A guest post by Mike Whitacre.
First thing’s first: I want to thank Len for inviting me to guest post at his blog. It’s an honor and a privilege, and I hope to share more online blog interactions in the future.
Now, I’m going to admit something right away: I don’t really have an all time favorite book. I don’t know if writers really do have one favorite book, I just know that I have several that meet the top of my Golden Standard, which is immensely lower than the actual Golden Standard, and horribly lower than a perfectionist’s standard. But, since this blog post is suppose to be about one author (which isn’t a hard choice) and one book (which is a hard choice), I have choose a book based on the standard that has driven me, guides me, and is practically the wind of my sails.
The book that meets this standard is, hands down, the novel One Door Away From Heaven, by Dean Koontz. For those that think Koontz is an author who writes mainly Horror, you are dead wrong. Describing him in the terms of that particular genre, even when it comes to certain novels that can be considered Horror stories, barely scratches the surface of what this author does. One Door Away From Heaven is one of the novels which Koontz juggles multiple genres at one time.
Since I’m horrible at summarizing anything, here’s the best description of the book, taken from its Amazon.com page:
In a dusty trailer park on the far edge of the California dream, Michelina Bellsong contemplates the choices she has made. At twenty-eight, she wants to change the direction of her troubled life but can’t find her way—until a new family settles into the rental trailer next door and she meets the young girl who will lead her on a remarkable quest that will change Micky herself and everything she knows—or thinks she knows—forever.
Despite the brace she must wear on her deformed left leg, and her withered left hand, nine-year-old Leilani Klonk radiates a buoyant and indomitable spirit that inspires Micky. Beneath Leilani’s effervescence, however, Micky comes to sense a quiet desperation that the girl dares not express.
Leilani’s mother is little more than a child herself. And the girl’s stepfather, Preston Maddoc, is educated but threatening. He has moved the family from place to place as he fanatically investigates UFO sightings, striving to make contact, claiming to have had a vision that by Leilani’s tenth birthday aliens will either heal her or take her away to a better life on their world.
Slowly, ever more troubling details emerge in Leilani’s conversations with Micky. Most chilling is Micky’s discovery that Leilani had an older brother, also disabled, who vanished after Maddoc took him into the woods one night and is now “gone to the stars.”
Leilani’s tenth birthday is approaching. Micky is convinced the girl will be dead by that day. While the child-protection bureaucracy gives Micky the runaround, the Maddoc family slips away into the night. Micky sets out across America to track and find them, alone and afraid but for the first time living for something bigger than herself.
She finds herself pitted against an adversary, Preston Maddoc, as fearsome as he is cunning. The passion and disregard for danger with which Micky pursues her quest bring to her side a burned-out detective who joins her on a journey of incredible peril and startling discoveries, a journey through terrible darkness to unexpected light.
Yes, that’s kind of big for a summarization of the story, but it’s one of those novels that cover a wide spectrum of intriguing complexity. At it’s core, One Door Away From Heaven is an American Adventure novel. Even though it’s been years since I read the book, it has left a lasting imprint in me as every moment was pang of joy, sadness, laughter, amazement, and other emotions. I remember, as I was reading the book, how I was almost expecting to see a character from John Steinbeck’s Travels With Charlie, which is one of my favorite non-fictional pieces.
As much as I would love to talk about all of the moments that were particularly memorable to me, I don’t want to give them away because some moments are so over the top that not only seem possible but hilariously true. All I can say is this is a book that needs to be read.
Okay, so here’s the part where I get mostly general and completely personal because, at least to me, storytelling is an immensely personal experience. For example, think about the first thing that pops into our head when we’re reading or listening to a story and the storyteller mentions a house: No matter how well the details are made, even if the writer uses exact dimensions to make that house specific, I always think of places I’ve lived. Let me clear, though, I do not support the idea that art, as well as comedy, is a giant mirror that reflects off of society. Ray Bradbury put it eloquently: “I don’t try to describe the future. I try to prevent it.” We’re creators, not reflectors. What really reflects society, and brings for a nasty impression upon a number of individuals, is the news, the politics, and the education. At best, these things are necessary evils; and at worst, these three things unnecessary restrictions.
This relates to the novel in more ways than one. Almost at the very beginning, Koontz counters a culture that thrives on the importance of news, politics, and education with family, friendship, values, morals, and spirituality, not to be confused with spiritualism. It’s very clear the author is disgusted with deep thinking, and finds it a bore compared to what is considered mundane by high-minded intellectuals. In this, as well as other Koontz novels, it’s the average, at times middle-class, individual who has better ideas than someone who spent his or her entire life in academia, thinking up numerous ways to make the world work the way they think it should work.
If you gave me a choice between just watching all of the Hollywood movies and TV shows, versus just reading One Door Away From Heaven, I would choose One Door Away From Heaven. The reason for this may be striking: It’s the villain, Preston Maddoc (Leilani’s step-father), and the character Leilani Klonk. Preston is the kind of villain you’d rarely see in a Hollywood movie or television show, unless that villain was an evil scientist. He’s well-educated, a deep thinker, Utilitarian1., Evil, wrong, and an homicidal maniac who’s obsessed with aliens. Leilani, on the other hand, represents innocence, even if her personality is anything but that. She’s quick witted, complex, and tough skinned, but she is ultimately trapped by her circumstances, which she refuses to define her. There’s only a handful of movies I can think of that treat innocence as something sacred, and even strong. The movie Lovely Bones (Directed by Peter Jackson) is the closest that comes to my mind.
Weirdly enough, I’m actually glad a Dean Koontz book hasn’t been adapted successfully to a movie, as Stephen King’s work has. If it weren’t for horrible hacks making bad films of his work, he wouldn’t have very funny anecdotes he places in several Afterwards of the paperback versions of his novels.
Aside from all that, let me get to the meat of the dish that is One Door Away From Heaven: how it inspires and guides me as an author. Breaking myself down, if Raymond Chandler’s work guides most of my writing style and pace, then Dean Koontz guides my characters and form. I once skimmed a writing tip that said that there shouldn’t be more than two or three characters an writer should focus on. Koontz crumbles that tip, throws into a trash can, and burns it, and then he adds a dash of gasoline by making it all seamless. And his form, though his settings are mostly in modern times, utilizes traditional storytelling in such a way that I almost feel like I’m listening to someone tell it to me while they sit by a fire.
In conclusion, One Door Away From Heaven is a highly entertaining novel the grabbed me in so many ways. Though I’m a huge fan of Dean Koontz work, he can stretch his endings a bit far; however, if I remember correctly, the ending of this novel fit comfortably like a quality, pinstriped suit jacket. Overall, there is always something to learn from any one of his novels, even if I haven’t yet read them all. But let me end this wordy blog post by saying of all Dean Koontz’s books, One Door Away From Heaven probably taught me more about being a writer, and maybe even a life-loving human being, than most of his novels.
Written by Mike Whitacre, 2001.
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1. One Door Away From Heaven, by Dean Koontz, “Author’s Note”:
Utilitarian bioethics as portrayed in One Door Away from Heaven is unfortunately not a
figment of my imagination, but a real threat to you and everyone you love. This philosophy
embodies the antihuman essence of fascism, expresses the contempt for individual freedom and
fro the disabled and the frail that has in the past marked every form of totalitarianism. One day
our great universities will be required to redeem themselves from the shame of having honored
and promulgated ethicists who would excuse and facilitate the killing of the disabled, the weak,
and the elderly.
Serendipitously, as I was finishing this novel, Encounter Books published a nonfiction work
offering the best survey of utilitarian bioethics written for a general audience that I have yet
seen. If, for your own protection and for the sake of those you love, you want to know more
about the subject than I’ve covered herein, I highly recommend Culture of Death: The Assault
on Medical Ethics in America by Wesley J. Smith. You will find it more hair-raising than any
novel you’ve ever read.