Dean Koontz: A Writer’s Biography, Katherine Ramsland

<em class="BookTitle">Dean Koontz: A Writer’s Biography</em>, Katherine Ramsland

Harper, 1997, 508 pages, C$7.99 tp, ISBN 0-06-105351-1

I’m in a confessional mood at the moment, so here goes: I’ve got a shelf full of Dean Koontz novels at home, and I you won’t find any evidence of that based on the reviews available on this web site.  They were a gift; I read them all (I had a lot more free time back then) and decided that I didn’t like Koontz’s fiction that much.  Based on a somewhat representative sampling of 21 books published between 1973 and 1995, I finally decided that Koontz’s fiction was a low-grade blend of tepid genre elements, featuring overwrought prose, slow pacing, stock characters and even more familiar moralizing from a somewhat conservative perspective.  If pressed, I will acknowledge some affection for Intensity’s madcap go-for-broke forward momentum.  Otherwise, well, I can recognize (without any snark) that Koontz is writing bestselling fiction, aimed at the middle of the road and quite successful at that.

So why read an entire biography about the guy?  Because I happen to think that writers can be interesting independently of their output.  I’ve been to countless SF conventions, and stories about writers are like catnip to me.  Some people dream of becoming rock stars and Oscar-winning movie idols.  But whenever I picture the idealized life of the rich and famous, I always picture myself as a bestselling author.  Call it aspirational reading, then.

But it turns out that Koontz’ life is far more eventful than most other writers.  Despite what you may think, most writers come from the same stock: middle-class upbringings, some schoolyard ostracism and life-long love for reading translating into writing skills.  Most horror writers that broke into print during the past ten years learned to love horror while watching movies on their parent’s VCR in the basement.  No complex life story; not much hardship; certainly no trauma.  Attend the World Horror Convention and, despite the sick sense of humour, you’ll find a fairly dull bunch of slightly-overweight overgrown white kids from the suburbs.

But not Dean Koontz.  Born in a very-low-class family, from a victimized mother and an abusive father, Koontz quickly realized the darkness of the world.  Katherine Ramsland’s biography may have a lot of problems, but it clearly show how tough an early life Koontz had.  If you ever wondered why “Dean R. Koontz” became simply “Dean Koontz”, realize that the R stood for his father’s name Ray… and that the death of Ray Koontz was felt as liberation more than loss.

But to reduce Koontz’s biography as a simple escape from an abusive alcoholic father is to minimize the energy with which Koontz honed his craft.  The first half of the biography shows just how relentlessly prolific he was, especially during the first ten years of his career.  Writing in different genres under a variety of pseudonyms, Koontz once looked like a promising SF writer before eventually finding his own path as a suspense novelist borrowing both from supernatural and realistic elements.  (Speaking of which, the SF&F community doesn’t fare well in this biography.  While Silverberg, Ellison, Powers and Blaylock all get compliments -the first two as mentors who encouraged Koontz to find his way; the last two as latter-day friends-, Damon Knight and Forrest Ackerman are both portrayed as distant boors.)  Koontz, more than many, earned his bestselling status after a lot of hard work.  Reading about the choices he faced as an increasingly popular writer is exactly the reason why I wanted to read this book.

Alas, much like there’s a difference between a writer and his work, there’s also a difference between someone’s life and the way it’s chronicled.  There’s a terrific book to be written about Dean Koontz, but Katherine Ramsland’s Dean Koontz: A Writer’s Biography isn’t it.  Several annoyances all combine to take away from the book’s impact.  The first and most annoying of those is Ramsland’s tendency to look at Koontz’s life and works through a psychological analysis lens.  Here, nearly every event of significance in Koontz’s life seems to be linked to his fiction, and while that’s not exactly a stretch for some of his work (especially the ones dealing most directly and explicitly with his father), it’s a tendency that grates over 500 pages, especially when the parallels get more and more tenuous.

I’m also not terribly happy with the semi-rigid way the book is structured, every chronological year introduced through a summary of events.  Ramsland’s matronly conservatism show often in her editorializing, but worse than that are the several mistakes of fact in describing events taken from an almanac.  “In 1977… the first manned space shuttle took flight” [P.220] is only true if you count atmospheric gliding: the first real space shuttle orbital flight was in 1981; more seriously, “1990… was the year when United Nation forces liberated Kuwait from Iran’s aggression” [P.367] is so wrong that I can only wonder how many people didn’t proofread the book correctly.  Neither mistakes seen on a casual read directly impact Dean Koontz’ narrative, but I don’t know Koontz’ life at all, whereas I know a bit about world news –if the book can’t get Iran/Irak right and misreads shuttle flights, then what mistakes are in the rest of the book?

It doesn’t really help my suspicion that the book is missing chunks of Koontz’s life by virtue of being semi-approved by Koontz himself.  While the biography isn’t explicitly authorized and Koontz reportedly had no say in the final manuscript, it’s a book that clearly depends on Koontz as a primary source, and so avoids a number of touchier issues while putting the best face on others.  Koontz rarely makes mistakes in his own biography: he changes agents often due to their incompetence or fails in business thanks to other people’s problems, but we never hear about Koontz from adversarial sources.  From time to time, clearer gaps emerge from the narrative.  The worst is probably the way the Koontz are described as having to leave Las Vegas.  The sum of what’s written about this is…

“I was in the wrong place at the wrong time,” says Dean, “and I witnessed a major crime.” The investigation moved slowly, and given the nature of the crime and the way everyone in that town seemed to know everyone else, Dean and Gerda decided they would feel safer somewhere else.  Their friend hated to see them leave, but agreed that they should. [P.212]

Details?  Forget about it.  Now that’s why you want biographers to be sympathetic but impartial.  (And never mind asking embarrassing questions such as why Koontz went from balding to a head full of hair.)  While Dean Koontz: A Writer’s Biography serves as a good introduction to Koontz’s life and is filled with exclusive information, it does fall off the mark as a serious biography of the man –there’s little journalistic rigor, many errors of fact, not enough diversity of sources and curious gaps in the narrative.  It’s this close to a hagiography, and even a quick look at other reviews of the book on Amazon unearths a few narrative threads left unexplored.  To contemporary readers, Ramsland’s 15-year-old biography also leaves out a good chunk of her subject’s career –although an uneventful one, as Koontz has continued selling steadily in the meantime.

And yet, despite those troublesome issues, I come away from the book with more respect for Koontz, despite my conviction that I still wouldn’t like his fiction.  Ramsland may not have delivered a particularly good biography, but it’s serviceable enough.  It may even act as a precious source for whoever decides to write a real biography.

2 thoughts on “Dean Koontz: A Writer’s Biography, Katherine Ramsland”

  1. I enjoyed what your blog. Being a Dean Koontz fan myself I was able to identify with what you were saying. I purchased a book on the “Dean Koontz formula”. It went on to describe not only his writing style but also his formula that he uses to create his books. You would be led to believe that the magician had just given away his secret but that was hardly the case. You can copy the formula but to be able to actually write the way he does is something only he can do.

    I’ve written a couple of blogs myself:
    http://www.jagerfoods.com/uncategorized/the-evolution-of-dean-koontzs-icebound/
    and
    http://www.jagerfoods.com/books/catching-up-with-dean-koontz/
    Drop me a line!

    1. Hi Nick,

      I agree that the Koontz “formula” (like many other formulas in genre fiction) can easily be described, but not as easily replicated. Up to a certain point, that’s what distinguishes best-selling genre fiction authors from the others: Not only the ability to come up with a formula, but execute it so well that it appears quite a bit easier than it actually is. As I’ve said –I may not find Koontz’ fiction to my liking, but I admire his success and wish him the best. (The same goes for his readers!)

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