The Cheery Titan Of Terror

It came as no surprise to booksellers when Dean R. Koontz's newest novel leapt to the top spot on the best-seller charts last month. Following in the creepy footsteps of "Midnight" and "The Bad Place," Cold Fire (382 pages. Putnam. $22.95) was almost doomed to succeed. After all, more than 60 million copies of Koontz's 55 books have been sold. At 45, he is undoubtedly the least-known best-selling author in America.

Professors may not rush to add Koontz to their syllabi, but for his ardent fans, his page-turning blend of psychological terror, science fiction, humor and romance is irresistible. And "Cold Fire" doesn't disappoint; it tempts a reader to pull an all-nighter ... with the lights on and the doors locked. As with Koontz's other novels, it revolves around seemingly ordinary people caught in extraordinary circumstances. Without knowing why, schoolteacher Jim Ironheart repeatedly takes off on Superman-like lifesaving trips around the world. After reporter Holly Thorne witnesses a rescue, she tracks him down. She thinks Ironheart is psychic (how else could he know in advance which innocent people to save?); he thinks God is working through him. After a harrowing visit to Ironheart's childhood town, they uncover the secret of his powers.

Despite frequent comparisons, Koontz is no Stephen King--and he doesn't try to be. "He pretty much embraces the horror label, and I don't," says Koontz. Certainly Koontz's books are filled with dark forces and death. But unlike King, he is bullish on life; his novels invariably close with happily-ever-after endings.

Koontz bristles at suggestions that his books follow a formula--but they do, and it's a successful one. In fact, his books loosely mirror the ingredients that have shaped his own life: tragedy, nightmares and romance. He grew up terrified of his violent, alcoholic father and learned to work out his nightmares on the typewriter. (By the age of 8, he was already hawking his stories to relatives.) Similarly, Koontz's characters experience and overcome horrors beyond their control. And like Koontz, his characters are "happy in love," as he puts it. He has been married to his high-school sweetheart, Gerda, for 24 years.

He got his first break at 20, when he won an Atlantic Monthly fiction contest for a story about a farm girl whose father drowns her kittens--and then tells her that God killed them. Often under pen names, Koontz spent years churning out suspense books in relative obscurity. But with the 1986 "Strangers," his first hardcover success, he dropped the use of his eight pseudonyms. Now, under his own name, he is reissuing his best books, one of which was made into the 1977 movie "Demon Seed," about a woman impregnated by a power-hungry supercomputer. Of all his work, his favorite is "Watchers" (1987), in which a U.S. government experiment to create dogs with human brains backfires.

Slender and cheery, Koontz hardly seems a titan of terror, and his new, white-carpeted, light-filled southern California home is hardly a horrordome. The only visible sign of obsession is Koontz's vast book collection: despite a recent pruning, 25,000 volumes still line his shelves. When he's not immersed in those books, he's holing up for 10-hour writing stretches. The long sessions give him "greater empathy for my characters," he says. Consumed with the psychotic killer in "Whispers" (1980), he lost 20 pounds while feverishly writing almost nonstop. For their 20th anniversary, he and Gerda took their first vacation in a decade. Their cruise hit a hurricane. Says Koontz: "It was like God saying, 'You think you need a vacation?'"