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Analyzing the Chill Factor

Newport Beach novelist Dean Koontz's imagination is full of nightmarish terrors and monstrous characters. A biography connects his haunting tales to dark memories of a difficult childhood in rural Pennsylvania.

January 09, 1998|DENNIS McLELLAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

As a best-selling master of suspense, Dean Koontz has terrorized millions of readers with a chilling gallery of unfeeling psychopaths and twisted tormentors.

But the most fearsome boogeyman in the Newport Beach author's own life was all too real: his father.

Ray Koontz, according to a new biography that examines Dean Koontz's life and work, was a smooth-talking dreamer and schemer who had difficulty holding down a job, was prone to depression and drank excessively. He also had an explosive temper, provoking fights in bars and flying into unpredictable rages at home.

For Dean Koontz, growing up in a small town in rural Pennsylvania in the 1940s and '50s was a time of endless rounds of anger and threats from a father whose mere presence filled their small, two-story frame house with palpable tension.

"It wasn't just that you knew he was in the house, you could feel him," Koontz told biographer Katherine Ramsland. "He would never say he was going to kill us, but he'd say we'd all be better off if we weren't here. He'd say things like, 'There's no future for this family anyway,' and you knew what he meant."

Four decades later, Koontz's father would be diagnosed as a borderline schizophrenic, an organic disease marked by unpredictable moods and bizarre behavior and preoccupations.

Ray Koontz died in 1991 at age 81 in an Orange County nursing home that accepted psychiatric patients, but not before threatening his only child with a knife on two occasions and leaving Dean questioning whether Ray was his biological father.

"His exposure to this man who seemed larger than life in the most chaotic way left a lasting impression on Dean and his work," Ramsland said in an interview. "There's some manifestation of Ray Koontz in nearly every novel."

"Dean Koontz: A Writer's Biography" (HarperPrism; $24), written with Koontz's cooperation, explores the author's difficult childhood, his frustrating early years as a schoolteacher and his struggle to build what has become an extraordinarily successful writing career.

The path from his impoverished childhood in Bedford, Pa., to his hilltop home in Newport Beach is paved with more than 70 books written under his own and 11 pen names in a variety of genres--from science fiction to Gothic romances and erotica.

In 1969, Gerda, Koontz's wife and former high school sweetheart, offered to be their sole support for five years so Dean could quit teaching and devote his full attention to writing. "If you can't make it in five years," Gerda told him, "you'll never make it." No overnight success, Koontz received $1,000 for his first novel, "Star Quest," a 1968 science-fiction paperback. He would write more than 40 books before achieving his first best-seller, "The Key to Midnight," a 1979 suspense novel written under the pen name Leigh Nichols.

Today, Koontz's dark suspense novels consistently soar to the top of the national bestseller lists, and his most recent three-book contract, with Bantam Books, earned him more than $18 million. Koontz's first novel from Bantam, "Fear Nothing," goes on sale Jan. 14.

Ramsland, 44, spent more than 100 hours interviewing Koontz for her book. She brought to those interviews a background steeped in studies of the workings of the mind. Ramsland, who has a doctorate in philosophy and a master's in clinical psychology, teaches existentialism at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, N.J. Before taking on the Koontz biography, she probed the life and work of another best-selling author, Anne Rice.

Ramsland said that after completing the Rice book, "Prism of the Night," published in 1991, the only other writer she considered doing a biography on was Koontz.

"I like people with a dark side, so that's always a first requirement for me," she said. "I think because I had heard that Dean had a difficult childhood--I didn't know the details--that was probably the first drawing card for me."

Ramsland believes Koontz wouldn't be the writer he is without Ray Koontz as a father.

"He might be a skillful writer, but the issues that writers always grapple with over and over and over, in my opinion, are organic in their personal experience," Ramsland said.

Speaking by phone from her home in Princeton, Ramsland said most of Koontz's novels "either have a villain that had his father's personality or the theme of the unprotected child, which is his experience."

Koontz says he valued the experience of having his childhood memories probed for the biography by someone with a background in psychology.

"There's a lot you do realize you're borrowing out of your own life, but it turned out to be a lot more than I ever realized," he said in a separate interview.

As a child, Koontz found escape by reading, particularly horror and science-fiction paperbacks. At age 8, he began writing his own stories, which he peddled to relatives for a nickel or a dime.

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