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Slaughter with a smile

At first glance, the Newport Beach resident is slightly built, soft-spoken and unfailingly accessible. One would hardly imagine that he’s plotted hundreds of grisly murders over the past four decades.

Murder and mayhem have paid off handsomely for Dean Koontz. He’s now the world’s sixth most highly paid author, tied with John Grisham at $25 million in annual sales, and his novels have sold more than 400 million copies.

Quite a contrast from his early life in what he calls “a tar paper shack” in Bedford, Pa., a rest stop along the Pennsylvania Turnpike, where he endured an unhappy childhood. His early Dickensenian experiences would inspire the creation of some hideously evil villains in the prolific author’s repertoire.

Koontz and his wife, Gerda (pronounced “Jerda”), a grade-school buddy and high school sweetheart, now lead a supremely comfortable life in a home that’s part mansion and part museum, the walls lined with glass-encased posters from film noir movies. There’s even a fair-sized movie theater on the premises.


A third part of the house — a comparatively small area — is Koontz’s office space. It’s basically a desk and a computer, where he turns out novels that make The New York Times bestseller list. A dozen of his hardcover books have reached No. 1, along with 14 that reached that spot in paperback.

His latest project, “What the Night Knows” (which he sent me prior to our interview), is perhaps his best. I say “perhaps” because I’ve only read about 15 or 16 of his works. He’s written more than 100 since he got his start as a teenager, selling a short story to the Atlantic Monthly for $50.

In this latest one, the hero is a police detective who, at 14, killed the madman who had murdered the rest of his family. Now, 20 years later, the spirit of that killer has returned to inhabit and control others with a murderous bent, and the detective’s own family is targeted. How, you wonder, do you dispatch an evil spirit from a previous generation?

How, indeed. And how does Koontz keep coming up with all these intricate story lines over a period of 42 years?


It’s a matter of record that he was raised under the thumb of an alcoholic and abusive father who, the author says wryly, “had 44 jobs in 34 years.”

The hardships of Koontz’s early life served as inspiration for some of the nastier characters he went on to create.

College didn’t seem an option at the time, but Koontz worked graveyard shifts at a supermarket to put himself through Shippensburg State College, in Pennsylvania.

“I hated doing research in college,” he recalls ironically, since now he puts in extensive research on each new book. “I always faked my sources, made up references. And I never got caught.”

His “aha moment” came in college when he enrolled as a history major, but switched to English when a teacher called attention to his writing talent. He graduated in 1967 and took a job teaching English at a high school in Mechanicsburg, Pa.

In 1968 Koontz published his first novel, “Star Quest,” while he was teaching English in Harrisburg, Pa. After a year and a half of teaching, his wife realized what joy he took in writing and made him an offer he couldn’t refuse.

“Gerda offered to support me for five years while I wrote,” he says. “If I couldn’t succeed in that time, I’d get a regular job.”

Succeed he did, writing suspense novels and horror fiction both under his own name and a variety of pseudonyms. During this period he might publish eight books in one year.


And, in a practice he says that “drives publishers nuts,” he’d switch genres with virtually every novel. One story might lean heavily toward his passion for science fiction; another would be in the more accessible contemporary drama mode.

Although Koontz has creatively eliminated a plethora of his characters, “there’s little blood and guts in my books,” he maintains. He admits to being “a little squeamish” about such things as was Alfred Hitchcock, whose grisly achievements are legendary.

An example arises from his research on the aorta transplant one of his characters was required to perform. While discussing the procedure with a surgeon, he was invited to watch the operation in person. He politely but emphatically declined.

Many of Koontz’s novels involve the subject of quantum mechanics, popularly known as the “butterfly effect” — how one person’s acts affect others, often on the other side of the world. It’s a personal fascination that resurfaces in many of the author’s later works, including the last one I read, “From the Corner of His Eye,” which deals heavily in this area.

And no matter how evil his villains might be, Koontz pulls the rug out from under them regularly.

“I find ways to present them as a figure of fun,” he says.

As he did in the aforementioned novel in which the killer finds himself sharing a garbage Dumpster with a corpse.

Dean Koontz says that he “hates leaving home.” His rear terrace offers a magnificent view of the Pacific Ocean, and on a clear day he can see from Long Beach to San Clemente Island.


But his devotion to home and hearth runs deeper than creature comforts. Koontz doesn’t fly and won’t go on book-signing tours. That would interfere with the 60 to 70 hours he spends each week creating his new novels — “80 to 90 hours near the end,” he says.

Dean and Gerda Koontz contribute to many charities, and one of them — Canine Companions for Independence — contributed right back in 2004 with Trixie, a golden retriever, beloved by the couple. The dog contracted terminal cancer in 2007 and had to be put down. Dogs have since become integral parts of Koontz’s stories.

Two years ago the Koontzes adopted a new golden retriever, Anna, an extremely affectionate companion who “flunked out of disability training school because the birds bugged her.” It was later learned that Anna was the grandniece of Trixie, who became the “author” of a few of Koontz’s children’s books.

A few movies have been made from Dean Koontz novels, perhaps the most recognizable being 1977’s “Demon Seed,” which stars Julie Christie as a woman impregnated by a rogue computer. Another, “Phantoms,” is a 1998 horror flick adapted from the 1983 novel, during the filming of which Koontz formed a lasting friendship with its star, Peter O’Toole, who once phoned him to get his approval on the addition of a comma to the actor’s dialogue.

(I checked out both movies on Netflix after our talk. Their fright quotient is through the roof. Don’t watch either on a dark night just before bedtime).

Last July Koontz turned 65, an age at which many Americans begin to think about retirement. Not this American, though he hardly needs the extra money.

“I’ll go out at my computer,” he promises.

Which means there will be many more crime thrillers ahead, with increasingly evil villains and even more creative methods of eliminating characters, always with a sly little grin.

TOM TITUS reviews local theater for the Daily Pilot.