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Saturday, January 7, 2012

Moral Heroes With Codes

This is a re-attempt at a blog that sputtered and failed right before New Year's.  Because I was getting too philosophical with it, I think.  Anyhow, I've pared my ideas down and am ready to re-approach this from a simplified angle.

I used to be a huge Dean Koontz fan.  After a year or so of consuming nothing but Stephen King in an orgy of discovery, I did the same with Koontz.  Soon after would be Peter Straub, when I began to mature a little in my reading tastes.

Anyway, one thing I always liked about Koontz: his protagonists possessed solid moral compasses.  And that jived with me, because let's be honest: my upbringing in a blue-collar, hard working, lower-middle class Christian, traditional family has made me who I am today.  Now, other things have shaped me as well - including a really nasty, dark spread in my college and post-college years, which taught me the endless depths of sympathy and empathy for my fellow human beings - but that solid foundation still lives at the core.

But about four years ago I realized that saying I read and wrote "horror" when I'd only read King, Koontz and Straub (and a smattering of John Saul, but his stuff never really 'took' with me) was somewhat of a misnomer.  I began opening my horizons, sampling all the new stuff coming from Leisure Fiction, checking out some small press titles - especially Cemetery Dance - hitting the used book store and pretty hard to stock up on the classic stuff.  

And WOW, was it worth it.  Discovering new AND old writers, like Robert Dunbar, T. M. Wright, Greg Gifune, Ron Malfi, Charles Grant, Norman Partridge, John Farris, Mary Sangiovanni, Rio Youers, J. N. Williamson, Nate Kenyon, Gary Braunbeck, F. Paul Wilson, Mort Castle, Manley Wade Wellman, Norman Prentiss, Tom Piccirilli, Tim Lebbon, Tom Monteleone, the Whispers and Shadows collections...and way too many more to name...has left an indelible mark upon me.

Somewhere along the line, I left behind Dean Koontz.  Stephen King, too, although I still periodically hit him (I LOVED Duma Key.)  But Koontz had become "passe", according to lots of sources.  On message boards, in other writers' opinions and in Amazon reviews, I saw - and maybe I guess believed - the following, that Dean Koontz had:

1. sold out, writing only for money now
2. lost his edge, and was now too preachy
3. wrote unrealistic characters who were too black and white, too GOOD and too EVIL
4. was a formulaic writer who hadn't written anything new in awhile, just copying the same old format
5. had sold out, writing only for money, now

And yeah, let's be honest - some of Dean's recent novels have felt thin (though, when you've written as much as he has, I think you're allowed a few of those).  I'm not sure if it was that, or if I really bought all the above things or not, but for awhile, I veered away from Dean.  Wanted to be a "good little protege" (though I don't really have a mentor), and listen to all the advice I'd been given, stay abreast of the trends.

But I've returned to Dean Koontz, realizing how important his writing and themes are to ME, as writer.

Regardless of what anyone thinks of him.

See, entering the publishing world, soaking up all the knowledge you can, taking advice from those wiser than you, is a lot like high school (in more ways than one), in that at the beginning, you soak up EVERY bit of information you possibly can, take all the advice you can, chuck all your preconceptions so you can learn on a blank slate.

But then, as you grow, you reach a point where you follow advice selectively, picking what suits you, meshing what you've been told and taught and advised with who YOU are. Because in the end, every writer has their own, unique, personal journey.

So, I've returned to Dean Koontz.  Realized how much I really DO love his idealism, because that is who I am.

I'm an idealist.  And proud of it.  In as dark a world as we're living in today, I'm not sure how I'd survive if I weren't.   And for me, writing horror doesn't make sense without being an idealist.  There are LOTS of reason for writing horror (not the least of which that it's great FUN) but I want to write horror to further enhance the light.  I want characters to endure horrors and terrible hardships to further highlight their survival.  Maybe not happy endings, because we don't get those in life, do we?

But just one spark of hope.  Just one.  A glimmer of light, even in the darkness.

So, heroes with moral codes.  Dean offers them, in spades.  So does F. Paul Wilson in Repairman Jack, although Jack's a little more edged and flawed than some of Dean's characters - but Jack STILL believes in doing the right thing.  Even if he's confused about what that is sometimes, it's his internal, moral code.  

Norman Partridge's characters are often the same, a little further down the continuum from Koontz, but still...many of his heroes are driven men.  With codes.  Ironically enough, a good example from Norman's work is another Jack - Jack Badalach, former light-heavyweight champion of the world.  Jack's not perfect and of a highly constructed moral fiber like a Koontz character, and maybe a little less driven than Repairman Jack, but he's got a code.  Things are done because be believes in something.  

Silver John, of Manley Wade Wellman, he's another one.  And, ironically, my favorite Brian Keene character, Levi Stolfus. They all believe in something.

And let's be honest, though I don't use this blog as a pulpit: I believe in something.  A lot of somethings.  So, in the end, my characters are going to believe in something, too.  Even if we are living in a largely post-modern world in which everyone questions if "right and wrong" even exist, anymore...because it's just who I am.

It's funny.  I see myself developing as a hybrid writer.  I really love the style of Charles Grant, T. M. Wright, and Norman Partridge - but I love the themes and characters of Dean Koontz, F. Paul Wilson and, once again, Norman Partridge.  Of course, I love the myth-making of Neil Gaiman, too.  

Wonder what else I can toss into the stew....


  1. Well spoken on Koontz and the Hero, Kevin. But I have to comment on King: a) THANK YOU for acknowledging Duma Key. IMO one of his best ever, and certainly one of the best of his modern era. b)You'll be disappointed in this, but I found The Stand to be second rate, the politics in Colorado boring, and the climatic moment sort of "zzzzzz". In the preface to the Full, Uncut version, King discloses the fact that it has never been his favorite novel, though it seems to be a fan favorite. I'll take King's side on that one.

  2. Ironically enough, from THIS perspective, I agree with you - Duma Key is a far superior novel to The Stand. BUT, the list wasn't necessarily my ten FAVORITE, but the ten books that impacted me the most, at that time. The Stand was the first Stephen King, and I'd simply never read something of that scope, before, so at that time - it had a huge impact. Don't how many times I tried to write my own version of The Stand.

    And, also ironically, I've tried several times to re-read The Stand, and just couldn't do it.

  3. "first Stephen King I'd ever read"

  4. Yes, I did. Indeed!