THE EYES OF DARKNESS was the second book I wrote under the pen name Leigh Nichols. I explained my secret life as Leigh in the afterword to the new edition of Shadowfires; therefore, I will devote what space I am given here to the novel itself and to the savage, brutal, cruel, maddening, insane, inane, nonsensical, stupid, bewildering, toxic, blood-curddling, lip-chafing, toenail-curling experience of working with a major television network to adapt the novel, and three others, as part of a program that would have been called “The Dean Koontz Theater” or “Dean Koontz Presents” or possibly “Here’s Dean!” or even “Koontzapalooza.” The producer, the studio, and the network never could agree on a title, and no one liked my idea– “Kickass Koontz Cinema”–and probably even realized I was not serious in proposing it.
THE EYES OF DARKNESS is a modest little thriller about a woman, Tina Evans, who lost her child, Danny, when he was in an accident on a trip with his scouting troop. A year later, Tina has reason to believe that the accident did not occur as reported, that her son is alive, is being held against his will, and is in desperate need of her. This was one of my early attempts to write a cross-genre novel mixing action, suspense, romance, and a touch of the paranormal. Although THE EYES OF DARKNESS does not have the intensity, the humor, the depth of characterization, the complexity of theme, or the pace of later novels, readers have responded positively to it over the years, most likely because the device of a lost child–and the dedicated mother who will do anything to find out what happened to her little boy– strikes a primal chord in all of us.
Among those in whom it struck a chord were the aforementioned producer, studio executives, and network poobahs. They chose it as one of four of my novels to be developed as two-hour TV movies that would launch “Popcorn, Sugar Babies, Dum Dums, and Dean” or whatever the series would have been titled. I was to be an executive producer of the show and the writer of one of the first four teleplays, which would be based on my novel DARKFALL. The other three scripts would be assigned to “network-approved writers.”
I was so young and naive, I assumed “network-approved writers” meant that each of these writers would be among the finest in the TV business, on the planet, in the universe, the elect of the elite, the creme de la creme, superexcellent wordsmiths incapable of spinning any story that wasn’t the top, the Tower of Pizza, the Mona Lisa, the Louvre Museum, the Colosseum! Network-approved-writers! I was in the lap of God, in the hands of ministering angels, and there could be no doubt whatsoever that we would have a hit with “Help, My Feet Are Stuck to the Floor in Dean Koontz’s Theater” or whatever it would be called.
As it turned out, “network-approved writers” meant pals of the network executive. They might have been talented folks who, in the past, had produced works to rival those of Shakespeare and who, in the future, might produce thousands of pages of sheer genius. All I know is that during the fourteen or sixteen–or seven thousand–months that we worked together, through countless story meetings in the development executive’s office, I was never sure that any of my writing confreres had read the complete novel he or she was adapting, or understood what had been read. About a quarter of each meeting was tedious chum talk about the executive’s and the approved writers’ mutual acquaintances. The other three quarters of the time was spent– so it seemed to me–in a competition to come up idiotic plot or character changes with the intention of seeing who could plunge me into the longest spell of speechlessness. I do not scream or argue; I am a polite boy. Speechlessness is my furious outburst.
One writer was given two drafts and a polish. The first draft was a mess. The second draft was worse. The polish was unreadable. Consequently, he was paid for another draft. Then yet another one. Imagine if surgery worked this way. Your surgeon cuts off your left foot when it was your gangrenous right foot he should have amputated. So he is praised for being merely incompetent and not also drunk, and he is given a second chance. This time, he cuts off your right hand. Nice try. So let’s pay him a third time and hope he doesn’t cut off anything as important as your head.
A second writer, a surly fellow, believed that he would soon be a famous director and informed us of this at every opportunity. He was contemptuous of the book he was paid to adapt, of me, and of the entire TV industry, to which he would never return (he assured me with a glower) after his first smash-hit film. Eventually, after a bad first draft, he was taken off the project when he missed several extensions of his contractual deadline. He promptly brought legal action against the studio, forcing us to arbitration. I received a death threat by phone the night before the arbitration–I can’t say for certain that it was from the writer; the voice was so deep that it might have been his mother–and the next morning the law firm handling the studio’s case assured me that they had taken extra security measures for the meeting. We won the arbitration, and the writer has not, in the intervening twenty-odd years, become a famous director or, as far as I know, a director of any status.
THE EYES OF DARKNESS was assigned to a writing team, two quite personable women, who seemed bright and enthusiastic. After the first story meeting, however, I never saw the two of them together. In each subsequent meeting, one or the other would show up to take story notes on their latest draft, while the missing partner would always have been waylaid by an emergency of one kind or another: a broken washing machine and a flooded laundry room, the sudden-onset illness of a cat with symptoms suggesting (to me) demonic possession, the death of a beloved aunt, the death of a beloved uncle, the death of a beloved neighbor (I began to worry that merely by associating with these women, decades would be shorn from my life span), migraine headaches, and an unfortunate encounter with an angry Big Foot in a long line at the DMV. Because I was never in the room with both partners, getting a thoughtful response to a story note I’d given was impossible, because neither could speak for the other and could only promise to consult when next they met at the deathbed of whatever beloved person expired that week.
As relationships go with screenwriters in a development process, this was basically a fine experience. No one threatened my life; neither of these women had an unkempt beard (or a kempt one for that matter); neither of them presented us with a body-odor problem; and neither of them indulged in furious political rants that sprayed spittle on those of us who just wanted to make a TV movie.
Indeed, these meetings were enlivened by colorful storytelling– although none of it had to do with developing my novel into a two-hour filmed entertainment. By the time the latest washing-machine-frenzied- cat-dead-beloved story was delivered, no creative energy remained for the job at hand. Consequently, each draft of the script was full of plot holes and illogic that never quite got repaired.
I have room for just one example. If you haven’t yet read THE EYES OF DARKNESS, I am giving away nothing important in the story when I tell you that eventually, in a search for her lost son, Tina ventures into the High Sierra in winter, where she comes across a paved road, in the middle of the wilderness, that features heating coils under the pavement to prevent snow from sticking to it. The heating coils would probably have to maintain the road at about 38 to 40 degrees Fahrenheit to be sure that it remained free of snow and ice. This is obviously an expensive stretch of highway that must lead to something important and mysterious. In the script, Tina saw the narrow road initially as a strange light beyond a screen of trees. At first I thought the writers had put lampposts on this road, which would make no sense, as it is a secret route through restricted government property. But when I read further, I discovered that Tina comes to a glowing red road. The writers had envisioned a heated roadbed not as ordinary blacktop but as an arrangement of thousands of interconnected hot-plate griddles. When I wondered aloud how any vehicle could negotiate this surface, my question was not understood. By this time, we had passed the one-year mark in the development process and I knew we were not going to wind up with a useable script, so I didn’t insist on discussing whether the rubber tires would melt off the vehicle within two hundred yards or three, or ponder at what point the gasoline tank might explode. I simply said, “Well, a red-hot glowing road is a great visual.” In fact, it would be such a fantastic visual that it would be visible at night from orbiting satellites, like a neon arrow pointing toward the secret installation that it served.
Ultimately, after months of interminable meetings, two of the scripts we developed were deemed filmable. The first was my script based on DARKFALL, which I had written in two weeks. The second was my script of another book which, in a fit of frustration at this entire process, I wrote in three days after the assigned writer’s final–and umpteenth–draft was deemed inadequate. I had spent more time in useless development meetings than I had required to write both screenplays.
By this time, the head of the network got the boot, and a new head of network came aboard. After reviewing the chaos that he had inherited, the new head of network decided that even though DARKFALL was an exciting script, he didn’t want to make a movie “about little creatures living in the walls.” He decided that we would film the other script I had done, for which I received primary credit but not sole credit because of Writer’s Guild rules virtually guaranteeing the first writer some kind of credit as long as that writer’s drafts had been composed in one of the languages spoken on Earth.
After all those months and all those meetings and all those network-approved writers, we had too little material to launch a series, regardless of whether it was titled “From the Tormented Mind of Dean Koontz” or “Sitting in the Dark with Dean and Roaches” or just “Deaniac.” One good TV movie was aired and did okay in the ratings. Considering the fearsome number of meetings I had to sit through, my per-hour wage penciled out at less than I would have made if I had taken a part-time job at McDonald’s.
The first network head is no longer in the business. The second network head is no longer in the business. The development executive in charge of the project is no longer in the business. I would not be surprised to learn that one of the network-approved writers is in prison for crimes of a particularly perverse nature committed against small woodland animals, and I know that at least a couple of them are no longer in the business. The studio executive who brought the project to the network is, I am told, no longer in the business. The legendary producer who brought the project to the studio is dead, probably because he was a beloved friend of the bad-luck writing duo.
I am still alive, thank God, and still writing books. I long ago wore out the three pairs of shoes that I was able to buy with my after-expenses and after-tax income from the project, which had it come to fruition might have been titled “I Think There’s a Rat Chewing My Foot in Dean Koontz’s Theater.” Ah, the glamour of show business.