For almost two decades now, bestselling novelist Dean Koontz has been elevating the suspense genre through implicit evangelization. As Tolkien wrote in “On Fairy-Stories,” artists who know their work to be a sub-creation have a chance to use their skill to add leaves to the vine that is creation itself. Koontz transfigures general entertainment into what Paul Elie has called “pilgrimage” literature: riveting stories that teach us the truth about ourselves, our neighbors, the divine, and the relationships thereof.
Enter Koontz’s fantastic new thriller, The Forbidden Door.
Koontz’s fourth novel featuring rogue FBI agent Jane Hawk, the book is in many ways the most developed of the series. Some background: Hawk has discovered an occult nanotech program being implemented by some of the nation’s highest leaders. If successful, the initiative will turn many people into soulless automatons and force them to commit suicide, as it did with Hawk’s husband. The program thus concentrates wealth and power into a very few, select hands. Hawk takes it upon herself to uncover and destroy the operation, and along the way she must defend her young son, who has been targeted by the program’s operators.
Hawk’s debut in The Silent Corner was explosive: She was a high-powered, gun-slinging protagonist in line with the Mitch Rapps and Scot Harvaths of our time, and she was an analytical thinker with a heart of gold similar to other Koontz heroes such as Odd Thomas. The narrative got dark — Cormac McCarthy apocalyptic dark — in the sequel, The Whispering Room. And the third entry, The Crooked Staircase, found Hawk resisting a comparison of herself to Joan of Arc prompted by an admirer, as Koontz put her through a gauntlet of high-tech menace that pushed her perseverance to heroic levels.
To take a wider view, Koontz is presenting in the series a large-scale defense of the ability to choose meaning and virtue. One of his recurring characters is an anxiety-prone latter-day Puritan, while another is an intellectually and physically domineering hulk straight out of a Max Weber tract. Koontz fairly and logically shows the necessary consequences of these characters’ thoughts and actions by creating storylines of such accessibility that the general reader can see how their ideologies contradict any coherent notion of the good life. The modern Puritan, for instance, moves nervously from scene to scene, constantly seeking perfection and never finding it, unjustly critiquing others while placating his own ego. The ideologies Koontz critiques inevitably lead to disaster — not just for the characters, but for the societies built on such chimeras.
Hawk, on the other hand, embraces the natural religion to which Koontz’s wide fan base responds with awe. She finds solace in the wonder of creation while calling out evil for its supernatural maliciousness, ever uniting reason with hope against secular hedonism. Koontz does “diversity” the right way, too: He features an autistic character in this series who is a compelling hero because he faces down his particular suffering by accepting grace. And as Flannery O’Connor and Léon Bloy before her have shockingly reminded us, the reception of grace usually hurts — badly.
Speaking of the reception of grace, I am going to prognosticate: There is one mesmerizing scene in The Forbidden Door, an explicitly Catholic one, that many readers may wildly misinterpret.
First, to put the scene in context: For much of the novel, Hawk must figure out how to extract her son from heavily guarded enemy territory. Constantly on the run and threatened at every turn, she must sometimes make use of not-so-honest middlemen. Koontz wisely portrays Hawk as being of two minds in these cases, such as when she somewhat reluctantly purchases an untraceable handgun from an illegal-arms dealer.
For all his criminal pedigree, the fence is a daily Mass-goer and has an obsession with devotion to the Sacred Heart of Christ — so much so that “four disturbing four-foot-square paintings” depicting the Sacred Heart cover a wall of his office. “Disturbing” is from Jane’s point of view; Koontz is methodically precise about controlling scenes from a specific character’s vantage.
Faced with the “over-the-top details and lavish gore” of the devotion, Hawk trains her thoughts on her FBI experience. If this dealer “thought that being devout was adequate penance that allowed him to profit from the illegal sale of weapons, he might believe it also justified worse crimes. Like rape and murder.”
Many readers are bound to see a critique in this scene of the Catholic Church’s current abuse scandal. For Koontz has struck, so to speak, the heart of the matter: How do we judge the sincerity of those who profess belief, especially in the face of their having committed obvious crimes?
The encounter’s strangeness is amplified as the dealer, ostensibly genuine in his faith, compares Hawk to St. Joan of Arc — a lone warrior standing for truth against unthinkable odds — and asks for her blessing. Back in The Crooked Staircase, Hawk thoughtfully put aside a comparison of herself to the saint, but here she overreacts: She rejects any likeness to the Maid of Orleans with surprising vehemence. Koontz means to emphasize her humility, but readers may suspect that Hawk doth protest too much. After all, the all-too-human first response to grace is resistance.
Hawk’s next move shows a surprising yet welcome amount of coherent and rational self-examination from a protagonist in a thriller: She mentally walks through an examination of conscience as to whether she should fake the blessing to get the weapon she needs. A woman who recognizes, among other metaphysical truths, the transcendent beauty of nature, Hawk rejects the possibility for reasons she doesn’t fully understand. Her decision here harkens to the great American literary tradition à la Twain of providentially doing the right thing even when it seems wrong.
Hawk is able to intuit what the gunrunner values: “the blood of sacrifice, the concept of redemption through suffering.” Given her mission and what fulfilling it has cost her and her family, “to some extent . . . with both feet in the mud of life,” she understands that.
Koontz brings the scene to a climax as Hawk picks up a sculpture of the crown of thorns on the dealer’s desk and grasps it firmly enough to draw blood. Readers familiar with Byzantine iconography will smile in appreciation at how precisely Koontz describes the wounds in Jane’s fingers and palm. Unwittingly, she becomes an icon of salvation, unbeknownst to her.
Some of Koontz’s very wide readership will take this scene as a commentary on the abuse scandals in the Catholic Church. And why shouldn’t they? From Bernanos and Mauriac to Waugh and Spark, great Catholic writers have never shied away from illuminating what ecclesial practices need a good old-fashioned dose of purgation. Koontz, who is, for the record, an orthodox Catholic, seems to impart a pellucid message: Rather than participate in the false piety of criminals, we ought to embrace the call of redemptive suffering in our particular circumstances.
But, as I stated before, that would be a misinterpretation.
First, Koontz wrote the scene long before the news about Theodore McCarrick broke this summer. Even the uncorrected proofs were out before then. Call Koontz prophetic if you like, but it cannot have been his intention to have this scene, or this book, comment on the current crisis. That it could be read to is accidental or providential . . . or both.
Second, the gunrunner shows up again at the end of the novel. In one of Hawk’s most dispirited moments, he offers her “a hand to hold.” Hawk “thought the moment would be creepy . . . but it was instead surprisingly tender.” The consolation she receives from him helps her move on in relative peace. Readers cannot but think that perhaps this illegal arms dealer may be a good man after all, whose actions are justified — and theologically observant readers will catch Koontz’s playing with the different senses in which a person can be said to be “justified.”
What we are dealing with in Koontz, then, is a wildly successful writer who has suffused his art with God’s grandeur. Though we may be doubting the vocations of many clergy in the Church these days, the calling of the artist is secure — and it may very well be the conduit of skillful aesthetic expression that leads many back to the faith.