Dean Koontz’s Muddled Message

Sometime in the Fall of 1984, I took a chance on an author I’d never heard of and was richly rewarded. The book I chose was Phantoms, and the author was Dean R. Koontz. I devoured the 400+ pages in a weekend and was completely caught up in the story. At that time, the only other Koontz novels that were available were Whispers, Darkfall, and Night Chills. I was so impressed by Phantoms that I soon bought the others and read them in the same white heat. He may not have become my favorite author overnight, but Dean R. Koontz was a name I now felt sure would provide a good story and a quick read.

A lot has changed in the past 26 years, but two things remain: I still buy Dean Koontz books as soon as they’re released in paperback, and they are still quick and easy reads. But somewhere along the line, Koontz has changed.

For starters, he dropped the “R.” in his name. Then the distinguished, balding author with the thick moustache pictured on the back of the books was replaced by a clean-shaven guy with a really bad hair weave. But that’s all superficial. The truly significant change was that Koontz became more explicit in his embrace of both Catholicism and political conservatism.

I have no problems with Koontz’s Catholicism or his conservatism. The problems I’ve been having with Koontz for a decade or more now has been how these beliefs end up getting in the way of his stories.

The novels are rarely explicitly Catholic though many of them are explicit in their belief in God, and they’re not overtly conservative, either. But just as you can always tell that Stephen King’s characters are good liberals who always vote for the Democrat ticket, you can also tell that Koontz’s characters are good conservatives who vote for the Republican.

What his religious beliefs have done for Koontz is inspire in him the belief that his books should be hopeful and optimistic, even though they deal in murder, sociopathy, psychopathy, horror, and evil. I have no doubt that this makes the writer a wonderful husband and friend, but it also makes for some schizophrenic reading.

To be clear, I think it’s great that Koontz wants to use his novels to express a worldview that is based on optimism and a great hope for mankind. One of the things you can count on in a Koontz book is that love will find a way and goodness will emerge triumphant, perhaps battered and bruised, but still walking proudly into the sunset. His chosen method for imparting this message are his good characters, invariably tossed by chance into some type of confrontation with the forces of evil.

The bad guy or guys in a Koontz novel are ruthless, amoral, human monsters who take a savage delight in murder and mayhem. They are frequently aided by a cabal of associates who may be part of the government, or corporation, or some secret society who believes that mankind is worthless and fit only to be killed or to serve their intellectual and political betters. Many of these bad guys are interchangeable from one novel to the next. One may be motivated by power lust, one may be motivated by blood lust, but their methods and their relentless pursuit of the good guys is a common trait. Despite this interchangeability, Koontz is at his best with his bad guys.

The problem with his most recent books comes from his good guys. If the bad guys are all pretty much the same except for their motivation, then the good guys are all nearly identical in every way. They have the same likes and dislikes, they share beliefs, they share attitudes, they share their politics, and, most annoyingly, they all share the same manner of speaking.

The good guys in a Koontz novel are mirrors of the author. If they are not religious they probably will be by the end of the book. They espouse politically conservative ideals. They are indefatigable optimists who, even in the darkest times, bet their bottom dollar that the sun’ll come out tomorrow. In order to express these traits, the characters don’t so much speak as they banter. The rhythm of their speech is taken nearly whole from any number of screwball comedies from the 1930s. For instance:

“Well who are you?”
“I don’t know. I’m not quite myself today.”
“Well, you look perfectly idiotic in those clothes.”
“These aren’t my clothes.”
“Well, where are your clothes?”
“I’ve lost my clothes!”
“But why are you wearing these clothes?”
“Because I just went gay all of a sudden!”
“Now see here young man, stop this nonsense. What are you doing?”
“I’m sitting in the middle of 42nd Street waiting for a bus.”

Or:

“How do you think Deucalion does that Houdini stuff?”
“Don’t ask me. I’m a prestidigitation disaster. You know that trick with the little kids where you pretend to take their nose off, and you show it poking out of your fist, but it’s really just your thumb?”
“Yeah?”
“They always look at me like I’m a moron, and say ‘That’s just your stupid thumb.'”
“I’ve never seen you goofing around with kids.”
“I’ve got a couple of friends. They did the kid thing. I’ve played babysitter in a pinch.”
“I’ll bet you’re good with kids.”
“I’m no Barney the Dinosaur, but I can hold my own.”
“He must sweat like a pig in that suit.”
“You couldn’t pay me enough to be Barney.”
“I used to hate Big Bird when I was a kid.”
“Why?”
“He was such a self-righteous bore.”

Notice the similarity in rhythm. The first excerpt above is from the classic Cary Grant/Katherine Hepburn comedy Bringing Up Baby and the dialogue follows a lengthy chain of screwups and pranks that ends with Grant in a woman’s bathrobe confronting Hepburn’s mother.

The second excerpt is from Dean Koontz’s Frankenstein, Part Two: City Of Night. The conversation takes place in a car as the good guys (a male and female cop who are, of course, in love with each other) are speeding through New Orleans after killing an inhuman creation that was about to murder the female cop’s autistic brother. The cops then very narrowly avoided being murdered by two inhuman assassins, their lives saved only by the appearance of the original creation made by Victor Frankenstein two hundred years earlier. There’s an enormous set up for this, taking place near the end of the second book of a trilogy, but the fact remains that after killing one monster, engaging in a fierce gun battle with two other monsters, and being saved by a third monster, the good guys then launch into a dialogue that is light, breezy, humorous, and wholly inappropriate to the experiences they are undergoing.

Unfortunately, Koontz seems to be unable to break out of this style. The situations in which his characters find themselves are tense to the point of being nearly unbearable. They are being hunted, shot at, tormented, sometimes seeing family and friends die…and yet Koontz can’t seem to help the fact that he keeps writing dialogue more suitable for His Girl Friday or The Lady Eve than for The Night Of The Hunter or Se7en.

There is a place for the type of banter that Koontz loves, but that place is not when the situation is fraught with tension and threat hangs heavy in the air. In those situations, this style of dialogue sounds contrived and forced. It’s not a “whistling past a graveyard” type of tension relief, though perhaps the author thinks of it as such. Rather, I would be worried about the psychological health of anyone who can be subjected to the assaults, car chases, gun battles, murder attempts, and general torment that these heroes endure and who could then slip so easily into the sort of light rapport that one finds at a picnic.

Dean Koontz is a good writer, and the storylines in which his characters reside are inventive and move at the speed of a runaway locomotive. There is much good to be found in a book by Dean Koontz, and his message of hope and love is a good one. That doesn’t change the fact that the lightweight badinage in which his heroes engage is frequently off-putting for the sole reason that no sane people in such insane circumstances could possibly talk this way, a trait that subverts the serious nature of the evil at work in the books. In the long run, how the good guys respond to the evil being done to them is where Koontz’s message can be imparted but the reaction of the protagonists, as demonstrated by their dialogue, ends up sending the message that evil is something that should not be taken seriously. I’m all for injecting a little comic relief into a tense or horrific situation, but there’s a fine line between a subtle joke that breaks the tension and having the heroes respond to calamity by slipping into a Marx Brothers routine.

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