Get in touch with your reptile consciousness. Embrace the cold and dark. That’s what we are.
— From Intensity, by Dean Koontz
You can see the sun shining over the Pacific from Dean Koontz’s palatial hilltop home in Newport Beach, Calif., but as he tells you his life story — a story as suspenseful as some of his many best-sellers — the living room seems to grow cold and dark.
Strangely, however, Koontz, 50, remains upbeat as he recounts the trauma of growing up with a violent, alcoholic, schizophrenic father. It’s an experience that has fueled his astonishing success as the author of more than 60 novels of terror, suspense, and the supernatural — and has made him one of today’s best-selling authors of popular fiction (more than 160 million copies of his books have been sold worldwide). His latest, Intensity, is a classic Koontz tale, pitting good (a heroine who survived an abusive childhood) against evil (a serial killer), and is now in its ninth week on the best-seller list. It’s the second novel under his new three-book, $18.5 million contract with Knopf and the first that may break his streak of bad luck with Hollywood. Nine feature films and TV movies based on Koontz’s books — like 1977’s Demon Seed and 1988’s Watchers — have been produced; all were mediocre efforts.
But bad luck — whether it’s been with Hollywood execs or with his abusive father — is not something the seemingly optimistic Koontz lets drag him down. Even his worst memories are sometimes given a comical spin. ”Now, that was a funny moment,” he says, remembering the second time his father tried to kill him. It was 1989, and his father, ensconced in a nursing home, punched out another resident, a guy in a walker. After Koontz arrived and tried to calm him, the old man reached into his dresser drawer, took out a knife, and tried to stab his son. Koontz wrested the knife away after a protracted struggle, but when the police arrived, they tried to arrest him. ”That was the funny part,” says Koontz. ”I put that incident in Mr. Murder.”
Whether it’s Mr. Murder, Phantoms, The Face of Fear, Night Chills, Dark Rivers of the Heart, or any other of Koontz’s check-under-the-bed-before-you-go-to-sleep books, you’ll find that they’re all inspired by the author’s own life. For Dean Koontz the child, the bogeyman was very real. It was his father. ”I was always frightened when he was there,” says Koontz of growing up as an only child in Bedford, Pa. ”I always thought, This is the night he’s going to kill me and my mother.” But for Dean Koontz the adult, his father became, of all things, his muse. Or, as Koontz puts it wryly, Ray Koontz was ”material.”
To understand Dean Koontz, you first have to understand his father, a sociopath who rarely held a job and flew into a rage at a moment’s notice, smacking his wife and breaking furniture. ”He’d usually come home drunk,” says Koontz, ”and the drunker he was, the angrier he got. If he came up the driveway really fast with gravel flying, and you’d hear bonk, bonk, bonk on the horn, that’s when my mother would usher me into my room, close the door, and say, ‘Don’t come out.”’
Koontz dedicated Intensity to Florence Koontz, who died in 1969. ”People are always curious about his father,” says O. Richard Forsythe, Koontz’s former professor at Shippensburg University in Pennsylvania and a friend for more than 30 years. ”His mother kind of gets lost in the shuffle. But it was his mother who saved him. Without her he might have been a very damaged person.”
Literally. ”When my father tried to hit me, she would stand between us,” Koontz says. He credits his mother with giving him love and encouragement and what little sense of security he had — but he never saw any affection between his parents. ”Of course, I realize she was, to use the popular term, codependent in some way,” Koontz says. ”So was I. First he leaned on my mother, and then he leaned on me. I never understood why she stayed with him, and I never understood why I did.”
Even though Koontz says he never loved his father, he took care of him until 1990, when he died at 81. He and his wife of 29 years, Gerda, even moved Ray Koontz out to Orange County in 1976 so they could watch over him. Those 14 years, Koontz says, were as nightmarish as his childhood. Ray Koontz, a hypochondriac, would routinely call at 2 or 3 a.m. and demand to be taken to the nearest hospital. Sometimes he threatened his neighbors with a knife. Then, in 1989, after trying to kill Dean with a knife, he was placed on antipsychotics and put in a nursing home.
But anyone who thinks Koontz took care of his father because deep down he really loved him is ”dead wrong,” he says. ”I didn’t love him. How can you love someone who never showed you affection? What I did was a selfish thing. From the time I was a kid I said, ‘I’m never going to be like my father.’ Never brought in any money, never spent time with me, humiliated me when he could. But if I abandon him, that’s what he did to me as a child. So I took care of him instead.”
While Koontz was taking care of his father, he still managed to churn out novels at a record pace. For this he credits his wife, whom he began dating in high school. ”The relationship with my wife has been the most important of my life,” he says. ”We’re like two pieces of a puzzle who complement each other.” Gerda Koontz, who will enter the living room to say hello but declines all interviews, runs the business side of the Koontz empire. The two decided against having children partly because they feared having a child like Ray Koontz. ”We were afraid it was a genetic thing, and it could skip a generation,” Koontz says.
For years, Koontz has logged 60-to-80-hour work weeks at his Newport Beach home. Though Koontz’s books (which his father never read) have been best-sellers since the paperback publication of Whispers in 1981, he struggled early on to shirk his label as a second-string Stephen King; and for all his success, he still can’t match King’s record in movies and TV. ”Hollywood doesn’t get what I do,” says Koontz. ”They’ve made my books into absolutely dreadful pictures. Jeff Goldblum was in Hideaway last year. Horrible movie. I spent almost as much money in attorney’s fees trying to get my name off it as they paid me for the rights.”
Negotiations are under way for the filmed version of Intensity, and Koontz hopes that this time, the movie will work. He would love to see Sandra Bullock as 26-year-old Chyna Shepherd, the ballsy grad student who takes on a serial killer in a battle of wits and brawn. According to Will Schwalbe, editor in chief of William Morrow, Koontz may finally be walking around lucky: ”I think he’s at that moment that very talented people often have — when everything converges and they really break out on top.”
Whether or not he finally conquers Hollywood, Koontz has already managed to write himself the same kind of happy ending — victim becomes victor — that he favors in his novels. But there’s one big difference between Koontz’s art and his life: In his books, all the loose ends are usually tied up; in his life, they never will be. It has to do, again, with his father. For one thing, says Koontz, he’s always wondered why he doesn’t look anything like Ray Koontz or anyone on his dad’s side of the family. And he can’t shake from his memory a strange conversation he once overheard between his mother and his uncle, who was married to his mother’s sister. Koontz was close to his uncle and, oddly, resembled him. ”We married the wrong people,” he heard his mother say.
Koontz didn’t think back to that remark until his mother was on her deathbed in 1969. At one point, Florence Koontz called him to her side and whispered, ”There’s a secret you should know about your father.” A second later, Ray Koontz came in and Dean left. When he returned, his mother had died.
Dean Koontz wonders whether his father really was his father — or whether his uncle was. But when a friend pointed out that he could get a blood test from his father during one of Ray Koontz’s numerous hospitalizations, he decided against it. ”If I found out that he was my father, then the fantasy that he wasn’t would be over,” says Koontz.
When Ray Koontz died, Dean and Gerda arranged for a funeral, but no one showed up. Then they went to dinner and got ”semi-plastered.” ”We were at the restaurant from 5 o’clock until midnight,” recalls Koontz. ”We spent a lot of time talking about what those years with him had been like. We tried to remember a single pleasant moment with him. We couldn’t.”
Koontz’s next book, due out in 1997, is titled Sole Survivor.