Friday, January 29, 2016

Dean Koontz's Ashley Bell: The World Is A Battleground

 “Fiction is a dangerous art… creating new worlds populated by people as real as you can make them… involves risks. Not risks just to readers who may be influenced toward darkness instead of light, evil instead of good, despair instead of hope, but also to the author.”

There are a number of writers whose works linger in my imagination. James Lee Burke’s haunting stories of life in Louisiana reveal the complexity of human nature in a way I have rarely seen replicated. Patrick Ness (A Monster Calls) and Neil Gaiman (The Ocean At The End Of The Lane) write modern fairy tales that reach into my heart. Neil Shusterman (the Unwind Dystology) and Jonathan Mayberry (Rot and Ruin series) have been building quite a reputation in YA lit, and Brandon Sanderson could drop the literary mic right now and walk with his legacy of epic fantasy ensured.

Yet Dean Koontz stands out to me. From The Corner of His Eye was the first his books that really got my attention; The Taking was next, revealing how well he could write a story both grim and hopeful. The Odd Thomas series, though, turned me into a serious fan. Pretty much everything he has written since then has served to solidify my admiration.

I don't think Koontz writes to please the masses, but his writings clearly resonate with them. He has sold over 450,000,000 books, with 17,000,000 added each year. He's sold more books than Stephen King, which is no small feat. In Ashley Bell, the latest novel in his line of best-sellers,  Dean Koontz, once again offers a mesmerizing story of how the light of goodness and truth can illuminate even the darkest places within us and around us.

Like other horror writers, Koontz doesn’t shy away from looking evil in the eye. Unlike them, he refuses to make it gratuitous and exciting. Simone Weil once said, “Imaginary evil is romantic and varied, full of charm; imaginary good is tiresome and flat. Real evil, however, is drear, monotonous, barren. Real good is always new, marvelous, intoxicating.” Koontz seeks to capture the real nature of good and evil, not the imaginary best-selling drivel that so often fills our pages and screens. He notes:

“There is no adult terror equivalent to what an innocent child experiences when first confronted with the truth that evil is not merely a figment of fairy tales, that it walks the world in countless forms, and that what it seeks most aggressively is the destruction of the innocent. With such an experience, childhood ends, regardless of the age at which that awful discovery is made.”

That's honest insight. Evil walks the world in countless forms. But Koontz’s Christian (specifically Catholic) worldview brings light to the darkness of his literary worlds. Koontz manages, time after time, to acknowledge the pain and weariness in the world while never losing sight of a profound hope. One paragraph from Ashley Bell echoes Weil’s sentiment:

“Good men and women sought calm, peace, time for reflection. Evil people were eternally restive, intractable, always eager for more thrills, which were the same few thrills endlessly repeated, because the evil were unimaginative, acting on feelings rather than reason. Forever agitated, they were unaware that the cause of their fury was the confining narrowness of the worldview they crafted for themselves, its emptiness. There would never be an end to them—and always a need for men and women willing to resist them at whatever cost.”

Resistance is a crucial part of Koontz’s ongoing literary legacy. He has taken the time in more than one book to criticize a naturalistic view of the world that believes we simply dance to the music of our DNA or salivate when someone in our environment rings a bell. Ashley Bell does not deny the impact of our history and environment, but the meaningful role of the will is crucial.

“She kept coming back to that in our conversations. That we are free to shape our own lives, that we can overcome. That there is a terrible danger in denying the existence of free will. The danger of deciding that we are meat machines, that all is meaningless and that we have no responsibility for what happens because of what we do.”

In addition, there is no evil that hopelessly crushes all opposition. There are conspiracies wide and deep, sure, but there are no gods of evil (Cabin In The Woods) or ultimate, inescapable, meaningless horrors (Stephen King’s Revival; It Follows). It is never too late - or too discouraging - to take stand for the good.

“Bibi sometimes had explained to Olaf that the world was a battleground, that in a sense, every man and woman was a warrior… everyone struggled; everyone fought the good fight—or raised arms against those who fought it.”

* * * * * * * * * *

I recently realized I was listening to Darius Rucker’s “Homegrown Honey” just to hear the song build up to one phrase: “Baby, you feel like home.” That phrase resonates with me – the longer I’m married,  the more I associate where my wife is with where ‘home’ is. But if you would ask me to explain what that means - well, I would struggle. I feel it, but I can't define it. At the end of Ashley Bell, Koontz defined it.
“Home is where the heart is. No, nothing quite as simple as that. Home is where you struggle, in a world of endless struggle, to become the best you can be, and it becomes home in your heart only if one day you can look back and say that, in spite of all your faults and failures, it was in this special place where you began to see, however dimly, the shape of your soul.”

Yes. That’s it. That’s why I like Koontz so much. It's not just that he writes such creative and diverse stories. It's not just that I am rightly mesmerized by goodness in his heroes and properly appalled by the evil in his villains. It's not just that he writes book after book that I can recommend to my boys, knowing that what they read will be part of the process that forms them into men. It's not just that when I read his stories, I hear an echo of the greatest one ever told.

It's that when I read his books, they feel like home.

1 comment:

  1. I read the book very recently as well. It had a lot of good portions in it discussing good and evil, but I don't think the plot itself held up as well as some of his other books. I had read "By the Light of the Moon" just a few days before and I enjoyed that one much more.

    I don't think this one was bad, by any stretch, but it wasn't quite what I was expecting, and it didn't seem quite as tightly woven as a lot of Koontz's books have been.

    I do appreciate what you pointed out--the sense that evil is never stronger than good, and that there is justice in the world.