Dean Koontz published Dark Rivers of the Heart, his 25th novel, in the fall of 1994. By that time, Koontz was already a major name in the world of bestsellers. There were already more than one hundred fifty million copies of his books in print, produced in many languages and media forms, including major motion pictures, made-for-TV movies, and books on tape. Koontz was a household name, commonly referred to as "The Master of Suspense." Dark Rivers of the Heart was a bestseller, but it never rose above the number 7 spot on the New York Times' list. Advertisements did not boast its sales figures, but rather promoted it as another Koontz thriller. Critics reacted similarly, both praising and criticizing it but always speaking of it in reference to Koontz's prolific career. The book's popularity was apparently due to its author's fame, not to any merit of its own. People bought it because it was promoted as the newest Dean Koontz novel but it was not noticeably well received.
Bestsellers are sold for mass markets, and Dark Rivers of the Heart, like most Koontz novels, was certainly published with that sort of audience in mind. Koontz's books are rarely popular in hardcover, but instead sell with flashy covers and intriguing titles. The books fit easily into supermarket shelves, their covers are often bright and glossy, and they are praised for their popularity and not their literary value. There are no introductions to Koontz's books, nor are there many scholarly critiques. In the 1990s books come cheap. Koontz and his contemporaries like Danielle Steele, Mary Higgins Clark, Tom Clancy, and John Grisham seem to have found the key to writing bestsellers. They have a basic formula, and they plug different names and details into each of their many novels. Although the public loves this method, critics do not consider these books to be good works of literature. There is a definite sense of "if you've seen one, you've seen 'em all." But with the rise of the popularity of The Oprah Book Club, two sorts of bestsellers arose. Books like Dark Rivers of the Heart fall into one category. They all look very alike; in fact, upon glancing at the shelf they are often nearly indistinguishable. The second category of bestsellers includes those in Oprah's book club, and these novels look very different. They often have muted, grainy covers decorated with artwork or photographs, and many have pages cut at different lengths. This new style of bestseller covers denotes a sort of seriousness; this kind of cover indicates that the novel within is a "real" work of literature. The Dark Rivers of the Heart cover (Ballantine Books edition) is very simple; it has a black and red background with sharply contrasting, embossed white and red lettering. The author's name is larger than the actual title, and the entire back cover consists of his picture. The inside of the front cover has pictures of Koontz's two upcoming novels and following that are five pages of praise for the Dark Rivers of the Heart. This clearly demonstrates the attitude of both the public and the publisher toward the book. Both feel that Dark Rivers of the Heart is just another Koontz thriller that does not necessarily stand on its own.
Despite this attitude, one major reason for the book's popularity is that it is highly entertaining. Most reviews praise it for this reason. Koontz's novels define the term "page-turners", and Dark Rivers of the Heart reads very quickly through an intriguing plot. He ends each chapter with an enticing line and the chapters jump back and forth between several subplots. There are endless twists, turns, and surprises, and each one is more horrific than the reader would expect. The main character's father, for example, turns out to be a psychopath who murdered over forty women and kept them in catacombs beneath his barn. The other main character, the woman, had earlier married the son of the head of the evil, clandestine government agency. She watches as her family is murdered and manages to escape only to lead a life of being constantly pursued by the agency. Koontz does not hesitate to exaggerate his plot, but it is all exciting and enthralling. It is a classic "beach read;" a book for people who don't want to think but want to be entertained. Even the cover suggests this; the author's name is huge but the title seems insignificant. People will pick up the book because they know what to expect from Dean Koontz, and they know they will always be entertained.
The events of the 1990s shaped the public's response to the novel. The nineties have been the called the "information age" and Koontz's book is a technological thriller. At some points in the novel there are page-long description of advanced, unusual technology. In Dark Rivers of the Heart, the two heroes, a man and a woman, are chased by a secretive, malicious branch of the government. They cannot hide, for the government can track them through satellites or highly advanced heat sensors. This plays on an encroaching fear to many Americans. When this book was published, people were beginning to become wary of the potential of technology's power. The Internet was just becoming common, and the average American became aware of computers' domination in their lives. Koontz expanded upon these fears and wrote a story in which technology is exploited for evil purposes. Also, the question of genetics was on the forefront of scientific thought. The evil character, Roy Miro, murders people in hopes of attaining a perfect society. He envisions a world in which everyone looks the same, no one is too intelligent or too dumb, and everyone is content. His quest for perfection echoes the notions of cloning and genetically engineered life forms. In the 1990s, the average American was bombarded by science and technology, and fears and reservations were inevitable. People were drawn to this book because it was a horror version of what they saw in their daily lives.
At times Koontz's authorial voice comes through, and at points he seems slightly paranoid. The book deals with a malevolent, unknown branch of the government that manipulates FBI and CIA standards to accomplish its goals. The reader never really understands the agency's purpose, but this mysterious entity is constantly doing evil things. One character, Harris Descoteaux, aggravates the leader of the organization, Ray Miro, and for no other reason he is framed as a drug dealer and loses all his material possessions and even his identity. When a lawyer attempts to help him gain his life back, Harris finds that the government can basically erase a person's identity for no good reason. It is possible that Koontz is actually very paranoid and is criticizing the government and its justice system, but it is also possible that he is feeding on other peoples' fears. The X-Files was one of the most popular shows on television when Dark Rivers of the Heart was published, and the two are definitely very similar. In the 1990s politicians were vague, the media was sensationalized, and people were engaged in the mystery of their government. Events like the Rodney King riots and the O.J. Simpson trial elevated this general mistrust of authority. Americans in the nineties were and are a cynical group, and Koontz fed on their skepticism of the government as he did their fears of technology.
Reviewers tended to have mixed feelings on Koontz's attempts toward a more "high literature" style of writing. Some felt his "swollen thrillers" were "overwritten in a different, less enjoyable way than Stephen King's extravagant colloquial gush or Anne Rice's feverish Gothic mythscapes" (Matt Roush, USA Today). Others consider him a very good writer with "clean, clear exposition, colorful description, precise narration, and realistic dialogue" (The Denver Post). Koontz definitely attempts a lofty narrative style; for example he describes the launching of stun grenades as having "a synchronization that would have been envied by the most demanding symphony-orchestra conductor" (p.339). Describing a house, he says, "Without hyperbole, the structure could be said to brood high upon its hillside, as if it were a living creature. In the late-afternoon shadows of the steep slopes that rose behind the prison, its windows were filled with a sour-yellow light that might have been reflected through connecting corridors from the dungeons of some mountain demon who lived deeper in the Rockies" (p.450). Koontz is fond of metaphors, similes, and imaginative descriptions. Some reviewers suggested that he is too good of a writer to be harping on thriller and horror themes. Considering his style of writing and his choice of subjects, one might guess that he is actually a very gifted writer who sticks with a popular genre for the sake of producing bestsellers. Bestsellers bring cash, whereas the more highbrow literature is often ignored or under-appreciated. Still, his writing is more elegant than that of the average dime store fiction writer, and he himself has never mentioned why he sticks with the more traditional bestseller style. Some find it annoying within the context of a thriller novel, and some find it promising. Regardless it is an interesting conflict, and it leaves many wondering whether he will continue to write within this same genre.
Koontz's persona may also have had some affect on his books' popularity. His picture graces the entire back of many editions of many books, and most are black and white photographs. His appearance is often mysterious and even dangerous or sinister. He typifies what one would expect from a horror writer: dark, cold eyes, a mustache, a mysterious smile. Although interviews in magazines or journals were hard to come by, there have been several books written either about his life or autobiographically that give us perspective on his character. He was not reluctant to divulge his past life, including dark family details. As described in assignment 3, much of Koontz's life, especially his childhood, was marked by hardship. However his books claim only that "Dean Koontz lives in Southern California" or "Dean Koontz, the author of many bestsellers, lives with his wife, Gerda, in California." Despite the brevity of authorial information on the paperbacks, further and more intriguing information is readily available. Just like in Koontz's writing, the story of his life unfolds as one progresses further.
The success of Dark Rivers of the Heart should not be entirely attributed to its author's name. It was an interesting, fast-paced, entertaining novel. Of course, not every one of Koontz's books has risen to the bestseller list, so this one was special in some way. A lot of it had to do simply with the plot and the characters. A lot had to do with its relevance to the period in which it was published. Yet this book was not overwhelmingly popular or well received. There almost seems to be a sense that one can disregard this book, for undoubtedly Koontz will write another just like it later. The reviews were mixed, and the fact that stayed on the bestseller list for nine weeks without ever rising above the number seven spot suggests ambivalence from the readers. As a thriller, the novel succeeded. As a Dean Koontz book, it was just one of many; fans of the author bought and enjoyed it but not necessarily any more than any other of his books.