Dean Koontz: That guy with “horror” tattooed on his forehead.

Dean Koontz prefers to avoid genre labels. By his own admission, he writes “cross-genre novels in a mainstream style, with elements of comedy and social commentary and philosophical speculation.”

That said, I hold firm to my conviction that much of Dean Koontz’s work contains elements of visionary fiction as detailed in the Wikipedia article written by our very own Victor E. Smith. I said as much in a post for Visionary Fiction Alliance back in 2012, titled Is Dean Koontz a Visionary Fiction Writer?, to which Koontz responded via e-mail. We have kept up a correspondence since, during which he generously agreed to answer some interview questions for my post at the VFA.

I can think of no better way to introduce Dean Koontz and his work than through his own words in the first of a two part interview.

Dean Koontz Interview Part One:

“I might want to see how the label ‘visionary’ comes to be defined in the years ahead before allowing you to paste it on my forehead, but I suspect we agree on more than we disagree.” ~Dean Koontz

MARGARET DUARTE: Every time I read one of your novels, be it From the Corner of His Eye, One Door Away From Heaven, Odd Thomas, The Face, Watchers, Innocence, or the City, I’m more convinced that you write visionary fiction. For instance, if I whittle the definition of VF down to “fiction that heals, empowers, and bridges differences,” your stories fit. Or if I say that VF “brings forth universal wisdom in story form so readers can experience it from within,” your stories fit. Add to that the way writer/activist Walidah Imarisha uses the term VF to describe how we can make use of the genres of science fiction, horror, and fantasy “to envision alternatives to unjust and oppressive systems,” and your stories fit. Yet, publishers and critics alike give the horror aspect of your writing precedence over the visionary. Why do you think that is?

DEAN KOONTZ: As a reader, I like some horror. But as a writer, I don’t deal with vampires and zombies and werewolves; when in some books I use other horror elements, I do so in a suspense or mainstream context. I always tried to keep the word “horror” out of jacket copy and publicity releases. My publisher at Putnam’s back in the day, felt that the genre was hot and that my work could be molded to fit if only I would heed her advice. She was smart and successful, but I wanted to write what I wanted to write, which led to epic battles. Nevertheless, through packaging and sales pitches and things that I couldn’t control, the horror image was pushed. In spite of all my efforts to avoid any genre label, I might as well have tattooed the word “horror” on my forehead.

Also a few early film adaptations threw out most of the content of the books and turned them into cheesy spookfests. Trying to get my name off a film version of HIDEAWAY, I spent as much on legal fees as I’d been paid for film rights—and managed only to get my name out of the ads and minimized on the posters. By the time I was doing books like FROM THE CORNER OF HIS EYE, I thought that reality would trump image, but I was wrong. My publisher insisted that the hardcover title be done in spooky lettering. The book received wonderful reviews, and many understood its themes, not just its plot. No matter. Every interviewer and press mention used the word horror, though the novel had no thread of it. Once an image is set, the tendency among publishers, journalists, booksellers and others is to avoid the rigors of fresh thinking and report the cliché. If enough people in the media repeat the claim that you have two heads, the day will come when people meeting you for the first time will ask when you had the second head removed.

Thankfully, with my current team at Random House/Bantam, I am working with people who would like to wake up booksellers and others to the actual content of my books. It’s a Herculean effort.

DUARTE: Your writing includes scenes and characters that are horrible, much as the nightly news is horrible—the wars, the shootings, the political and financial shenanigans. But, in my opinion, that does not make you a writer of horror. Unlike the news, your stories offer hope and the opportunity for healing. How do you react to being called a horror novelist?

KOONTZ:  I don’t rant or set my hair on fire to make them listen to me. I don’t even set on fire the hair of the person calling me a horror novelist. Explosive response is not my nature. But I’ve learned that quietly correcting them doesn’t work, either. So what I usually do is go away to someplace quiet and knock my head against the wall until I feel better.

DUARTE: In 2001, you dedicated One Door Away From Heaven in part to Irwyn Applebaum, who encouraged you “to take the train out there where trains don’t usually go.” What did you mean by that?

KOONTZ: Irwyn was my publisher at that time, a very smart guy, and I liked him quite a lot. We had our contentious moments because he wanted me to write scary, scarier, scariest. I think what he most wanted from me was one INTENSITY after another. Meanwhile, I was writing cross-genre novels in a mainstream style, with elements of comedy and social commentary and philosophical speculation. Because of his reaction to the second Chris Snow book, SEIZE THE NIGHT, I postponed the third volume of that trilogy (will be working on it again soon!) and wrote FALSE MEMORY, which he found compelling at least in parts, and then FROM THE CORNER OF HIS EYE. I know he liked CORNER, but I also know it kind of baffled him, as it didn’t seem to be a book that could come from the guy who wrote PHANTOMS and INTENSITY—that guy with “horror” tattooed on his forehead. He was worried that I would lose my audience, which was why he just had to have that spooky lettering on the jacket. After CORNER spent five weeks at #1, I guess he relaxed a little, because even though ONE DOOR AWAY FROM HEAVEN was as unusual as CORNER, he called me up after reading it and said, “Well, you take the train out there where trains don’t usually go, but you make it work.” I appreciated the sentiment and the metaphor.

DUARTE: Your work definitely doesn’t follow a template. No two books are alike. You cross lines, break barriers, and say no to rules and regulations that have lost their meaning. In other words, your work is hard to pin down. In my mind, that makes you more of a literary than a genre writer. Yet, reviewers don’t always appreciate the deep literary resonance of books like yours and David Mitchell’s The Bone Clocks because they have elements of fantasy and science fiction. What are your thoughts on this?

KOONTZ: I was fortunate for some years to have my work often fall into the hands of critics who understood it and liked it. But when your work tends to go to reviewers who have spent thirty years reviewing hardcore thrillers with heroes that are metamorphs who can walk through walls and hit the target with every shot, the response can be bafflement or worse. The problem isn’t so much that critics in general don’t “get” elements of the fantastic or of edgy science—or spirituality, for that matter—incorporated into general fiction. Rather it’s that once a writer is labeled, regardless of the label, it is difficult to have perceptive critics specializing in literary fiction (and there are some perceptive ones) to look at something already bearing a label that they disdain. This is, in the end, why a writer should always write for himself: what you’re doing might never be widely seen for what it is; therefore, the satisfaction will come in setting challenges for yourself and doing your best to meet them.

DUARTE: In my novel, Between Will and Surrender, I touch on the themes of free will and personal freedom, themes that also appear to resonate with you, as demonstrated so beautifully in One Door Away From Heaven: “…that this willpower—the awesomely creative consciousness of the playful Presence—is the organizing force within the physical universe, and that this power is reflected in the freedom that each mortal possesses to shape his or her destiny through the exercise of free will.” Again this reinforces my opinion that your work is visionary and that your intent is not to petrify, but to encourage us to think, see, feel, and ask questions—maybe even change our minds. How do you respond to my continued insistence that your writing is, at least in part, visionary fiction?

KOONTZ: I might want to see how the label “visionary” comes to be defined in the years ahead before allowing you to paste it on my forehead, but I suspect we agree on more than we disagree.

And there you have it straight from Dean Koontz, one of the world’s most popular novelists, with 450 million books sold worldwide. I’ll leave it up to you to decide if he thinks and writes like a visionary fiction author. Click HERE for Part Two of my interview with Mr. Koontz, titled “Metaphysics Are the Ink in My Pen,” in which he discusses quantum mechanics and his thoughts about the chance for raising visionary fiction into the mainstream.


24 thoughts on “Dean Koontz: That guy with “horror” tattooed on his forehead.

  1. Theresa Crater says:

    Hi Dean, Thanks for sharing your experience of how label trumps content. Sounds like you've found peace with it. It reminds me of that old saying, "Hidden in plain sight." I'm definitely reading more of your stuff! Thanks for dropping by.

  2. JodineTurner, Vision says:

    These are wonderfully in-depth questions, and the answers give me a glimpse of just what kind of a person, and author, Dean Koontz is. I think his statement – "This is, in the end, why a writer should always write for himself." – sums it up. Sage advice that can be applied in VF as well!

  3. Admin - Eleni says:

    A wonderful interview, and I appreciate how he calmly deals with his label as a horror writer. Nevertheless, it is what propelled him to his career. He is very fortunate to be doing what he loves. And interestingly, his reluctance to not react to the labeling, including that of VF, demonstrates the non-dogmatic mindset of a VF writer!

    • margaretduarte says:

      Yes, the "horror" label helped propel Dean Koontz's career, and I'm sure he appreciates that. The important thing is that people are reading his books, enjoying them, and returning for more. Every author's dream, I'm sure. As I noted when I read the last book in Koontz's "Odd Thomas" series, "Saint Odd was so jam packed with suspense and action, start to finish, that it was difficult for me to slow down long enough to uncover—and appreciate—the philosophical gems and imagery that Koontz weaves almost subliminally throughout his work. Only during a second reading did the visionary aspect of his art unfold and crystallize, the "life lessons wrapped as entertainment." What Dean Koontz does exceptionally well is entertain. The visionary aspect of his work comes almost as a bonus. A bonus often hidden between the lines.

      Oh, and by the way, I read in this morning's newspaper that SAINT ODD hit number three in Hardback Fiction on the New York Times best-sellers list. Congratulations Mr. Koontz. Bet news like this just makes your day — no matter what genre title is tattooed on your forehead.

  4. sandravaldine says:

    Hello, all! I'm probably the only person in the world who's never read a Dean Koontz novel. Years ago, I remember one of my friends raving about his work, but I never picked it up. A while back, I recall you talking about Dean's work with us VFA folk, Margaret. I bought the book and never got to it, but now I will. It was the horror label that put me off. Now I learn Dean doesn't regard his own work as horror and interweaves philosophical subjects through it. Sounds like my cup of tea.

    Thanks for the interview Dean (if I may call you that) and Margaret. I'm looking forward to future installments.

    • margaretduarte says:

      Hi Sandy. I, too, was turned off by the horror aspect of Dean Koontz's novels, and I can't remember how I ended up with one of his books or why I decided to read it. But I'm glad I did. From a visionary fiction standpoint, I suggest the following of his works: ONE DOOR AWAY FROM HEAVEN, ODD THOMAS, FROM THE CORNER OF HIS EYE, THE FACE, INNOCENCE, THE CITY, and WATCHERS. Yes, some (especially Watchers) are scary, but the philosophical subjects he weaves through them, take them beyond entertainment into the inspirational.

  5. Theresa Adrian says:

    I love how Dean Koontz says a writer should write for himself and the satisfaction should come from the challenges a writer sets before them. I am amazed at the depth of the interview questions and enjoyed his responses to them. Looking forward to next weeks interview. I myself am planning to read the Odd Thomas series and One Door away from heaven as it sounds intriguing. I too always stayed away from his books because of the horror label! Glad it is not pasted on his forehead!

  6. Victor E. Smith says:

    Kudos to you, Margaret, for the incisive questions and to Dean (Mr. Koontz) for his honest, informative, and, might I say, humble answers. Never having been much of a horror fan, I steered clear of Dean's work until False Memory a few years ago, which–just checked–does not have the word "horror" anywhere on its hardback cover. Still, I have a lot of reading to do before I feel educated enough to comment on the body of his work.

    Nevertheless, the interview itself is full of gems that only having been there and returning with one's integrity intact can provide. Some, worth tattooing on our foreheads, have already been plucked in the comments above. But it is so good to hear a successful writer affirm, "why a writer should always write for himself." I know from my own novel, which took me about 30 years to complete, that I had its final version when I could nod and think: I really like it.

    Looking forward to next week and a lot more discussion on this important article in the evolution of visionary fiction. I think you're right, Dean, in suspecting we agree on more than we disagree.

    • margaretduarte says:

      Like you, Victor, it has taken, and will continue to take, years for me to complete the final versions of my novels to the point where I really like them. Just reading the list of (100?) books Dean Koontz has written and the number of books he'll likely continue to add to that list fills me with awe. Because I know how difficult the entire process is. Yet he remains humble enough to share his thoughts with us here at VFA and offer struggling writers a shot in the arm with the affirmation that a writer should always write for himself. I suspect you're also going to like next week's discussion on quantum mechanics as well as his thoughts about the evolution of VF. See you then.

  7. Pingback: My Interview with Dean Koontz -

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  9. Psychonator says:

    Comedy horror as a genre has been around forever, and I love it! Some of my favorites are "John Dies in the End" and "This Book is Full of Spiders," by David Wong, and "Trailer Park from Hell," and "Life's a Bitch, a Werebitch," by Timothy J. Whitcher.


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