May 13, 2010

HIDEAWAY From the Author

HIDEAWAY was the first novel of mine that elicited a pleasing quantity of hate mail. The volume of hate was never so great that the postal service had to deliver it in eighteen-wheelers–a mere fifty letters–but it satisfied.

The first few distressed me. I was dismayed that my book had offended. I am basically a mellow guy who hopes that his work will in some humble way have a positive effect on the lives of my readers–and that I will be allowed to conduct my life without the constant company of heavily armed bodyguards.

By the time I received ten such missives, I realized that these hate letters were badges of honor. The correspondents were intolerant cranks; if they had agreed with something I’d written, I would have been obliged to have my soul flushed, sanitized, and sandblasted.

The hate mail generated by HIDEAWAY came entirely from atheists. I hasten to clarify that not all atheists are intolerant or cranks. Like believers, most just want to get along, to have their share of Starbucks cappuccinos and Krispy Kreme doughnuts, to know true love or at least true affection, to buy cool shoes, and to avoid being caught in the crossfire between rap stars at the Vibe Awards.

My fifty seethingly angry correspondents were furious with me because the story line of HIDEAWAY assumed the existence of God and Heaven. They accused me of corrupting the minds of innocent youth, of being a paid shill for the Vatican, and of being a moron.

I found it curious that none of those letters chastised me for the fact that the story line of HIDEAWAY also assumed the existence of Satan and Hell. I could only suppose that they considered it enlightened and healthy to instill in our innocent youth a belief in things demonic, though I didn’t see how that squared with atheism.

Before writing HIDEAWAY (one of a small handful of my novels that deals with the genuine supernatural), I had noticed that it was common for such fiction to focus on, even to revel in, the dark side without ever suggesting–and certainly without depicting–the existence of a light side. This was a shortcoming of most horror and a key reason why I found a lot of the genre unconvincing.

Fantasy fiction does not make this mistake. In that genre, Good and Evil are reliably depicted as equally real. Try to imagine how The Fellowship of the Ring would read if Frodo and his friends were just other breeds of orcs, answering to a different dark god from the one that ruled Mordor. Not exactly epic anymore, is it?

Pornography is the raw mechanics of sex without the emotional context: lust ceaselessly indulged, love eternally unmentioned. That is also how novels of the supernatural read to me when they make much of otherworldly horror but say nothing of otherworldly redemption.

So I wrote a novel that dealt with both sides of the equation, in the belief that the forces of darkness seem more real and scarier when they are one half of a balanced narrative equation that includes the forces of light–just as making love with a cherished partner is immeasurably better than finding satisfaction in a porn film.

This was a shocking and offensive point of view to my fifty correspondents, however, and thus I found myself the recipient of hate mail, none of it perfumed or decorated with stick-on yellow smily faces. Half a dozen of my pen pals wished me dead; one threatened to kill me if given a chance. But only three of the fifty letters were unsigned. Most of the writers had sufficient courage of their convictions to include their names and addresses.

One was even brave enough to challenge me: “If God is real, prove it by praying for him to strike me dead with lightning.”

If this was the correspondent’s understanding of God, no wonder he had become an atheist. This was a God whom even John Gotti could embrace: Dear Lord, Bobby Graziano has been skimmin’ the take from cocaine sales. In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, I’m humbly askin’ you to break his legs. And thanks for makin’ Vito Zabaglione fall off that tall buildin’ last month. Best wishes to your Holy Mom.

Years later, when I wrote ONE DOOR AWAY FROM HEAVEN, I received two hundred hate letters from people in the utilitarian bioethics movement that infects our major universities and medical schools. Among other things, these folks want to deny medical care to people over a certain age (some say as young as 55) because “older citizens take more from their society than they contribute,” and to deny care, as well, to even marginally disabled children, so those kids will just die when they get an infection and will stop using more than “their share” of resources. These towers of moral enlightenment routinely did not sign their names; half of them wished me dead, and ten percent expressed a desire to be the agent of my demise. Some of the letters came on university letterheads, perhaps to impress me with the erudition of these venomous writers.

Recently (as I write this), I received in excess of 120 pieces of hate mail from a number of anarchists who did not like the fact that a serial killer in The Face was also an anarchist. You guessed it: Most of them wished me dead! One fellow wrote a polite letter about the same issue, but suggested that I was obliged to write an apology for an anarchist web site. I replied in part as follows: “As to your request that I write an “apology”…this is akin to a demand by a policeman that I write an apology for including a corrupt cop in a novel or by a clergyman for including a fornicating priest. Any writer who felt so obliged would be a hack, and considering how easily most people take offense when one of their own sacred cows is pricked, no literature of any value would ever be written.”

I do not mean to compare myself to Dickens, but I wonder whether in his day he received angry letters from the wardens of the debtor’s prisons or from furious moneylenders who were offended by Scrooge.

An employee of a major national magazine has written dozens of anti-Catholic hate letters to me. They come on general-use magazine stationary, and the envelopes have been processed through postage meters registered to the magazine. Twice this publication has given space to vicious attacks on me which featured phrases and even whole sentences from those hate letters. The editors were unmoved by my politely worded suggestion that harboring religious bigots who threaten and harass a subject in his private life and then publish attacks on him in the magazine’s pages is poor journalism even by their low standards. Indeed I sensed that they were perversely proud of their hatemongering scamp.

In retrospect, it seems meaningful that the first hate mail I received should be in regard to HIDEAWAY, for that novel is in part about the power of hate and about the power of love to defeat it.

The power of love can never defeat Hollywood, however, which grinds forward in a relentless, fevered quest to destroy the story, characters, and meaning of every Koontz property on which it can lay its hands.

The film rights to HIDEAWAY were sold to Universal with high hopes. I made the deal only after the head of the studio, at that time Mike Medavoy, gave me his home phone number and promised that if at any point I received a script that desecrated the novel, he would ensure the revisions I wanted would be executed; in an extreme situation, a new writer would be brought aboard to start over. “Other adaptations of your books have been dreadful,” he said, “but this time the source material will be treated with respect.”

I accepted his guarantee, and he never disappointed me. The development executives brought in a writer about whom I was dubious; the writer produced a confused and blood-soaked script, and when I complained, Mike read the script, agreed with me, and ordered a fresh start with a new writer. The second writer did a terrific job; the script had suspense, style, and heart.

Then Mike Medavoy was deposed. Some said it was a palace coup, perpetrated by people who owed their careers to him. I don’t know if that’s true or not; Hollywood politics bores me. What I do know is that Mike was in my experience that rarest of individuals, a film executive who kept his word, acted honorably, and had taste. He became a successful independent producer after leaving Universal, so sometimes there is justice in Hollywood.

The new studio power players, aligned with the Dark Side, brought in a young director whom they described as a “very unique genius.” When talking about themselves and their closest associates, the only words that many Hollywood executive use more frequently than genius are the article the and the conjunction and. When they modify genius with wild disregard for grammar, you know you’re in trouble.

Although she isn’t the female lead, a young disabled girl named Regina is the heart of HIDEAWAY both in terms of plot and thematic structure. She is a symbol of innocence, of purity. The antagonist, Vassago, is actually Evil personified, and like most evil with a small e and like all Evil with a capital E, he is motivated more powerfully by the desire to destroy innocence and pollute purity than he is by anything else. In a structural sense, therefore, Regina is the sun, while all the other characters are planets revolving around her. Without Regina–ten years old, disabled, charming, acerbic, funny, indomitable–the story doesn’t just collapse: it evaporates.

In their very unique genius, the director and the studio execs kept the name Regina, but changed her into a moody sixteen-year-old sexpot. They wanted to cast a girl who had been identified by the very unique geniuses of Hollywood as the next megastar: Alicia Silverstone. She never became a megastar, but neither did the young director become the next Steven Spielberg–as both the studio and he himself, with singular arrogance, assured me that he would.

I argued without effect that the new shooting script sucked. When, at the studio’s request, I attended a test screening, where they expected me to be enchanted, some in the audience walked out in disgust ten minutes into the movie. One woman, passing the roped-off seats where studio bigwigs sat with the director, said loudly, “Sewage.” My wife and I left ten minutes later, and I exhibited astonishing self-control by not vomiting on the director.

The studio intended to put my name above the title of this atrocity in a possessory position: Dean Koontz’s HIDEAWAY. As this was manifestly not my HIDEAWAY, I wanted my name off the title, out of the credits, and off all advertising. I offered to return the money they had paid for film rights if they would erase my name from their exercise in stupidity and tastelessness. They refused.

I turned to my entertainment attorney, a wizardly strategist, and said I was willing to press the issue as hard and as far as we could even if the cost exceeded what I’d been paid for film rights.

Meanwhile, a mensch in my professional life, knowledgeable about the morays of successful Japanese businessmen, suggested I write to the CEO of the parent company of Universal/MCA, in Tokyo. According to my adviser, by making a personal appeal to that man and by referring to him as “a friend in business,” I would be requiring him, by Japanese custom, to treat me with honor and with respect.

I wrote a cordial letter to Mr. Teriyaki (not his real name), which my adviser edited, and I sent it air express to Tokyo. This felt good: not a love letter, but the opposite of a hate letter, a thoughtful, courteous appeal to my “friend in business.” Mr. Teriyaki himself was not a Hollywood weasel, so no doubt he would be appalled to discover the studio had shredded the spirit of our agreement.

He didn’t answer me. At the advice of my mensch, I wrote again, an even more cordial letter, asserting the relationship of “friends in business.” Mr. Teriyaki didn’t tell me to pound sand or to buzz off, but he still didn’t answer me, either.

Then I had an inspiration. Love letters hadn’t worked; I wasn’t capable of writing hate; but in the past I had discovered that humor with a slightly acerbic edge could occasionally work wonders.

Therefore, by air express, I sent this letter to Tokyo:

Dear Mr. Teriyaki:

My letter of 10 November has not been answered. As I am certain you are an honorable and courteous man, I assume your silence results from the mistaken belief that World War II is still in progress and that citizens of your country and mine are forbidden to communicate. Enclosed is a copy of the front page of the New York Times from 1945, with the headline JAPAN SURRENDERS. I hope this clears up your confusion, and I look forward to your reply to my letter of 10 November.

When that letter received no response, I followed it with this:

Dear Mr. Teriyaki:

Last Night I saw The Bridge on the River Kwai, a moving film about a group of Allied prisoners of war used as slave labor by your countrymen during World War II–which, by the way, has been over for almost fifty years. Mr. Toshiro Mifune was marvelous as the cruel and unprincipled concentration-camp commandant, and one cannot watch his performance without thinking how well he could have played a modern-day corporate executive. This fine actor’s death was a great loss–as were the deaths of hundreds of American sailors aboard the USS Missouri, which was sunk on December 7, 1941, in Pearl Harbor. But the war, of course, is over, and I ask nothing but the courtesy of an answer to my letter of 10 November.

Had I been Mr. Teriyaki, I would have answered. He did not. So:

Dear Mr. Teriyaki:

Have you ever eaten at Benihana? I could treat you to lunch, and you could answer my letter conversationally, saving you the need to type a response. We could have a few saki and reminisce about the Bataan Death March.

When he didn’t reply, I wondered if Mr. Teriyaki was obtuse or whether perhaps he wanted to see what I would write next.

Dear Mr. Teriyaki:

I am a great admirer of your countrymen’s perseverance. They repeatedly rebuild Tokyo even though they know it will only be destroyed again by Godzilla. I believe we Americans have a lot to learn from you, and I look forward to your response to my letter of 10 November, last year.

His silence resulted in a final letter.

Dear Mr. Teriyaki:

I am very excited to be having my novel filmed by an American studio owned by such an eminent Japanese entertainment entity as yours. After all, we have only given the world Orson Wells, Frank Capra, Steven Spielberg–while you have given it Mothra. And I am humbly aware that your Godzilla knocked the crap out of our King Kong–which is surprising, considering the outcome of World War II, which has been over for fifty years. I have been asked to write an article for a major American magazine to celebrate the legendary–nay, immortal?achievements of the Japanese cinema in general and of yourself in particular, with my collection of letters to you as the central theme of the piece. Would you please assist me by sending a list of your favorite movies and the names of any starlets with whom you have done the funky monkey.

Before HIDEAWAY was released to theaters, we got my name out of the title and out of major advertising. We could not get it out of the screen credits or prevent it from being referenced in publicity materials; nevertheless, I felt we had achieved 80% of our objective, which was to separate me from association with their tedious, sleazy movie. My attorney’s fine work was most likely entirely responsible for our success, but in the bad-boy corner of my heart, I like to think that my letters to Mr. Teriyaki contributed to the cause.

The movie tanked, as it deserved to. It was a ghost of a ghost of the book. After stripping story, character, and theme from the novel, the director and studio execs failed to replace them with anything, resulting in just a series of images and noises.

I do not–and at the time did not–hate the director. Hating him, even going after him with a crow bar, could not have done the damage to him that he did to himself by abandoning the essential elements of the novel. I never sent him hate mail, and I never will. He won’t get a dinner invitation, either.

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