The Catholic literary vision of Dean Koontz
Religion may appear in contemporary fiction as part of the landscape, a plot device or even a threat, wrote Paul Elie in “Has Fiction Lost Its Faith?” in the New York Times Book Review (12/19/12), but one searches in vain today for a serious writer working, in the words of Flannery O’Connor, to “make belief believable.”
Elie’s challenge evoked extensive commentary in America and elsewhere, much of it lamenting that he is right. Compared to the “golden age,” when novelists like O’Connor, Graham Greene, Walker Percy and J. F. Powers received critical and popular acclaim within and beyond the Catholic community, we see a vast wasteland today. In perhaps the most substantive lament, the poet and critic Dana Gioia wrote in First Things in December 2013 that “Catholicism currently enjoys almost no positive presence in the American fine arts—not in literature, music, sculpture or painting.” He said there seems to be a tacit agreement on both sides of the divide that “Catholicism and art no longer mix.”
In America’s issue of Jan. 20, 2014, Angela Alaimo O’Donnell noted exceptions, like Alice McDermott—but her “very Catholic novels” are often set a few generations ago, “when faith was still considered a respectable option,” so secular critics can admire her work while dismissing the religious content as historical detail. “Perhaps,” wrote O’Donnell, “the successful Catholic writer is the writer who depicts faith by stealth, flying under the radar to avoid detection.” Recalling that Catholics had to practice their distinctive faith covertly during the English Reformation and in the early American colonies, she concluded: “Like her comrades of old, the successful Catholic writer has not disappeared—she’s just hiding in plain sight.”
A Masterpiece of Creation
This brings us to one of the most wildly successful novelists in the world: Dean Koontz. His books have sold over 450 million copies in dozens of languages, and many of his novels have been at the top of the The New York Times bestseller list. They are found in every bookstore, and several have been made into movies (with mixed results, as he is the first to note). This spring, when PBS launched its Great American Read campaign, his 1987 novel Watchers was on the campaign’s list of “America’s 100 most-loved books.” Yet he is rarely mentioned in the recent debate on the decline of Catholic literary culture. One exception is Jon Sweeney, who called him in America (7/4/16)“the best-selling writer of fiction in the world today who happens to be Catholic” (emphasis added).
Two questions arise about Dean Koontz: First, is he to be listed among serious novelists at all? Second, what makes him a Catholic novelist?
Hiding in plain sight, indeed. For decades a religious vision has suffused Koontz’s work, making him the most popular explicitly Catholic novelist in the world. But two questions arise: First, is Dean Koontz to be listed among serious novelists at all? Second, what makes him a Catholic novelist?
Some will answer the first question in the negative because they have consigned him to that lucrative but frowned-upon category called “genre fiction.” But to exclude such fiction from the purview of Christian literature would lose us the fantasies of J. R. R. Tolkien and C. S. Lewis, the ghost stories of Russell Kirk and the detective novels of P. D. James, Dorothy Sayers and G. K. Chesterton, to name just a few.
In fact, it is hard to pinpoint exactly to what genre Dean Koontz’s works belong. Bookstores may carry his works under mystery, suspense, horror, fantasy or science fiction. Because his plots often involve individuals struggling against vast conspiracies, The Newark Star-Ledger has called him a master of the “paranoid thriller.” The Richmond Times-Dispatch has said he “almost occupies a genre of his own.”
Unlike many novels in these fields, a Koontz novel is written. The author has said he may revise each page of a new work 10 or 20 times, and it shows. Even the Washington Post reviewer Patrick Anderson, who thought the premise of his 2015 novel Ashley Bell was “hokum,” admitted that “Koontz’s prose can be exceptionally fine.” In many novels he devotes successive chapters to particular characters, writing in the third person but shading his descriptions to reflect that person’s attitude toward events—a technique developed by Jane Austen and known to critics as “free indirect discourse.” He is gifted at describing natural surroundings to heighten a mood and at creating believable and entertaining characters with a few broad strokes. Here are some samples:
As a brother and sister desperately flee from killers in The Crooked Staircase (2018): “They passed near the ruins of the once-great house in which the owners had perished in a fire three years earlier: a rubble of broken masonry and infallen timbers. Two stone fireplaces with chimneys stood largely unscathed, oddly threatening in the night, like shrines to a primitive god that had slaughtered his own idolaters.”
In From the Corner of His Eye (2000): “Nolly Wulfstan, private detective, had the teeth of a god and a face so unfortunate that it argued convincingly against the existence of a benign deity.… With what Nolly must have spent to obtain this smile, some fortunate dentist had kept a mistress in jewelry through her most nubile years.”
From the opening pages of Midnight (1989), as a 35-year-old widow takes an evening jog in a coastal town in California: “Some nights the fog was too thick and the sky too overcast to permit running on the shore. But now the white foam of the incoming breakers surged out of the black sea in ghostly phosphorescent ranks, and the wide crescent of sand gleamed palely between the lapping tide and the coastal hills, and the mist itself was softly aglow with reflections of the autumn moonlight.”
Koontz has been hailed as a writer who keeps people awake at night—because he is compulsively readable and because he scares readers so deeply that they cannot sleep.
(Koontz being Koontz, it should be noted that after this last idyllic description, the character in question is killed on the shore by werewolves.)
Koontz has been hailed as a writer who keeps people awake at night—because he is compulsively readable and because he scares readers so deeply that they cannot sleep. But even his horror stories do not pile up bodies for cheap thrills alone. Violence takes the lives of precious and unique people. As young Curtis says in One Door Away From Heaven (2001): “This is a beautiful world, a masterpiece of creation, but it is also a dangerous place.”
If Dean Koontz is a real writer, what makes him a Catholic writer, not just a writer who happens to be Catholic?
A Catholic Worldview
Dana Gioia’s essay in First Things suggests that being a Catholic writer does not require a focus on religious or ecclesiastical subjects, or commitment to Catholic doctrines—some of the most celebrated Catholic authors were lapsed Catholics. The writing is Catholic when the treatment of non-ecclesiastical subjects is “permeated with a particular worldview.” Catholic writers, Goia argues, “see humanity struggling in a fallen world,” combining a longing for grace with a deep sense of imperfection and sin; while evil exists, the physical world is sacramental, charged with the invisible presence of God; suffering is redemptive, especially when it emulates that of Christ; Catholics “take the long view of things,” looking back to Christ and forward to eternity; they emphasize community, “extending to a mystical sense of continuity between the living and the dead”; and they see a need for “spiritual self-scrutiny and moral examination of conscience.” All these elements are present in Dean Koontz’s writing.
One constant theme is the beauty and complexity of creation, as well as many people’s preference for a flatter and less demanding worldview. In Saint Odd, the last of eight novels depicting the adventures of Odd Thomas, the hero is awed by “the mysterious nature of the world, its deeply layered and profound strangeness.” In One Door Away From Heaven, young Leilani Klonk has learned to fear her stepfather, an atheist “mercy killer” reminiscent of Jack Kevorkian—and she reflects that he lives “under the same vault of stars that were, to her, filled with wonder and mystery, but that were, to him, nothing more than distant balls of fire and cataclysm.” Another character, Curtis, recognizes for the first time a divine presence that is “resonant in all things” and feels “the exquisite rightness of creation,” along with “an awareness of being loved.”
Lest anyone think that in Dean Koontz’s world such epiphanies are commonplace, the situation is more than unusual. “Curtis” is a young alien from another planet, fleeing those who have killed his mother, and has taken the form of a human boy as a disguise. He can bond mentally with other creatures over time and is accompanied in his escape by the real Curtis’s dog. It is on entering the sleeping dog’s dream that he becomes fully aware of God’s presence in creation and “the piercing joy that comes with the awareness of that holy, playful Presence.”
Koontz’s love of dogs, especially golden retrievers, is more widely known than his theological explanation for that feeling. Curtis realizes that the dog was born in “a state of grace” and is comfortable with her instinctive awareness of God “because her innocence leaves her unfettered by self-consciousness.” Such creatures are intelligent but not of the highest intelligence, so are innocent enough “to serve as a bridge between what is transient and what is eternal.” And Curtis can share his gift of mental bonding with others, helping to save humanity from itself. Among other things, he can show Leilani that “although her mother never loved her, there is One who always has.”
Being a Catholic writer does not require a focus on religious or ecclesiastical subjects, or commitment to Catholic doctrines—some of the most celebrated Catholic authors were lapsed Catholics.
Our path as human beings is not that of animals, as we have free will, “our greatest gift, the thing that makes life worth living, in spite of all the anguish it brings,” says Odd Thomas’s friend Edie Fischer. Noah Farrell reflects in One Door Away From Heaven: “We bring beauty with us into this world, as we bring innocence, and the ugliness that we take with us when we leave is what we’ve made of ourselves instead of what we should have made.”
In this drama of sin and redemption, characters use their free will in radically different ways. Koontz’s villains generally share certain characteristics. Their self-centeredness and drive for power over others is both a psychopathology and the fruit of nihilistic and reductionist ideas that have acquired new visibility in recent decades.
In From the Corner of His Eye, Junior Cain’s philosophy is “self-realization through self-esteem,” learned from the self-help books of the fictional writer Caesar Zedd, whose approach may remind the reader of Scientology. For Cain, belief in an afterlife is ignorant superstition, and morality is “a primitive concept, useful in earlier stages of social evolution” but now obsolete. He is “a hollow man” who realizes he is missing something important in life but can’t figure out what it is. Preston Maddoc, the Kevorkian-like villain in One Door Away From Heaven, has embraced the vision of Peter Singer and other utilitarian bioethicists, described by another character as “a brave new world of greater happiness through useful killing.” In Breathless, the killer Henry Rouvroy admires Freud, Marx, Nietzsche, Singer, Foucault and others, and thinks that “only two roles existed for any human being: prey or predator. Rule or be ruled. Act or be acted upon.” The same will to power, exalting oneself by controlling others in a world with no inherent meaning, animates the conspirators in Koontz’s recent “Jane Hawk” novels.
Koontz’s protagonists are more varied. Some begin as people of faith. Others are initially lost, wounded and unsure of their direction. Some, like Cammy in Breathless and Micky in One Door Away From Heaven, were abused as children—possibly reflecting the author’s childhood in a dysfunctional family dominated by an erratic and alcoholic father. Some suffer from devastating tragedies like the murder of loved ones. By facing great adversity they come to a fuller sense of purpose for their lives and the world. In contrast with the self-absorbed villains, they yearn for love and community—including an assurance that their lost loved ones are not lost forever, that there is a bond surpassing death.
In perhaps the first novel in which Dean Koontz went public with his beliefs, The Bad Place (1990), the private detectives Robert and Julie Dakota are tracking a serial killer with astonishing powers. Julie’s beloved brother Thomas, who has Down syndrome but also some telepathic ability, senses the approach of the killer, whom he has dubbed The Bad Thing—but his mental outreach has alerted the killer to Thomas’s location and sealed his fate. Aware that he is going to his death, which he calls The Bad Place, he sends a final telepathic warning to the Dakotas that “the Bad Thing’s coming, look out”—but as he dies, he suddenly adds that “there’s a light that loves you….” The intimation that what lies beyond death is not such a “bad place” gives the Dakotas hope, sustaining them in a fight against seemingly impossible odds.
His novels are battles between good and evil, but Koontz believes, with Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, that “the line separating good and evil passes...right through every human heart.” His villains retain shreds of conscience that bedevil them, with distressing digestive symptoms in Junior’s case and obsessive hand-washing and memory lapses in Henry’s. The protagonists Odd Thomas and Jane Hawk, the heroes of entire series, agonize that they have crossed a moral line in their own use of violence and are becoming like their enemies. Bibi Blair in Ashley Bell and Ryan Perry in Your Heart Belongs to Me find that through self-deception and a failure to face the truth about themselves, they have literally become their own worst enemies.
His novels are battles between good and evil, but Koontz believes, with Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, that “the line separating good and evil passes...right through every human heart.”
This need to face the truth about oneself and the world is another constant theme in Koontz’s work. Perry is told by a bodyguard he has hired that “the taproot of violence” is “the hatred of truth.” Koontz expands on this theme in his foreword to a nonfiction critique of the “animal rights” movement, Wesley Smith’s A Rat Is a Pig Is a Dog Is a Boy (2010). “This is a world of infinite layers and of insoluble enigmas,” he writes, but “we lie to ourselves about the nature of the world” to keep it simple and subject to our control. “We are afraid of meaning except as we craft it to suit ourselves.” The result is “a simple and intellectually hollow materialism that reduces nature to a machine lacking in mystery,” denying both “the sacredness of all creation” and humankind’s exceptional role in that creation.
Koontz believes one answer to such reductionism is to show the beauty and complexity of life through works of the imagination. Some of his characters are creative artists who seek to present the beauty of the world—not a simple or sentimental beauty, but life with its light and darkness, as the painter Celestina says in From the Corner of His Eye. In What the Night Knows (2010), the successful painter Nicolette feels “the need to serve Truth even more than art.” And their works, like Koontz’s, are dismissed by self-styled intellectuals who think art should denigrate and deny timeless truths. (Koontz got some literary revenge in Relentless, where a powerful literary critic committed to nihilism turns out to be a murderer.)
A Theological Bent
But why promote the truth about the world through tales of horror and violence? One clue lies in Koontz’s love for the work of Flannery O’Connor, who sought to “make belief believable” in an increasingly secular world by placing characters in situations that disrupt their lives (and shock the reader) to the core. “To the hard of hearing you shout, and for the almost-blind you draw large and startling figures,” she once wrote. In a world grown even more secular, if not openly hostile to faith, Dean Koontz has taken up this task. And horror and ghost stories are fertile fields because they already ask the reader to suspend disbelief in a supernatural realm. As John Calvino says in What the Night Knows: “I’ve seen the demonic. If it’s real, so is its opposite.”
Some of Koontz’s recent work shouts more loudly, as it is more openly theological and apocalyptic. In The Taking (2004), what is thought to be an alien invasion turns out to be an angelic intervention to end the world as we know it. Addison in Innocence (2013) must prowl his city by night, as he is so hideous that the sight of him fills people with murderous rage—except that it turns out he is not hideous at all. He is one of a small number of people, appearing shortly before a devastating plague will be unleashed on the world, who were born without original sin to begin humanity anew—and the innocence in his face indicts most other people of their guilty consciences, driving them to erase him from their sight. Addison can also see demons and angels hovering about the city as it approaches cataclysm, and the angels appear wearing surgical scrubs (talk about the church as field hospital!). And Breathless (2010) invokes “intelligent design” and chaos theory to suggest that when humanity risks destroying itself, the Creator might bypass the slow process of evolution and suddenly produce a new intelligent species to offer us a different path.
These frankly religious works have surely cost Koontz secular readers, some of whom have sent him hate mail after discovering that their favorite writer of supernatural fiction really believes in, well, the supernatural. Unfortunately, his boldness does not seem to have won him comparably greater attention from Catholic reviewers. In the current Jane Hawk series, about a rogue F.B.I. agent struggling against a massive conspiracy, he returns to less overtly religious subject matter—but even Jane knows she is fighting for a civilization “built on love” and against “a loveless realm in which soon everyone would live as a stranger in a strange land.”
A Unique Character
If one can accept the idea that tales of horror and violence may allow an author to introduce the concepts of faith and redemption in our increasingly tone-deaf culture, a final feature of Dean Koontz’s worldview may prove a barrier for some readers: He is a “conservative Catholic.” In Recovering Faith (2011), edited by Lorene Hanley Duquin, he relates how he stopped attending Mass after the Second Vatican Council because he felt the church was selling out its traditions to a “utopian impulse” of social action. He was drawn back by the church’s intellectual heritage, his correspondence with some priests and bishops and a relationship with the Norbertine fathers at a local abbey.
Koontz does not dismiss social action, but he distrusts grand utopian projects that claim to elevate humanity while forgetting individual people.
Thus, when John Calvino seeks help from his pastor in combating a demonic spirit terrorizing his family, he is told that “in an age of nuclear weapons, we don’t need Hell and demons” but rather “the courage to express our faith in social action.” (To be fair, when John seeks out the more traditionalist former diocesan exorcist, he finds a disgraced ex-priest who cannot come to his house because he would be sexually attracted to John’s adolescent children.) At the climax of his battle with the demon, John feels what is needed is “some really antisocial action or else what was once called a miracle.” He gets the miracle, once he resolves to sacrifice himself for his family.
Koontz does not dismiss social action, but he distrusts grand utopian projects that claim to elevate humanity while forgetting individual people. His novels feature many sympathetic characters who are brought low by poverty, persons with mental or physical disabilities and children. His least favorite people are members of affluent elites, politicians or not, who feel they are above the common run of humanity and have a right to control the destiny of others.
Like O’Connor and other writers who have taken risks to invite the reader to an existential decision, Dean Koontz will not please everyone. But in a culture addicted to horror stories, action movies and superheroes, he has used the raw material at his disposal to propose that the greatest horror is to ignore how beautiful and mysterious are the works of God. He presents one fascinating way to use the power of imagination to evangelize.