- Dean Koontz’s The Eyes of Darkness originally contained details of a man-made virus called Gorki-400 from the Russian city of Gorki
- The change to Wuhan came when the book was released in hardback under Koontz’s own name in 1989 – at the end of the Cold War
The 1981 book by US thriller writer Dean Koontz that appeared to predict the coronavirus outbreak in China initially had the virus originating in Russia.
The book appears to have been rewritten after the collapse of the Soviet Union meant the country was no longer seen as a communist bogeyman.
Koontz's The Eyes of Darkness made headlines in the past week after readers noted the story concerned a man-made virus called Wuhan-400 developed in a biological weapons lab in Wuhan " ground zero of the current coronavirus outbreak " and described as the "perfect weapon".
"They call the stuff 'Wuhan-400' because it was developed at their RDNA labs outside the city of Wuhan, and it was the four-hundredth viable strain of man-made organisms created at that research centre," Koontz writes in the book.
However, Wuhan wasn't even originally mentioned in The Eyes of Darkness. The first edition of the book, written under Koontz's pseudonym Leigh Nichols, concerns a virus called Gorki-400 that was created by the Russians and emerged from "the city of Gorki".
The change to Wuhan came when the book was released in hardback under Koontz's own name in 1989. The year of the book's re-release is significant " 1989 marked the end of the Cold War. And with the collapse of the Soviet Union, the country was no longer communist.
"Starting in 1986, relations between the US and the Soviet Union began improving," says Jenny Smith, co-founder of indie bookshop Bleak House Books in Hong Kong and a student of Russian history. "Mikhail Gorbachev came in in 1985 and was very interested in making the Soviet Union a more open society and improving relations. By 1988, it is our friend and not our enemy."
An American author pointing the fictional finger of blame at Russia would not have gone down well in that climate, so The Eyes of Darkness needed a new villain. There were only so many places with bio-weapons facilities " think France, Britain and Japan " and most, as far as the US was concerned, were the good guys.
"China is the only place that comes to my mind that would have had an active programme and it's likely there was a deep suspicion (in the US) of China covering a lot of things in this period," says Smith, who wrote her PhD on Soviet technology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the United States.
This was in the immediate aftermath of the 1989 student demonstrations and the bloody Tiananmen crackdown that followed. It was a period when there were rumours swirling about leaks and cover-ups at biological weapons facilities, says Smith, and the US would have been aware of the repression of these rumours.
The switch from Gorki-400 to Wuhan-400 in the book was a literal cut-and-paste and appears to reflect the shift in mentality after the Cold War.
"Everyone was thinking in terms of two great powers " America and the Soviet Union, the good guys and the bad guys. It's easy to see how you might substitute one bad guy for another, Gorki for Wuhan," says Smith.
It is not known whether Koontz himself requested this change or his publisher made it. Emails to Koontz, his literary agent and publisher have gone unanswered.
Leigh Nichols wasn't the only pen name Dean Koontz wrote under in his early career. He also used David Axton, Deanna Dwyer and K.R. Dwyer.
"It's not unusual to use a pen name when you are starting off in your career. To play it safe, you don't want to be as exposed," says Albert Wan, Smith's husband and the co-founder of Bleak House Books. "When his books started to take off in popularity, he may well have decided to use real identity."
As for the Gorki referenced in the book, it could be one of a number of Russian towns with that name. The largest, just south of Moscow, is home to 3,500 people today. Compare that with Wuhan, with its population today of more than 11 million " even in 1989, Wuhan's population topped 3.3 million.
The revised edition of The Eyes of Darkness brought the book closer to possibility, but it's still some way off what's happening with Covid-19. Significantly, contracting the fictional Wuhan-400 is a certain death sentence, while only 2 per cent of Covid-19 cases are fatal.
"It might run as science fiction, but it's not impossible as it has happened in the past and people would be aware of it," Smith says. "Think of the cover-up over anthrax " a lot of these stories are stranger than real life."
Meanwhile, readers are also pointing to a passage in a book by the late Sylvia Browne, an American author who claimed to be psychic, that predicted an international outbreak of a virus this year.
"Around 2020, a severe pneumonia-like illness will spread throughout the globe, attacking the lungs and the bronchial tubes and resisting all known treatments," Browne wrote in the book End of Days. "Almost more baffling than the illness itself will be the fact that it will suddenly vanish as quickly as it arrived, attack 10 years later, and then disappear completely."
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