Sunday, January 2, 2011

Dean Koontz's Novel Review

Faithful Dean Koontz's Unfaithful Funhouse

a review of The Funhouse by Dean Koontz

for The Funhouse Blog

The Funhouse novel, which was written by Dean Koontz, was originally published under the pseudonym Owen West. In the afterword of the edition he put his name on, Koontz notes his monetary concerns and the 18-20% interest rates of 1980 as key motivations for taking the job, and this certainly explains the use of pseudonym. By comparison, the perennial Mozart-to-his-Salieri Stephen King only began publishing under the pseudonym Richard Bachman only to find out if people might buy something without his proven name brand. Before breaking the big time, Koontz used a variety of other pseudonyms as a writer of porno novels and that was after conversion to Catholicism.

Koontz's The Funhouse is very much about his love of God and corollary condemnation of teenage promiscuity. The Barker is a Satanist, Amy is pregnant, and internal moral monologues stem from there. If he'd incorporated Larry Block's thorough allegorical masterstroke of the carnival's funhouse as metaphor of horror escapism and teen rebellion, the novel would speak to fans of Tobe Hooper's film in Koontz's voice. Unfortunately the fact The Barker and his son The Monster (whom I'll henceforth refer to by their novel names, Conrad and Gunther Straker) are proprietors of a funhouse carnival is entirely incidental to their fatal destinies with Amy.

From the afterword:

(italics his)

"The script was good as a screenplay but offered enough material for no more than 10% or 20% of a novel. This is not unusual. Movies are shallow compared to novels, shadows of stories when compared to real stories. I had to build up the characters, create backstories for all of them, and develop a plot that built toward the events on the carnival midway in the latter chapters, which were the scenes with which the movie was almost solely concerned. I didn't start to use the screenplay until I had written four-fifths of the book."

This is no exaggeration. Block's elegantly simple story was an impediment to Koontz's literary standards even as a pseudonymous pen for hire, and the first recognizable scene from the film doesn't happen until the final chapters.

Koontz then explains how his book was released before the film, which is definitely corroborated by Hooper's well known history of going over schedule throughout this era of his career. Subsequent to Koontz's more well known name being added to later editions, confusion reigns to this day as to which came first. His introduction goes on to claim that sales of the book plummeted after the release of the movie:

"Let's just say that Mr. Hooper had not realized the potential of the material to the extent that the studio, probably Mr. Block, or Hooper himself would have hoped. Instead of serving as an advertisement for the book, the film acted as a curse upon it."

This complaint is akin to if Kubrick had claimed later in life that Stephen King hadn't realized the full potential of The Shining. That would actually be true, but making a public declaration is just plain rude. Before they'd even met, Larry Block wrote The Funhouse with the hope of Hooper directing and studious fans will notice he included virtually all of the Hooper trademarks - the two most crucial being dysfunctional families and a story revolving around one fateful night that spirals into craziness. In Koontz's mind, the latter had to go and that changes everything.

Creating an elaborate backstory to tie Amy and Conrad's fates together by more than unlucky circumstances, Koontz to his credit opens the novel with a very scary scene: Amy's mother Ellen is married to Conrad and has given birth to his monstrous deformed son. She wants to smother it in the cradle but her strict Catholic upbringing and basic human decency are at war with her genuine terror of this demonic creature - if there's one thing Koontz and Block have in common it's a vintage Victorian era fear of the physically deformed as inhuman ghouls. When she starts to go through with it, the baby attacks her right back with clawed fingers a la Larry Cohen's It's Alive. When she gets the upper hand and finally kills it, I realized this wouldn't be the same freak who grows up to play Frankenstein. Conrad comes home, flies into a rage, tells Ellen to get out and that someday he'll get her kids. Ellen leaves the carny life for good and returns to Christ's arms but also the bottle. Who'd have thought there was a good reason for Amy's mom being such a lush?

The Funhouse is now about The Barker and his son The Monster being all tied together by severed family ties and wanting revenge on Amy and Joey. The terrible wonderful irony of Block's story for The Funhouse is that Amy and friends having chosen of their own free will to stay in the funhouse overnight. In this version more than half the book is The Barker planning his lifelong perfect revenge while Amy and Joey and Mom give dysfunctional exposition on why. The Monster does kill a couple random people along the way as the screenplay alludes to in the scenes with The Barker, but if anything Koontz's version of The Barker is downright pleased with his son's murderous anger for future usefulness upon his ex-wife's kids.

As you may guess, I don't think Koontz gives Block nearly enough credit, but this theme of contrast between a normal suburban family units and carny folk was always a part of the story. Koontz made it literal in a way that diminishes the original story's strength, which is a kind of terror of happenstance. The Barker and his son had killed before and what they were doing to Amy and friends wasn't personal, much the way Sally and her friends in Texas Chainsaw Massacre were just so much meat as far as that family was concerned. Koontz was correct in his writer's assertion that you needed more than coincidence to flesh out a novel, but considering how he rushes through their entrapment and death at the end I think it's also safe to say he just wasn't into the funhouse concept of The Funhouse to begin with. His story of revenge could've played out anywhere, ultimately.

One major character change from the film in relation to Koontz's vision of the story is to make our virginal Amy preggers! Not even from Buzz, just some pimple faced prom date. Her parents don't know yet, and Koontz gets some mileage out of her guilty internal monologues spurred on in part by mother Ellen, whose religiosity of course is the result of some very twisted postpartum depression. Amy gets an abortion just before the night of the carnival, quite different than the daddy's girl on the verge of womanhood we saw presided over in the film.

Intrepid younger brother Joey retains his love of the horror genre and practical jokes. He also experiences mom's craziness, the most memorable being scene where she hovers drunkenly over his bed slurring about whether this child of hers has the devil in him, too. Joey then wonders to himself if the reason he likes horror movies so much is that they make real life seem less scary by comparison, which is literally Koontz's lone bone thrown to what Joey represented in Block's screen story. By the time the night of the carnival comes, Joey is sufficiently motivated to run away with the carnival rather than just wanting to follow Amy as in the film. This is a good idea but ultimately undeveloped as Joey is not Koontz's focus. Seems the poor kid's character arc must remain underdeveloped in both film and novel.

As the drama with mom is happening in the Harper home, Koontz alternates between them, Conrad and Gunther. Conrad keeps asking around every town the carnival comes around to for information about Ellen Straker-Harper. Not too suspicious. Koontz even decides to tie Madame Zena into the family drama by making her Conrad's sympathetic second ex-wife and mother of The Monster / Gunther. The thought of Sylvia Miles having the monster by Kevin Conway makes me ill. She's ultimately killed by Conrad and not her own son. As you might have guessed, this excises their handjob scene as well.

Mr. Straker's raising his son to be the perfect raping/murdering machine. Rather than show a little Hooperian moral schizophrenia burying bodies along the way for his son, Conrad picks up a faith in religion to keep his burning hate alive: capital-S SATANISM. Here the religious overtones of Koontz's take on the story overtake all else and the teenage hijinx takes on the mythical levels through exposition rather than the sublimation of a bag lady telling you God is watching. Conrad figured two freak sons in a row was a message from the other side that his demon babies were blessings from the lord of flies:

"Gunther was his son, his very special child, his own blood. But more than that, Gunther was a gift from hell; he was Conrad's instrument of revenge. When Conrad finally found Ellen's children, he would kidnap them, take them to an isolated place where their screams couldn't be heard, and turn them over to Gunther. He would encourage Gunther to play with them in cat-and-mouse fashion. He would urge Gunther to torture them for several days, use them sexually again and again, no matter if they were girls or boys, and then, only then, tear them apart."

This kind of foreshadows the idea of the funhouse itself as a private hell for Amy and friends designed by the owner, which is apparently how Eli Roth will skew, but Koontz doesn't make the direct connection as the scenes from the film and deaths of Amy's friends come hurried. At one point Koontz notes that the funhouse is the largest of its kind in the country, which feels like a preemptive response to the film's critics who liked to point out how labyrinthine a supposedly average carnival funhouse was in Hooper's hands.

"After the first bitter shock had passed, Conrad began to see his mutant son in a different light. Victor (first deformed son - e.d.)hadn't come from heaven. He had come from hell. The baby was not a punishment from God; it was a great blessing from Satan. God had turned His back on Conrad Straker, but Satan had sent him a baby as a gesture of welcome."

Koontz continues to frame The Funhouse as a duel between Godliness and Satan when Joey, checking out the fairgrounds because he wants to be a carny. Conrad finds him and puts on the charm and Joey has a weird feeling that God is watching him:

"He didn't know why he was so positive that he had to lie to this man. Mama couldn't be the woman that Conrad was looking for. Mama wouldn't ever have been friends with a carny; she thought they were all dirty and crooked. Yet Joey lied to Conrad, and he had the feeling that someone else was guiding his tongue, someone who was looking out for him, someone like…God. Of course that was a dumb thought. To please God, you always had to tell the truth. Why would God take control of you just to make you lie?"

With only 91 of 327 pages left, Buzz's car pulls up outside the Harper house to pick up Amy. Sorry, no Shower Scene. Liz is something akin to a sex maniac, taking on Richie's stoned joker role and even propositioning Amy for a three-way sometime! Amy is wearing the same clothes as Liz; shorts and a t-shirt with no bra. This is a far cry from that Amy's blue dress and Liz's pants in the film, which are some of the more tasteful attire in the nominal slasher genre.

Koontz is a talented writer and even with his low opinion of Larry Block's screen story he evokes some of the same moods the film inspires once the action has finally arrived at the carnival. Almost none of the dialogue is the same. Small details are played with which could conceivably have been included in the film: Joey uses a ventriloquist dummy head like the one used to scare Amy in the film under the covers of his bed, to trick the parents while he sneaks out.

The tents visited at the carnival in Hooper's Funhouse are, in order: the Freak Tent, Marko the Magnificent's tent, Madame Zena's tent and the Girl Tent. The Girl Tent gets the axe in this version, since Liz is supplying all the sexual tensions for the evenings. The Freak Tent and Marko's Tent are the closest to their film versions, with the icky new detail that lil' Tad the deformed baby in the jar is Amy's half-brother. Thanks to the new background, however, we do get to find out what the plaque on the pedestal said when Richie pretended to read it made another Larry Latner the gym teacher joke. Conrad wrote it himself:








What happens in Marko the Magnificent's tent is sort of the difference between the thematic change in book and movie in one key distinction: in the movie Marko has a phony Count Dracula getup and in the novel he's made up with red paint like Satan, wearing a tuxedo. From genre tropes to religious ones. He still recites the story of Vlad the Impaler and does the trick with the girl who turns out to be his daughter. Amy has a psychic premonition of Liz being the one in the coffin, but blames it on the dope when at this point it should be obvious who is watching Amy.

Even though Madame Zena, now the mother of Gunther in this version of story, works at the same carnival with he and ex-husband Conrad she hasn't had much hand is raising him. What she is willing to do is use her fortune teller act to pump information out of the marks. Amy and company go in to see her just as obnoxiously as they do in the movie and Amy has her fortune read. Zena asks the key questions of Amy about her birthday and parent's names and when she realizes that this girl is the one Conrad has been searching for all these years, she freaks out and shatters the crystal ball. Time for another premonition from God:

"From the other side of the table, Madame Zena stared at them with wide, frightened eyes. "Listen to me. I'm a fake. A phony. I don't have any psychic ability. I just con the marks. I've never seen into the future. I've never seen anything in that crystal ball except the light from the flashlight bulb in the wooden base. But tonight…just a minute ago…my God, I did see something. I don't understand it. I don't want to understand it. My God, Jesus, Jesus Christ, who would want to be able to see the future? That would be a curse, not a gift. But I saw. You've got to leave the carnival now, right away. Don't stop for anything. Don't look back."

The same advice is given with very different sentiment in the film when Sylvia Miles tells them if they come back she'll break "every fuckin' bone" in their bodies. The next scene in the book is Zena confronting Conrad about the kids, since she'd always figured he just wanted to find his ex-wife through them. However, Conrad delightfully informs her of his evil intentions for the kids that night and kills Zena himself.

Once the kids are inside the funhouse, Conrad simply flips the "off" switch and they're trapped. The carnival outside can't hear their ensuing screams, which achieves the same ironic effect as the film's locking them inside public fairgrounds in the middle of the night. Richie is the first to go, pulled up through the ceiling not by a noose but Gunther's clawed hands, which the others immediately recognize as being too similar to the formaldehyde jar baby for comfort. Meanwhile, outside Conrad invites Joey in to take a look for his sister.

Koontz does a good job, however brief, painting the atmosphere of the darkened funhouse similarly to how it came out on film:

"As the flame neared Amy's fingers, she dropped the match she was holding. It was burnt out by the time it reached the floor. For a couple of seconds they stood in a darkness like no other that Amy had ever experienced. The darkness did not merely seem to contain a threat; it was the threat. It seemed to be a living, evil, purposeful darkness that pressed close around her, seeking, touching with its cool, black hands."

Being trapped in the darkness with a killer freak, Amy has a feeling of deja ju meant to correlate to her mother fighting off her mutant offspring in the prologue.

A few pages are spent recreating the scene essentially beat for beat from the film where Buzz embeds a fake axe in Richie's head as his body is carted past them, mistaking him for the freak. Instead of dropping down a trap door - something of a Hooper trademark, seen also in Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 - Liz gets so freaked out she bolts elsewhere and gets lost.

Immediately after she's gone, Buzz is shot in cold blood by Conrad, suddenly making his presence known with little Joey held hostage beside him. He starts going into the spiel about how God can't help her and he's the father of the new antichrist. She manages to distract and attack him with a pocket knife, killing him.

Liz, meanwhile, is undergoing the same gruesome fate as Largo Woodruff in the movie. Amy and Joey stumble upon her body while searching for a way out and confront Gunther, The Freak Monster. True to the script, he gets snagged on some dangling automated hooks and ground through some big gears.

You may recall the last shot of Hooper's The Funhouse being a tear stained, shattered Elizabeth Berridge plodding barefoot through the dusty morning of the carnival fairgrounds, the sole survivor of the horrible night. The Amy of the Funhouse novel is nothing less than a weak and guilty girl transformed into motherly heroine, comforting little brother Joey after defeating the crazy barker Conrad and his son Gunther rather than merely being lucky enough to scream her way to survival like Marilyn Burns in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, or Marilyn Burns in Eaten Alive for that matter. Completing his thematic circle, Koontz closes with this deistic pat on the shoulder:

  "Suffused with joy in spite of the blood and horror all around her, overflowing with the exhilarating joy of life, Amy realized that the barker had been wrong when he'd said that God could not help her. God had helped her - God or some universal force that sometimes went by the name of God. He was with her now. She felt Him at her side. But He wasn't at all like poor Mama said He was. He wasn't a vengeful God with a million rules and harsh punishments. He was simply…kindness and gentleness and love. He was caring.

   And then that special moment passed, the aura of His presence faded, and Amy sighed. She picked up Joey and carried him out of the funhouse."

The Funhouse by Dean Koontz is such a radical reinterpretation of Larry Block's screen story that it can scarcely be called a novelization. Fans of the film will find it an intellectual curiosity at best and probably a little surprised by Koontz's staunch Christian allegories. Fans of Koontz are quick to support his case that the movie was shallow and this was a superior take on the material. While the book is certainly well written, Koontz and his fans remain unable to acknowledge the simple subtextual strength of Block's story. The overt religious context into which Koontz places Amy's moral crises has nothing to do with Block or Hooper's curiosity toward the dark underside of thrill-seeking, or the psychological misleadings that horror-as-entertainment can take on impressionable young minds. Certain details held over from the script are then left hanging in the book, such as Joey's love of horror films and The Monster's use of a Frankenstein mask. The latter is especially disappointing in light of Dean Koontz's later adaptation of Frankenstein as Dean Koontz's Frankenstein.

Both film and book equate Amy's internal struggle with the desire for sex. In the film this is the catalyst for spending the night in the funhouse, whereas for all Koontz's focus on Liz's promiscuity and Amy's past sexual history, she and her friends are simply no longer the catalysts of their own demise. They could've all been virgins and Conrad was going to trap them in the funhouse just the same. Only with Liz's attempted seduction of the Monster, same in the novel as in the film, do Koontz's narrative priorities coincide with Larry Block's - but Liz is not the main character. The book's big arc for Amy is realizing that she's not evil for having had an abortion, people like Conrad are evil, and God is love. What about the funhouse, again?

Perhaps the most irreconcilable difference between Koontz's Funhouse and Hooper's doesn't have to do with Amy's story, or even the-funhouse-as-metaphor for the horror genre, but that of The Barker and son. The film scene in which Kevin Conway sweet talks his mutant son into doing one more "bad thing" with the fatherly promise of a fishing trip is quintessential Hooper; a pathetic and nightmarish yet undeniably relatable moment between parent and child, lingering in the memory of viewers more than the killings the way Leatherface's domestic squabbles with his psychotic family were so uncomfortably humanizing. Koontz's villains are evil to the core. In the way he chose to elaborate on The Barker's backstory, he ironically made him less sympathetic than the film's already cold-hearted character.

This book is only for Funhouse completists and fans of both Dean Koontz and The Funhouse, for whom you will need to decide whose side you're on afterward. This is the only Koontz novel I've ever read and while the guy is obviously a professional, he can't match the brilliance Hooper brought to Larry Block's simple effective tale of being in the wrong place at the wrong time when make-believe turns real. As a novel it passes and as a novelization it doesn't. At any rate, Koontz undoubtedly believes that like the bag lady said to Amy (in a scene which didn't make it to the novel,) God is watching him.


  1. Very interesting observations and I'll have to catch the film now; but you could use an editor. It took a while (and separate Googling before I finished your piece) to get that Koontz's work was a novelization of a screenplay. You seemed to think we'd all know that going in.

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