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Book Review: One Door Away From Heaven by Dean Koontz

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A quintet known as The Coasters once recorded a song (I believe Joe Tex wrote it) called "Along Came Jones." It was mildly successful.

"Along Came Jones" is comedic. The lyrics poke fun at melodramatic, silent, Western movie serials of the "if-you-don't-gimme-the-deed-to-yo-ranch" sort — the kind that featured smirking villains in the mold of Snidely Whiplash and heroines named Nell. The plots were always the same: in order to extort from Nell the deed to her ranch, Snidely tied Nell to the railroad tracks in front of a train, or he tied her to a saw log and sent her down the conveyor into the sawmill, or he strapped her to a wagon-load of dynamite, or … something. It made no matter because regardless of what Snidely did, he never got his hands on the deed. He was always thwarted when the hero, "Jones," "came along" in the nick of time. Thus the gal was always saved and the bad man was always punished.

They haven't made films like that for a very long time, the reason being that today's film audience is too jaded. These days, children above the age of four or five get bored with such stuff.

I have a nephew, 45 years old. He is an adamant Dean Koontz fan. A couple of people I used to work with were crazy for Dean Koontz novels. For a while there it seemed every time I turned around, somebody shoved a Dean Koontz novel in my face: "Here, man! You gotta read this!" Too bad I was always reading something else.

So it was years before I learned to appreciate Dean Koontz. My awakening finally came when I read One Door Away From Heaven (New York: Bantam; 2001).

I wasn’t more than six or eight chapters into the book when I picked up on the style of it. One chapter ends with the protagonist in a jam; the next chapter ends when that situation is resolved. Often the resolutions are violent. When the author’s focus shifts to another character, the chapter/action sequence repeats. It seems Dean Koontz fans find that narrative style and pace exciting. For me, One Door Away From Heaven was just "Along Came Jones" with different lyrics.

The chapters average eight pages each. After 100 or 200 pages of those fast-paced, melodramatic ups and downs, I began to get seasick. When I realized there were 400 pages left, I put down the book for a few minutes and drove to Walgreens, where I bought Dramamine. At the 7-11 across the street, I scored a pound of jack cheese, a box of Ritz crackers, a gallon of Dago red, and a six-pack of lemon-lime soda.

Home again, I made myself a pitcher of wine coolers. Then I diced the cheese into a large bowl of crackers, poured myself a long one and settled on the couch, determined to find out why people like Dean Koontz novels. At the end of it all the cheese and the crackers were long gone. I quit building wine coolers after 350 pages, threw my glass away after 500 pages, and finished up (p. 606) by suckin’ on the jug. That book was an awful ride.

Next day I studied and revised my notes. Day after that I read about half of the book for the second time, checking my notes again as I did so. It was at some time during the second night that I awoke to the conclusion that those who actually enjoy Dean Koontz novels are those who simply don’t know any better.

Faulty Morals

If One Door Away from Heaven is typical, then nobody able to pass a sixth-grade reading comprehension exam could suffer through more than one such book. It seemed to me then that Koontz’s stuff is written without conscious thought for the amusement of people who don’t know how to think. In all the 606 pages of One Door Away from Heaven, I found two passages that I feel are key to the author’s message. The first occurs on pp. 246-47. Koontz there wrote:

By the time Laura turned eight, she understood that her family wasn’t like others. A conscience had never been nurtured in her, not in the Farrel house, but nature had given her a strong moral sense. Shame came easily to her, and everything about her family mortified her more deeply year by year. . . . She wanted only to grow up, to get out, and to make a life that would be ‘clean, quiet, not a harm to anyone.’

The second occurs on p. 249. There we learn of Wendy Quail that:

She was a hollow creature into whose head had been poured evil philosophies that she couldn’t have brewed in the cauldron of her own intellect; and if in her formative years she had been exposed to a gentler and humbler school of thought, she might have been the committed healer that now she only pretended to be. She was plates and platters of plights and pickles; she was ice cream therapy; but although she was worthy of being loathed and even of being abhorred, she was too pathetic to merit hatred.

For centuries, argument has raged over what is known as the nature/nurture controversy. In starkest terms, the nature side argues that people are born with moral sense while nurture theorists hold that the mind of the newborn human infant is a blank slate that needs writing, an empty hole into which moral sense must be poured by parents, family, and members of the community. Now comes novelist Dean Koontz, who aims to settle the antique debate by arguing both sides of the issue. Koontz apparently believes (and wants readers to believe) that some folks (Laura) are born with moral sense while others (Wendy) must be taught moral values.

Now I’m not here to argue that Koontz’s position is wrong or that it’s right. I just want to point out that nobody knows for sure how moral sense is installed in children just as nobody knows for sure which system of morals is the one we should install. What is certain is that the position Koontz takes entails some weighty consequences.

Suppose, for example, that moral sense is a worthy asset. Many people would agree that is so. If it is so, then many people will consider he or she who is born with moral sense a ‘better’ person – genetically superior to those born without moral sense. Run down that line of reasoning, it turns into a slippery slope that ends – willy-nilly – in a mire of racism or sexism or some other lethal prejudice. One group feels entitled to lord it over the others, and how can anyone decide with certainty who belongs in which group? In the real world, those who think themselves qualified to decide are called ‘bigots.’ And that’s where thinking of the sort that Koontz wrote into this book will always lead those who think in that way.

Those who read One Door Away from Heaven, if they pay attention to what they’re reading, will see that Mr. Koontz is already fighting a bigot’s crusade. Throughout the awful, didactic screed that he and his fans are pleased to call a novel, Koontz rails against moral relativism, against Utilitarianism and Utilitarian bioethics, against euthanasia, against news media, against Hollywood filmmakers, and hosts of other folk whose beliefs or behaviors demonstrate (in Koontz’s eyes, at least) some moral imperfection or laxity because of which they merit "loathing and abhorrence."

Look back for a moment at Koontz’s treatment of Wendy Quail: "… if in her formative years she had been exposed to a gentler and humbler school of thought, she might have been the committed healer that now she only pretended to be." Koontz doesn’t even allow the possibility that if Wendy believes in what she is doing then she does not "pretend" to be a committed healer because she truly believes herself to be one and probably does her best to act accordingly. The one way, Wendy is guilty of fraud and deserves to be punished. The other way, Wendy is merely mistaken and deserves to be corrected and given another chance. Koontz is all for condemnation. I would he were a little less certain.

Faulty Language

Regarding Koontz’s use of language in the passage on Wendy Quail: I have never knowingly seen an object called a "plight." Neither have I seen a plate of plights nor a platter of those items, whatever in the world plights might actually be. Pickles I have seen and enjoyed, and pickles are good if they’re made from a good recipe. So far as I know, I’ve never met a person made of ice cream therapy and none of the ice cream in my freezer has been to therapy – though some of those new Ben & Jerry flavors look as if they could take a slow walk through three months in detox without sweating the carton.

Mysterious, misapplied, comestible metaphors aside, my New Shorter Oxford English Dictionary tells me that the preferred definition of "abhor" is to "regard with disgust and hatred" and that to loathe a thing is, preferredly, to treat it in a "hateful, displeasing or offensive" manner. Things being so, I expect it would be difficult to "loathe" and "abhor" Wendy Quail without feeling some hatred for her — if she "merits" hatred it or if she doesn’t.

This from p. 376:

Cass moved in the highest levels of Hollywood society, where she had eventually calculated that of the entire pool of successful actors, directors, studio executives, and producers, 6.5 percent were sane and good, 4.5 percent were sane and evil, and 89 percent were insane and evil. In accumulating the experience to make this assessment, she had learned to recognize a series of eye expressions, facial ticks [sic], and body-language quirks . . . that unfailingly alerted her to the maddest of the mad and to the most monstrously wicked of the wicked. . . .

Cass and her sister are the heroines of this book. They are voluptuously beautiful, deadly, and virtuous to a fault (in 606 pages, neither of ‘em gets laid). It seems, then, there are two lessons to draw from that particular tale: one being that in Koontz’s estimation, morbid paranoia is a desirable asset; the other being that we should ignore facial tics but guard against facial ticks, which are known to carry Lyme disease.

Other boners, as bad or worse than we’ve seen here, are scattered throughout the book. Those who read above the level of children are struck by such things. Dean Koontz fans evidently don’t mind them at all.

Faulty Plot

The protagonist of One Door Away is a little boy named Curtis. Curtis has a sentient, sapient dog with whom he enjoys non-verbal communication. Curtis and the dog are on the lam.

Indescribably horrid creatures from somewhere off-planet murdered the boy’s parents. Now they pursue the boy, seeking to kill him for reasons beyond his ken. Curtis and his ‘sister’ (the dog) evade the hunt by moving fast, on foot, through vast, empty sections of Utah, Idaho, and other Western states. When they manage to hitch a ride they move faster still, but the hunters always find them.

The hunters (many, many of them) move cross-country in whiz-bang combat vehicles which carry some sort of cloaking device that allows them to look like anything at all. The one described on p. 363 "seems to be a fortress on wheels." It has "compact buttresses, ramparts, terrepleins, scarps, counterscarps, bastions made aerodynamic, condensed and adapted to rolling stock." The human eye perceives it as a Chevy Corvette. The hunters track their quarry with some Star Trek, high-tech gizmo that detects the fingerprint of the boy’s energy emissions. It can see around corners. It can see in the dark. It can see for miles and miles aaaand miles (thanks, Pete!).

With all of those hunters and all that hifalutin’ hardware deployed to run down a kid and his dog, the plot of Koontz’s novel begs a few questions: If the hunters got gizmos like that, how did the kid manage to get away from them to start with? Why can’t the hunters identify the boy’s hiding place (wherever that might be at any given time) and catch him while he’s asleep? And why (as on p. 363) do the hunters think the boy is in the motor home when in fact the boy is hiding 40 or 50 yards away from the motor home?

The answer to all such questions is obvious, and it is just this: One Door Away From Heaven is a stupid book that only stupid people could enjoy.

Coasting Home

In fairness, I note that if One Door Away From Heaven is a stupid book (and it is), "Along Came Jones" is an equally stupid song. Yet The Coasters’ song is good entertainment while the Dean Koontz novel is not. That is so because the song is a joke that wants to be laughed at while Koontz’s lousy novel is a joke that wants readers to take it seriously. The one joke is funny and offers a good time on the dance floor; the other insults our intelligence and peddles pop-stand bigotry packaged as moral principles.

I understand Mr. Koontz has a lot of fans. He sells books by the millions, having written dozens and dozens of novels of which I have read only this one and have never written any. On the other hand, if I was a Dean Koontz fan and if One Door Away From Heaven is in any way like other Koontz novels, I believe I’d sit down with myself and ask me some serious questions about what I put into my head. More plainly: If I was a Dean Koontz fan, I don’t believe I’d tell anyone.

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About Deacon "Deke" Solomon

  • http://oakhaus.blogspot.com Bill Sherman

    This neurotic old rock ‘n’ roll geezer can’t help noting: “Along Came Jones” was Leiber & Stoller song (as were most of the Coasters’ hits). Still, a great take on Koontz the writer.

  • Deacon Solomon

    Bill Sherman — You better go away and shut up ‘fore I tie you to the railroad tracks.

    I got the Joe Tex story from some rock ‘n’ roll band in Yuma, AZ, forty years ago. I never bothered to question it — I mean they were professional musicians. . . .

  • http://oakhaus.blogspot.com Bill Sherman

    I can see how the mix-up occurred: Joe Tex had some great r&b novelty hits on his own. (“Hey, who wants the woman with the skinny legs?”)

  • Deacon Solomon

    Maybe Joe covered ‘Along Came Jones’ in one of his club dates and that’s how the mixup occurred.