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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Odd Hours, by Dean Koontz

In the increasingly lengthy oeuvre of Dean Koontz, there have been two recurring main characters. The first of these is Christopher Snow, the hero of the books Fear Nothing and Seize The Night. Snow is a surfer dude with a rare skin condition that makes it impossible for him to be subjected to high degrees of light. The character is, frankly, lame, as were the two books in which he starred.

The second recurring character is Odd Thomas, a short-order fry cook who has various extrasensory perceptions. For starters, he can see dead people, though they can’t speak to him. He also has a type of psychic magnetism that allows him to find people or things just by thinking about them and following his instincts when they tell him whether to turn left or right. He can also see black, ghost-like forms that congregate days in advance wherever there is liable to be death and sorrow.

Odd Thomas is one of Koontz’s most likable characters. The books in which he appears, Odd Thomas, Forever Odd, Brother Odd, and Odd Hours, are written from his perspective as manuscripts detailing his adventures. Odd doesn’t seek trouble, but finds it seemingly wherever he turns. In the first book in the series, Odd stops a terrorist attack but not before many are killed including his girlfriend and soulmate, Stormy. Without her, he leaves his hometown and begins to wander.

Yes, just like Kane in Kung Fu.

All four of the Odd Thomas books are enjoyable. They’re light and breezy, full of good humor and thrilling action sequences. In these “manuscripts” Odd rarely lets more than a few paragraphs go by without making some kind of joke. Despite the deaths (and more than a few people are killed in various ways in each of the books), these really are somewhat comic novels.

Consider this: Odd Thomas is sneaking on board a boat that is going to rendezvous with another ship and retrieve four nuclear weapons to detonate in American cities. There is of course, a guard. It is night, Odd is trying not to be seen. The situation is tense.

To get aboard, I would have to take out the guard here on the dock, but I could see no way to do it quietly.

Besides,  I had to cross a swath of open planking to reach him, and I had no doubt that he would be better armed than I was. A better marksman. A better fighter. Tougher than I was. More brutal. Probably a kung fu master. Wicked with knives and martial-arts throwing stars that would be secreted in six places on his superbly fit body. And if I was somehow able to disarm him of every murderous implement, this guy would know how to make a lethal weapon from one of his shoes, left or right, he wouldn’t care which.

Koontz uses this tone in nearly all of his most recent books and it’s a tone that’s frequently jarring. Coming as the Voice of Odd, it’s not. One could make the case that it’s somewhat indulgent and serves little more than padding once it reaches a certain point, and those criticisms are at least partially true. Without the humorous asides and the Bringing Up Baby-style banter between characters, most Dean Koontz books would be about 150 pages long.

This makes it crucial to the success or failure of a Dean Koontz book that those 150 pages of serious content be good. The stronger the situation, the better the plot, the better the book. While that’s generally true of all fiction, for Koontz it is especially important. When he is inspired, his books become top-notch thrillers with a humorous edge. When the plot is lacking, there is no skeleton on which to hang clothes. The style is enjoyable, but it is not enough to carry a book.

Sad to say, the plot of Odd Hours is less than inspired.  A small cabal of beach town police and citizens are conspiring with an unnamed Middle Eastern country to detonate four nuclear bombs in four cities. Odd meets an equally odd pregnant woman who speaks in riddles and who serves no discernible purpose in the book. Perhaps she will in the next book, but in Odd Hours the character of Annamaria is nothing more than providing a female presence. She hints that she is somehow magical and is able to command threatening coyotes to leave. Then she disappears for the next 60% of the book and makes one last appearance at the end, joining Odd Thomas as he continues his journey.

Odd is captured by the cabal but escapes by goading the ever present ghost of Frank Sinatra (he sees dead people, remember? And Sinatra has replaced Elvis, who was Odd’s invisible companion in the previous books) into becoming an angry poltergeist. He then gets a helping hand from an old woman who also has some sort of psychic magnetism. He finds the cabal, kills them all, and rides off into the sunrise with Annamaria at his side.

Frankly, it’s all very humdrum. The plot is way too thin and the resolution of the dramatic acts way too matter-of-fact. The character deserves better. Odd Hours seems like it was dashed off over a long weekend.

I do want to take one minute here to praise Koontz for his own idiosyncratic style. He writes across multiple genres: thrillers, sci-fi, horror, suspense, action, comedy, romance…frequently all in the same book. He does not so much write in a genre as he has invented his own. Earlier books, like Phantoms or Darkfall were easily summarized as horror fiction, Strangers and Demon Seed were science fiction, etc.  But for over a decade now Koontz has been blending all of the different styles like an expert mixmaster.

The single biggest constant in his works, though, is hope. His books are not bleak or nihilistic (e,g, Scott Smith’s The Ruins). There is a genuine love of people (and dogs…boy, does Koontz love dogs!) that runs like a thread through all of his work. There is also a heavy amount of that ol’ time religion (Catholicism in Koontz’s case…whether the characters themselves are religious or not, the good guys at least behave in a uniquely Catholic manner, right down to abstaining from pre-marital sex). 

These threads of love and religion give Koontz a platform in every book to make the case that despite the evil that lurks in the heart of men, goodness and light will win the day in the end. Unfortunately in these days this counts as a profound point, and Koontz makes it at every opportunity. It’s a message worth hearing, and the fact that it’s usually wrapped in a good old comic thriller makes it even more palatable. Sadly, Odd Hours is not all that good. It’s a passable way to spend a few hours, and that’s about all.

But the message remains.

The Good Guy, by Dean Koontz

Just thinking, I can remember when he was Dean R. Koontz. I wonder whatever happened to that.

At this point, having read every Dean Koontz book except the two most recent (still in hardcover) and the eleven or twelve he has ready to release in the next six months, I’m not even sure how to review it. I guess I’ll start with the simplest statement.

It was a thoroughly enjoyable book, a quick read (about 450 pages in a couple of days), and by tomorrow I will have forgotten what it was about, just like I can’t for the life of me remember what the plot was to Dark Rivers Of The Heart, Mr. Murder, The Face, or The House Of Thunder.

Dean Koontz books are the literary equivalent of James Bond movies. Some are excellent (Casino Royale), some are good (Diamonds Are Forever), some are wretched (Moonraker). Almost all of them have the same basic set up.

So let’s create a recipe for a Dean Koontz book:

  • Average guy/girl, bruised and saddened by life, gets involved in dangerous situation
  • Average guy meets plucky girl who is somehow caught up in the situation
  • Very, very bad guy with delusions of being somehow above all humanity pursues average guy and plucky girl
  • Add one cute canine at some point
  • Stir government conspiracy into the mix (optional)
  • Chase scene across many miles
  • Final confrontation; average guy and plucky girl emerge victorious
  • Average guy and plucky girl get married

The above description fits about 85% of Dean Koontz’s books. It’s a formula. The downside of this is that his most of his characters are essentially interchangeable, and most of the set pieces of the plot can be swapped from novel to novel. Is there any difference whatsoever in the chase scenes between The Good Guy and, say, Dark Rivers Of The Heart? Nope, not really.

However, it’s a good formula. It works and provides for a nice, easy read. Mom’s apple pie is made the same way every time, with the same ingredients. But damn, it’s tasty every single time.

This is a mid-level Dean Koontz book. It’s far superior to his lazy efforts like The House Of Thunder or The Voice in the Night, but not up to the level of the books where his formula includes honest-to-God inspiration (Dark Rivers Of The Heart, Hideaway, Phantoms, Whispers, Darkfall, Strangers, the “Odd Thomas” books) or where he breaks from the formula (Intensity, The Taking).

Looking for a nice light read for the beach? The Good Guy satisfies nicely. Looking for something challenging that will make you think and reassess the nature of God, man, and nature? Stick with Tolstoy.