I suspect the key to Dean Koontz’s popularity can be summed up in two words which happen to be the titles of two of his novels: Breathless and Relentless.
His sentences are generally short, staccato affairs. It’s all about pace. It doesn’t matter whether he’s describing a mut or a murder, he’s gonna charge you through that son-of-a-bitch scene if it’s the last thing he does. (As someone who’s read Proust, I don’t think this is necessarily a bad thing: if Dean Koontz had written the salon scenes, he’d have spared us a good three months of our lives!) Yet such constant relentlessness becomes strangely wearying. When the rhythm refuses to conform to the dramatic requirements of the action, making relatively irrelevant setting descriptions just as swift as grand climaxes, the style itself becomes a sort of steam-roller, crushing all the diverse vitality of the world beneath it.
This general stylistic issue is then reflected at the level of narrative voice. Occasionally, there is at work in this narrator’s mouth what I should call the “Great American Male”. It is that voice which runs through the very marrow of the un-self-doubting male American penman, from Mark Twain (“You don’t know about me without you have read a book by the name of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer; but that ain’t no matter”) and Herman Melville (“Call me Ishmael. Some years ago – never mind how long precisely…”) all the way to Saul Bellow (“I am an American, Chicago born – Chicago, that somber city – and go at things as I have taught myself, free-style, and will make the record in my own way”) and Don DeLillo (“He speaks in your voice, American, and there’s a shine in his eye that’s halfway hopeful”). It is the man who holds God in one hand and Satan in the other, he who has known and experienced the whole wide world, such that his love for that world and for Life in general (with a capital ‘L’) begins to overflow like ink from a broken pen, casting an equally jovial beam on the sinner and saint alike. Not that I would want to argue that Koontz is their literary equal – if The Moonlit Mind is anything to go by, he is not. But nonetheless he clearly taps into some strange reservoir of inveterate unflinchingness.
That said, if he inherits this tradition’s general openness to life’s exotica, he most certainly does not inherit its magnanimity. There is a puritan preacher hidden behind the pages of this book, one which would be riotously mocked by the aforementioned writers. The Moonlit Mind follows the fate of Crispin and his dog, Harley. At the age of 9 Crispin witnesses the brutal murder of his brother. The chapters then alternate between a present in which Crispin is 12 years old and a past in which he is still 9. The older Crispin is a lone wanderer, trying to come to terms with what happened to his younger self. Koontz draws on many of the tried-and-tested modes of evil: child abuse, guardian figures who are secretly demonic, black mass rituals and so forth. But he adds a few more, just for good measure: laziness, sexuality, homosexuality. The principal evil figures in this book are an alcoholic mother who has a lesbian tryst with one of her rich husband’s maids, a nanny who attempts to sexually seduce the young protagonist, and several very wealthy figures whose only fault seems to be laziness. Only to a puritan mind could sex and leisure pose such profound threats.
Still, despite the barely hidden moral agenda of this book (which doesn’t shy away from offering overt lessons for the reader to take away with her), it’s not a bad yarn. If you like swift-flowing, sometimes genuinely beautiful prose, with paper-thin but undeniably arousing housemaids, plus occasional esoteric references to angels – and all of this framed within a view of the Good Life congenial to a seventeenth-century puritan colony, then knock yourself out!