In all the many books that I have read, there exists much truth and wisdom, but in not a single volume has the truth of lovemaking been revealed. When I lie in the arms of [my wife], in ecstasy, it is essentially not about sensation but about passion, and passion is not of the flesh but of the mind and heart. No writer ever told me there is no self in the act, that the desire to give drives out all thought of receiving, that lovers become one, transported, that I am her and she is me, that we find ourselves not engaged in seduction and surrender but in the throes of creation, not consumed by desire but by astonishment, given for a moment the very power that brought into existence the universe, so that we, too, can create life.
—From a novel by Dean Koontz
Eight years ago when my friend Ann asked me if I had ever read anything by Dean Koontz, I thought she must have lost her mind. I didn't really know anything about Koontz at the time except that he wrote horror novels and that they sold his books at the grocery store. I had been in some serious discussion groups with Ann, and I didn't have her pegged for a horror aficionado. It turned out that she had read an article somewhere about Koontz that talked about the Christian influence in his novels and the fact that he was Catholic. That got my attention, and so I read my first Dean Koontz novel, and then my second and third, and then everything that he had written between the year 2000 and that time.
I soon found out that one can't place Koontz’s books in any one genre. Some of them, in particular his earlier works, are horror, but some of the novels are sci-fi, some supernatural and some not, some suspense/thriller, and some almost mystical. Almost all of them are filled with great tension of one sort or another and they hit the ground running. In very few of them do we get through the first chapter without finding ourselves in a battle to death.
It has been noted in the comments on this blog that Koontz's novels are pot boilers, and while I can't deny that there is usually a pot on the back burner, that's not all there is to his books. His battles are not just between a protagonist and an antagonist. They are not just about the people that we pull for and the ones we're against. His later novels, especially, are always a battle between authentic good and that evil who is at the root of all evil. Koontz increasingly demonstrates that he reveres the Culture of Life, and recognizes and abhors the Culture of Death, and that he knows their sources, and this is what most sets him apart from the majority of popular authors.
The more familiar I became with Koontz's work, the more evident it became to me that he has a vision, and that he shares that vision with and in some ways derives that vision from many of the authors that we have discussed on this blog. He talks about Lewis and Chesterton; there is a scene in one of his novels that is pure Percy—almost to the point of plagiarism; he quotes Eliot a lot. The author that seems to influence him the most, though, is Flannery O'Connor. While Koontz does not approach Miss O'Connor in subtlety or mastery of the language, he appears to be adhering to the means of writing for a deaf audience that she talks about in her essays in Mystery and Manners. His villains are certainly grotesque and over-the-top (although unfortunately reality will probably surpass them soon). His hyperbole seems calculated to shock us into realizing that something is wrong.
Another influence that has assumed more and more importance in both Koontz's work, and, I deduce from interviews, his own life, is his Catholic faith. Koontz, who grew up in a less than salubrious family situation, converted to Catholicism after becoming a part of his wife Gerda's close, loving, and very Catholic family. Sometimes this influence comes out in a sacramental way that is probably opaque to most readers. For instance, in one of the novels the main character is being pursued and methodically wounded in different ways by an enemy, and pretty soon I realized that the wounds were the wounds of Christ. Sometimes he throws in references to the Church. One book is set in a monastery. In the latter books, many of the characters are Catholic.
There are many recurrent elements in Koontz's work that reveal his recognition of the sanctity of life. One of his novels is centered around a man who is desperately trying to save his comatose fiancée from those who are trying to euthanize her. Another is about ethical problems surrounding questionable organ “donation.” Frequently, there are characters with some sort of disability in his narratives and they are likely to be pivotal characters. There is a love and concern for children. There is a respect for marriage and the family, and an awareness of the true tragedy of broken homes.
Koontz's most popular character, and the one about whom he has written the most books (eight), is a young man named Odd Thomas. Flannery O'Connor is often quoted as saying, “You shall know the truth and the truth shall make you odd.” I wondered for a while if this quote had influenced Koontz in the selection of Odd's name, but from what I've read, the line, “My name is Odd Thomas,” came to him in the manner of Lewis's faun. Miss O'Connor's quote is appropriate, though.
In A New Song for the Lord: Faith in Christ and Liturgy Today, Benedict XVI quotes Romano Guardini as saying, “Jesus' entire existence is the translation of power into humility...into obedience to the will of the Father.” This pretty well sums up the character of Odd Thomas. Odd has supernatural abilities. He can see dead people who come to him for help in moving on to the next world, which frequently involves his getting involved with their murderers. He has dreams that come true and something he calls psychic magnetism that leads him to a person or place that he needs to find, but he accepts and uses these gifts in true humility, and never for himself.
According to an article in the National Catholic Register, after reading the first two Odd Thomas novels, a friend of Koontz's, bioethicist Wesley Smith, told him, “You know what you're writing about here? You're writing the life of a saint.” Koontz at first rejected that idea, but soon began to see that this might be true, and got more serious about Odd's character. As Odd's story progresses, we see him grow in virtue. He picks up the cross of his abilities and carries them without complaint. One aspect of his virtue that stands out for me relates to the necessity of his taking human life. In the course of his mission, he sometimes has to kill people, but he never desires to kill people, and he is always sorry that he has had to do so, particularly when he has to kill women. He has a reverence for life and he realizes that the taking of a life diminishes his innocence.
Now all this sounds very fine and noble, and it is, but it takes place within a narrative that is often bizarre and outlandish and brutal. It is often quite humorous, too, but sometimes the humor is puerile, which I really dislike. I don't remember, though, Koontz using this kind of humor much in his other books, and I almost wonder if he does it to emphasize Odd's youth and innocence. There's nothing lewd or suggestive in the things I'm talking about—just, well puerile. And then in the midst of the violence and puerility, we come across something like this:
Beyond lay a large room softly illuminated by five oil lamps.
One lamp rested on a dinette table at which stood two chairs. Annamaria sat facing the door.
She smiled as I crossed the threshold. She raised her right hand to motion me to the empty chair.
... the humble furniture included a narrow bed in one corner, a nightstand on which stood a gooseneck desk lamp, a worn and sagging armchair with a footstool, and an end table.
Distributed around the room, the five oil lamps were squat, long-necked glass vessels in which floated burning wicks. Two were the color of brandy, and three were red.
When I sat across the table from her, I found dinner waiting. Two kinds of cheese and two kinds of olives. Tomatoes cut in wedges. Circlets of cucumber. Dishes of herb-seasoned yogurt glistening with a drizzle of olive oil. A plate of ripe figs. A loaf of crusty bread.
—Odd Hours, Dean Koontz
There's more to this, but I hope I've quoted enough to give the feeling that I think this scene evokes. When I read this passage, my mind automatically flew to medieval paintings. There are images here that are common in pictures of the Annunciation.
Annamaria is an 18 year old woman who is pregnant, and has no husband and no visible means of support, but she is completely peaceful and people always give her whatever she needs. She wears a small bell on a chain around her neck. Odd thinks of her as the Lady of the Bell. My husband tells me that in the seminary they taught him that the voice of the bell is the voice of God. I don't know if Koontz had this in mind, but subsequent events make it seem likely. Annamaria is a woman of mystery and she remains mysterious throughout the rest of the series, so I think I'll just leave you with the mystery.
A couple of months ago, I had decided not to write about Koontz in this series of posts. It had been a long time since I'd read one of his books. I didn't care for the last one I read, and I had forgotten many of the things that attracted me to the novels. Then while looking for something else, I came across this interview with Raymond Arroyo about Koontz's novel Innocence. The interview is thirty-five minutes long, so I doubt you will want to listen to it, but it seemed from the interview that the new book was something different for Koontz, and something better.
I mentioned earlier that Koontz is not the writer that Flannery O'Connor is. He has some habitual flaws, and I never quite enter the narrative completely the way I do when I read really good authors. I have always wished that he would write a novel in a completely different style than his usual work—something without the pot in the background. Innocence is not exactly the novel that I would like to see Koontz write, but it is a great stride in the right direction.
This book is much slower paced. During his interview with Koontz, Arroyo kept using the word lyrical, and there are many places where the narrative is indeed lyrical, and in some places quite beautiful. The protagonist, Addison Goodheart, is miles away from some of Koontz's characters who rely heavily on weapons, and even from Odd who only uses weapons as a last resort. Addison will not use a gun or defend himself in any way that will harm anyone, although, through no fault of his own, everyone who sees him wants to kill him. The real strength of Innocence, however, is the metaphysical concept at the heart of the story.
One of the things I am always looking for in books and movies is grace in unexpected places. I’m sure that this is the reason that I was drawn to Koontz’s books. The idea that someone who is writing genre fiction for a popular audience that is searching for horror, action, and mayhem, underlies his narrative with a subtext of grace and redemption fascinates me, as does the process of watching the mayhem subside while the grace grows. His most recent novel, The City, has a 10 year old boy as its protagonist. There is no graphic violence, and the novel is more about the life of this child—his love for music—his family and friends—than about the danger that threatens him. I wonder how Koontz is going to keep his audience if he continues in this direction, but I hope he persists.
Yet the human heart is disheartened by the most unreasonable self-judgments, because even when we take on giants, we too often confuse failure with fault, which I know too well. The only way back from such a bleak despondency is to shape humiliation into humility, to strive always to triumph over the darkness while never forgetting that the honor and the beauty are more in the striving than in the winning. When triumph at last comes, our efforts alone could not have won the day without that grace which surpasses all understanding and which will, if we allow it, imbue our lives with meaning.
Odd Interlude, Dean Koontz
—Janet Cupo has been commenting on this blog for about as long as it's existed, and has her own excellent blog at The Three Prayers.