Contemplating Evil

Novelist Dean Koontz on Freud, fraud, and the Great Society

For over two decades, Dean Koontz has been one of the most prolific and popular writers in America. The author of more than two dozen novels, including the recent bestseller Intensity , his books have been published in 38 languages and have sold more than 150 million copies. Often pigeonholed as a "horror" writer, Koontz's work defies pat generic labels and deftly blends Gothic, fantastic, tragic, and comic elements into narratives that entertain, terrify, and exhilarate. Whether exploring the boundaries of identity (Mr. Murder ), the vagaries of intelligence (Watchers), or the limits of re-engineering human response (Strangers ), Koontz challenges his readers to reflect on their own experience, their relationship to the world, and their responsibility to "make" their own lives. In person, Koontz similarly stresses the need for engagement with ideas and society. An active supporter of a number of charities--and someone who shares "certain affinities with libertarianism"--he is also wary of state action. As a worker in a Great Society poverty program in the late '60s, he saw firsthand how such policies fail to help their intended beneficiaries. As an observer of contemporary America, he has publicly spoken out against governmental overreach in incidents such as Waco and Ruby Ridge.

Koontz affixed an afterword to Dark Rivers of the Heart decrying asset forfeiture laws; in 1995, he wrote an eloquent foreword to Alan Bock's book about Randy Weaver, Ambush at Ruby Ridge , in which he called himself an "ardent believer in America" and noted, "I do not have much in common with Randy Weaver. [W]e would disagree on most issues; and certainly one of the biggest differences between us would be his apparent belief that the races should live separately and my faith in America as a great equalizer and an agent of understanding. It would never occur to me, however, to shoot Mr. Weaver solely because of what he believes. The United States of America has become the brightest beacon for freedom in history expressly because it tolerates diverse opinion to an extent unequaled elsewhere. During the past decade, however, many institutions that traditionally supported the never-ending struggle to maintain freedom of speech have come down squarely on the side of repression and thought control."

Koontz's own life reads like a mythic American success story. He grew up poor in rural Pennsylvania during the '50s and '60s, put himself through college, and married his high school sweetheart, Gerda, who supported him during his early, lean years as an anonymous writer. Although his books often explore the evil that men do, Koontz is an effervescent, lively conversationalist, quick with a joke and a witty riposte. And although he deals in serious ideas, he refuses to take himself too seriously. Reason Senior Editor Nick Gillespie and Reason Foundation assistant policy analyst Lisa Snell met with Koontz in his Southern California home earlier this year.

Reason: Your novels are set in a landscape of violence, horror, and often unmitigated evil. What's the attraction of that world to readers?

Dean Koontz: There are a number of factors. I think the biggest one is that we are coming out of a century that was taught that one way of looking at the world, that one form of behavior, is as valid as another. If behavior becomes sociopathic or destroys other people, or if the person is a murderer or whatever, there's a sense of, "Well, we can understand that." The idea of true evil has been blown away. In "enlightened" thought, there is no true evil. But people gravitate to fiction that says there is true evil, that there is a way to live that is good, and that there is a way to live that is bad. And that these are moral choices, and if you make the wrong moral choice often enough, you're evil. They gravitate to that because they see that's really the way the world works. In your daily life, you run into people who are bastards and will always do the wrong thing simply because they want to. And you will meet people who will go out of their way to be decent people. In their daily experience of life, [readers] see that there is good and evil, and that's the way the world works. There's an inner need to see what they really know on a gut level about life reflected in the entertainment they view or the literature they read.

Reason: In your novels, good tends to triumph--at least until the next book begins. Do readers respond to that as wish fulfillment, since they know that in the real world, good doesn't always win?

Koontz: I'm no Pollyanna, but I think good does usually win. In the short term, evil probably triumphs more often than good. Long term, though, I've seen too many instances where people can get a lot of short-term advantage out of vile behavior, but don't end up well later on in life. I see it again and again--so much that it makes sense to say that moral behavior is an evolutionary choice. If doing the right thing wasn't a survival tool, then none of us would do the right, decent thing and there would be no civilization. Civilization rests on the fact that most people do the right thing most of the time.

People always point to the individual who is the exception--they point to the individual who picks up a machine gun and kills 30 people--and they say that's why we need government control. Within hours of the Oklahoma City bombing, the president of the United States was saying perhaps we have too much freedom. But the reality is that the mass of society, the vast majority of people, are responsible people. I really believe that. I like people. I think that if you don't subvert people's natural inclinations to take care of themselves and to plan their own lives, they will do so successfully. But you can subvert them, you can make them dependent.

Reason: You grew up under strained circumstances--an alcoholic, abusive father, poverty, rootlessness. Yet you've said, "One thing that's central to my work is that we are not necessarily doomed to lives of fear and neuroses because of terrors we experienced as children."

Koontz: Vladimir Nabokov said the two great evils of the 20th century were Marx and Freud. He was absolutely correct. Freud has saturated our culture. People operate on Freudian theory in almost everything they do and they're completely unaware of it. I'm really sensitive to how Freudian theory seized the day, because as a novelist I once wrote characters with complete Freudian backgrounds. The basic assumption of Freud is that none of us is responsible for what we are: What we are is a consequence of what our parents did to us, what our culture did to us, what society did to us, the injustices we've suffered. So, in essence, we're victims.

What we do as a society is seek simple answers. Freudianism is a simple answer: If what everybody does is simply a result of what was done to them as a child by their parents, or their culture, then they're not really responsible. All we have to do is put them through a 12-step program and they'll cease being a serial killer or whatever. That's so grossly simplistic. And yet it has dominated the thinking of our century, especially our legal system.

That's why you get the Menendez defense. That's why prison sentences have become so weak. That's why you can get a 15-year sentence for murdering a 12-year-old girl and get out in five years. Freudianism assumes that the inner mind is like a wind-up toy, that we can predict everything that's going to happen. The character in my book Intensity is based on Ed Kemper, who killed his grandparents when he was 14 and was released at 21 when psychiatrists said he was no longer a threat to society. He went on to kill nine more people. One day I realized my whole life has taught me Freudianism is nonsense. My father was a sociopath and an alcoholic, and I had a terrible childhood. I didn't grow up to be a criminal or have any of the problems that I'm supposed to have. Look at Ted Bundy, who had a normal childhood but grew up to be what he was. I made a conscious decision to stop writing Freudian characters because I realized that the best characters I've ever read are in Dickens, and he never heard of Freud. I've gotten some reviews where people say my characters aren't deep enough because we don't know why they are the way they are. One of my editors once said, "We don't know what's in this guy's past that made him what he is now." He wanted me to go back and show how his parents abused him. Trite Freudian stuff. In Dickens, the idea was that character is what you do, and that's what defines you. I think that makes sense. I believe in free will and individual choice and that we make our own lives as we go along.

Reason: So how did you make your life?

Koontz: There's sometimes a weird benefit to having an alcoholic, violent father (later in life, he was diagnosed as a sociopath). He really motivated me in that I never wanted to be anything like him. When I was a kid, I thought all families were like mine because I had no other examples. When I was old enough to start reading books, I learned that it wasn't so. I read about other families, and I remember reading a book in which a character like my father was the villain as a result of his actions. Suddenly it dawned on me that mine wasn't an ordinary father. My mother was quite the opposite of my father. I could see goodness coming out of one person and evil out of another person, and learned to identify what happens to you as being your responsibility and being a result of the people you interact with.

I graduated high school in 1963, right before the whole Great Society really began. There weren't a lot of social programs, and I was driven to work a couple of jobs when I was in high school and college--the goal was to earn money to get through college somehow. And to achieve and get ahead. What I saw by the time I graduated college was that there was already beginning to be the idea that the system will provide for you and that you don't need to do anything. I think this is the worst thing that can be done to anyone. I believe we have to have some degree of safety net. But when the safety net becomes a steel mesh that you're never going to fall through, then there's almost no motivation for a lot of people.

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