Recently on Relevant Radio, The Cale Clarke Show had the extreme privilege of hosting one of the most prolific, best-selling fiction authors of all time, Dean Koontz. Dean has published over 105 novels in 38 languages, and he has sold over 500 million books to date. 14 of his novels have risen to number one on the New York Times bestseller list, and he hopes to increase that number to 15 with his upcoming book, The House at the End of the World.
As if those accolades weren’t impressive enough, Koontz accomplished this all after an infamously difficult childhood. Dean’s mother was chronically ill and his father was an abusive alcoholic. Where did he find what it takes to become one of the most renowned writers of his time? Koontz drew strength from several different sources including his Catholic faith, the trials of his youth, and the influential characters who helped him find his calling.
Koontz grew up impoverished in a small town in Pennsylvania as the only child of Raymond and Florence Koontz. Because of his father’s alcoholism, Raymond was unable to keep any job long enough to support the family for very long. As Dean explained, his father was no stranger to physically abusing him and that physical violence carried over into Raymond’s work life where, on multiple occasions, he physically assaulted his bosses, which led to his termination.
Needless to say, Dean was never close with his father in any affectionate way, and he gravitated towards his mother who, though small in stature, was not afraid to stand up to her husband and protect Dean. After his mother’s health began to decline, he used to stay with a family friend, Louise Kinsey. And it was in the care of Louise where Dean discovered his love for stories.
Every night, Louise would sit him in bed with an ice cream soda and read books to him. Coming from such a dysfunctional household, it was no wonder that Dean fell in love with reading and writing, an activity that he no doubt associated with peace. He recalled the story of when he decided he was going to go to college and major in history. His English teacher, Winona Garbrick, was appalled at his choice of major and she aimed to tell him so in the hallway between classes.
“Koontz!” She spotted Dean. She strode up to him, 5’1” but with the attitude of someone much larger.
“I hear you’re going to Shippensburg.”
“I hear you’re majoring in history.”
“I know why you’re majoring in history. It’s easy for you, and you’re always going to take the easy route if you don’t change your ways.”
Dean was so impressed that Ms. Garbrick cared so much about his well-being and his future to tell him so bluntly that he switched his major to English as she had insisted.
“While I won’t pretend that that was how I learned to write, it nevertheless put me on the path of thinking about it more seriously,” said Dean. “She had a very profound effect [on me], and I got to tell her that many years before she passed.”
These early experiences in Dean’s life informed his understanding of the world in such an intense and deep way, that the truths that he had learned often reveal themselves in his writing. The first of these truths is that there is very real evil in the world, something that so many people “actively seek to deny”. But to Koontz, he lived it every day of his youth. He watched his father live as a slave to alcohol and then take out his emotions on the family.
“There are too many people in the world now that think counseling and psychiatrists will deal with everything, and evil is not a real quality in our world. I lived it, I saw it, and it informed my entire youth and adolescence.”
As Dean grew up, he quickly learned the lesson that when he had to make a decision, he could think about what his father would do, and then do the opposite.
And as Dean explained, this philosophy came to the forefront some years later when it was made known to him that his father was destitute and did not have long to live. And that is where the second truth that Dean had learned from Louise and Ms. Garbrick resurfaced: Although there is evil, there are also good people who are willing to fight it. While Dean did not want to bring his father into his home, he thought about what his father had done for all those years, failing to support and protect his family, and he did the opposite. He and his wife got him an apartment, paid for it, and showed him the care that he had never shown others.
And in the years that Dean cared for his father, he sought an opening in the door that had always been closed between them. Who was this troubled man? Why had he done the things that he had? Was there an opportunity for reconciliation between this father and son?
It was not meant to be.
“There comes a time when you confront evil that you are never going to understand.”
Dean’s father ended up in the psych ward twice as a response to violent outbursts. After his degenerative alcohol syndrome worsened, Dean moved him to a retirement home. During his time there, he tried to stab Dean with a knife in the hallway. He was eventually diagnosed as a sociopath, a trait many of Dean’s novel’s antagonists bear.
But even though Koontz never came to a full understanding with the man whom he had called father, he never fell into a place of despair or hopelessness. Rather, through his writing, Koontz has sought to have a greater understanding of evil, and how it preys upon the good, not just to use good people but to corrupt them. His vocation of creating worlds, characters, and stories is more than a paycheck. It is more than a form of entertainment or a hobby. It’s a calling to explore the way different people live and interact with good…and with evil.
Tune in to The Cale Clarke Show weekdays at 5pm CT