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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Chapter 4: Strangers (1986)
The novel Strangers, published in 1986, some nine years after The Vision, continues to deal with these same issues, although in a far more complex way. Strangers is a much larger novel (681 pages) in which Koontz is able to portray a greater development of characters and give a more thorough exploration of parapsychology, its possible causes, and its ultimate effects. Reading these two novels in chronological order provides readers with insight into Koontz's development as a writer, showing how he has developed and expanded on various themes in his works.
Like Dominick, Ginger Weiss, a cardiology resident who lives in Boston, is also afraid; she is thrown into a state of terror by the sight of a pair of black gloves, and she briefly blacks out. This is more than a scary event: what would happen if she were operating and lost consciousness? Obviously, she cannot take this lightly. Subsequently, other objects trigger blackouts too, and just as she is going into them, she hears the message, "Run or die. . . .Run or die" (42).
In Nevada, the character Ernie Block, who with his wife runs the Tranquility Motel in Elko, is suddenly afraid of the dark, a very recent phobia. He is fifty-two, an ex-marine and an ex-football player, and not accustomed to being frightened. Now he feels an overwhelming urge to escape: "Got to get out, get away, there won't be another chance, not another chance like this, now, go now, go, go. . . ." (131). It is even more terrifying for him that he has no idea of what it is he needs to get away from.
While these events are happening to characters in California, Massachusetts, and Nevada, in Chicago, Father Brendan Cronin, a thirty-year-old Catholic priest, has abruptly lost his faith in God. He is overcome by rage while saying mass and throws the chalice away from himself, sweeps the communion wafers to the floor, and tears off the stole he wears to perform the mass. Just as abruptly, the anger leaves him and he too has no idea what it is that has caused him to act in this way.
Finally, in New York City, the professional thief Jack Twist, a superb operations planner who has stolen millions in his time, has just successfully completed a daring, high-risk job. He finds that he gets no pleasure from the job, and this is not at all usual for him. "When a job had been successfully concluded, Jack was usually in a grand mood for days after," but now, "something was happening to him, an inner shifting, a sea change. He felt empty, adrift, without purpose. He dared not lose his love for larceny. It was the only reason he had for living" (110-11). Like Dominick, Jack is having problems when he goes to sleep, and lately "he had been plagued by a recurring nightmare more intense than any dream he had ever known. . . .In the dream, he was fleeing from a man in a motorcycle helmet with a darkly tinted visor. . .through unknown rooms and along amorphous corridors and, most vividly, along a deserted highway that cut through an empty moon-washed landscape" (111-12). Like the other characters, when he awakens and becomes conscious of his surroundings, he is in a state of panic.
The initial complication in Strangers takes place for each of the characters when they seek a rational explanation for what is happening to them. Dominick goes to his doctor to find out why he is walking in his sleep, and he is told that more than likely, it's just a reaction to stress. He changes the pattern of his days accordingly, and also uses Valium and sleeping pills to actually get some rest at night. Ginger's rational explanation is that something that she has suppressed in her past is surfacing and is causing her blackouts or fugue states; she starts a session of psychotherapy to discover what that past event is, so that she might master it. Ernie's rational explanation is that he is suffering from a phobia, an unexplained phobia that has arisen suddenly, as phobias are known to do, and he sees an expert on phobias to learn how to overcome his fear of the dark. Brendan Cronin, who believes that he has lost his faith, has undertaken a series of assignments from his pastor that are designed to help him regain it. And Jack Twist interprets his dreams as a warning in which the man in the motorcycle helmet is a policeman, out to capture Jack. Complications intensify when none of the rational explanations works. Dominick does not stop having his dreams, and seems in danger of becoming addicted to drugs. Ginger has four psychotic episodes in five weeks, despite the fact that she is in therapy. Ernie does very well in treatment in Milwaukee, but regresses when he returns to Elko and the Tranquility Motel. And Jack, despite staging far more daring crimes in one time span than he ever has, cannot regain the thrill that this once gave him, and "wondered if he had run out of the simple courage to go on living" (112).
In their search to make sense of what is happening to them, the characters find an even more complex situation. Dominick, with the help of his friend, the painter Parker Faine, decides that the origin of his problem must lie somewhere in a trip he took a year and a half ago, after which he dramatically changed his lifestyle, going from being a timid college English professor whose main concern was with job security to being a risk taker who threw over his job in order to write and who is now on the verge of becoming a best-selling author. He doesn't understand why he made this change, and he thinks it may be related to what is happening to him now, with the sleepwalking and dreams. It seems unlikely to him that two such aberrant events would not be connected, and he decides to retrace his steps to see if he can at the same time retrace what caused these events.
The journey takes Dominick to the Tranquility Motel, where he meets with Ernie and discovers that they share some of the same images in their nightmares, and therefore they must share some of the same experiences, even though they cannot remember what those experiences were. In Boston, Ginger has lost patience-she desperately wants to get to the root cause of her fugue states so that she can go back to her work as a surgeon, and she seeks the help of Pablo Jackson, a world-famous stage magician and hypnotist who, now that he is retired, helps the police by hypnotizing witnesses so that they can recover details they have seen but no longer consciously remember. She convinces Jackson, against his will, to hypnotize her and so help her to discover why she reacts so strongly to the phenomena that trigger her psychotic episodes. What he finds is that he cannot reach these memories, that to avoid answering his questions, Ginger "seemed to be withdrawing into a sleep far deeper than her hypnotic trance, perhaps into a coma, into an oblivion where she could not hear his demanding voice. He had never encountered a reaction like this before, had never even read of such a thing. Was it possible for Ginger to will herself dead merely to escape his questions?" (157).
Jackson brings Ginger out of her trance and begins research on memory blocks, refusing to help her further until he understands what is going on. This leads him to an ex-director of the CIA, who explains that Jackson has met with an Azrael Block, a mental block that will instruct a subject to go into a coma and die before revealing specific information. The name of the block, Azrael, is the name of one of the angels of death. Jackson's informant tells him that he should not meddle with this situation, that an Azrael Block can be imposed only by an outside source, and this would have been done only if the matter that must remain hidden were of great significance. Further, he says that the fact that Ginger is experiencing fugue states means that whatever it was that she is suppressing is so powerful that even the Azrael Block cannot fully repress it. He warns Jackson that should he recover Ginger's memories, he himself will probably be in great danger.
Jackson determines to go ahead with Ginger's hypnosis anyway, but before he can continue, he is killed by an agent who has entered his house, thinking that he will not be there, to make duplicates of the tapes of Jackson's sessions to date with Ginger. Jackson surprises the agent, who shoots him. Ginger then enters the apartment and the agent attempts to kill her, too, but fails, because Ginger is so resourceful that she escapes him. In the meantime, Ginger has seen Dominick's picture on the back of his novel, and has recognized it. She knows that somewhere she has met him and that he is somehow involved in what is happening to her. She sends a letter to him care of his publisher, and when Dominick receives it he calls her and tells her to meet with him at the Tranquility Motel.
While all of this is going on with Ginger and Dominick, Brendan Cronin in Chicago develops the ability to cure by the laying on of his hands. He brings a young girl back to health and a policeman back from the brink of death, and it seems that he has also passed on the gift: the policeman in turn brings someone else back from the verge of death. In tracing what has happened to him in the recent past, Cronin decides that the only unusual thing he had done was make a leisurely cross-country trip the summer before last, staying for three days in a motel in Elko, Nevada. He will go back to that motel to see if he can learn something about his stay there and the changes that have taken place in him.
At the same time, an extraordinary change has also occurred in Jack Twist, who now feels compelled to give away money by the thousands to the needy of New York (first keeping enough for himself to live on in the $4 million he has salted away in Swiss bank accounts). He goes to one of his safe deposit boxes to collect the money he wants to donate, and finds in it a postcard with a picture on it of the Tranquility Motel in Elko, Nevada. Who could have put it there? How did they know he had been at the motel? Who knew his various aliases? He goes to more of his safe deposit boxes and in each finds a similar postcard. He leaves at once for Elko to find out what this means.
The stage is now set for the key characters, Dominick, Ginger, Ernie and his wife Faye, Sandy and Ned Sarver, who own the restaurant attached to the motel, Brendan Cronin, and Jack Twist to come together at the Tranquility Motel. Between them, they recreate the events of that summer a year and a half ago. They are joined by Jorja Monatella, who was also at the motel that summer and whose seven-year-old daughter is having severe nightmares-Dominick had called Jorja when he was trying to reach the people listed in the motel register for that time period.
Together, the group works out that what they saw was the landing of a spaceship, and that Ginger, Dom, and Brendan Cronin entered the ship. Dom and Brendan laid their hands on the containers of two of the creatures in the ship and in the creatures' last living moments, they passed on to the humans their healing and telekinetic powers. Acting on the basis of a government commission report warning that society cannot tolerate the knowledge that aliens have landed on earth, even if the aliens did all die in the process, the army has moved the ship into a huge underground facility in Nevada, and has brainwashed all of the witnesses (the alternative was to kill the witnesses, which at least one of the army higher-ups, Colonel Leland Falkirk, wanted to do). The group of witnesses decides to split up, with Dom, Ginger, and Jack Twist going into the underground facility and the rest going to Chicago and Boston, where they will contact the media and tell the world what has happened in Nevada.
Dom, Ginger, and Jack succeed in breaking into the facility, but the others are arrested by special army troops before they can carry out their part of the plan. They are joined by Dom's friend Parker Faine who, along with Brendan Cronin's pastor, has come to join the witnesses. Both have been shot by the troops, with Faine surviving because Brendan healed him but the pastor dying before Brendan can reach him. All are taken to the underground facility. While these events are happening, the reader learns that the lead scientist on the project and the general in charge of the place were responsible for placing the postcards in Jack Twist's safe deposit boxes. They have come to believe that the spaceship and its arrival are wonderful news for the people of earth, and that everyone must know of this miracle.
All of the questions have now been answered-what happened to the characters and why it happened-and the stage is set for the climax. Here, Colonel Falkirk confronts the witnesses, the lead scientist, and the general, telling them that he knows they are no longer human, that they have been taken over by the aliens. He has set two small nuclear devices to destroy the ship and everyone who has had any contact with it, including everyone in the facility as well as the facility itself. Once the bombs are set, they cannot be disarmed. They will go off in fifteen minutes. Brendan and Dom decide that their only hope is to use their telekinetic powers to disarm the devices. Dom disarms one, but Brendan cannot disarm the other-he can't focus on it. However, at the last minute Parker Faine, who was cured by Brendan and as a result now has the same power as Brendan has, disarms the second device and everyone is saved, with the exception of Colonel Falkirk, who commits suicide rather than be, as he imagines, changed into an alien.
In the denouement, the characters discuss the significance of the knowledge that has been brought to them by the spaceship. Human beings have been brought the power of healing so that we can live virtually forever, and we have been given this gift by a benevolent race that has dedicated its people to sending out ships like this one to any intelligent beings it locates in the cosmos; doing so is fundamental to the society's structure and beliefs, to what we would think of as its religion. Soon the witnesses will tell the world of this wonder, and soon the world will be changed. In the meantime, everyone is cured. Dom no longer has nightmares and has fallen in love with Ginger; Ginger no longer suffers from fugues and has fallen in love with Dom. Brendan Cronin has recovered his faith, and Jack Twist now has a purpose in living, since he has fallen in love with Jorja, who has also fallen in love with him. Her daughter Marcie no longer has nightmares, and has gained a father in Jack. Sandy and Ned decide to have a child, and Ernie will never again fear the dark.
The two most important characters are Dominick Corvaisis and Ginger Weiss. Dominick, who opens the novel, is basically a flat character, since his background is sketched in rather than examined in depth. He was brought up in foster homes, but no other information is offered. As an adult Dom was initially a timid, conservative person whose main objective was security. An English teacher at the University of Portland in Oregon, he wrote stories that he never sent out for publication. His main concern was that he be granted tenure, which would have virtually guaranteed him job security for the rest of his life, but Dom was so afraid that he would be denied tenure he left his job and went to a much smaller, more isolated school in Utah, where he was promised tenure. Once there, Dom quit the new job before it ever began and concentrated on writing a novel that to his astonishment was bought at once, for a very good price, by a top publisher. The book is now on the verge of becoming a best-seller, and Dom is about to become famous.
Until the very end of the novel, Dom has no idea why he threw over his job and acted in such a highly uncharacteristic way. It is only in the denouement that he and the reader learn that this was his reaction to having witnessed the landing of the space ship. The scope of its achievement in traveling millions of miles over thousands upon thousands of years is so extraordinary that it suddenly makes things like job security and tenure seem unimaginably insignificant, and this insight frees Dom to pursue his writing, even though the insight is hidden from him for almost two years by the brainwashing he underwent. Thus, although for most of the book he does not know why he has changed, he is a dynamic character because when he recognizes the catalyst of the change, he also recognizes its validity. The insight he has gained into himself causes him to see both himself and the world differently, and gaining such self-knowledge is a good rule-of-thumb definition for a dynamic character.
The second major protagonist is Ginger Weiss. She is the best example of a well-rounded character in Strangers, since there is a good deal of information on her childhood, her parents, the people who were significant in her life, her choice of career, and the like. She is one of those people who has been blessed with a loving home, superior intelligence, and exceptional good looks; while she is not wealthy, she has never lived in poverty. She is just about to complete her residency in surgery when she begins to have psychotic attacks. Clearly, if these continue she will never be able to be a surgeon-she would never dare operate if at any moment she might have an attack. The attacks are highly uncharacteristic of the self-confident, highly competent Ginger, who has never failed at anything, let alone believed that she could fail. She is a courageous woman and accepts the threat of possible death in working to recover the memories that lie behind her attacks. When at last she does recover them, they too bring about a change in her, since she now sees the possibility of a world where her profession and her skills will be redundant, a world in which people can be healed by touch and where everyone can have this touch. Ginger welcomes this vision and will work to make it a reality because it is more important-it is healing of a different order-than anything she has ever previously envisioned. Thus, she is a dynamic character because her insights lead her to reexamine and reevaluate one of the central elements of her life, her profession.
Jack Twist, the professional thief, is also a major protagonist, since it is his knowledge and planning ability that enables the witnesses to escape from the motel and take on the military establishment. Like Dom, Twist is a relatively flat character. We know nothing about his childhood, his friends, or why he chose the military as a profession-the fact that he was a soldier is simply a convenient way of explaining how he has attained his extraordinary skills and knowledge of weapons. By the same token, his supposed reason for resorting to theft is that it enables him to pay the horrendous medical fees for his beloved wife, who has been in a coma for eight years, and it also allows him to strike back at a society that, as he sees it, exploited him as a soldier and a citizen. Again, these are convenient devices for allowing the reader to accept Twist's dishonesty without having to think of him as a dishonest person: he's doing good things with the money he steals and, besides, bad things were done to him. The suggestion is that in a good world, he would be a good man.
The real focus of Jack Twist's activities is on how exciting they are, rather than on how dishonest they are. His first job in the novel is robbing a Mafia collection point of millions of dollars in laundered drug money, and the reader can hardly feel that some terrible harm has been done. The scene itself is one of the best in the book-the Mafia walk in on the robbery, and how Jack and his men escape is the stuff of pure adventure. Everyone's adrenaline surges here, including the reader's. The underlying suggestion is that Jack Twist is a professional thief because it is so exciting to be one, and that the rationale for his theft is just window-dressing that allows us to enjoy the excitement and adventure. Of all the major characters, Jack undergoes the most radical change: he stops enjoying planning and undertaking jobs, although he has no idea why this is so. Again, it is ultimately as a result of his witnessing of the spaceship. Given the awesomeness of its achievement, knocking over a Mafia warehouse is very small stuff, and at the end of the novel it is clear that Jack is done with his days of crime, although he certainly intends to benefit by living in comfort for the rest of his life.
The other major protagonist is the priest, Brendan Cronin. Essentially a flat character, Cronin exists for the reader only as a priest. We know of his training, background, and experience in the priesthood, and very little else about him. However, because he exists only in terms of his profession, it is doubly puzzling when he loses his faith-this is the very center of his being, both for himself and for the reader's perception of him. This is, of course, a dramatic change, making him a dynamic character. But as with the other protagonists, he understands the cause of this change only at the end of the novel, when he sees the spaceship and realizes that it has brought him an understanding of God. To have seen such evidence of God's work and then to have it suppressed by brainwashing is what has caused his loss of faith, and regaining the knowledge of what he experienced gives him back the knowledge of God, the basis of his faith.
The remaining protagonists play less significant roles, but are also changed by their witnessing of the spaceship. Ernie Block, who with his wife Faye owns the Tranquility Motel, is a good example of a stock character. He is a stereotype of the ex-marine-big, strong, silent, and brave, a loyal husband and friend. Despite his being a stock character, he is dynamic: he has, of all things, become terrified of the dark. Anyone less likely to experience such a fear is hard to imagine, and at the end of the novel he learns that, indeed, he has no fear of the dark. His fear is based on what happened to him in the dark, when he became the subject of brainwashing. This insight frees him from his phobias, but he does not go back to being the same person he was before. Like the other witnesses, he has experienced the wonder of the spaceship and understands that there are other possibilities for mankind as a result of that alien contact.
His wife, Faye, is another stock character-the strong, supportive wife. She is one of the book's few static characters, since she has no memory of the spacecraft and has undergone no change as a result of it. In this she is like Ned Sarver, husband to Sandy, with whom he runs the Tranquility Grill. Ned is the strong, supportive husband, has no memory of the events, and has undergone no change. His wife, Sandy, is more developed: her background as a sexually abused child is sensitively drawn. While it is all we know about her, it is so painful to think of a child hurt in this way that it has the effect of making her a round character-we fill in the empty spaces in our concern that victimizing children in this way could and does happen. Sandy is also dynamic, and for her the change is positive long before she has any idea of why it has occurred. She becomes confident, loving, and able to enjoy sex for the first time in her life. In the denouement she discovers that this came of her seeing the spaceship and realizing how insignificant a single human being is-how weak and puny her father, who caused her so much pain, really is and how little ability he has to hurt her now. She is freed when her giant ogre of a father becomes infinitesimal in the overall scheme of things. At the end of the novel Sandy decides to have a child, and while this might have been an overly sentimental moment, it is not. The reader experiences it as an affirmation of life and of survival, of caring and loving on the part of someone who as a child was neither cared for nor loved.
Like Faye Block, Jorja Monatella would seem to be a static character, since she has no recollection of ever having seen the spaceship and so can gain no insight from the experience. But she is in fact a dynamic character, having gained insight into her own life and the possibilities open to her from the example of Ginger Weiss. Jorja met Ginger in Nevada, just before the experiences at the Tranquility Motel, when Ginger stopped on the highway to help Jorja's daughter, Marcie (the child had fallen down an embankment). Jorja, up to now a cocktail waitress who believes that such jobs are the only ones open to her, watches Ginger and realizes that like Ginger, she can do other things with her life. If someone as pretty, small, and delicate as Ginger can also be self-confident, in control, and taking charge, then maybe Jorja can be this way, too-maybe she is not doomed to be a bimbo and serve drinks for the rest of her life. Basically a minor character, Jorja is a good example of how small roles can be fleshed out to create rounded characters. In the short space given to her Koontz does a fine job of sketching in her job and her attitude toward it, her horrendous parents and her feelings toward them, her ex-husband and his attraction for her (given parents like hers, anyone would look attractive), and her feelings toward her child. At the end of the novel, when Jorja is paired up with Jack Twist, the reader hopes that this will not put an end to Jorja's newfound dreams for herself, that she will continue to pursue a life of her own.
There are three other significant positive characters, although none of them was a witness to the spaceship. These are Father Wycazik, Brendan Cronin's rector, a flat, static character who represents faith that cannot be shaken. Dom Corvaisis's friend, Parker Faine, is another flat, static character, who represents the values of loyalty and friendship. He is one of the few examples in Koontz's work of a friend (most of Koontz's characters are loners who, when they bond, do so with someone of the opposite sex in a romantic liaison). And finally Pablo Jackson, the hypnotist who helps Ginger to uncover her memories, is also a flat, static character, but the little we are given of his background is provocative and makes us want to learn more about him. He is the child of African Americans who lived as expatriates in France, and he is also the god-child of Pablo Picasso, for whom he is named. Now in his eighties, he has had a long, successful career as a stage magician in Europe. His bravery and kindness, along with his exotic background, give him more weight as a character than the few scenes in which he actually appears seem to warrant. At his death we miss him-we'd like to see more of him in the story.
Although Strangers has many protagonists, it has only one villain, Colonel Leland Falkirk, and he is not introduced until more than halfway through the book, since it isn't until then that the other characters can recall enough of the events that have taken place to be able to pinpoint him. At first glance he seems to be a stock character, the military figure in a position of such great authority that there are no checks on him or her, a figure who has quietly gone mad and who can now bring total destruction upon the rest of humanity (or at least, upon those in the character's orbit). This figure appears in much popular culture, from the novels Mutiny on the Bounty and The Caine Mutiny to the films Dr. Strangelove and Apocalypse Now. However, there is more to Falkirk than a simple outline. Koontz takes care to fill in his background so that the reader understands why it is that Falkirk might see pain in a positive light, and why he would see himself as being very brave and acting in the best interests of mankind by destroying the spaceship and everyone who has had contact with it. Nonetheless, Falkirk is a flat character. All that is known about him is that his parents were religious fanatics who beat him in the name of God, and that he has reacted by becoming a bit claustrophobic and more than a bit paranoid, anti-religious, and obsessed with being in control. Surely there would have been other influences on his life, but this is all we have. Even so, Falkirk is a dynamic character. As a result of his contact with the spaceship, he has come to see that he enjoys the pain he inflicts on himself, that it is done not simply to temper him and make him stronger but also because he receives pleasure from it. This is a new insight for Falkirk, one not available to him at the beginning of the novel.
One location that could not be easily exchanged with any other is the natural setting composed of the barrens of Nevada, a desolate, empty, desertlike area. This is an ideal place for a spaceship to land and be subsequently hidden. If instead the spaceship had landed at Chicago's O'Hare airport, the busiest airport in the world, there is little chance that it could have been kept secret from the rest of the country. Thus, the Nevada setting adds credibility to the story. The fact that the exact landing spot exerts a powerful pull on some of the witnesses adds to the sense of how dramatic and overwhelming the event was, since the pull exists even though these characters no longer have conscious memories of what happened here. The Tranquility Motel also works to give credibility to the story. It is so far from any town or settlement that whatever happened there could indeed be contained and hidden from outsiders. And, of course, a motel is a perfect place to have a group of strangers come together and then go their separate ways.
One other artificial setting that is most effective is the uniform that Jorja Monatella is required to wear in her job as a cocktail waitress: "a little red nothing, cut high in the crotch and hips, very low at the bustline, smaller than a bathing suit. An elastic corset was built in to minimize the waistline and emphasize the breasts. . . .The getup made you look almost freakishly erotic" (168). If that doesn't raise a woman's consciousness about being a sex object, nothing will, and it is this consciousness that prepares the way for Jorja to model herself after Ginger Weiss.
Assuming that the theme is not specifically identified for readers-that instead Koontz is challenging us to work it out for ourselves-one possible candidate for the theme might derive from the title of the novel: the word strangers. Surely all human beings from earliest times have feared strangers; like death, they are the ultimate unknown. Many cultures have in their languages two different words for people-one for themselves and another that identifies those who are not of their group, tribe, or culture. Many wars have been fought on the basis that one group of people is so different from another as to constitute a threat to its very existence. Yet scientific analysis of the human race shows that we have far more in common with one another, regardless of our racial or ethnic backgrounds, than we have differences. When the spaceship lands in Nevada, Colonel Falkirk sees it as a mortal threat-as something that will destroy our humanity-because it is different. If we were indeed to fear that which is different, an alien spaceship thousands and thousands of years old, filled with dead and dying creatures like nothing ever seen on earth, would seem to be about as different as anything on earth can get. Falkirk's view is rejected, though, and the spaceship is seen instead as a great boon to mankind. The extraterrestrial strangers bring us the gift of bonding together. Perhaps Koontz's underlying theme, then, is that we have nothing to fear from that which seems strange, different, or alien; perhaps embracing the unknown is what will allow us to embrace one another.
One of the most significant voices in exposing the fallacy of natural biological limitations was that of the French philosopher Simone de Beauvoir, whose The Second Sex (1949) explored the status of women in society. De Beauvoir critiqued not only this status, but showed how it served to create a self-image for women that helped keep them subservient. We are all products of our culture, and we tend to accept its standards and evaluations as our own. If these tell us that we are inferior, we tend to think of ourselves as inferior. Breaking out of this pattern is very difficult, and it is a testament to the work of de Beauvoir that, living within the pattern, she was able to see it as socially constructed rather than as biologically mandated. One aspect of de Beauvoir's work was the examination of women in the literature of male writers-an examination that turned on the concept of gender, in which men were describing the appropriate roles for women. These were roles that, as feminists ever since have shown, unnecessarily limit opportunities for women in the name of what is natural and innate.
From these two main strands of feminism-the political strand, which examines the place of women as fellow citizens and focuses on their legal rights, and the aesthetic strand, which examines the portrayal of women in art and literature-comes the work of such contemporary feminist critics as Elaine Showalter, who has created the concept of "gynocriticism," which examines not only the actual writings of women but also the social and economic conditions under which these works were produced. In this way, feminist criticism is an inclusive criticism, embracing economic approaches, cultural approaches, and biographical and historical approaches, as well as traditional studies of the work of literature in and of itself. In all of these areas it has made a strong contribution to our understanding of gender issues, both male and female. Today, one school of feminism, represented by such French theorists as Julia Kristeva and Helene Cixous, concerns itself primarily with issues of gender, postulating that gender is indeed biological and determines how women see the world, how they interpret it in language, as both writers and readers. A central task of this group is to explore the concept of an innate language of women-one biologically determined by gender.
A second school of feminist criticism, identified with British and American feminists, concerns itself primarily with studies by and about women, and makes the assumption that such studies are open to all objective readers and critics, regardless of gender. For this school, gender does not determine a critic's ability to explore the world of literature from the perspective of how women are presented in that world (or sometimes, excluded from it) as creators as well as participants. The underlying assumption of this school is that any honest, objective reader or critic can perform a feminist analysis of a text.
A final result of the feminist movement has been the rediscovery of women's writing, from journals, letters, and diaries (the genres that were traditionally most accessible to women) to novels that were published but then forgotten for decades. Many of these have now been republished, and their availability has broadened the field of literature, bringing the world of women into the mainstream world of all human experience.
In looking at the part that gender plays in the novels of Dean Koontz, it is notable that all of the works covered here have strong women characters who carry much of the weight of the narrative (see, for example, Dark Rivers of the Heart, Chapter 10). Of these, Strangers lends itself particularly well to a feminist analysis because it has many different women from varied backgrounds in key roles. In every case, these women are viewed as equals to corresponding male characters, although there are times when they need to remind the men that they are indeed equals. The major woman character is Ginger Weiss. She is a doctor, a profession that was until recently closed to women; within that profession she is in a specialty that is primarily a male one, since she is a heart surgeon rather than, say, a pediatrician or an obstetrician-specialties that relate much more closely to the traditional female roles of mother and wife. She is an only child and an orphan, which means that she is fully responsible for herself. Ginger is physically small and exceptionally pretty, and she understands full well that this can be a barrier for a woman. Because she is a woman, people often misjudge her, assuming her to be far less capable and intelligent than she is. In other words, they look at her and judge her as an object, something decorative rather than as a unique person with her own unique characteristics. However, when the hypnotist Pablo Jackson meets Ginger, he decides that her face is a balance of feminine beauty and masculine strength, which is somewhat difficult to imagine although it is clearly intended as a compliment.
No one in the novel seems surprised at Ginger's profession. When she begins to suffer from psychotic states, no one suggests that she is finding the stress of her work to be too much, which would have been a typical reaction of both males and females just a few decades ago, when women were seen as the "weaker" sex-mentally, emotionally, and physically. Ginger has great physical bravery, as she proves by overpowering a mugger and, later, by escaping from Jackson's killer. She knows how to use handguns and she also knows her own worth. When, at the end of the story, Jack Twist is working out a plan for Dom, Ned, and him to enter the underground military facility, Ginger tells Jack that he really isn't thinking straight in considering only men for the expedition-that in fact they need her on the team since she is a doctor and the mission is a dangerous one. She also points out that if they are to have a public relations impact as hostages, this will be stronger if a young woman is among the hostages. Thus, she not only knows her value as an individual, but also understands how stereotypes about woman can help the group. Finally, Ginger is recognized as a role model by Jorja, the cocktail waitress who sees both Ginger and Jack as born leaders. This comparison is an interesting one, since Jack is the strongest male character in the novel in terms of such cultural stereotypes as fighting, survival, and strategizing skills, and for Ginger to be like him makes her an equally strong character.
Other women in the novel have lesser roles than Ginger, but within these roles they are treated as equals by the other characters in the story. Rita Hannaby, the upper-middle-class wife of an eminent heart surgeon, is respected for having done charity work that has made a difference. Faye, Ernie Block's wife, might be seen as the stereotypical devoted wife except that Ernie is just as devoted to her as she is to him: each relies equally on the other. Jorja Monatella, who has always thought of herself as a menial, takes strength from sisterhood, seeing in Ginger the image of a different kind of woman-a kind of woman that Jorja can aspire to being. After all, if one woman can make something of herself, then another can, and Jorja enrolls in college classes to begin her recreation of herself. Finally, Sandy Sarver, who has been victimized and sexually abused by her father, is able to put these terrible experiences behind her because of the insights she has after seeing the spaceship. This is in direct contrast to the case of Colonel Falkirk, also physically abused as a child by his fanatical parents, who retreats further and further into paranoia, even though he has also seen the spaceship.
Overall, in looking at these women characters, we find that they are consistent with their class and background and, at the same time, respected by those around them for their values and actions. Koontz has said of his depiction of women, "I've been criticized by a few-all male-writers for always having a major role for a woman in each of my books. . . .In reality women are half the world, involved in every aspect of life; if you can't portray them that way in fiction, then you can't be writing seriously" (Gorman interview, 41).