See also the reprint of "Fear Nothing: Interview with Dean Koontz" in this issue.
No, he isn't dead—Dean Koontz is alive and kicking and writing novel after novel.
Dean Ray Koontz's first book, Star Quest, was published in 1968. Forty years and over eighty novels later he is still going strong. This year, in fact, expect more from his continuing series about Odd Thomas: Odd Hours in May and In Odd We Trust (a graphic novel coauthored and illustrated by Queenie Chan) later in 2008.
I've never met Dean Koontz in person, but I have talked to him on the phone, written to him, and done an interview with him for my book Giants of the Genre. My overall impression of Dean: he is one hell of a nice guy!
For this tribute I've interviewed many talented authors (including award-winning writers) and editors who have known Dean Koontz personally or are very familiar with him and his work.
As you will soon find out, Dean Koontz is not only a number-one author but he is also a number-one nice guy.
A number of years ago, Dean and Gerda Koontz passed through Cedar Rapids, Iowa on their way back home to California. Dean had just received an honorary doctor of letters degree from Shippensburg University of Pennsylvania, Dean's alma mater.
My wife Carol and I found the Koontzes to be just what we'd expected and hoped—friendly, funny, and without pretension. Lovely Gerda. Easygoing Dean. It was a wonderful two days.
Dean has been a good friend of mine for close to fifteen years now. Carol always knows when I'm talking to him because she can hear me laughing no matter where she is in the house. Dean is one of the two or three funniest people I've ever known. He has a profound sense of the ridiculous, and is always willing—hell, eager—to laugh at himself as well as some of the others we get in our sights from time to time. (We are pretty much kindred spirits in both politics and writing.)
I could tell you about all the luckless writers he's helped out financially over the years. I could tell you about all the plots I've brought him for his wise assessment and suggestions. I could tell you about the much-needed smart-ass presents he sent me during one of my longest and most depressing hospital stays. I could tell you about all the many, many hours he's spent helping other writers get their careers back on track.
A generous man in every regard. A truly decent man. And we haven't even mentioned his writing. I knew his work long before I knew him. Back in my drinking days, I'm told, I used to regularly regale my bottle mates with long-winded speeches about how Dean Koontz would someday be a household name. And they'd of course say, "Who's Dean 'Kountz'?" (Some of them are still back there in the same bar, I believe, and still asking the bartender, "You know some guy named Dean 'Kountz'?")
All of these aspects of Dean are well worth expanding on here.
J. N. Williamson
When I met Dean Koontz at a World Fantasy Convention, he was holding the door for his charming wife Gerda as they reached the main building. I was already there and, for some reason, the three of us knew instantly who we were. There was an instant recognition that soon extended to my wife Mary.
They are short, possibly 5'4" or less, and a handsome couple. I know they enjoy a hobby of ballroom dancing and have won contests doing it. At this time Dean wore a well-groomed mustache.
Neither he nor I sought our respective offices in what was then called Horror Writers of America—very briefly, it was Horror/Occult Writers League, or HOWL—but we served our fellow writers gladly and Dean set down most of our early, essential rules. He was the president, and I was secretary-treasurer until all us officers realized it should be two separate titles and I remained as secretary. For every important organizational decision Koontz phoned all the officers, but he probably reached a decision about most rules governing day-to-day operation. He also wrote—charmingly and wittily—a lion's share of the newsletter, including a huge quantity of sound professional advice.
Once there was a new slate of officers, I was delighted to read that Dean began to earn the kind of generous advances for his novels that he should have been getting for years.
When I asked him to write a chapter for How to Write Tales of Horror, Fantasy and Science Fiction, Dean wound up writing two articles: "Keeping the Reader on the Edge of His Seat" and "Why Novels of Fear Must Do More than Frighten."
The latter article is not only full of sound advice; it also ends with a paragraph that is more chilling than most people crafting nonfiction could muster.
I met Dean Koontz in the late 1980s at a local bookstore where he was signing copies of the hardcover edition of Twilight Eyes. I was a starving student, too poor to afford a copy of the book, but I went to the signing anyway, bringing my worn paperback copy of Whispers, my used book club edition of Phantoms, and a copy of a special Dean Koontz issue of the small press magazine The Horror Show.
Dean signed The Horror Show. He was surprised that I had a copy, and we got to talking. I told him that I was a frequent contributor to the magazine, and he asked whether I'd ever thought of writing anything longer. I admitted that I had a novel collecting dust at home—my master's project—but had no idea how to get it published. He asked for my phone number, wrote it down, and told me he'd give me a call.
Right, I thought.
I went to the Koontz signing with no ulterior motive, no hope of enlisting his aid, wanting only to get my books autographed.
But a week later, I was elbow-deep in the grease of my broken-down car when my mom came running out to the alley. "Dean Koontz is on the phone!" she yelled.
And he helped me find an agent, and he gave me wise advice whenever I needed it, and when my novel, The Revelation, was finally published, he attended my one and only book signing.
Dean Koontz is a rarity in this business: someone who cares.
He could have simply signed my books and sent me on my merry way, but instead he reached out, he made an effort . . . and he gave me a career. Maybe it would have happened anyway, but doubtlessly it would have taken a lot longer, and I would probably have stumbled into many of the pitfalls that his knowledge has helped me avoid. So I am forever indebted to Dean. I respect him as both a writer and a person, and I can only hope that if somehow, someday I ever reach his lofty heights, I can be as gracious and generous to others as he was to me.
This is what typifies Dean for me:
When The Horror Show [with Silva then as its editor] was still in its infancy, still struggling to find a readership and its place among all other fine horror magazines of the time, I decided to send some copies to Dean and see if he might be interested in writing a short story for the magazine. I was, and still am, a great admirer of his work.
In all honesty, I thought the best I could hope for would be a short letter thanking me for the package and politely passing on my invitation. To my surprise, and utter delight, Dean called me one night out of the blue. He said he had picked up a couple of copies of The Horror Show at a local bookstore just before my package had arrived and had enjoyed them very much. Then he offered to send along a short story, free of charge.
Not only did Dean send a story that instantly elevated the standards of the magazine ("Down in the Darkness," a short story no respectable horror fan should miss); he also continued to call and send material, lending his full support to The Horror Show. When the magazine most needed legitimacy to survive, he was generously there. And that will always be what I most admire about the man . . . his generosity.
All these years later, he still calls a couple of times a year, in between books and movie scripts, to check in. Inevitably, his sense of humor will keep me smiling for hours afterwards. There are few people in the business as generous with their time and talent as Dean. I consider myself very fortunate to call him my friend.
Although I didn't know it, the first science fiction novel I ever read was by Dean Koontz. I was a kid then, and my older brother had a book called The Fall of the Dream Machine. I read it and loved it, and it was only years later—in my late 30s—that I discovered that the book had been written by a young novelist named Dean Koontz. I often think there's a will to the universe when things like this happen, because a book on writing by Dean—called How to Write Popular Fiction—inspired me in my teens toward writing fiction of the type I would love.
I also read a book called Whispers. This was my adult introduction to Dean's fiction. It came by the way of my dad, who was in the Bethesda Naval Hospital for back surgery and was in for such a long period of time that it was unpleasant for him. But this novel, Whispers, helped him escape from that hospital room during those months, and he passed it on to me. I read it one night, and at dawn was itching to read another one by this guy named Koontz. I went and bought any book I could find by Dean—or any of his pseudonyms that I could discover. It wasn't until I was 28 and had signed my first book deal that I felt confident enough to introduce myself to Dean at one of his book signings—in Tustin, California. He was friendly and generous, and soon we were talking on the phone. As with all first novels, the road to publication and agentry and editorial issues—well, it all needed a balanced perspective.
Dean was more than generous with his time and expertise. He has a heart like no other, and it shows in his writing. His fiction is heavy on character—on what transforms ordinary human beings thrust into extraordinary circumstances, and on the inner workings of the human heart against the most psychologically challenging moments of life in the extreme. Still, he doesn't neglect plot, with twists and turns and shocks and surprises. In many of his novels, the mystery of the story is the mystery of existence in a nocturnal world of suspense and terror.
He is, in addition to being a compelling novelist, an amazing human being in ways that are hard to describe. He is unselfish with his time, yet completely devoted to his writing. He is obsessed with getting the words right on the page, and yet he's not one of those perfectionists who notices when someone else's slip is showing. I can't say enough good about him, and I'm honored to know him and very honored to even be able to write this brief bit of praise for the man and his fiction.
I have to add one more thing about Dean's fiction: it's both page-turning and intelligent, and this is something that doesn't always appear on top of the charts of best-selling fiction. You can have both the adventure and wisdom.
Also, without Dean, I would probably never have met other novelists I admire, such as Bentley Little and Richard Laymon, who have since become friends.
I've known Dean and Gerda since November 21, 1980, when I met them at Gary Brandner's house.
At the time, I didn't know much about Dean Koontz, but I was a huge fan of Owen West, author of The Funhouse. Since then, I've read the complete works of Owen West, quite a lot of Brian Coffey and K. R. Dwyer and Leigh Nichols . . . and a whole bunch by Dean Koontz.
Those guys can write.
Though Dean has always worked hard at his craft and art, he also seems to be a natural-born storyteller. In his hands (or brain), any small incident can be turned into a hilarious, gloriously detailed epic. Gerda is every bit as fascinating and funny—though she usually sits in silence for long stretches of time, listening to Dean.
I don't want to embarrass either of them by talking about great kindness and generosity. I will say that Dean was instrumental in connecting me with the great Bob Tanner, who has been my agent for the past 15 years. Dean has also given me a lot of professional advice: when I've followed it, I've always had excellent results.
Something that makes Dean and Gerda particularly special to me and my wife, Ann, is the way they have always enjoyed the company of our daughter, Kelly. Even when she was a small child, they paid attention to her and recognized aspects of her personality that went unnoticed by most others.
Dean's real-life tendency to notice people, understand them, and care about them inundates his fiction. That, I think, is a large part of the reason so many readers love his books.
Charles de Lint
I always find it sad how so many people equate best-seller success with hack writing, as though one's work can't be both popular and literate. Koontz, like King and a number of other popular writers, has had to suffer this backlash—from the critics, rather than the general readership, naturally, since the former particularly appear to have these axes they need to grind.
I know for a fact it's not true with Dean's work. Never mind that the books happily stand up for themselves in terms of quality. The truth is, Dean spends more time worrying over a sentence than most of us do over whole pages.
I first "met" Dean when we were both judges for the World Fantasy Awards. We had many telephone conversations about the works published that year, which naturally devolved into general discussions on writing, literature, favorite authors and books, and the like. Time and again, I was struck by how widely read Dean was, his fairness toward approaching the work of other writers, his desire to constantly push the envelope in both his reading and his own writing, but mostly by his dedication to his own work.
Here was a man who worked every day. Who wouldn't let a sentence leave his house until it was completely to his satisfaction. Who cared deeply about his characters, which in the hands of an artist, translates into the creation of characters others will care deeply about as well.
And there's one other thing that I won't forget.
At this time (the mid-'80s) there weren't many of us doing what's happily become much more common these days: crossing genres within the context of a single work. I love letting a story take me where it needs to go, even if that makes it unclassifiable, and writers like Dean Koontz and Joe Lansdale helped validate what I'd only been doing on instinct. Their encouragement and example were of enormous benefit to the new writer I was then, helping me keep the faith during those lean times when my publisher at the time didn't know what to do with these hybrid books I was producing.
I finally got to meet Dean in 1986 when I was a guest of honor at a convention in Long Beach, California, and he proved to be just as kind and thoughtful an individual in person as he was in letters and on the phone. Except for one thing. His corny sense of humor is even more pronounced in person. But you have to love him for it.
Dean Koontz is not going to win any National Book Awards. He's too entertaining. He's not going to be the subject of any graduate theses or New Yorker essays. He writes meat-and-potatoes prose in a meat-and-potatoes genre—the commercial thriller. But on one level—the level that counts—he is without peer. And that is the level of organic storytelling.
Koontz is a natural tale spinner—as good as Stephen King at mythmaking. And while Koontz may lack King's stylistic chops, he more than makes up for this plainness in his ability to hold the eye and the heart. Watchers is the high-water mark of this gift.
On the surface a techno-thriller about escaped laboratory experiments gone horribly awry—one a dog with human cognitive abilities, the other a humanoid killing machine—Watchers is most interesting in the dark, thorny, poignant innards of its subtext.
The sympathetic hero, Travis Cornell, is at the nadir of a midlife crisis when he stumbles upon the miraculous canine. And the smart pup touches off something powerful and inchoate within the man. Call it the wisdom of childhood. Like a furry avatar of lost purity, the dog leads Cornell on a healing adventure—full of love, loss, rage, horror, grief, and growth.
If Koontz is the literary Bruce Springsteen, then Watchers is his Born to Run: a career apogee that will never be equaled (and is not meant to be). It is a naked cry of primal innocence, a clarion call of the inner child. And it also rocks as a page-turner.
With apologies to The New Yorker, what the hell else do you want from a book?
"There was a strangeness about the weather that people would remember for years." Dean Koontz wrote this line for his haunting novel Lightning. Of his many novels, it was the first I would read. Like that line says, there was a strangeness about his stories and books that I would remember for years. His twists and turns are like lightning—thrilling, bright, and dark all at once.
And I'm proud to say that I'm a die-hard, awestruck fan of Dean Koontz!
Once in a great while does an artist effortlessly lower you into the world he's created and then play with your head and emotions as if they were mere Tinkertoys.
Dean Koontz had not so much taken me by the hand as let me feel like I was wandering about his creation, as if I were a player in it myself. This is something that most authors, successful or not, would agree is a key element in the art of writing. But not all writers can pull it off. Koontz can, and he can hold your attention with the precious element of suspense, turn it on its head to horror, and never once let you turn your head away. He may dare you to, but you won't. Can't.
So I'd like to give a small nod to the man who has taken me on some wonderful journeys. I've been reading the guy for years, and I still can't figure out how he does it. But I'm glad and thankful that he allows for some mysteries to be left in life.
The Amazing Kreskin
The passion that Dean Koontz has for writing is simply exuded by every page. But, I feel an even closer bond with Koontz when I realize his revulsion with Freudian theories. How weary it became over so many years that each character or subject of a movie, play, or novel had a traumatic past that would shape what he became. What a joy to know that Koontz thinks of the human personality as much more than a cause-and-effect mechanism and rather one with great depth. His works are not only a wonderful antiseptic to the infections that Freudian thinking has created in life, but moreover his writings are amongst the most spellbinding and riveting that I have ever read.
Dean Koontz is a man whom I've never met. Nonetheless, he has been a great and meaningful teacher to me. His wisdom and talent have truly inspired me and have helped me to hone my skills in the craft of writing. He is the master of modern suspense, building pathos and mystery with undeniable skill. His novels are great studies. They are lessons about weaving words together to create a masterpiece; keeping the reader wondering what happens next; setting a pace that lets the story flow; building an atmosphere that plays upon emotions. His characters are mentors in the art of understanding human emotion and the capacities of the soul—for both good and evil.
William F. Nolan
There's a very good reason for the vast success of Dean Koontz: he's a true original. His expert mix of horror, science fiction, suspense, and mainstream fiction is unique in the genre. Actually, Dean is his own genre. His characters are totally real, fully fleshed; they breathe in his pages. He compels us to believe in them, fear for them, and rejoice in their final triumph. Yes, in a depressing era of downbeat fiction, Dean thankfully provides us with happy endings. And bless him for that! His terror ends. His people survive. The joy of life (and love) is maintained.
Just how good is Koontz? I don't need to tell you. Each new book he writes is a wizard's demonstration of sheer storytelling genius. He grabs you in the first paragraph and never lets go. Who else can get sixty pages out of a car sliding downhill into an icy river and maintain nail-biting suspense every inch of the way (Dark Rivers of the Heart)?
Dean is much more than a fellow writer; I'm proud to count him as a friend. And a role model. Each book of his inspires me to try harder on my next.
Go, Dean! And take millions of readers with you.
Roman A. Ranieri
Dean Ray Koontz was born on July 9, 1945 in the town of Everett, located in the coal mining and steelmaking region of western Pennsylvania.
No. I'm not going to present a biography of Dean here. If you are interested in that, then read Katherine Ramsland's Dean Koontz: A Writer's Biography. It is the best book on Dean published thus far. I just felt it was important to mention where Dean came from, because it was a factor in shaping the man he would eventually become. In general, the people of that region are hardworking and mentally tough. They don't expect to be given anything for free, and they don't expect life to be easy. They rarely ask for help, but if they accept help from you, then you damn sure better let them help you when the time comes, or you are in for a fight.
Dean began his career writing short stories, then moved up to publishing novels in the science fiction genre. It's a shame that Dean will not allow most of these early books to be reissued. Although they were not masterpieces, they were certainly not regrettable failures. Next, Dean made a lateral move into the horror genre, where he soon became one of the "Top Three," along with Stephen King and Anne Rice. Ultimately, Dean moved on to create his own genre, which I suppose can be termed "techno-dark suspense," mixing and blending elements of mystery, suspense, horror, and science fiction into popular novels of thrilling entertainment. If you want to learn more about Dean's work, the best way is to read his books. Many of them are readily available in paperback.
"But what about 'Dean Koontz—The Nice Guy'?" you might be asking. Okay, here are a few examples. Dean's father was not a pleasant man. Again, I suggest Ramsland's biography for the full story. Yet, regardless of the way he had been treated while growing up, Dean continued to support and care for his father until the end. I wonder how many of us would have the forgiveness and grace to do likewise under similar circumstances.
Professionally, Dean has always been willing to help other writers, including struggling novices, whenever he could. He was chosen to be the first president of the Horror Writers of America, now renamed the Horror Writers Association. As Dean saw it, this organization existed to offer a wide range of assistance to writers working in the horror genre: everything from simply introducing new writers to agents and editors, all the way up to the unpleasant task of mediating disputes between writers and publishers. Dean wrote the newsletter himself, and mailed it out at his own expense. Unfortunately, ignoring Dean's advice to the contrary, the HWA established the Bram Stoker Awards to recognize superior achievement in the horror genre. It was a noble concept that rapidly turned ugly. The awards quickly changed the focus of the organization away from helping others toward a continuous battle royal to win a meaningless trophy, campaigned for with the lust and fervor of corrupt political officials seeking reelection. As you may have guessed, Dean has not been associated with this organization for many years.
I'm sure Dean has done many nice things for many different people. I'm not aware of Dean's life other than from what I've read, or from what I've surmised during my brief contacts with him. But here is the best example of "Dean Koontz—The Nice Guy" that I can offer. A fellow writer who happened to be a friend of Dean's died suddenly, leaving a family behind. The writer was successful enough to leave an adequate estate for his family, but as you can imagine, they were totally unprepared to handle all the various things that must be attended to in such a tragic time. The family could easily have been cheated by greedy agents and lawyers. But Dean stepped in and took care of everything, asking for nothing in return.
Obviously, I admire Dean, but I also think I understand him. I feel that Dean helps others because he could not look at himself in the mirror if he didn't. Being a "nice guy" isn't easy.