Welcome to THIS JUSTIN, a column dedicated to my love of all things weird and spooky. Each week I’ll be taking you on a deep dive into something creepy and/or crawly and talking your ear off about why I love it so much. Spoilers ahead for Watchers, Phantoms, Strangers, and Lightning, all by Dean Koontz of course.
In 1999, Stephen King was struck by a van while out on a walk and was injured quite gravely. He wrote of being in the worst pain of his entire life, how the entire right side of his body felt like it had been crushed, and that he had come close to death that day. The animated sitcom Family Guy, known for pushing humor to the edge of good taste, referenced the incident in an episode where Brian accidentally runs someone over. Panicked, Brian runs over and asks the man, “Are you Stephen King?!” To which the man replies, “No, I’m Dean Koontz.” At which point Brian runs him over again. The implication, of course, being that Dean Koontz is second fiddle to Stephen King, the Pepsi to his Coke, the Megadeth to his Metallica. If I’m forced to pick a favorite, I’m definitely going with Stephen King. Regular readers of this column, as well as literally everyone in my entire social circle, know that I am a ride-or-die Constant Reader Friend And Neighbor. But I’ve definitely got a soft spot for Dean Koontz, and I think that he’s churned out some quality horror literature in the roughly billion or so years he’s been active as a writer. He’s put out a lot of less that likable stuff in my opinion, but he’s got it where it counts and isn’t nearly as deserving of hatred as some might claim. He knows how to write intensely frightening prose and is also quite capable of crafting very touching and human stories. In this sense he’s quite reminiscent of King, albeit Koontz leans more into the sentimental than he does the horrific. Ultimately, the ability to tell a solid human story with a boatload of fear is what is needed to craft a good horror story.
I honestly believe that Dean Koontz is an incredible storyteller. He knows how to strike fear in the heart as effectively as he knows how to hit you in the soft bits with that tearjerker bullshit. He’s amazing at both of these things, and I’m going to talk about both of them in this piece. Unfortunately, he also has the tendency to stray into overly sentimental, painfully earnest, almost Hallmark Channel territory. This might be a result of Koontz’s Catholic background and his belief in the inherent goodness and “specialness” of humanity as a result of us being the pinnacle of God’s creation. I’m not going to criticize Koontz’s religious beliefs; he’s entitled to them as much as I am entitled to my own lack of the same. And honestly, I’ll take a well-intentioned albeit somewhat saccharine sounding believer over a fellow atheist who wholeheartedly embraces cynicism and negativity. As grating and cheesy as it can be at times, Koontz’s optimism and unwavering faith in the goodness of mankind is a welcome and refreshing foil to our current culture and state of affairs. Also he’s a fellow dog lover and I can’t hate a man who loves dogs as much as I do.
Dean Koontz isn’t usually referred to as a horror author in the same way that Stephen King is, but I think he’s just as effective at creating truly terrifying scenarios. Phantoms might unfortunately be known best for the woefully underwhelming film adaption and this stupid joke, and it’s a shame because the novel is genuinely frightening. There’s one scene in particular when Jenny Paige and her sister are wandering through the seemingly abandoned town of Snowfield, California. Koontz writes:
Now deep in her mind, something…shifted, as if an enormously heavy iron cover were being slid off a dark pit in her subconscious. Within that pit, in ancient chambers of her mind, there lay a host of primitive sensations and perceptions, a superstitious awe that was new to her. Virtually on a racial level stored in the genes, she sensed what was happening in Snowfield.
We find out later that the citizens of the town were consumed by a creature later dubbed “The Ancient Enemy,” a massive amoeboid organism that resided in the mountain nearby and fed every couple hundreds of years or so. The Enemy absorbed the memories and personalities of its victims and was able to take on any shape it could conceive. It, or at least other members of its species, were responsible for mass disappearances throughout history, as well as the extinction of the dinosaurs. In addition to this horrific resume, it’s all but confirmed that this creature is the source for stories about demons and devils throughout history, and that these accounts are simply the passed down stories of people who survived encounters with it. Not only does Koontz paint an obvious picture of something scary (think the creature from The Blob remake, but intelligent and able to talk incredible amounts of shit), he also draws upon the concept of our collective memory of a time when we weren’t top dogs on this planet and were still a link in the food chain. In short, he takes us back as a species to a very, very shitty time in our history. And then, on top of that, he brings the thing responsible for these memories back front and center, and to spectacular effect.
The film adaption of Phantoms might be chock full of godawful ‘90s CGI and atrocious Jacob’s Ladder twitching, but the novel is something else entirely. Koontz takes the trope of feeling someone watching and listening to you and wields it with spectacular results. When one of the characters picks up the phone to call out for help, the line is dead, but they have the feeling as if something is on the other line listening to them. At one point, Sheriff Bryce Hammond (Affleck’s character in the film adaption) listens in on what sounds like an antechamber to Hell: hundreds of voices screaming in agony, begging for mercy. It’s the Enemy mimicking its prey in their last moments, something it does as reflexively as a parrot talking to itself, and it’s absolutely ghastly. The cruelness of the Enemy is almost boundless. Not only is it fond of taunting the characters by mimicking its victims, it also delights in letting them listen in as it murders a soldier just out of reach in a locked room. One scene that always stuck with me was the death of Gordy Brogan, a rookie deputy having a crisis of faith, believing that his own actions have called down this apocalypse. The Enemy kills him by imitating a wounded Airedale terrier and then viciously attacks him when he’s close enough. Gordy’s death is agonizing; so much so that it is actually a fellow police officer who puts him out of his misery. What makes his demise all the more horrific is that Gordy is well liked by everyone there, even the characters who had just met him that day. At one point Sheriff Hammond thinks to himself that if anyone there was going to be spared the wrath of God, it would be Gordy. And yet, he suffers arguably the worst death in the novel.
Koontz makes it quite clear that the Ancient Enemy is not a god or a devil or anything more than an extremely intelligent animal. There’s nothing in the sense of the spiritual or theological about it. But it still feels that way. The Enemy is so fleshed out that its evil feels almost supernatural. Koontz creates such an aura of fear around the character during its initial interactions with the human characters that by the time it makes its actual appearance without relying on subterfuge, we the readers are taut as wires and ready to scream at the drop of a hat. It doesn’t help that initially, when communication is established with the Enemy, it refers to itself as a myriad of demonic names: Beelzebub, Glasyalabolos, Lucifer, or simply “the void”. Even knowing that it’s merely a flesh and blood animal who enjoys mocking religion in order to terrify people doesn’t entirely do away with the feeling of theological horror.
Another entry in the “Awesome Dean Koontz Books That Were Made Into Garbage Movies” club is 1987’s Watchers, later adapted in 1988. Watchers is the story of Travis Cornell, a despondent ex-Delta Force soldier (sigh…I know) who feels his life has lost all purpose. One day while out on a hike, he encounters a golden retriever who not only seems rather intelligent but also desperate to get out of the area. As the novel unfolds, it’s revealed that the dog (soon named Einstein) is one half of a government experiment that sought to create the perfect system of espionage: a super-intelligent dog who appears normal but is able to read and communicate with humans. The other half of this experiment is a creature known as “The Outsider”, a genetically altered baboon that is at least as intelligent as Einstein, but instead of being a friendly doggo is a violent killing machine. The two animals can sense one another and, since the Outsider hates Einstein more than anything else, it immediately begins tracking him. Obviously, much of the fear of this book comes from the classic “monster chasing you” plotline. When Travis first meets Einstein in the woods, Einstein is terrified and clearly wants to get the fuck out of there. While initially suspecting a mountain lion, Travis soon begins to feel that there is indeed something unnatural in the woods. This is another example of Koontz’s ability to express the concept of feeling something aberrant and being overcome with fear and tying it to our primordial hindbrains, the “genetic ghost of what we once were,” so to speak.
This scene encapsulates the nature and personality of the Outsider. It is just that: an outsider. It represents the Tolkien-esque concept that only God is capable of true creation; all his creatures can do is alter what He’s already made. The Outsider is that alteration. It might be a wholly new addition to the world, but it’s not a creation so much as it merely a perversion. The natural made unnatural. Einstein’s hyper-intelligence is equally out of place in nature, but he is quite capable of acting like a normal dog when necessary and belonging in the natural order of things, and thus his defining characteristic doesn’t set him aside and alone. The Outsider belongs nowhere. The scenes in which it attacks people are horrific enough: it violently murders a reclusive hermit, attacks a child going to her barn to check on her horse, and massacres the citizens of a children’s petting zoo. But the most horrific thing about the Outsider isn’t just how it looks; it’s that it’s fully aware of how it looks. It understands that people loath it and see it as ugly and imperfect, and that Einstein was the wunderkind of the Francis Project. This results not just in a deep-seated rage and hatred for Einstein and mankind, but also a vast, aching loneliness. It’s a tragedy in the style of Frankenstein: this horrific but sensitive creature that didn’t ask to be made is created and detested by people for doing exactly what it was created to do. It is an outsider in every sense of the word, and it knows it. At one point, a character who had witnessed it interacting with scientists in the lab recalls it expressing through sign language the desire to tear out the eyes of everyone who had seen it so it wouldn’t have to witness the look of disgust in their eyes, and if it couldn’t do that it would simply tear out its own. The character remarks that after witnessing this exchange he felt just as much pity for the Outsider as he did fear of it. The melancholic tragedy of the Outsider ultimately becomes its defining feature and culminates when it finally catches up to Einstein but is unable to murder him. When wounded and cornered, it exercises the one ability it had that Einstein lacked: speech. It begs Travis to end its miserable hateful life after realizing the pain that it has caused even to Einstein and seems truly sorry for what it’s done.
This is a perfect example of what it takes to be a truly terrific storyteller in the horror genre. Koontz is able to craft a scene in which a villain we were first expected to hate and fear is presented in a light that makes us instead feel a deep sorrow for it. This isn’t the audience realizing that Darth Vader has been redeemed at the end of ROTJ. There is no happy ending here. We’re left with no choice but to accept that as monstrous as the Outsider was, it was ultimately our decision to create such a monster, then reject it and attempt to destroy it. It’s an extremely roundabout version of the Romero-esque “and the whole time us normal people were the real monsters,” but it’s deadly accurate, and it dovetails perfectly with Koontz’s overarching philosophy that while mankind may ultimately be good, we are not without the ability to commit morally abominable acts against the world and each other.
Koontz doesn’t always dress his stories up with profound statements on the nature of humanity and question of morality. It shouldn’t be assumed that just because he is capable of resting heady concepts on effectively frightening and entertaining plots, he is incapable of telling a good old-fashioned scary story. Anything but. Darkfall is a novel in which a cop investigating a series of brutal murders discovers that they are the result of a voodoo ritual by a Haitian magician that has summoned an army of pint-sized demons to engage in a campaign of vengeance against the mob. Think The Gate meets Deathwish and put yourself in the shoes of a cop investigating it all. The climax of involves what may or may not be Cthulhu trying to emerge from the gate before the protagonist uses his own blood (the blood of a righteous man is more effective than holy water for them, so yeah) to shut the gate forever.
Winter Moon is an example of Koontz writing straight-up cosmic horror. In this novel, a family at a secluded Montana ranch finds themselves stalked by a being known only as “The Giver” that has entered our reality through a breach in the forest. The Giver is so far beyond humanity that it cannot truly comprehend us as anything more than another being to control. It seems to regard life on Earth as a curiosity due its inherent sociopathy: it regards all things as existing only to serve it. It has the ability to half-assedly reanimate corpses of people and animals by piggybacking off them with small parts of itself, leading to many horrific encounters between it and the human characters it seeks to assimilate. It’s one of Koontz’s few straight up dives into that tradition of the Lovecraftian. Not so much for the description of the alien (a mass of writhing tentacles), but also for the implication that it simply comes from elsewhere and is utterly and absolutely unknowable.
While Strangers ends up as a story reveling in the wonder of mankind discovering we’re not alone in the universe, the opening act is chock full of imagery straight out of the recalled memories of someone claiming to be abducted by aliens. One character habitually wakes up in their closet hiding from something. Another is horrified but mesmerized by the sight of the full moon. Yet another character who owns a diner in the high desert of Nevada finds themselves suddenly afraid of the dark. These stories are told with such intensity that the fear of the characters becomes contagious. I’ve often said that few things are scarier than the sight and sound of someone in the grips of true terror; Strangers excels at that. Even when it becomes clear that, *spoilers*, it wasn’t the aliens themselves harassing anyone but rather the U.S. government trying to cover up a UFO crash, it’s still frightening to think about how our memories can warp past events and our recall of them into legit nightmare scenarios.
Twilight Eyes has admittedly a bit of a wonky premise (involving shapeshifting super-soldiers that resemble goblins who wiped out early civilization with primitive nuclear weapons and continue to torment us), but it’s told from the point of view of a character who has the psychic gift of being able to see through the human façade of these goblins. Since they’re inherently evil and are always looking for a chance to kill us, the narrator kills them on sight as he travels around the country as a carnival barker. Again, this is…something of a weird premise. But what makes it stand out is that early on the character wrestles with the possibility that he actually is insane and that he’s been killing humans this whole time. To doubt one’s conviction in life and, worse, to possibly be a murderer is horrifying. Koontz also drives home the terror of bringing up the possibility of what happens to some of the thousands of kids that go missing every year, and how these goblins who look like people might be responsible for a goodish amount of misery in the world. And of course, there’s the obligatory but still grotesque, reveal that some of the people in league with the goblins aren’t even aware that they’re not human; they just enjoy being shitty to their fellow man. It’s a neat commentary on human nature that doesn’t let us completely off the hook.
Koontz also creates moments in his work that aren’t horrific and tragic but are instead deeply moving and wonderful and revel in the best people have to offer. My summary of Watchers might come off as super depressing and melancholic. And to be fair, the ending is extremely sad. I re-read it recently and wept just as hard as I did when I was a kid reading it. But much of the book is about someone finding purpose again with the help of a friend. Travis Cornell is a man without purpose, adrift in the sea of life and running out of reasons to stay alive. Then he meets Einstein, and the two form a bond in which they depend on each other for survival. Einstein seems determined to bring Travis back from the brink of absolute personal darkness by whatever means necessary, and Travis soon realizes that he sees in this dog the humanity he believed he’d never connect with ever again. It sounds silly, but it really is incredibly moving. At one point when they’re trying to prove Einstein’s intelligence to a vet, they ask him to spell out with Scrabble tiles who his is master is, and Einstein replies, “No masters. Only friends.” I suspect this is a commentary from Koontz on the nature of our relationship with dogs, but I’ll take it. Even the moments in the book when Einstein comes close to dying reveal the goodness of humanity. When Einstein falls sick with distemper, Travis is willing to do anything to save his friends life, and his anguish over the possibility of the dog dying comes close to breaking him again. I think Koontz has the tendency to subject his characters to great trauma, either in their past or over the course of the story, as a way of highlighting the ability of human nature to overcome whatever obstacles it may encounter. Sometimes it comes off as kind of corny, but when it’s good, it’s great.
Lightning is a book that isn’t necessarily horror but it’s definitely an exercise in telling a timeless story of what we do for the people we love. Our protagonist is a famous poet haunted by the specter of a handsome blond man who appears at key moments in her life to protect her from tragedy. Often, this still results in a tragedy down the road. It’s revealed that this blond-haired stranger is actually an agent of Nazi Germany who is traveling to the future from the mid 1940s, and who spotted her on a recon mission where he saw she was paraplegic and learned of several tragic details in her life. At that moment he vowed to give her the best life he could and thus began showing up in her past to try and correct these horrible events. Unfortunately, it’s revealed that fate always works out a certain way no matter how hard we try to correct it, and he realizes that his efforts may all be for nothing, or worse. She realizes that all the loss she has dealt with is merely a reflection of the life she could have lived had he not intervened, as it’s revealed that each event he prevents from happening has an equal reaction down the line. The tragedy of Lightning is that we are still somewhat prisoners to fate, and all our efforts to change our paths into the future may be for nothing. And yet, despite all of this, our blond stranger struggles on to try and make the world a better place.
I want to end this with how frequently Koontz makes his characters who are good not just very good, but often does so in a way where they’re initially revealed as intimidating, sinister, or sleazy, only to eventually be realized as genuinely kindhearted people. Carver Hampton, a local voodoo priest in Darkfall, is introduced as a large, towering, grumpy looking man, but when he smiles the other characters are reminded of nothing more than a Black version of Santa. Joel Tuck, a member of the freak show in the traveling carnival in Twilight Eyes, is said to have the kindest eyes the narrator has ever seen, despite his otherwise horrific features. And Jack Twist, a former soldier in Strangers who is described as rather ugly to look at, with a manic smile and lazy eye, is revealed to be a compassionate and selfless individual who just wants to help the others figure out what happened to all of them in the high desert of Nevada. Again, I think this is heavily influenced by Koontz’s theological background, perhaps a holdover from the Catholic doctrine of no soul being beyond the redemptive power of God’s love. These characters may be physically repulsive, but their inner beauty is always highlighted by Koontz.
Dean Koontz’s novels aren’t high art; they’re definitely pop culture. But that doesn’t mean he should be written off as a hack or a second-rate Stephen King. Much like King, he is equally adept at the beautiful and grotesque, the tender and the terrifying. To write him off as just a junk food author is to do yourself a grave disservice by not reading his books.
I guess it’s only fair for me to list my favorite of Dean Koontz’s books, at least a list of recommendations. In no particular order:
- Twilight Eyes
- The Taking
- Winter Moon
- Cold Fire