SHADOWFIRES Makes Case for Horror Genre
I have always resisted the label horror writer, as I have my whole life also strenuously resisted these labels: international terrorist, mad scientist, extra-terrestrial lifeform, whig, deceased, cremated remains, former Miss America, tattoo artist to the stars, bonehead, cheesehead, dunderhead, fathead, ****head, moonhead, pumpkinhead, ****head, turniphead, baboon, buffoon, jejune, Looney Toon, poltroon, h**n*l***m*s, missing link, pretty in pink, dink, dork, duckbutt, the kid with the weird lips, Chatty Kathy, Heather, and the reincarnation of Fatty Arbuckle. I have succeeded in defeating all the labelers regarding all those labels except the first. After so many years and denials, certain media types who never read my books still refer to me as a horror writer.
From this, you might suppose that I dislike or even loath horror fiction, but you would be wrong. The issue is accuracy. I would not want to be described as a chicken pot pie, even though I enjoy a good chicken pot pie.
When as a child I began reading for pleasure, I was drawn first to spooky stories. For more than a decade, I read nothing else. Ray Bradbury, though widely viewed as a science-fiction writer, has in fact written some of the richest and most haunting horror stories you could hope to read, such as Boys! Raise Giant Mushrooms in Your Cellar! and The Small Assassin. Theodore Sturgeon’s astonishing It, as well as his And My Fear Is Great thrilled me. Bram Stoker, Richard Matheson, H.P. Lovecraft, Frank Belknap Long: some names are still well known, some forgotten, but I have not forgotten any of them. Robert Heinlein’s utterly chilling “The Unpleasant Profession of Jonathan Hoag” is as fresh in my mind now as when I first read it forty years ago.
When well done, horror fiction has no less potential than any other form of fiction to reach the reader both intellectually and emotionally. Those who disdain it do so because they say that it deals with tawdry and grotesques aspects of life and is inelegantly sensational; but I have always felt that what really disturbs them is that it deals so openly with death. As T.S. Eliot wrote: “Humankind cannot bear much reality.” And the thing from which we spend the most time distracting ourselves is the reality of our mortality.
In horror fiction, my personal taste runs toward stories that avoid gore, that emphasize dark wonder instead of graphic violence. I want stories that recognize a hemispherical mythos–by which I mean stories that display a genuine belief in the existence of both Good and Evil as real forces in the world, instead of portraying Evil in a strictly Good-free nihilistic context–and that have a strong sense of human dignity.
SHADOWFIRES was Leigh Nichols’ fifth and final novel, and her only outright horror novel. Her first book was THE KEY TO MIDNIGHT, a suspense story of international intrigue set mostly in Japan and Switzerland, and a love story. The original publisher–Pocket Books, a different house from Berkley, which currently publishes all of Leigh’s books–wanted to release THE KEY TO MIDNIGHT under a pen name, because it was not like other books I had written and because I was not yet a best-selling author with a large audience for work under my name. They preferred a pseudonym that could sound like either a man or a woman, so I gave them Lee Nichols. They changed the spelling of the first name, which seemed to me to all but eliminate the chance that a reader, browsing the shelves of a bookstore, would think the author was a man, but I did not argue the issue.
When KEY was released, it sold over one million paperbacks and became my first bestseller. That was in the summer of 1979. In the fall of 1980, I had my second million-copy bestseller, THE FUNHOUSE, under another pen name–Owen West–and found myself with two highly successful pseudonyms while still writing novels under my own name. Because each of these by-lines had a distinctive prose style, I had to get into character to write, which required me to have three complete wardrobes, of which Leigh’s was the loveliest and the only one of the three with a collection of sequined shoes. Fortunately, in the spring of 1981, just as my personality was splitting into three identities–one normal, one psychotic, and one a clotheshorse –Berkley Books sold in excess of a million copies of the paperback reprint of my novel WHISPERS, giving me the hope that I could one day soon knit together my shattered psyche and write only as Dean Koontz, and perhaps even move to a larger house that had no bodies buried in the cellar.
Keeping your eye on the ball is as difficult in publishing as it is in baseball or golf. Although THE KEY TO MIDNIGHT sold extremely well, Pocket Books gave Leigh’s second novel less support than the first, her third less support than her second. By her fourth novel–THE SERVANTS OF TWILIGHT, which Pocket Books released under the title TWILIGHT–she was being published as if she were a has-been, and around the house, she was getting really pissy. She started buying a fearsome number of shoes to compensate.
In early 1987, Leigh published her fifth book, SHADOWFIRES, with a new house–Avon Books–that promoted her with more vigor. By then, however, my novel STRANGERS had become a hardcover bestseller in 1986, and WATCHERS would shortly do better. I had no reason to write under pen names any longer. With breathtaking ruthlessness, I pushed Leigh down a long flight of stairs, and when she survived that assault, I dragged her to the top and pushed her down again. But after she likewise survived six rounds from a revolver and an assault with a fireplace bellows, she had been sufficiently weakened to make her easy prey for the alligator in the basement.
Even before my career under my own name–Dean Koontz, if you’ve forgotten–had begun to take off, my wife, Gerda, and I had seen that success was coming at us like a runaway truck, whether we liked it or not. Consequently, we had bought back the rights to all of my old novels, under my names and pen names, either to keep the early (and not so good) science fiction out of print or to be able to resell the suspense novels when their value had risen. To reacquire rights to those books, most publishers made us pay at least a hundred percent of the advance I had originally been paid, even if it had earned out. We didn’t complain.
When my agent approached Pocket Books, Leigh’s first publisher and asked for a buy-back price for the four titles of hers that they owned, they offered to return them for nothing. This would have been a magnanimous act, a lovely human gesture, if the executive who made the offer had not coupled it with this statement: “They’re worthless anyway. They’ve been fully exploited. Trying to squeeze additional sales out of them would be a waste of money.” Considering that books under my name were beginning to sell very well and that most of my readers had never seen Leigh’s books, the executive seemed not only to be dissing those four novels but dismissing the idea that I was on the rise and that I had good prospects.
We smiled through the insult, politely thanked him, and took back the books at no cost to us. Within only a year, THE SERVANTS OF TWILIGHT was republished under my name by Berkley and spent six weeks at #1 on the New York Times Paperback Bestseller List. Following Leigh’s tragic demise, all five of her books became bestsellers and have sold continuously for two decades, in 36 languages. In the most sincere gratitude to Leigh Nichols, every once in awhile we purchase a cool pair of sequined shoes and place them on the alligator’s grave, which is, of course, also Leigh’s grave.
Now my friends at Berkley Books, who have been supporters of my work longer than anyone in this business, are reissuing SHADOWFIRES in a handsome new package. As I said above, this is a horror novel, and I won’t argue that point. It is a riff on genetic engineering, and as such I think it’s timelier now than it was when it first appeared twenty-one years ago. We live in an age when a scientist at a Chinese university has recently cloned a pig whose genes were fiddled with to make it glow a fluorescent green. (I’m not doing shtick now; this is real.) The trait has proved inheritable, as the cloned pig’s offspring also glow green. You can see what a fun century we have entered; considering humankind’s arrogance and infinite capacity to screw up, it will also be a terrifying new century.
Judging by reader mail, SHADOWFIRES is considered one of my scariest novels, although let me gently suggest that it is also a bit of a love story, a story about the perils of a bad marriage, and a cautionary tale about the hubris of scientism. And the indomitable female lead might be seen as my preparation to write Chyna Shepherd, the protagonist of INTENSITY, a straight suspense novel, a few years later.
After all this time, I still like SHADOWFIRES and am pleased to have it under my name. One of the best things about the book is that no one in Hollywood has ever wanted to make a film of it. If you have read the other essays for my Berkley titles, you know that one more experience with film development might well plunge me into insanity, a condition around which I’ve been cockily capering for a long time.