Critical Companions to Popular Contemporary Writer by Joan G. Kotker,
English Faculty, Bellevue College
Published by Greenwood Publishing
Copyright © 1996 by Joan G. Kotker.
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One of the methods of dividing fiction into genres is to break it into popular fiction and mainstream fiction. While these two categories have much in common, one of their major differences is that popular fiction is written for a mass audience, whereas mainstream fiction often must create its own audience-it has no ready-made set of readers out there waiting for it. Another major difference is that popular fiction is a comforting fiction in that it reinforces our preconceptions of what people are like and how the world works, whereas mainstream fiction unsettles us by forcing us to question our preconceptions. Thus, we might come away from a mystery reassured that there are answers to questions, that the truth will out, and that the guilty will be punished. In contrast, we might come away from a work of mainstream fiction with our questions unanswered, the truth never discovered, and the guilty never identified. An underlying message to virtually all popular literature is that if one perseveres, things will work out; an underlying message to virtually all mainstream literature is that we have no choice but to persevere in the face of the fact that things may never work out.
There are fashions in literature just as there are fashions in everything. At the moment, in contemporary American culture, mainstream literature is generally held to be superior to popular literature because its worldview is considered to be more intellectually challenging. The underlying assumption here is that to be intellectually challenged is superior to being entertained. This is, of course, a value judgment, one that takes a narrow view of the possibilities of stories. All stories have the capacity to enrich our lives, whether by affirming what we believe or by causing us to question those beliefs. For this reason, each separate kind of work should be considered in the context of its own genre. It is pointless to fault a particular genre on the basis that it could or should be a different one; we can only judge works in the context of what they are. As to what sort of books Dean Koontz writes, most critics consider him a writer of popular fiction because of his basic worldview. In nearly all of his work, his underlying message is that human beings have the capacity to create their own happiness-that while we may not be able to choose our fates, we can choose how we respond to those fates and, indeed, we have a responsibility to make such a choice. This is an optimistic outlook, one that tells us that life is what we make of it, that it is in our hands.
While there is no disagreement about the general category Koontz falls into, matters become more difficult when one tries to decide exactly which of the genres of popular fiction is represented by his work. Popular literature includes many genres, such as the Western, the thriller or suspense novel, the romance, science fiction, fantasy, horror, and mystery and detective fiction. At one time or another, Dean Koontz has written works in all of these categories except the Western, but typically his work bridges genres, containing elements of two, three, or more literary types within a single novel. He has said of his work that while he began as a writer of science fiction-since that was the fiction that he read and loved when he was growing up and, therefore, the fiction he knew best when he began to write-he has written himself out in that genre. He considers his writing today to be cross-genre, saying of the many generic elements he makes use of,
SF is in part a fiction of ideas, so I took that aspect of the genre for my blend. From horror I borrowed mood more than anything-that cold sense of foreboding eeriness, ineffable but frightening presences at the periphery of vision, which is always a part of good horror writing. From the suspense genre I took a contemporary setting. . .as well as headlong pace and tension; few SF novels and fewer horror novels are tense and swift-moving, so I felt that I'd really have something if I coupled SF's ideas with horror's mood in a story with a suspense novel's taut pace. (Wiater 1989, 36)
Nonetheless, despite Koontz's use of a mixture of popular genres, he is most often identified as a writer of horror fiction, a label that Greenberg et al. attribute to the success of Koontz's novel Phantoms (see Chapter 3), which they describe as "the closest thing he has ever written to a genuine horror novel" (1994, 300). Phantoms was followed one year later by Darkfall, another classic horror novel, and it seems to be from these two works that Koontz's classification as a horror novelist comes.
For Cuddon, the horror story is, like the work of Dean Koontz, a broad, inclusive genre that deals with "murder, suicide, torture, fear and madness," as well as "ghosts, vampires, doppelgangers [i.e., doubles] succubae, incubi, poltergeists, demonic pacts, diabolic possession and exorcism, witchcraft, spirtualism, voodoo, lycanthropy [i.e, imagining oneself to be an animal such as a wolf] and the macabre" (1991, 417). He also includes telekinesis. On the basis of this description, it becomes clear why Koontz is considered to be a writer of horror fiction. Like the genre as a whole, his work is broad and inclusive, and almost every plot element listed by Cuddon can be found in his work: Midnight (see Chapter 7) begins with a murder disguised as a suicide; Whispers is centered on fear and madness and has a fine example of the doppelganger in its identical twins, both named Bruno; The Bad Place (see Chapter 8) has a quasi-vampire in the antagonist Candy; Jim Ironheart of Cold Fire is a poltergeist; and Hideaway's Jeremy Nyebern (see Chapter 3) has made a pact with Satan, who possesses him. Voodoo is a central element in Darkfall (see Chapter 7), with its creatures called up from hell by a master of the black arts, and the people of Midnight, who turn into primitive, feral creatures, are fine examples of lycanthropy-if they are not wolves, they are certainly cousins to the wolf.
Finally, any discussion of Dean Koontz as a writer of horror fiction is inaccurate unless it emphasizes that in most of Koontz's work, horror is based on the inhumanity of one human being to another rather than on such stock supernatural devices as the cold, dismembered hand reaching out to touch someone, the door that mysteriously slams shut, the creature that scrabbles under the bed. Stories such as these last are fun to read, and once read, they are comforting because ultimately, they bring us the message that our terrors are not real, that they are just scary stories. But there is nothing comforting about Dean Koontz's descriptions of the horrors we can and do inflict on each other, and it is for this reason that many of Dean Koontz's works stay in the mind long after they have been read: his fictional horrors can be all too real, and although he insists that we can overcome them, only some of his characters-the ones we identify with-ultimately succeed in doing so.
Although Dean Koontz no longer exclusively writes as a science fiction author, much of his early reading and experience in this genre is evident in the works that he calls his suspense novels. Night Chills (see Chapter 8), which is based on the topic of subliminal mind control, is a classic example of the social criticism genre of science fiction, a genre in which present trends are extrapolated into the near future and their consequences vividly described, often as a warning concerning what might or will happen. The Vision (see Chapter 4), published one year after Night Chills, is also a work of science fiction, although it belongs to a different genre-that of extrasensory perception, which Rosenberg and Herald define as focusing on "the powers of precognition, telepathy, clairvoyance, telekinesis, and teleportation" (1991, 205). The novel's protagonist is a clairvoyant who, when attacked by her brother, saves herself through her command of telepathy and telekinesis. And while Phantoms has elements of many different genres, it has a classic alien invasion opening when a protagonist enters a town, only to find that the entire town is dead or has disappeared. Strangers (see Chapter 4) is another good example of an alien invasion story, with its landing of a spaceship as its motivation for all subsequent action, and Lightning (see Chapter 6) is built on a classic plot of science fiction, one that centers on time travel and alternative histories. The novel that many readers consider to be Koontz's best book, Watchers (see Chapter 5), has as one of its antagonists a monster known as The Outsider, whose sole reason for existing is to act as a killing device. Since he is genetically engineered, the novel falls squarely within the science fiction genre of hard science-in this case, biology.
Other elements of the mystery can be found in Midnight's classic opening of a murder that is labeled suicide and in the search for the identity of an amnesiac in The Bad Place. However, in the mystery such events are the central element of the story, and when they have been resolved, the story comes to an end. But in both Koontz works, the mystery is solved long before the conclusion: the puzzle serves as a plot element to keep us enthralled as the larger story plays itself out rather than acting as the heart of the story.
In sum, then, while Dean Koontz is generally categorized as a writer of horror, this has far more to do with the fact that his early successes were in this area than it does with the many different generic conventions he uses in his work. Of course, in this he is working well within the tradition of such classic horror writers as Edgar Allan Poe, who wrote stories that would now be categorized as horror, others that would be categorized as suspense, and still others that would be categorized as mystery and detective fiction, although Poe was probably unaware of being a cross-genre author, since the concept of popular genres is a relatively late twentieth-century phenomenon.
When considering exactly which category best fits the work of Dean Koontz, of the sixteen books considered in this Critical Companion, only six-Phantoms, Darkfall, Midnight, The Bad Place, Cold Fire, and Hideaway-fit well in the horror genre, and even these frequently include elements of other genres as well. For this reason, it seems not only a courtesy to the author to categorize him as he wishes to be categorized-that is, as a writer of cross-genre works-but also the most accurate description of the kind of writing he does. And since there is, at least so far, no such category as cross-genre, his works are best described under the label of thriller or suspense, two terms that are used interchangeably. For example, Genreflecting, in Rosenberg and Herald's discussion of the thriller, says, "Suspense is the code word for the thriller" (Rosenberg and Herald 1991, 47). Other examples of the interchangeability of the terms thriller and suspense can be seen in the fact that in its review of Dark Rivers of the Heart, Kirkus Reviews called the book a thriller, whereas Library Journal called the same novel a suspense novel. The magazine The Armchair Detective reached what may be the best resolution of this issue of genre. The magazine groups its book reviews according to type, and rather than decide if a work is a thriller or a suspense novel, it combines the two labels and lists such books as Thriller/Suspense. I have chosen to use the term suspense rather than thriller as the general one for the works of Dean Koontz that are covered in this Critical Companion because, regardless of the generic conventions he uses in any one novel, all of his novels have the element of suspense as defined in Genreflecting: "the characters and the reader are in a constant state of uneasy anticipation of the worst, which all too often happens" (Rosenberg and Herald 1991, 47). However, I might as easily have used thriller, following Cuddon's definition of the term: "in fiction it is a tense, exciting, tautly plotted and sometimes sensational type of novel. . .in which action is swift and suspense continual." This sounds definitive, but it is prefaced by Cuddon's statement that the word thriller is "a vague term, perhaps no longer particularly useful for purposes of categorization" (1991, 971). Given this vagueness of meaning, I prefer instead to use Koontz's definition of himself as a cross-genre writer to describe the particular genre he fits into, and here I make the revolutionary assumption that very possibly the author knows best what kind of books he writes.