Contemplating Evil: An Interview with Dean Koontz

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.

I think that's a criminal thing to do to people. It takes away their chance at being something in life. I really believe that everyone has a talent, ability, or skill that he can mine to support himself and to succeed in life. I'm lucky to have a talent and an ability that allowed me to succeed at a very high level. But I also understand how that potential is stolen from you by giving you too many options not to work. If I had that option as a kid, if I hadn't seen the need to work hard and get ahead and not be my father, I probably would have taken it. As a kid, sloth might have been so ingrained in me that by the time I got old enough to focus on the talent, I wouldn't have cared.

Reason: You worked in a Great Society program. How did that affect you?

Koontz: If you've got your eyes open, actually working in one of these programs is an astonishing education. I was in Title III of the Appalachian Poverty Program, which was administered through local school districts. My first job was in Saxton, Pennsylvania, a former coal mining town where the mines were all played out. The people don't leave, they stay there. I was supposed to be a combination counselor and tutor. All the teachers in the high school were supposed to choose the students in their classes who came from the deepest poverty but who had great potential. Those kids were supposed to come to me–kids who without one-on-one tutoring and one-on-one counseling were going to have a hard time breaking out of their situation.

It sounded very noble and wonderful. I'm slow sometimes, and it didn't occur to me that this position began in September but I was starting in November. So I was coming into a job two months after it should have been filled. It never crossed my mind why that should be. As we went into the faculty lounge, the principal introduced me to the teachers, and the first guy said, "I think it really takes guts to do what you're doing." Guts? I thought. But that was the pattern through every introduction: "It takes a lot of courage to come to this job."

Then I discovered that the fellow before me had been run off the road by the kids he was supposedly trying to help. They had beat him up and put him in the hospital. That's why the job was open. What I discovered very quickly was that instead of identifying the kids who had real potential and could have benefited from the program, the teachers took their worst discipline problems and got them out of the classroom by giving them to me. A number of these kids had police records, reform school records; they were in deep trouble. Basically, a lot of these kids just wouldn't benefit from a lot of instruction. These kids were all out of control. I'm not a big guy, and some of these kids were big guys. But even though these kids were never going to be scientists and doctors, the first thing I discovered was that if you imposed and expected discipline, they liked it. They wanted it and respected it.

But the program was subverted by the people administering it. That's just one way these programs can go wrong. At the end of that year, I also had noticed that the money for the poverty program was not coming to me at all. To get $9.00 worth of books, I once had to fight six weeks. Every dollar we tried to get was disappearing somewhere. It was going to building new gyms, which had nothing to do with helping these kids. And I became absolutely convinced that some of it was going into pockets somewhere. There just was no other way to explain how the money fell through the program and didn't help anybody. At the end of the year, I realized there was no way these kids were ever going to be helped by this program. As committed as I was to trying to do what I could for them, there was nothing I could do because the program operated against me.

Worse than that, these kids went home every night. It was at home where dependency was inculcated in them. Many of them were living in terrible circumstances–living on screened porches in winter, that sort of thing. I had a kid who was one of 12 or 14 children who was just waiting till he was old enough to get out of school without his parents' permission. So he stood around all day or sat all day and did nothing. He didn't want to be in school. His parents made him stay in school because as long as he was there, they received payment for him, as did the school. And that was why they had all these kids. It's a cliché when people will argue with you that welfare recipients don't have kids just to collect payment. Yes, they do. I've been in that system and I've watched it. These kids got nothing from their parents.

The only thing you could do to help these kids–it sounds fascistic–was to take them away from their parents and put them into an orphanage. Newt Gingrich got in deep trouble for saying the same thing. We know there are a lot of horrors that can take place in a public institution. But each of these families has become a public institution where the public is paying to support the whole system. There is no control over what happens to these kids. These kids are simply product. They're produced to make payments and nobody cares about them. The system does not and the parents don't. It's horrifying.

Reason: You've written that "Humanity's hopeless pursuit of utopia through government beneficence leads only to grief, misery, and blood." Around 1971, your politics changed and, by your own admission, you remained a liberal on civil rights issues while becoming a conservative on defense and a "semi-libertarian" on all others.

Koontz: I began to evolve (laughs). Here's where I disagree with doctrinaire libertarians: I think we need a pretty strong defense. I think the world is full of evil people. I think in some ways we're in more danger now than before. I'd love to see us with a missile defense. We're going to see countries like North Korea with missiles that can make it across the Pacific. And since I live on this side of the country, I'm particularly worried by that (laughs). But in a general sense, I think we'll always need a strong defense.

Reason: What are the other disagreements with doctrinaire libertarians?

Koontz: Although it's completely out of control now, I think the government has some role in recognizing that certain civil rights are like contractual rights. I think society has a contract with its minorities to make sure that they are not discriminated against. That's a contract the government should enforce the same way it would enforce, say, a movie deal or some other contract.

Reason: Specifically, what does that mean? Do you favor affirmative action programs?

Koontz: No. That's what I mean when I say things are out of control. I support the civil rights legislation of the early 1960s. I think that if you're a citizen of the country, there's a basic contract that says you should have the same rights as anyone else. I think to some extent–and here's where we start having to draw those lines–that certain private places like restaurants are public places. If you advertise and encourage the public to come, then I don't think it's just to refuse service to someone based on race or religion. I think it's perfectly just to refuse service to anyone based on behavior, but not based on race or religion.

The problem is that when government is given enough authority in a particular area to enforce the law, it starts expanding its authority. How we prevent that is a battle that goes on forever. It'll never stop.

Reason: Governmental abuse of power is a recurring theme for you. In Dark Rivers of the Heart, you included an afterword highly critical of asset forfeiture laws, and you wrote an introduction to Ambush at Ruby Ridge, Alan Bock's book about Randy Weaver.

Koontz: Over the past decade, we've developed police agencies that are paramilitary. We've never had that in this country. And now we're starting to have a lot of trouble with them–incidents like Ruby Ridge and Waco. That's going to get worse before it gets better. When I wrote Dark Rivers, Waco had been accepted. Nobody was talking about Ruby Ridge. Nobody even knew what it was. It was weird that after my book came out, that these two cases came back up. They still haven't been resolved in any way that makes sense. Some of the agents involved in Ruby Ridge got commendations.

Reason: Have you taken much heat for your public stances on these sorts of issues?

Koontz: Some readers assume that I removed the afterword to Dark Rivers from the paperback edition because I couldn't take the heat. But circumstances had changed: The afterword sounded dated because some of the things it called for–like Congress passing a law making itself subject to the laws it passes for the rest of us–happened. I took it out rather than rewriting it. But the book says what it says. I didn't want a lot of people to read the book and think it was all fiction. I thought it was important that people who read it saw asset forfeiture laws dramatized and realized that this was really the way they work. A couple of times when I've been on radio talk shows, callers essentially wanted to blame me for the Oklahoma City bombing. The New York Times called me right after the bombing. They wanted to know if I thought that writing books like this would give people these kind of ideas. I said, "Have you read the book? Because if you read the book, no, it's impossible." This again is simplistic thinking. Because people see violence on the movie screen, they're not going to go out and hold up a liquor store and kill somebody. It really doesn't correlate. It would be nice to think like this–how easy to solve all the problems! But it doesn't work that way.

Reason: You say that people don't get ideas from the media, but you yourself have said you realized that your life didn't have to be the way it was partly by reading books. You throw in an overtly political afterword to your novels–doesn't that have an effect on your readers?

Koontz: We're talking about two different things. Politicians or people who are against sex in movies or violence in movies–there's people who are against religion being shown in these things–never make any kind of differentiations. When the subject is violence, say, they never differentiate how the violence is portrayed. In my books, I never portray violence as a reasonable solution to a problem. If the lead characters in the story are driven to it, it's at the extreme end of their experience. In Dark Rivers of the Heart, I even make the statement that guns are less important than knowledge–although one of the characters says that sometimes guns are the only way. They don't kill people in the story until the very end, when they must. Generally, it's the bad guys who have to go. So it's how it's portrayed: Does it have a moral context?

To some extent, the action always takes place inside the reader's head, and from that viewpoint, no matter how innocuous something is, somebody can always take it the wrong way. I have to admit that when I watch a movie in which there is no moral context for the violence–there's the cop who is just going to start blowing people away as his first choice of how to deal with the situation–I find that offensive. I think that's potentially damaging to society. I don't think anybody should be restricted from showing that. But kids should be raised and educated in a way that gives them the skills necessary to judge these things.

Reason: Although your books often have a political dimension, you've said that you pay just enough attention to know when the next bat is going to hit you in the head.

Koontz: I try not to spend too much time on partisan politics. Life's too short for that. I don't really believe that there have been many human problems solved by politics. If you really look at any issue, historically, what was done to relieve one condition created a worse one. So if I don't really believe that something is going to have a profound effect on any of us, I try to ignore it.

Reason: Do you vote?

Koontz: I keep saying, "Damn it, I'm not going to vote!" (laughs). But then somehow or another, there's always a couple of things that you want to go and vote for. Somebody asked me about the current choice we're being given in the presidential election. I said, Well, it's like two of the scariest movies I can imagine. The first is a remake of Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? with Bob Dole in the Bette Davis role–we can see him serving the rat on the silver tray. Even scarier is Bill Clinton, who vacillates between this airheaded, feel-good, Bubba sort of character and a predatory, immoral sleazeball. The airheaded, sort of sweet image he projects is a Tom Hanks role. The other one is like an Anthony Hopkins role. So you have Hannibal Gump, starring Bill Clinton. With a choice like this well, I probably will vote.

In 1992, I went into that booth saying I might not vote for president. Finally, I pulled the lever for Bush. It was one of the hardest things I've ever done. There was no passion. It was being stuck with the least of three evils. I've not seen in my lifetime any politician who is a heroic figure. The manipulation that all politicians use on one level or another is so transparent that I've never been able to define them as heroic figures.

You know, every time a poll comes out that shows the public has so little faith in this politician or that party, there's a hue and cry. But I actually find that hugely healthy. If 70 percent of the public believes nothing the president says–and an even higher number for Congress and the press–that's actually pretty healthy. It means people will think for themselves, and that's the way it should be. A politician's goal is always to manipulate public debate. I think there are some politicians with higher goals. But all of them get corrupted by power, even if they're not putting their hand in the cookie jar.