Dean Koontz: ‘I threatened to leave publishers if they wouldn’t stop putting the word horror on my books’

The American author has had so many books published, across so many genres, he has stopped counting

The world of books is starkly divided. In the books pages of The Irish Times and other newspapers, you will read about writers whose novels and story collections are well-reviewed, are nominated for prizes and feature in arts festivals – and most of which sell moderately at best.

But above this world, or below it – let’s just say outside it – is a universe of writers who have been plugging away for decades, often with much greater commercial success than literary novelists. They write in the sort of genres – horror, fantasy, romance – that get sectioned off in bookshops and enjoy little mainstream books coverage.

One such writer is the American novelist Dean Koontz, who at the age of 77 has been publishing novels for more than half a century in, he says, “almost every genre, except I think the western”. But he is mostly associated with suspense thrillers that have a supernatural or otherworldly edge. Not that he likes labels. “I had to literally threaten to leave publishers early on if they wouldn’t stop putting the word ‘horror’ on my books.”

His best-known books are titles such as Demon Seed (1973), Odd Thomas (2003) and his first best-seller, Whispers (1980). I would tell you precisely how prolific he is, except he isn’t too sure himself: he “stopped counting the number quite a few years ago. Over time, it ceases to matter. I used to say, jokingly, that Henry James published 126 books in his lifetime, and I hope to outdo him.”

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In any event, Koontz is talking to me today by phone from his home in southern California, about his nth novel, The House at the End of the World. It is indeed a suspense thriller with a supernatural edge, about a woman named Katie who, following a brutal attack on her family, has retreated to an island fortress to spend her time painting, only to find that circumstances prevent her from giving up on the world as easily as she hoped.

It’s a book driven by plot both backwards (how did Katie end up here?) and forwards (what are those explosions coming from the island next door?) but it’s also threaded through with reflections on the purpose of art, and a certain cynicism, even anger.

Koontz, who published his last novel six months ago and has his next after this one out in July, must have ideas circling his head all the time, like planes over Dublin Airport. What made the idea for this book stick?

This one, he says, “didn’t come out of wanting to write a scary book, it came out of frustration with the ruling class of America for the last 30 years. This woman, society has failed her and she has felt that perhaps she can have refuge [in] isolation. But when the ruling class is not responsible any more, she discovers that there’s nowhere to hide from that.” There’s a line in the book: “The world is ruled by arrogant narcissists who have exchanged their souls for the promise of power.”

“That line you quoted is the essence of it,” says Koontz. “I think it was Jung who said something like, ‘Where there is love, power is but a shadow. Where there is love of power, there is no love.’ I’m mangling it, but that’s the essence of it. There is too little humility and too much lust for power in the world. And a lust for power will ultimately doom us all.”

So, when he describes the US president in the novel as “a simpleton”, he didn’t have one obvious candidate in mind? “No, it goes across all political stripes, this tendency in an elected democracy to forget who elected you and to become too focused on your individual power, not on your obligation to serve.”

I know many young writers who had to start writing under pen names, because their own sales were so poor, nobody would give them a chance on another book. That is a terrible development

—  Dean Koontz

Koontz’s books have been translated into 38 languages. Does he get different responses from his work from different countries. “They seem to be very much of a continuity across all languages. About 60 per cent of my readers are women – there was a time when my publishers simply didn’t believe that. [My readers] write me very articulate letters. Sometimes I get letters from kids as young as 11. And my first thought is, you shouldn’t be reading my books! But then I read the letter, and it’s so coherent! So I just decided to shut up and be happy.”

Being happy perhaps comes with the territory of huge commercial success. Koontz didn’t come from a bookish background. “There were no books in the house, they were considered a waste of time.” His father was “a violent alcoholic”, and Koontz had a “bad childhood”. He was far from an overnight success: it took, he says, “a long time” for his books to take off, “and that’s partly because I was doing a bad job in the early days”. But he has no regrets: “I’ve seen some writers who hit it right off the bat – and it can be one of the worst things that can happen to you. You need time to mature, grow and fail, and find your own way.”

I tell him that in the UK, and to a lesser extent Ireland, there’s a mania among publishers for debut voices, sometimes to the detriment of developing writers’ careers beyond the first book. Is it the same in America? “Oh, absolutely. When I was starting, you could make numerous mistakes. Analyse what you’re doing and say, ‘I see why that didn’t quite work’. These days, everyone’s tracked with what their sales were on the previous book. I know many young writers who had to start writing under pen names, because their own sales were so poor, nobody would give them a chance on another book. That is a terrible development.”

Koontz seems to relish his position outside the literary establishment. He tells me about his book From the Corner of His Eye (2000), which had a “lovely” review in the Boston Globe. “My editor wanted to put on the paperback, ‘A literary miracle’. My publisher fought tooth and nail against my editor, because they said, ‘If we say it’s a literary miracle’, nobody will buy it.” (Plot twist: after our call, I check the book’s Amazon page and find that this quotation is listed. Koontz is, perhaps, having his cake and eating it.)

Koontz has spoken in the past about the film adaptations of his books, many of which he views as unsatisfactory. (“Ponderously silly” – The New York Times on the 1977 movie of Demon Seed.) Does a writer, I wonder, struggle to give up the complete control they’re used to? “To a degree, yes. I think it’s when you see your creation as part of your own soul. And so when they start tramping all over it, they’re tramping over the essence of your spiritual self.” Koontz adds that he was so “sick” at the film version of his 1992 novel Hideaway that he “spent more in legal fees than I had earned in film rights to get my name off the posters.” He also gave up writing screenplays: “It’s a fairly co-operative medium. And I find that I don’t play well with others, essentially.”

Our time is coming to an end, but I must first ask Koontz about his 1981 book The Eyes of Darkness, which in 2020, early in the Covid pandemic, went viral (no pun intended) when someone noticed that it featured a biological weapon virus called “Wuhan-400″. Was he aware of this? “Yes. I tried to discourage that story and I learned that you can’t discourage that kind of thing on the internet. I did an interview that I thought would be seen everywhere. I said, Look, I’m not a psychic. If I were, I wouldn’t be confused about what I’m having for dinner.”

As Koontz heads off for another day at the desk – he says he works 10 to 11 hours a day on his books – I ask if he agrees with his character Katie, for whom “not to create is to die inside”.

He does. “I’m 77 now. Someone asked me, when I was creeping up on 65, when I was going to retire. And I said, Well, when God casts me dead into the keyboard! This has been my life. It’s what I am and who I am. And,” he adds, “it’d be hard to get away from that.”