Family Secrets

updated 11/28/1994 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 11/28/1994 AT 01:00 AM EST

A HOUSEKEEPER HAS SUMMONED Dean Koontz to the phone in his 14-room Newport Beach, Calif., mansion, and the 49-year-old author is dashing up the staircase like a breathless teenager. "I've got to take this call," Koontz explains. "My wife has been in France for the last 12 days, and I'm desperate to speak to her." Ten minutes later he returns. "We've only been apart once before," explains Koontz, referring to Gerda, his wife of 28 years. "I'm going nuts!"

It is not his home life, then, that provides Koontz with the inspiration to keep cranking out plot after chilling plot, from Watchers and Lightning to last year's Mr. Murder. Koontz, one of the world's most successful authors of supernatural fiction, has written 59 novels, 30 of which are still in print in 37 languages, and he estimates he sells 15 to 16 million books a year. But the soft-spoken author, who rarely gives interviews, does admit he has plenty of dark experiences to draw on, having survived a terrifying childhood in which he was brutalized by an alcoholic father. "I've written so often about people who have a disability that is tied to their past," explains Koontz. "They were raised in a house where Dad was psychotic, where they had no control—and they had to endure. I've always been attracted to stories like that."

His ambitious new novel, Dark Rivers of the Heart (Knopf)—the first in an $18.9 million, three-book deal—certainly fits the pattern. While it offers the usual crowd-pleasing Koontz fare, such as a suspenseful chase and well-researched technical details, it also delves into the more ominous side of a relationship between a psychopathic father and his fugitive son.

Not surprisingly, the roots of his plot reach into his own past. Koontz grew up in Bedford, Pa., the only child of Florence Koontz, a salesclerk who died in 1969, and her husband, Ray, a salesman who rarely held a job more than a few months. "We were always on the edge of destitution, and my father was a violent drunk," says Koontz. "You have nowhere to go when you grow up in a household like that."

In spite of his father's history of brutality, Koontz supported him financially until the older man's death in 1990 from degenerative alcoholic syndrome. In his later life, says Koontz, "he had gone berserk," and twice he tried to kill his son. The first time was after an argument in Ray's apartment in 1987, when he chased his 42-year-old son with a yellow-handled fishing knife before Dean was able to wrest it from him. The second time was a year later, when Ray, then 78, was living in a retirement community. "This is what was weird," says Koontz. "He went out and bought an identical knife. But this time he had oiled it and turned it into a semiswitchblade." Witnesses called the police, and Ray Koontz was placed in a psychiatric ward until Dean had him moved to a private nursing home.

Koontz continued to visit his father, but the two never reconciled. "That's such a cinematic idea," Koontz says, "where music plays and the guy on his deathbed says the one thing you've been waiting to hear." So how, as his readers write to ask him, does he deal with his past? "So many people have the idea that you've got to learn to forgive," Koontz says. "I think you can go on hating, but you don't have to let it burden you."

Koontz owes much of his stability to his relationship with Gerda, 48. The couple met in high school, and on their first date Dean helped her serve refreshments at a school dance. "We laughed so much," remembers Gerda. "Dean always keeps people entertained." They married in 1966, after he graduated from Shippensburg State College in Pennsylvania. He spent a few years teaching before Gerda volunteered to support them both with her job in a credit bureau while Dean tried his hand at writing. Within four years Gerda found a new calling: managing the burgeoning Koontz empire. "I should never have quit working for someone else," jokes Gerda, whose office is next door to her husband's, "because now my hours are too long."

In 1975, the Koontzes—who have no children, explains Dean, because "by the time we could afford it, we were past the point of wanting them"—moved west. There they spend their riches on indulgences like the estimated $5 million Italian Renaissance house they are building in the Laguna-Newport area, and on book collecting—Koontz has some 50,000 volumes. Mostly, though, his own 70-hour workweek, and its tangible results, are what keep Koontz a few steps ahead of his demons. The walls of his upstairs office are lined with thousands of Koontz originals: one copy of each novel in each language in which it has been published. "Whenever I get depressed," the author says cheerfully, "I stand close to these."

ELIZABETH GLEICK
F.X. FEENEY in Newport Beach

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