When a young and unknown writer routinely completes more than one book per year, publishers urge him to use a pen name – or names – for what they view as excess production. They believe that critics will dismiss the work of a prolific writer without even reading it, assuming it is piffle. Many critics do, indeed, respond this way, even though Henry James – the litterateur’s litterateur – produced over a hundred and twenty books in his lifetime, and though writers from Shakespeare to Dickens to Joyce Carol Oates have proved that one can produce quantity with quality.
Publishers also recommend – or often insist – that pen names be used on books that the writer creates outside of the genre in which he first began publishing under his own name. If one begins writing adventure novels about trout fishing, then delivers a romance with not a trout to be found in its chapters, one will be pressured to use a pen name for this suspect, fishless fiction. Because I enjoyed writing in a variety of genres – international intrigue, romantic suspense, psychological suspense, tales of terror, science-fiction, humorous suspense – I ultimately published under several pseudonyms before finally forsaking all false identities.
One of my early pen names, Owen West, wrote horror novels for Jove Books, a sub-imprint of Berkley Books, my primary paperback publisher at that time. Owen’s first shuddery tale was a novelization of a motion-picture screenplay, The Funhouse, to which Jove owned the book rights. I was beginning to build a reputation as a suspense novelist, and I didn’t want to be known as a horror writer. Some of my novels had, I admit, enough of a macabre edge to be tagged with that label by critics who didn’t like to think too much. (Most critics are responsible and thoughtful, but a significant minority resents thinking, because the time devoted to thinking inevitably means fewer hours in the day for swilling down booze and torturing kittens). Although I enjoyed the horror genre both as reader and writer, I didn’t want to doom myself to that limiting label by publishing novels of the supernatural under my name. Consequently, also because Jove wanted to build a new name in the horror genre, I wrote The Funhouse under my Owen West persona – he had shorter hair than mine, delft-blue eyes, and a lap dog named Pookie that slept draped across his thighs while he worked–and I signed a contract to do two more West novels.
Although the film of The Funhouse flopped, Owen’s novelization sold more than a million paperbacks and became a New York Times best-seller. The second novel under the pen name, The Mask, was also a best-seller. Fortunately, during this same period, books under my real name began selling better than Owen’s. By the time I delivered the third of these supernatural tales, The Pit, the publisher and I agreed to poison Owen’s morning tea, bury him, steal his final novel, release it under my name, and later re-issue his previous two novels under my name, as well. Because we realized that the title The Pit would thrill reviewers looking to take an easy shot at me, we changed the title to Darkfall, and subsequently the book received only good notices. It also became a best-seller; thus this murder of a pen name and the looting of his literary estate proved rewarding both creatively and financially.
I do not rate Darkfall among my best work, but I’ll be immodest enough to say that I think it’s a fun read. The only ambition here was to produce a page-turning entertainment; I wanted to cross the horror novel with the police procedural, while mixing in a love story and a measure of comic dialogue. I was not yet well known for the cross-genre books that later became my trademark, but in Darkfall, I was continuing to experiment with this new form, blending several types of fiction in one story. This combining of genres did not always meet with agents’ and publishers’ approval, but I found great delight in trying to make these exotic blends work.
Shortly after Darkfall was published, I was visiting a local bookstore, chatting with the manager, and we happened to be standing in the paperback aisle where my novels were racked – only five titles in those days. A young woman rushed past us, directly to the Koontz section, grabbed every book except Darkfall, without reading the ad copy or checking the price, and headed for the cash register. The manager asked this obviously intelligent and sensitive person why she was loading up on four titles by the same writer, and she replied that she had finished Darkfall only an hour earlier and had enjoyed it so much that she wanted to read everything else by this author. At that time, I had not yet done a book signing and had never bumped into a satisfied reader on the street. This woman’s kind words sent me home in a preternatural glow that must have dazzled everyone who looked at me. I returned to my word processor and had an extremely productive afternoon, because one of the greatest thrills any writer can experience is not the payment of a large royalty check, not the appearance of a rave review, but knowing that a reader has received great pleasure from a book.
I do not use pen names any longer. Most of the books first published under pseudonyms have been reissued under my byline. Mr. Owen West remains dead. Pookie, his lap dog, is still alive though now arthritic. And I hope that Darkfall, after all these years, still gives pleasure.
Darkfall has been re-released in paperback and is now available in stores.
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