When it comes to household names in literary horror, the list pretty much begins and ends with Stephen King. This is a shame for so many reasons, but one of the biggest is that it gives short shrift to Dean Koontz, a King contemporary who is just as dizzyingly prolific. Since he began his career in 1968, Koontz has authored over 100 novels and novellas, some under an array of pseudonyms.
For anyone interested in exploring horror books, Koontz is an excellent stepping-stone away from King, but it’s hard to know where to start, especially because none of his works have such easily identifiable titles as THE SHINING or CARRIE. Well, I’m here to help. Please, step into my office. You can use this list of Koontz’s top 10 novels as a guidepost for your journey. Grab your reading glasses and a warm blanket, because these titles are sure to send a chill down your spine!
ODD THOMAS (2003)
The most current novel on this list, ODD THOMAS is, appropriately, an odd one, but one of Koontz’s best blends of comedy and horror. The tale of a kooky young man who sees dead people has since been adapted into a film starring none other than Anton Yelchin.
So here we go, straight from the newest book to one of the oldest in the lineup. Although he’s been writing since the 60’s, Koontz didn’t come into his own as a true blue novelist until the mid-70’s, so WHISPERS hadn’t yet been sanded of its splinters. It’s a shabby, brutal little shocker about a woman being attacked by a killer she thought was already dead, that feels like a grindhouse flick transposed onto the page. Fun fact: Alfred Hitchcock wanted to develop WHISPERS into a film, but passed away before it could happen. It eventually got a not-so high-profile adaptation starring Chris Sarandon in 1990.
DRAGON TEARS (1993)
Now, this is a weird one. It combines Koontz’s love of soppy sentimentalism (there’s nothing he adores more than writing about couples finding love amidst tragedy and golden retrievers, something that certainly separates him from Stephen King) with the existential chaos of the mid-’90s. This paranormal tale of two cops told they only have 16 hours to live plays like a bonkers ’80s horror movie where literally anything can happen.
THE BAD PLACE (1990)
Every time Frank Pollard goes to sleep, he wakes up covered in evidence of mysterious nighttime travels he can’t remember. THE BAD PLACE starts off as an eerie mystery and descends into a series of grotesque twists and turns that will keep your eyes glued to the page. This one also almost got a film adaptation, from DREAM WARRIORS and THE BLOB’s Chuck Russell. The rather complex spiritual nature of the book prevented it from becoming a viable screenplay, something that would dog Koontz throughout his career.
Four different stories begin one night in Moonlight Cove, as the town is besieged with a rash of gruesome, possibly supernatural killings. MIDNIGHT is another spooky mystery, about small town citizens being used as pawns in a wicked game of life and death. Koontz has really hit his stride by this point, spinning tales with terrifying, ruthless circumstances yet still instilling in the reader an unshakeable sense of hope.
Probably Koontz’s most high-profile novel (it was adapted into a four-part, almost entirely unrelated film franchise that featured weirdly memorable stars like Corey Haim, Wings Hauser, Mark Hamill, and Lisa Wilcox), WATCHERS features a clash between two genetically enhanced dogs that is much more captivating and visceral than you’d think. It’s an electric thrill ride through the dusty underbrush of Southern California.
FALSE MEMORY (1999)
This is probably the Koontz book I’ve read the most, and for good reason. All of the themes he’s developed over the years reach full throttle in FALSE MEMORY, in which a strong central couple fight back against a seemingly invisible, all-powerful villain. Also it takes place in Southern California and there’s a dog. It’s the little things, you know? This time, the battleground is the characters’ own minds. When Martie Rhodes is suddenly stricken with autophobia (an extreme fear of her own capacity to cause harm), she must claw through her clouded, adrenaline-soaked judgment to save her husband and her friends from a menace she’s not even sure exists. It’s a terrifying story about grappling with personal demons that will strike fear into the heart of any reader who has one.
NIGHT CHILLS (1976)
And here we reach the oldest novel on the list, perhaps the first where Koontz found the distinct writerly voice he’s been using for decades now. The small New England town of Black Water (you know it’s an early work because it doesn’t take place on the West Coast) has been pierced by subliminal messaging that makes the population putty in the hands of an evil conspiracy. This is Koontz’s most powerful treatise against the wicked potential of bureaucracy and the idle upper class.
LIGHTNING is everything you could want in a thriller novel. A high-stakes mystery that actually gets even better when sci-fi elements are introduced, LIGHTNING is also a love story populated with the most well-etched, sympathetic characters that Koontz has ever written. It’s a dazzling adventure through the events of one unlucky woman’s life as it unfolds under the protection of a shadowy guardian angel, as she’s on her way to becoming a Sarah Conner-esque badass. It hardly gets better than this.
Now, don’t laugh. You’ve probably seen the 1998 film adaptation of this novel, which is not so great (though Ben Affleck is the bomb). But the film stripped every shred of nuance from the source material, which explores the fraught relationship between two sisters as they arrive at a secluded mountain town where the entire population has vanished. Koontz has always been skilled at blending genres, but PHANTOMS glides through locked room mystery, paranormal siege thriller, theological treatise, speculative historical fiction, and sci-fi action romp without skipping a beat. Koontz has the keenest ability to conjure a fully fleshed character from thin air in just a single chapter, then strip that flesh from their very bones before your eyes. It’s fearless, it’s bonkers, and it’s almost inhumanly violent. If that’s not a solid recommendation, I don’t know what is.