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Slaughter with a smile

Dean Koontz, the author, doesn't spend much time signing books: The Newport Beach resident writes new novels for at least 60 hours a week.

January 07, 2011|By Tom Titus

At first glance, the Newport Beach resident is slightly built, soft-spoken and unfailingly accessible. One would hardly imagine that he's plotted hundreds of grisly murders over the past four decades.

Murder and mayhem have paid off handsomely for Dean Koontz. He's now the world's sixth most highly paid author, tied with John Grisham at $25 million in annual sales, and his novels have sold more than 400 million copies.

Quite a contrast from his early life in what he calls "a tar paper shack" in Bedford, Pa., a rest stop along the Pennsylvania Turnpike, where he endured an unhappy childhood. His early Dickensenian experiences would inspire the creation of some hideously evil villains in the prolific author's repertoire.

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Koontz and his wife, Gerda (pronounced "Jerda"), a grade-school buddy and high school sweetheart, now lead a supremely comfortable life in a home that's part mansion and part museum, the walls lined with glass-encased posters from film noir movies. There's even a fair-sized movie theater on the premises.

A third part of the house — a comparatively small area — is Koontz's office space. It's basically a desk and a computer, where he turns out novels that make The New York Times bestseller list. A dozen of his hardcover books have reached No. 1, along with 14 that reached that spot in paperback.

His latest project, "What the Night Knows" (which he sent me prior to our interview), is perhaps his best. I say "perhaps" because I've only read about 15 or 16 of his works. He's written more than 100 since he got his start as a teenager, selling a short story to the Atlantic Monthly for $50.

In this latest one, the hero is a police detective who, at 14, killed the madman who had murdered the rest of his family. Now, 20 years later, the spirit of that killer has returned to inhabit and control others with a murderous bent, and the detective's own family is targeted. How, you wonder, do you dispatch an evil spirit from a previous generation?

How, indeed. And how does Koontz keep coming up with all these intricate story lines over a period of 42 years?

It's a matter of record that he was raised under the thumb of an alcoholic and abusive father who, the author says wryly, "had 44 jobs in 34 years."

The hardships of Koontz's early life served as inspiration for some of the nastier characters he went on to create.

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