against in Snowfield, they begin to discuss options for survival: and they shoot them down one by one.  You could say that the laws of physics themselves dictate that the characters are doomed.  I don’t know I’ve ever read a better depiction of utter hopelessness in a horror novel.

One of the later editions of Phantoms contains a retrospective by Koontz about how the novel actually made him a horror author!  He had considered himself more of a suspense/thriller writer, but the runaway success of Phantoms seized control of his career.

3.  Lightning (1988).  When Laura Shane was born, a mysterious stranger appeared, heralded by lightning, and prevented her delivery from being botched by a troubled surgeon.  Since then, this guardian angel has appeared at different times of crisis in Laura’s life, always rescuing her.  The book gradually unravels the mystery of Laura’s life and the origins of the stranger who protects her.

4.  Dragon Tears (1993).  A fast-paced, intense horror/thriller.  Policeman Harry Lyon thought he was having a bad day when he was forced to kill a man on a murderous rampage.  But later that day, he is approached by a mysterious vagrant who happily declares, “Ticktock, ticktock… you’ll be dead in sixteen hours,”  before exploding into a pile of debris.  Harry finds himself racing against the clock against a seemingly omnipotent foe who can appear and disappear at will – and even stop time.

5.  Intensity (1996).  Chyna Shephard is staying at her friend Laura’s home when a psychopathic killer invades and murders Laura and her family while they sleep.  Chyna manages to hide during the killings, but quickly decides to follow the murderer – to stop him and to rescue his next victim.  What follows is a deadly serious game of cat-and-mouse which lives up to the title of the novel.

Intensity is perhaps the most ‘unconventional’ of Koontz’s novels; by no stretch of the imagination can one say that it follows his usual plot outline.

6.  Odd Thomas (2003).  Odd Thomas is a curious young man, seemingly without ambition, but who has a secret: he can see and talk to ghosts and spirits.  The presence of many evil spirits around a stranger in town leads Odd to investigate, and he must race against time to prevent a horrifying catastrophe.

This is another of Koontz’s unconventional novels.  The story is unpredictable and ‘oddly’ sentimental.  The character has now inspired several sequels, including Forever Odd (2005) , Brother Odd (2006), and the soon to be released Odd Hours (2008).

6.  Cold Fire (1991).  Reporter Holly Thorne is covering a routine story at a local elementary school when a mysterious stranger appears seemingly from nowhere and rescues a child from being run over by a car. Something about the rescuer, Jim Ironheart, captures her attention, and a literature search demonstrates that Jim has been the hero many times around the country, always appearing in the nick of time to perform a rescue.  Holly pursues Jim and becomes wrapped up in his quest – and the strange forces that guide him in it.

This is by far my favorite Koontz novel.  It contains a scene much like the one described above in Phantoms, where a lead character realizes exactly how screwed he is.


I should mention that, as far as movie adaptations are concerned, Koontz suffers from the “King curse”, in which the vast majority of adaptations are utter crap.  This includes the film adaptation of Watchers and an utterly abysmal adaptation of Phantoms.  Only two stand out: Intensity (1997) (which I haven’t seen, but which stars John C. McGinley, and therefore can’t be all that bad), and Black River (2001).  The latter, which stars Jay Mohr, is about a writer who wanders into the town of Black River and finds that events, and people, are conspiring against him leaving…

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3 Responses to Dean Koontz: Subtle patterns in the darkness

  1. Anand Pratab says:

    Ypu forget his best book – Strangers – what a variety of characters and their individual characterization. Waht a spread of canvas and what a plot. This book alone, in my opinion, is the classic of Koontz’s writings. No other Koontz book that he has written after this has measured up to it.

  2. KR says:

    Do you have any views on his “Frankenstein” series? I thought it started out brilliantly, and continued so for two books, and then it was as though he was writing a bad TV movie (and I understand the series was partially turned into a bad TV movie starting Parker Posey). The last book of the first trilogy was awful, and the two-book sequel that followed was beyond awful. A great idea turning into a huge disappointment.

    • I haven’t read his “Frankenstein” series! Somehow it never really appealed to me, probably because I’m not in general a fan of “reimagining”. I may have to look at least the first couple of books, from what you say.

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