Reflections on Literature: Stephen King and Dean Koontz’s Views of Humanity
Different Viewpoints on Humanity and God from Two of Today’s Most Popular Horror Writers
I just finished Stephen King’s latest novel, Under the Dome. Unlike many of his previous novels, Under the Dome may be described as a suspense horror novel, not unlike the works of popular author Dean Koontz. Although I first read King, Koontz has rapidly become my favorite author in this genre, and I wondered why. After finishing Under the Dome, the answer to my question was clear: their world views are radically different. King’s view of humanity is pessimistic, viewing most humans as depraved animals capable of great cruelty and little redemption. Dean Koontz, on the other hand, flips this around, viewing humanity as capable of great cruelty but also great kindness, and very much capable of redemption. King’s novels have an undertone of atheism, while Koontz’s novels have a pervasive spirit of Christianity. While neither man has expressed strong religious viewpoints in his works, perhaps their beliefs are revealed through the tone of their works.
Atheism, Depravity, and Redemption
Spoiler alert: both this section and the section on Koontz’s book for comparison, below, contain plot points that may spoil the book for you. Be warned!
Stephen King’s novel, Under the Dome, examines what happens to a small town in Maine when a mysterious energy field called “the dome” suddenly appears. Although at first the residents believe it’s the fault of the U.S. Government, they quickly come to realize that the government is also clueless. Neither bullets nor missiles can break through the mysterious dome, and the protagonists — Barbie, a retired U.S. Army officer turned short order cook at the local diner, Julia the newspaper editor, Rusty the physician’s assistant and his family, and the usual King cast-of-thousands — quickly realize they’re in great danger. The danger is within in the form of Big Jim, a local politician who has been running a meth lab behind the evangelical church.
As the characters attempt to survive in the closed universe of the dome, we meet the local Methodist minister, Reverend Libby. Although Piper Libby isn’t a major character, she is major in that she is only one of two religious figures in the entire book. The other minister dies midway through the book and has been a major force in running the meth lab behind his church.
Piper prays to the ‘great nobody’. She’s lost her faith. Although she’s on her knees praying in the church when things start getting really bad, at the end of the novel she has completely lost her faith. The alien children who have caused the dome to descent are really God, the character concludes in despair; there is no God, just a random universe of cruelty.
None of the other characters pray. They swear, they rape, they murder with impunity. Although ghosts play a role (the ghost of a murder victim guides the newspaper owner’s Corgi to find papers she left behind that will incriminate the crooked politician), God’s kindness is nowhere to be found. Religion is portrayed as at best an empty sham in Reverend Libby’s case and at worst, a front for evil, as in the church that’s the front for the drug lab.
Evil is portrayed not as choice but as victimhood. A murderer murders not because he is evil or has chosen to embrace evil, but because he has a brain tumor skewing his sense of right and wrong.
At the end of the novel, only a handful of characters survive. The evilest character in the book dies of a heart attack in what was perhaps one of the biggest let downs of justice in recent popular literature; if there was any guy in modern fiction who deserved a comeuppance, it was Big Jim.
In King’s universe, if there is a God at all, he’s the old-fashioned Clockmaker of the Universe, winding up the clock and letting the pendulum tick tock away. People fear no divine retribution because no one, not even the local minister, really and truly believes in God. Jesus is nothing more than a comical icon on a bathroom wall in one scene. The love of God? No love here. Atheism prevails. When faced with crisis, the people in the book revert to their animal natures and cower in fear or turn into raging maniacs. Only a handful of people maintain their sanity and humanity and survive.
Good Triumphs Over Evil
Contrasting King’s novel with Dean Koontz’s novel From the Corner of His Eye may be a bit unfair. Both novels are suspense-horror-sci fi, with elements of each and plots that keep the reader turning the pages. Koontz’s cast is smaller and cozier, and we get to know and care about his characters a bit more than King simply because there are fewer to get to know. Out of the Corner of His Eye is not a grand, end of the world thriller but the story of Junior Cain, a very modern man who just happens to murder people, and Barty Lampion, his nemesis. It’s the story of how good triumphs over evil, and a story of how very real people, making very hard decisions, do good in a tired and disillusioned world.
The story follows several sets of characters, but the primary characters are Agnes Lampion and her son Barty. Agnes, widowed on the day Barty is born, also must deal with her son’s childhood eye cancer that leaves him without sight but with miraculous gifts. Agnes and Barty suffer greatly but never lose faith in love; their love for one another and for their community stands out.
The second set of characters that play a major role in the novel involve a young teenage girl who is raped by her physical therapist, the one and only Junior Cane. The girl dies in childbirth after hiding her pregnancy from her family. Her elder sister, although determined to give the infant up for adoption, ends up raising the young girl herself.
Through many plot twists and turns, the two very different families come together to stop Junior Cain from his spree of murders and rapes.
Koontz spares no wit skewering modern morals. Cain loves modern art and all things modern. The main characters show amazingly old-fashioned values. They wait to have sex before marriage. They marry for life. They choose life instead of abortion. Their choices are terribly difficult, but made because they believe in the ultimate truth. Theirs is not a relativist moralism but a moralism based on the notion that there is a supreme Right, One Truth. And because they believe there is a Right, there is also Wrong, as exemplified by Junior Cain.
Koontz isn’t overtly religious, and you won’t find direct mention of Christianity in his books. But his symbolism is superb. Look at one character’s name: Agnes Lampion. Saint Agnes in the Catholic Church was a Roman martyr who refused to marry a pagan; she is always portrayed holding a lamb. Have you ever heard the words “the lamb of God?” In Latin, the early language of the Christian church, this is translated as agnus dei — and look again at how closely the words “Agnes” and “agnus” are linked. Agnes’ last name is “Lampion” — a pun on lamp, perhaps, a guiding light for those around her. Agnes Lampion’s kindness and faith lead to her family’s eventual triumph over the evil exemplified by Junior Cain, whose very last name signifies the wickedness of the first murderer, Adam and Even’s son Cain who murdered his own brother, Abel.
Differing Views, Different Reading Experiences
Both King and Koontz are compelling writers whose words make us turn pages — and buy books! Yet King’s world view is highly pessimistic and bleak. His characters suffer without reason and die without redemption. There’s no sense of justice in his book, just the random whirling of the universe that kills some and spares others.
Koontz, on the other hand, takes pains to show us that while evil exists, good also exists — and that good triumphs over evil. In Koontz’s world, suffering is all too real. Teenagers are raped and die. Innocent wives are murdered. Children contract cancer and lose their eyesight. Yet Koontz weaves together the plot strands to demonstrate that some force of Good, whom perhaps we can call God, oversees us all, and when we do the right things, Right prevails.
Joyce Meyer, an evangelical preacher, once described what we can see as threads on the back of an Oriental carpet. She had a square of carpet in her hand and showed the mess on the back; colored threads zig-zagging this way and that with no rhyme or reason. She said, “This is what we see.” Then she flipped the carpet over to reveal the beautiful design now recognizable on the right face of the carpet. “This is what God sees. The big picture.”
In Dean Koontz’s world, there is a God or at least Good that sees the big picture and makes all right. In King’s world, life remains the messy, random carpet.
This essay first appeared on Hub Pages in a slightly modified form.