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.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.
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 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?”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:
“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).
Harrow has seen her hold. . . a rose so tightly by its thorny stem that her hands drip blood.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).
Her pain threshold, like his, is high. She does not enjoy the prick of the rose; she simply does not feel it (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 nextTaking 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.
week, but people die young of cancer all the time. It’s not too much to hope for
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 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.
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).