Sunday, September 27, 2009

Dean R. Koontz Revisited

Back in eighth grade, almost twenty years ago, someone in my class discovered Dean R. Koontz. Soon we were all keeping his novels on the corner of our desks and cracking them open during spare moments.

Over the next few years, I read about twelve of his books. Mixing the thriller, horror, and sci-fi genres, they were just right for me from the ages of 13 to 15.

I recently came across this website devoted to Koontz, which contains images of first editions of all or nearly all of his works. Looking at the old covers got me thinking about the time I spent reading these books.

I read Watchers first. It was a fairly complex piece of work, actually, with multiple narrative strands—a love story between an introverted, sheltered woman and a more worldly but decent fellow; they eventually befriend a dog with human intelligence (the product of a laboratory experiment, he eventually learns to communicate with his owners via a device that dispenses Scrabble tiles); and they battle a homicidal monster created by the same laboratory.

There was some (marital) sex in the book, and a scene (eye-opening for a thirteen-year-old) in a strip club where the dancers explain secrets of their profession to the sheltered woman, but at base it was a rather wholesome, even moralistic, tale of good versus evil.

Koontz's plots could be ingenious, as in Lightning. In this novel, a woman has a time-traveling protector, who shows up to save her at crucial points over the course of her life. Throughout the beginning of the novel, he seems to be journeying to the present from some militarized, dystopic future. Eventually we learn that, instead of coming from the future, he's coming from the past: the Nazis, it turns out, had cracked the secret of time travel.

Koontz had his literary side, too: Midnight, about a brilliant but misguided inventor who experiments with the residents of a small California town, was a self-conscious updating of H. G. Wells's novel The Island of Dr. Moreau.

A couple years after I read The Voice of the Night, I realized that a central scene, in which a disturbed youngster prepares to cause a train wreck, mirrors a similar scene in Jerzy Kosinski's famous WWII novel The Painted Bird.

But my favorite Koontz novel has to be Strangers. This 600-pager, long for Koontz, assembles a large cast of characters, all of whom are haunted by a mysterious but only dimly remembered event in their not-too-distant past. I remember reading this book around the time that I finished eighth grade, and being quite convinced by the characters—particularly one who was a professional thief. Koontz's narration of one of his heists was a great set piece.

It turns out that all of the characters witnessed an alien landing in the desert of Nevada. The government tried to brainwash them to forget what they saw, fearing that widespread, verified knowledge of extraterrestrial life would bring about chaos and pandemonium. But the brainwashing didn't take. Eventually, the characters all converge on the secret facility where the aliens are being kept.

Sounds a little cheesy now, I guess, but at the time I was enraptured by it.

I had to wait a long time for The Bad Place to become available for me to check out at the public library, and it wasn't really worth it. As I recall, the plot turned on a character who had paranormal abilities because he was born with three testicles, but they were all undescended. That sounds ridiculous, I know, so maybe I'm misremembering. But how could I make up something like that?

I kept reading Koontz into my first couple years of high school. In my high school library, in fact, I came across a copy of Koontz's book Writing Popular Fiction. I flipped through it a bit. As a way to invent ideas for stories, Koontz recommended crafting evocative titles—like "the key to midnight," or "the house of thunder," or "the face of fear"—and then trying to devise a story that would fit that title. He also suggested getting maps of the cities that you set your stories in, to lend verisimilitude to your story's geography.

It was in that same library that I finally lost my taste for Koontz. I was in one of the carrels reading Cold Fire, which really wasn't that good anyway, when my sophomore history teacher walked by and picked the book up from my hands, curious about what I was reading. He looked at it for a second then handed it back with a scornful smirk and walked on without a word.

And that, for better or worse, was about it for me and Dean R. Koontz.

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