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Saturday, April 18, 2009

Dean Koontz’s Techniques for Engaging Readers and Advancing Plots

Copyright 2009 by Gary L. Pullman


In a previous post, we discussed Dean Koontz’s plot formula. In this article, we will address the techniques by which he engages his readers and moves his plots along.

He writes newspaper-short paragraphs, many of them consisting of but a single sentence. Often, his style is journalistic, too, more craft than art. Here’s an example, from The Darkest Evening of the Year, the equivalent of which can be found in virtually any of his many novels:

Amy Redwing did not know her origins. Abandoned at the age of two, she had no memory of her mother and father.

She had been left in a church, her name pinned to her shirt. A nun had found her sleeping on a pew.

Most likely, her surname had been invented to mislead. The police had failed to trace it to anyone.

Redwing suggested a Native American heritage. Raven hair and dark eyes argued Cherokee, but her ancestors might as likely have come from Armenia or Sicily, or Spain.

Amy’s history remained incomplete, but the lack of roots did not set her free. She was chained to some ringbolt set in the stone of a distant year (3 - 4).
Koontz’s protagonist, who is usually a young woman, has been traumatized in the past, and the pain and suffering she has experienced, whether physical, mental, sexual, or all of these forms of abuse, continue to haunt her and to affect her behavior on the present. For example, having been abused by a male, she may fear and distrust men. However, something--often an endangered child--will empower her to face a new, similar threat, thereby overcoming the effects of the past trauma and entering upon a journey to wholeness. Often, in the process, she will be befriended by a knight in shining armor, as it were, who will assist her and with whom she will fall in love. Almost all of Koontz’s mature work involves both a rescue, both of and by, and a romance on the part of, a damsel in psychological distress.

Koontz also employs both wit and humor, especially in repartee between couples, to sustain interest as he both kills time, so to speak, between significant events and provides necessary expository information, as this sequence of dialogue, also from The Darkest Evening of the Year, indicates:
“I love October,” she said, looking away from the street. “Don’t you love October?”

“This is still September.”

“I can love October in September. September doesn’t care.”

“Watch where you’re going.”

“I love San Francisco, but it’s hundreds of miles away.”

“The way you’re driving, we’ll be there in ten minutes.”

“I’m a superb driver. No accidents, no traffic citations.”

He said, “My entire life keeps flashing before my eyes.”

“You should make an appointment with an ophthalmologist” (4).
Unusual characters, especially antagonists, are another means by which Koontz generates, maintains, and, occasionally, heightens readers’ interest. Most of his books contain at least one such character; several contain two or more of them. The Darkest Evening of the Year contains several eccentric villains, including Moongirl and Harrow and Vanessa. “Moongirl,” readers learn, “will make love only in total darkness,” believing “that her life has been forever diminished by passion in the light, when she was younger” (34). However, after having sex, she “wants. . . to be in the light” and occasionally “goes outside half clothed or even naked” to stand “with her face turned to the sky, her mouth open, as if inviting the light to fill her” (46). She fears boredom, because it makes her aware of the external world, and she stays busy to avoid such an experience, sometimes by committing acts of arson with her boyfriend, Harrow. Both she and Harrow have unusually high pain thresholds:
Harrow has seen her hold. . . a rose so tightly by its thorny stem that her hands drip blood.

Her pain threshold, like his, is high. She does not enjoy the prick of the rose; she simply does not feel it (35).
Despite her mental state, the omniscient narrator tells readers, Moongirl “has total discipline of her body and intellect.” Oddly enough, it is this discipline, coupled with her lack of emotional control that makes her unbalanced and, therefore, insane: “She has no discipline of her emotions. She is, therefore out of balance, and balance is a requirement of sanity” (35).
Vanessa, a former acquaintance of Brian McCarthy, Amy’s boyfriend, an architect, is cruel. She is also unusual, if not altogether original, in her cruelty, sending Brian sadistic emails such as this one:
How are you doing, Bry? Do you have cancer yet? You’re only thirty-four next
week, but people die young of cancer all the time. It’s not too much to hope for

(28).
Taking a cue from The Addams Family, as it were, Koontz, more and more often, makes his evil characters not only evil and insane but eccentric as well. Odd, unconventional characters may or may not be sympathetic--since they tend to be villains in Koontz’s work, the selfdom are--but they are both interesting and memorable for the very reason that they are eccentric. Moreover, Koontz’s villains, although sociopaths, are artists of a sort--failed artists who, despite great gifts of intelligence and creativity, are more interested in creating masterpieces of ugliness, violence, cruelty, and evil than in art which is beautiful, inspiring, or liberating. As such, they are another device by which Koontz both engages his readers and moves his story’s plot along.

In the world of Koontz, women and children are eternal victims. Often traumatized, the women, nevertheless, are able to take charge of their affairs, if not themselves, and, motivated by the opportunity to rescue an abused child from the clutches of a violent, hateful father or to save a wife from her wife-beating husband (or, as in the case of the Darkest Evening of the Year, to rescue both, simultaneously), the female protagonist rises to the occasion, thereby ensuring a better future for the victims she’s rescued and a chance at eventual wholeness, both for the rescuer and the rescued. As mentioned, she is apt to receive help from the world’s sole surviving good guy and to fall in love with him during the course of her trials and tribulations.

In The Darkest Evening of the Year, it is a golden retriever, Nickie (dogs are another staple among the items in Koontz’s narrative bag of tricks), a wife, Janet Brockman, and Janet’s two children, Jimmie and Theresa (“Reesa”). After rescuing Nickie, by buying him for $2,000, Amy returns, with boyfriend Brain, to rescue Haney and the kids: “After Amy had told her story to the police, and while the others told theirs, she led Theresa out of the kitchen, along the hallway, seeking the boy” (23).

Just as Koontz’s fiction includes eccentric villains, it also features precocious or gifted children. In The Darkest Evening of the Year, Reesa is such a child, able to speak and sing in other languages, such as Celtic, which she has heard only once but has never learned and, it is hinted, may have other paranormal or supernatural powers as well.

Koontz’s books include one or more subplots which are developed in chapters that alternate more or less regularly with the chapters in which the main plot plays out, and the desire to see how these plots come together and complement one another is another reason that readers’ interest is maintained while the plot moves forward. Like any writer, Koontz hordes expository information, releasing background and explanatory information to readers strictly on an as-needed basis. As a result, suspense is maintained. Unlike some authors, however, Koontz accomplishes this feat on several narrative levels at once, and readers are keen to learn how and why the related mysteries of plot and subplot are related to one another.

An accomplished writer with scores of books in several genres to his credit (and, sometimes, to his blame), Koontz can write with the best of them, thanks, in no small part to the techniques we’ve identified in this article. However, the same novel that contains smart dialogue, intriguing characters, sometimes fast-paced action, and interesting subplots bogs down considerably in the vast middle that is sandwiched between a captivating and a wham-bam ending. It does so for at least two reasons.

First, many of the wafer-thin chapters are too insubstantial to be included as separate chapters at all. Instead of adding something essential, or even significant, they merely stretch the subplots’ narratives to unnecessary lengths, at the same time doling out what is often really only one scene over a number of increasingly less dramatic and interesting installments until it is hard to continue to care about what, if anything, is supposed to be happening.

Second, as many established writers seem to do, Koontz uses his novel to propagandize about golden retrievers, or “goldens” as he too often calls the animals. Lately, it’s a rare occasion when one of his books doesn’t involve a canine character that’s nearly as intelligent as a human being and far nobler. Indeed, some of these dogs have superhuman abilities, as Nickie appears, at times, to have. Koontz’s descriptions of the dogs is cloying most of the time and downright nauseating in its sentimentality on occasion (in The Darkest Evening of the Year, he actually names two “goldens” “Fred” and “Ethel”). His descriptions of his dogs is frequently unbelievable as well, and, far too often, Koontz’s plot, like the story’s verisimilitude, takes second place to the author’s insistence upon glorifying his canine character. An example should suffice to show us the errors of his ways:
If you are a dog lover, a true dog lover, and not just one who sees them as pets or animals, but are instead one who sees them as one’s dear companions, and more than companions--sees them as perhaps being but a step or two down the species ladder from humankind, not sharing human exceptionalism but not an abyss below it, either--you watch them differently from the way other people watch them, with a respect for their born dignity, with a recognition for their capacity to know joy and to suffer melancholy, with the certainty that they suspect tyranny of time even if they don’t fully understand the cruelty of it, that they are not, as self-blinded experts contend, unaware of their own mortality.

If you watch them with this heightened perception, from this more generous perspective, as Amy had long watched them, you see a remarkable complexity in each dog’s personality, an individualism uncannily human in its refinement, though with none of the worst of human faults. You see an intelligence and a fundamental ability to reason that can sometimes take your breath away (53).
If there is a lesson to be learned from Koontz’s excesses in promoting his favorable view of dogs as superior to humans (in some, or even most, ways) for other writers, surely it is this: self-indulgent writing, especially when it is laced with sentimentality, detracts from, and can even destroy, a story that is otherwise well crafted from a variety of effective techniques that engage readers while, at the same time, moving the action along.

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Paranormal vs. Supernatural: What’s the Diff?

Copyright 2009 by Gary L. Pullman

Sometimes, in demonstrating how to brainstorm about an essay topic, selecting horror movies, I ask students to name the titles of as many such movies as spring to mind (seldom a difficult feat for them, as the genre remains quite popular among young adults). Then, I ask them to identify the monster, or threat--the antagonist, to use the proper terminology--that appears in each of the films they have named. Again, this is usually a quick and easy task. Finally, I ask them to group the films’ adversaries into one of three possible categories: natural, paranormal, or supernatural. This is where the fun begins.

It’s a simple enough matter, usually, to identify the threats which fall under the “natural” label, especially after I supply my students with the scientific definition of “nature”: everything that exists as either matter or energy (which are, of course, the same thing, in different forms--in other words, the universe itself. The supernatural is anything which falls outside, or is beyond, the universe: God, angels, demons, and the like, if they exist. Mad scientists, mutant cannibals (and just plain cannibals), serial killers, and such are examples of natural threats. So far, so simple.

What about borderline creatures, though? Are vampires, werewolves, and zombies, for example, natural or supernatural? And what about Freddy Krueger? In fact, what does the word “paranormal” mean, anyway? If the universe is nature and anything outside or beyond the universe is supernatural, where does the paranormal fit into the scheme of things?

According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, the word “paranormal,” formed of the prefix “para,” meaning alongside, and “normal,” meaning “conforming to common standards, usual,” was coined in 1920. The American Heritage Dictionary defines “paranormal” to mean “beyond the range of normal experience or scientific explanation.” In other words, the paranormal is not supernatural--it is not outside or beyond the universe; it is natural, but, at the present, at least, inexplicable, which is to say that science cannot yet explain its nature. The same dictionary offers, as examples of paranormal phenomena, telepathy and “a medium’s paranormal powers.”

Wikipedia offers a few other examples of such phenomena or of paranormal sciences, including the percentages of the American population which, according to a Gallup poll, believes in each phenomenon, shown here in parentheses: psychic or spiritual healing (54), extrasensory perception (ESP) (50), ghosts (42), demons (41), extraterrestrials (33), clairvoyance and prophecy (32), communication with the dead (28), astrology (28), witchcraft (26), reincarnation (25), and channeling (15); 36 percent believe in telepathy.

As can be seen from this list, which includes demons, ghosts, and witches along with psychics and extraterrestrials, there is a confusion as to which phenomena and which individuals belong to the paranormal and which belong to the supernatural categories. This confusion, I believe, results from the scientism of our age, which makes it fashionable for people who fancy themselves intelligent and educated to dismiss whatever cannot be explained scientifically or, if such phenomena cannot be entirely rejected, to classify them as as-yet inexplicable natural phenomena. That way, the existence of a supernatural realm need not be admitted or even entertained. Scientists tend to be materialists, believing that the real consists only of the twofold unity of matter and energy, not dualists who believe that there is both the material (matter and energy) and the spiritual, or supernatural. If so, everything that was once regarded as having been supernatural will be regarded (if it cannot be dismissed) as paranormal and, maybe, if and when it is explained by science, as natural. Indeed, Sigmund Freud sought to explain even God as but a natural--and in Freud’s opinion, an obsolete--phenomenon.

Meanwhile, among skeptics, there is an ongoing campaign to eliminate the paranormal by explaining them as products of ignorance, misunderstanding, or deceit. Ridicule is also a tactic that skeptics sometimes employ in this campaign. For example, The Skeptics’ Dictionary contends that the perception of some “events” as being of a paranormal nature may be attributed to “ignorance or magical thinking.” The dictionary is equally suspicious of each individual phenomenon or “paranormal science” as well. Concerning psychics’ alleged ability to discern future events, for example, The Skeptic’s Dictionary quotes Jay Leno (“How come you never see a headline like 'Psychic Wins Lottery'?”), following with a number of similar observations:

Psychics don't rely on psychics to warn them of impending disasters. Psychics don't predict their own deaths or diseases. They go to the dentist like the rest of us. They're as surprised and disturbed as the rest of us when they have to call a plumber or an electrician to fix some defect at home. Their planes are delayed without their being able to anticipate the delays. If they want to know something about Abraham Lincoln, they go to the library; they don't try to talk to Abe's spirit. In short, psychics live by the known laws of nature except when they are playing the psychic game with people.
In An Encyclopedia of Claims, Frauds, and Hoaxes of the Occult and Supernatural, James Randi, a magician who exercises a skeptical attitude toward all things alleged to be paranormal or supernatural, takes issue with the notion of such phenomena as well, often employing the same arguments and rhetorical strategies as The Skeptic’s Dictionary.

In short, the difference between the paranormal and the supernatural lies in whether one is a materialist, believing in only the existence of matter and energy, or a dualist, believing in the existence of both matter and energy and spirit. If one maintains a belief in the reality of the spiritual, he or she will classify such entities as angels, demons, ghosts, gods, vampires, and other threats of a spiritual nature as supernatural, rather than paranormal, phenomena. He or she may also include witches (because, although they are human, they are empowered by the devil, who is himself a supernatural entity) and other natural threats that are energized, so to speak, by a power that transcends nature and is, as such, outside or beyond the universe. Otherwise, one is likely to reject the supernatural as a category altogether, identifying every inexplicable phenomenon as paranormal, whether it is dark matter or a teenage werewolf. Indeed, some scientists dedicate at least part of their time to debunking allegedly paranormal phenomena, explaining what natural conditions or processes may explain them, as the author of The Serpent and the Rainbow explains the creation of zombies by voodoo priests.

Based upon my recent reading of Tzvetan Todorov's The Fantastic: A Structural Approach to the Fantastic, I add the following addendum to this essay.

According to Todorov:

The fantastic. . . lasts only as long as a certain hesitation [in deciding] whether or not what they [the reader and the protagonist] perceive derives from "reality" as it exists in the common opinion. . . . If he [the reader] decides that the laws of reality remain intact and permit an explanation of the phenomena described, we can say that the work belongs to the another genre [than the fantastic]: the uncanny. If, on the contrary, he decides that new laws of nature must be entertained to account for the phenomena, we enter the genre of the marvelous (The Fantastic: A Structural Approach to a Literary Genre, 41).
Todorov further differentiates these two categories by characterizing the uncanny as “the supernatural explained” and the marvelous as “the supernatural accepted” (41-42).

Interestingly, the prejudice against even the possibility of the supernatural’s existence which is implicit in the designation of natural versus paranormal phenomena, which excludes any consideration of the supernatural, suggests that there are no marvelous phenomena; instead, there can be only the uncanny. Consequently, for those who subscribe to this view, the fantastic itself no longer exists in this scheme, for the fantastic depends, as Todorov points out, upon the tension of indecision concerning to which category an incident belongs, the natural or the supernatural. The paranormal is understood, by those who posit it, in lieu of the supernatural, as the natural as yet unexplained.

And now, back to a fate worse than death: grading students’ papers.

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My Cup of Blood

Anyone who becomes an aficionado of anything tends, eventually, to develop criteria for elements or features of the person, place, or thing of whom or which he or she has become enamored. Horror fiction--admittedly not everyone’s cuppa blood--is no different (okay, maybe it’s a little different): it, too, appeals to different fans, each for reasons of his or her own. Of course, in general, book reviews, the flyleaves of novels, and movie trailers suggest what many, maybe even most, readers of a particular type of fiction enjoy, but, right here, right now, I’m talking more specifically--one might say, even more eccentrically. In other words, I’m talking what I happen to like, without assuming (assuming makes an “ass” of “u” and “me”) that you also like the same. It’s entirely possible that you will; on the other hand, it’s entirely likely that you won’t.

Anyway, this is what I happen to like in horror fiction:

Small-town settings in which I get to know the townspeople, both the good, the bad, and the ugly. For this reason alone, I’m a sucker for most of Stephen King’s novels. Most of them, from 'Salem's Lot to Under the Dome, are set in small towns that are peopled by the good, the bad, and the ugly. Part of the appeal here, granted, is the sense of community that such settings entail.

Isolated settings, such as caves, desert wastelands, islands, mountaintops, space, swamps, where characters are cut off from civilization and culture and must survive and thrive or die on their own, without assistance, by their wits and other personal resources. Many are the examples of such novels and screenplays, but Alien, The Shining, The Descent, Desperation, and The Island of Dr. Moreau, are some of the ones that come readily to mind.

Total institutions as settings. Camps, hospitals, military installations, nursing homes, prisons, resorts, spaceships, and other worlds unto themselves are examples of such settings, and Sleepaway Camp, Coma, The Green Mile, and Aliens are some of the novels or films that take place in such settings.

Anecdotal scenes--in other words, short scenes that showcase a character--usually, an unusual, even eccentric, character. Both Dean Koontz and the dynamic duo, Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child, excel at this, so I keep reading their series (although Koontz’s canine companions frequently--indeed, almost always--annoy, as does his relentless optimism).

Atmosphere, mood, and tone. Here, King is king, but so is Bentley Little. In the use of description to terrorize and horrify, both are masters of the craft.

A bit of erotica (okay, okay, sex--are you satisfied?), often of the unusual variety. Sex sells, and, yes, sex whets my reader’s appetite. Bentley Little is the go-to guy for this spicy ingredient, although Koontz has done a bit of seasoning with this spice, too, in such novels as Lightning and Demon Seed (and, some say, Hung).

Believable characters. Stephen King, Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child, and Dan Simmons are great at creating characters that stick to readers’ ribs.

Innovation. Bram Stoker demonstrates it, especially in his short story “Dracula’s Guest,” as does H. P. Lovecraft, Edgar Allan Poe, Shirley Jackson, and a host of other, mostly classical, horror novelists and short story writers. For an example, check out my post on Stoker’s story, which is a real stoker, to be sure. Stephen King shows innovation, too, in ‘Salem’s Lot, The Shining, It, and other novels. One might even argue that Dean Koontz’s something-for-everyone, cross-genre writing is innovative; he seems to have been one of the first, if not the first, to pen such tales.

Technique. Check out Frank Peretti’s use of maps and his allusions to the senses in Monster; my post on this very topic is worth a look, if I do say so myself, which, of course, I do. Opening chapters that accomplish a multitude of narrative purposes (not usually all at once, but successively) are attractive, too, and Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child are as good as anyone, and better than many, at this art.

A connective universe--a mythos, if you will, such as both H. P. Lovecraft and Stephen King, and, to a lesser extent, Dean Koontz, Bentley Little, and even Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child have created through the use of recurring settings, characters, themes, and other elements of fiction.

A lack of pretentiousness. Dean Koontz has it, as do Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child, Bentley Little, and (to some extent, although he has become condescending and self-indulgent of late, Stephen King); unfortunately, both Dan Simmons and Robert McCammon have become too self-important in their later works, Simmons almost to the point of becoming unreadable. Come on, people, you’re writing about monsters--you should be humble.

Longevity. Writers who have been around for a while usually get better, Stephen King, Dan Simmons, and Robert McCammon excepted.

Pacing. Neither too fast nor too slow. Dean Koontz is good, maybe the best, here, of contemporary horror writers.

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