May 13, 2010

HOUSE OF THUNDER From the Author

Seldom does a subject come along that doesn’t inspire me to chatter like a capuchin monkey. I can do an hour on the history of the word pork. If you came to our house for dinner (this is not an invitation), and at the end of the evening, as we sipped a fine port, if you were to say, “Let’s talk about dust,” I would rattle on past dawn about my strangest experiences with and my opinions of dust, while you would be trying to find a way to change the topic of our chat to suicide. Give me a genuinely worthy subject, such as the novels of Kate DiCamillo—THE MIRACULOUS JOURNEY OF EDWARD TULANE, THE TALE OF DESPEREAUX, THE MAGICIAN’S ELEPHANT—or T.S. Eliot’s FOUR QUARTERS, and I can be shut up only with a blunt instrument or a large-caliber firearm.

Over the years, I have written hundreds of nonfiction pieces, everything from an analytic afterword for a new edition to Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg,Ohio to a foreword for a new edition of Rex Stout’s WHERE THERE’S A WILL, to a piece about my affection for Scrooge McDuck comics, to a piece for Audiofile about the origin of audio books in the stone age. (A caveman named Og, brother of Nogg and Plogg, son of Vog and Noog, grandson of Zogg and Heather, was a born storyteller frustrated that paper had not yet been invented. He theorized that by constructing an enormous megaphone and shouting his novel at a rock, he would imprint his voice—and his story—in stone for eternity. His fellow cavemen called this Og’s Folly, since the technology did not at that time exist to extract the audio from the rock, but a few millennia brought him some vindication.)

This piece you are now reading is my eighteenth afterword for the new editions of my novels that my friends at Berkley Books have been issuing with an admirably dogged determination not seen since the conduct of the Spartans in the Peloponnesian War. As you know if you have read those eighteen minisagas, with all of those books, I never had to resort to writing about pork or dust because I had rich material regarding publishers, agents, movie producers, movie directors, movie writers, movie-studio executives, and my own reliably dunderheaded behavior.

When it comes to THE HOUSE OF THUNDER, however, my usual sources of material failed me, including my original publisher at Pocket Books, who did nothing amusing or outrageous related to this book. He was in fact so disinterested in the books that I wrote under the Leigh Nichols pen name (which included THE HOUSE OF THUNDER) that he didn’t recognize that I was one of his writers when I was introduced to him at a publishing convention. To be fair, I wasn’t a #1 bestseller back then, and he might not have heard my name clearly because he called me Gene—three times.

My agent recognized my name and remembered that I was her client, but she gave me no deliciously bad—or good—advice about how to deal with Pocket Books’ waning interest in the Leigh Nichols novels.

No one ever approached me about making a film of THE HOUSE OF THUNDER, which is devastating, not because I failed to make film money from the book, but because the entire point of selling film rights to a novel is more often than not to be provided with hours of hilarious anecdotes about insane studio executives who want you to change the lead female character to a transvestite rodeo clown because there’s word on the street that Tom Cruise is looking for exactly such a property, about clueless producers who believe the studio executives in re the Cruise/transvestite/clown alert and suggest making it totally irresistible for the actor by rewriting the transvestite rodeo clown so he is also a courageous antipollution crusader out to save the planet, and about megalomaniacal directors who think they have already saved the planet by properly disposing of the needles with which they inject heroin and therefore just want to have the transvestite rodeo clown driving cars really-really fast, wrecking cars really-really spectacularly, and blowing up giant alien robots before they can conquer Earth. That may be the longest sentence I’ve ever written, but I really got worked up about the failure of those Hollywood types to come through for me as they always have in the past.

Sad but true: When it comes to providing good anecdotes for an afterword to THE HOUSE OF THUNDER, I even failed myself. I’ve lived a reasonably long life in which I have reliably behaved in a dunderheaded fashion, ensuring that related to any project in which I’ve been involved, I’ve got numerous stories about what an idiot I am. But not this time.

So…what am I to do? The folks at Berkley Books have been good to me over the years, and I promised them an afterword. I don’t like to break a promise. Besides, my Berkley editor of many years has ridden horses all her life, and I’ve had a repetitive dream (revealed here for the first time) about being chased down in the night and decapitated by a masked woman on horseback wielding a scimitar. I know nineteen other women who have ridden horses all their lives or have learned to ride recently, or are planning to learn, and all of them either have collections of scimitars or have recently acquired their first scimitar, or have spoken admiringly of scimitars. Consequently, even if my dream were to come true, there’s only a 5% chance that my Berkley editor is the one who would be wielding the blade. Nevertheless, I feel impelled to write an afterword.

I suppose I could say something about this novel, about its style and substance and that kind of thing, but the Leigh Nichols novels were—with the exceptions of SHADOWFIRES and THE SERVANTS OF TWILIGHT—almost entirely about story, less about character and theme and language than are my other books. They have no subtext. And as the bibliographer in The Dean Koontz Companion has written: “Its characters are less well-defined than usual,
though that is not the author’s fault, but a consequence of the story. The lead, Susan, has amnesia and can remember little from her past, which makes her a cipher; and every other character in the novel is masquerading as someone he is not.” Happily, readers have long responded well to this story-for-story’s-sake novel, and if memory serves me well, I’ve never received a negative letter about THE HOUSE OF THUNDER. Well, come to think of it, there was that guy in Juneau, Alaska, and that other guy in St. Paul, Minnesota, who didn’t like it, but they died long ago, long ago, and horribly.

I no longer use the pen name Leigh Nichols. I haven’t used any pen names in over twenty years. Because I’ve always written different kinds of novels—some humorous, some not; some with a touch of horror, some without; some with a hint of science fiction; some with a love story—agents and publishers insisted, in my early days, that I use a different pen name for each genre in order “not to confuse your readers.”

I don’t believe they thought my readers were more easily confused than readers in general. They just believed that women readers of Leigh Nichols would recoil in disgust from a Dean Koontz book like PHANTOMS and would hurl it across the room, that male readers would feel icky reading a suspense novel with a love story like Leigh’s THE KEY TO MIDNIGHT and would hurl it across the room, and that those of my readers who were grumpy and humorless would be bewildered and perhaps driven into violent psychotic frenzies by one of my novels that included humor. Clearly, although the aforementioned agents and publishers didn’t think my readers were more easily confused than others, they did seem to believe my readers were unusually volatile.

Eventually, when my pen-name books were put under my name, my readers bought them, read them, wrote nice letters about them, and did not throttle one bookseller, bludgeon one librarian, or kill a single person with a hurled book. Well, there was that one guy in Idaho Falls, Idaho, but that copy of the book was wrapped in a chain and stabbed through with two daggers; technically, it wasn’t the book that killed him, but the unconventional bookmarks.

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