Koontz, Dean R. (1945—)
Koontz, Dean R. (1945—)
Few writers have labored as long and as hard as Dean R. Koontz has to achieve his reputation as a writer of high quality commercial suspense fiction. Not only has he produced quality works in a variety of genres, but Koontz has also become a leading advocate for quality writing and creativity, producing two guides for would-be writers of fiction. Clearly one of the more significant trend-setters of the twentieth century when it comes to maintaining integrity in the highly commercialized fiction market, Koontz's reputation is well deserved.
Born an only child in Everett, Pennsylvania, in 1945, Dean Ray Koontz married his high school sweetheart, Gerda Cerra, in 1966. That same year he published his first story, "Kittens," in Atlantic Monthly, an auspicious beginning for a young writer. Taking a job as a teacher-counselor in the Appalachian Poverty Program, Koontz published his first stories as a professional writer, "Soft Come the Dragons" and "Behold the Sun," both of which appeared in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. A year later, Koontz worked as a high school English teacher in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, writing after the school day was done. By 1969 he had sold 20 short stories and three short novels, all works of science fiction. That year, he left his job as a teacher to write full-time. In quick succession, more science fiction stories and novels came into print, with his novella Beastchild receiving a 1971 Hugo nomination.
In 1972, Koontz's prolific output and perception by the public as a writer of science fiction forced him to adopt the first of several successful pseudonyms. His goal, as he made clear in various interviews, was to break out of the claustrophobic shell imposed by commercial category fiction. Under the watchful eye of Random House editor Lee Wright, Koontz adopted the nom de plume of K. R. Dwyer and wrote his first thriller, Chase. Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, alongside fiction that continued to appear under his own name, Koontz wrote thrillers, mysteries, romance novels, horror tales, and even science fiction as Brian Coffey, Anthony North, Richard Paige, Aaron Wolfe, John Hill, David Axton, Leigh Nichols, and Owen West. Only in the early 1990s did Koontz give up his various guises, republishing several of his pseudonymous works under his own name.
Koontz's success can largely be summed up by the attention he consciously has paid to his craft. Unlike many of his commercial peers, Koontz recognized right away that to use a formula for writing commercial fiction meant caring deeply about that formula. For evidence of this heartfelt belief, one only needs to look at his nonfiction work. In 1972, owing to his early success, Koontz was tapped by the publishers of Writer's Digest to author Writing Popular Fiction, a how-to guide for beginning writers of popular fiction. Nine years later, he revisited the topic in How to Write Best-Selling Fiction, also published by Writer's Digest. In the first guide, the still novice writer emphasized the profitability of category fiction, offering basic advice about the various genres in which he had written. In the latter guide, his earlier suggestions were turned on their head as the seasoned writer admonished would-be writers to avoid all forms of category fiction, providing instead pointers for the creation of high quality cross-genre suspense fiction. According to Koontz, between the words "Popular" and "Best-selling" lie all the differences between two approaches to writing, a reflection of his decision in 1973 (a year after publishing Writing Popular Fiction) to leave the narrow field of science fiction.
Signs of Koontz's early success as a writer came first with contracts he had landed at major publishers like Random House, Atheneum, and Bobbs-Merrill. His novels Demon Seed (Bantam, 1973) and Shattered (Random House, 1973) proved especially auspicious, receiving film treatments by Metro Goldwyn Mayer and Warner Brothers respectively, in 1978. Film versions of Watchers and other thrillers from the 1980s, however, eventually convinced Koontz to give up on selling movie rights to his work unless he could retain authorial control of the screenplay. His dissatisfaction with film treatments of his work and strong sense of ownership towards it explain in large part why there have been far fewer Koontz novels filmed than those of his counterpart, Stephen King. This proprietary sensibility has even been extended to the published editions of his early work. As a result, Koontz has retrieved the copyright for all of his early and out-of-print science fiction, with the avowed intent of either republishing certain works in rewritten form (as in the case of his 1973 novel Invasion, written as Aaron Wolfe, which appeared completely reworked in 1994 as Winter Moon) or keeping them outof-print as long as copyright law permits.
Koontz's critical reception has always been, and continues to be, positive. Reviewers recognize that his fiction is no more and no less than high-standard commercial fiction and, as a consequence, have scored him well in that regard. Few of his novels have achieved the level of artfulness of contemporaries like Stephen King and Clive Barker, or lesser-known fiction writers like Ramsey Campbell and T. E. D. Klein. Koontz does not like to experiment, barring such rarities as The Voice of the Night and The Vision. Certain patterns clearly emerge in most of his mature, later fiction: there is always a love interest; major and important minor characters generally come from dysfunctional families and broken homes (based in part on Koontz's own); an oddball sense of humor infiltrates the occasional banter between characters; and his politics, when revealed at all, incline towards a libertarian, anti-gun control stance with a strong dose of pro-civil rights liberalism thrown in. Finally, despite his abdication of the genre, science fiction—based premises run throughout the later major fiction: Watchers, Shadowfires, and Midnight focus on the threat of genetic engineering; Night Chills offers a disturbing portrait of mind control; the story of Lightning is driven by time travel; and Dragon Tears, The Vision, The Bad Place, and Cold Fire depend upon the psychokinetic abilities of their protagonists and antagonists.
Because he cares about his craft in a way that few commercial writers do, Koontz has risen to the top of bestseller lists; he has demonstrated how much he cares by keeping his lesser works out of print and his major works from the corrupting influence of television and film producers. Popular fiction is meant to give readers pleasure, and Koontz does not fail in his mission. In The Dean Koontz Companion, horror-fiction writer Charles de Lint summed up Koontz's contributions to fiction like this: "Dedication to his craft, an optimistic belief in the inherent goodness of humankind, a loving partner, and business acumen … these have all combined in Koontz to give us an author capable of bringing a reader to tears and laughter, sometimes on the same page, in a manner that no other author has been able to duplicate."
Greenberg, Martin H., Ed Gorman, and Bill Munster, editors. The Dean Koontz Companion. New York, Berkley Books, 1994.
Koontz, Dean Ray. How to Write Best-Selling Fiction. Cincinnati, Writer's Digest Books, 1981.
——. Writing Popular Fiction. Cincinnati, Writer's Digest Books, 1972.
Munster, Bill, editor. Sudden Fear: The Horror and Dark Suspense Fiction of Dean Ray Koontz. San Bernadino, Borgo Press, 1988.