The premise of Dean Koontz’s mesmerizing new psychological thriller, Ashley Bell, is compelling but not complex: When doctors inform 22-year-old Southern California surfer girl and budding novelist Bibi Blair that inoperable brain cancer will shorten her life to a matter of months, she replies, “We’ll see.”
Bibi’s fate seems sealed until a mystery man with a golden retriever (Koontz and his beloved Trixie?) appears at her hospital bedside in the middle of the night and quotes a snippet of Henry David Thoreau in passing: “If one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours.”
The incident sparks a miraculous recovery. Bibi’s subsequent meeting with a fortune-telling masseuse convinces her that she’s been spared specifically to save the life of someone else, someone named Ashley Bell. Strap in and hold on as this determined surfer “walks the board” to suss out the whos, hows and whys of her improbable reprieve.
Readers will savor the most stunning experience yet from a writer who specializes in surprises.
So far, all that sounds like classic Koontz, right? But through an equally unlikely turn of events in the crafting of Ashley Bell, what readers can now savor is arguably the most stunning, flat-out crazy reading experience yet from a writer who specializes in surprises.
If you’ve ever wondered how much fun it would be to feel a book unfold in real time along with its characters, you need to read Ashley Bell right now.
Koontz’s wild ride began with a friend who had been diagnosed with gliomatosis cerebri, a rare, fatal brain cancer. After reading a letter from his pal, who had already outlived his doctor’s one-year prediction by a year, Koontz wondered, “Wouldn’t it be nice to write a story in which somebody is doomed to this but isn’t doomed to it after all?” To take his personal feelings out of play, he cast a surfer girl in the lead, while setting the story in his hometown of Newport Beach.
“The moment I heard her character say, ‘We’ll see’ in my head, Bibi became nearly complete to me,” Koontz recalls. “I realized she would be somebody who almost likes the sharp edges of life and leans into them.”
Koontz was initially stumped by the tougher task of figuring out how Bibi might escape the medically inevitable until the answer absolutely “hammered and prosecuted” him, to use surfer speak.
“The big reveal in the book came to me, and I was like a child; I was basically jumping up and down in my chair!” Koontz says. “And I thought, this is going to be a wonderful thing for people to get to, but how do you make it real? I couldn’t wait to start it.”
It’s no big reveal that there will be no big reveal here. When a writer has managed to catch this kind of lightning in a bottle, every reader should experience the full jolt.
Chapter by chapter, Koontz watched as Ashley Bell coalesced around an existential, philosophical difference between Bibi and her hippie parents, Murph and Nancy.
“It’s the idea of free will versus fate; Bibi believes she will make her own life, and her parents believe that fate determines what happens. Then it becomes perfectly natural for her to use her free will to find her way through this,” he says. “But I also realized that it was going to be about deception, self-deception and imagination.”
Especially imagination. Along the way, Koontz salts Bibi’s journey with a sweeping assortment of characters, some of whom threaten to shoplift the narrative and take it home. They include Bibi’s fiancé, Pax, a Navy SEAL on his last covert mission; her childhood bestie Pogo, who’s something of a surfer Yoda; hospital security guard Chubb Coy, a stalking Mr. Toad menace who quotes Jack London and Thornton Wilder; and a parade of horrific Wrong People who threaten to end her journey at every turn.
Koontz takes particular delight in skewering literary academia with the character of Solange St. Croix, a spiteful doyenne whose utter disdain for Bibi’s writing gifts makes her the meanest witch in the faculty lounge. For Koontz, who wrote his own way out of a career as a Pennsylvania English teacher decades ago, it’s not academia per se that’s troubling; it’s the limiting perspective.
“I’m not sure it’s a good thing that so many writers are going to school to become writers. When I became a writer, people like John D. MacDonald and a lot of writers I admired never went to school to be writers; it was just something they wanted to do because they loved books. I’ve often wondered if, over time, the writing programs will lead to a homogenous kind of fiction that isn’t very healthy,” he explains.
His own love of wordplay is apparent in Koontz’s clever twist on the fortune-teller trope. His muddled medium, a loopy New Age masseuse named Calida Butterfly, uses a divination technique called Scrabblemancy, in which Bibi draws Scrabble tiles from a silver bowl. Naturally, one of the phrases they spell out is “Ashley Bell.”
“I didn’t want Calida to have a Ouija board or a crystal ball or anything we’ve seen before. Then it occurred to me that all magic and all forms of belief are based on words—the idea that words have power and were at the root of everything that came to be,” he recalls. “Scrabblemancy makes more sense than having a little pointer on a board full of letters.”
To ground firmly in the here-and-now what might otherwise seem an ethereal journey, Koontz conjured one Birkenau Terezin, a neo-Nazi cult leader whose corporate minions terrorize Bibi.
“In my lifetime, I’m watching anti-Semitism return to the world stage in a major, very spooky way. I think it’s a bigger issue now in many places in the world than it was in the 1930s or ’40s,” Koontz says. “So it seemed logical, if you were going to reach for a villain in a book like this, Terezin would be the guy who is very suitable to our time. And the book wants to be very contemporary. I made every effort to keep everything in it very much of this period we’re living through without beating a lot of drums about it.”
Once Koontz caught a whiff of the uncharted magical reality he was creating in Ashley Bell, the question of the big twist began to weigh on him. Was he concerned that some readers wouldn’t make the leap to the third act?
“In any story where there are big surprises, I always feel the reader has to be able to go back and say, my God, it was right in front of me all the time! But in this case, I realized that’s not going to be enough.”
“In any story where there are big surprises, I always feel the reader has to be able to go back and say, my God, it was right in front of me all the time! That makes it fair. But in this case, I realized that’s not going to be enough,” he says. “With this book, the reveal is not just an intellectual thing; it’s an emotional thing. That way, when the reader starts reading it and is trying to get their head around it, they have a feeling that it makes sense. The two together make this thing go down in a way I don’t know that it would have otherwise.”
For once, Koontz, as the author, is sharing a surprise usually reserved for his readers.
“This book is about imagination; I think that’s what allows it to feel like it’s almost unfolding in real time as you’re reading it,” he says. “Bringing those many threads together gradually came easier than I would have ever imagined. The characters allowed me to do it. They showed me the way and it was exhilarating.”
This article was originally published in the December 2015 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.