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January 17th, 2012

From Friday, 13 January 2012 (how apropos...) to Monday, 16 January 2012 (Martin Luther King, Jr. Day), I read Stephen King's The Dark Half (NY: Signet [a division of the Penguin Group], 1990 [copyright 1989; previously published in hardcover by Viking Press, a division of Penguin Books USA Inc.]; ISBN: 0-451-16731-7; 468 pps. [includes a 16-paged excerpt from "The Langoliers," published in Four Past Midnight, 1990]).


The Dark Half was King's meta-fictional response to the kerfuffle over having his Richard Bachman pseudonym (under which he published the novels Rage [1977], The Long Walk [1979], Roadwork [1981], The Running Man [1982], and Thinner [1984]; King would subsequently publish The Regulators [1996] and Blaze [2007] under the Bachman imprimatur) blown by a diligent bookstore clerk; King acknowledges Bachman's "help and inspiration" in his author's note, remarking, "This novel could not have been written without him."

Thad Beaumont is a critically-acclaimed, poor-selling literary novelist and an English professor at the University of Maine who, in an effort to overcome a writer's block following the critical drubbing and nearly non-existent sales of his second novel and his wife's miscarriage, writes a crime novel under the nom de plume of George Stark (a tribute to Donald Westlake's pseudonym Richard Stark, under which name he wrote hard boiled crime novels featuring the master thief Parker [the first such novel, The Hunter, was filmed twice: once in 1967 as Point Blank, starring Lee Marvin, and once in 1999 as Payback, starring Mel Gibson]); this novel, Machine's Way, featuring an astoundingly capable and violent criminal named Alexis Machine (whose name King borrowed from the 1973 Shane Stevens novel Dead City, as he acknowledges in his afterword), is the closest thing to a runaway best-seller that Beaumont has experienced, so he writes three other crime thrillers as George Stark (one a sequel to Machine's Way, Riding to Babylon), before he receives a blackmail letter from a Georgetown law student who demands that Beaumont fund his schooling in exchange for his silence as to Stark's true identity; in response, Beaumont, to the delight of his wife Elizabeth, arranges for a People magazine article and photoshoot whereby a mock burial of Stark is staged in a cemetery in the village where the Beaumonts have their summer home, Castle Rock, Maine.

However, soon after this ersatz funeral, the "gravesite" of Stark is found dug up by one of the cemetery's groundskeepers, and footprints (as well as a knee-print and finger marks) are found in the pile of dirt next to the empty hole in the ground that seem to indicate that the hole was dug from underneath the surface -- it was dug up and out instead of down and in. Shortly after that a series of horrifically brutal murders, at first of a passer-by and then of the people involved in the humorous People magazine piece, occur, with several ancillary police officers tossed in for good measure. Apparently George Stark is animate, if not technically alive, and is working his way back to his putative creator Thad Beaumont, as well as Thad's wife and their one-year old fraternal twins (conceived in the wake of Thad's initial retirement of Stark).

As The Dark Half opens with a gruesome and disturbing brain operation undergone by an eleven-year-old Thad in 1960 (this is nearly as strong a prologue as that of King's The Dead Zone), it gradually becomes apparent that George is the reanimated twin of Thad, who was partially absorbed by the fetal Thad in utero. Thad, as an adult in 1988, still experiences some of the headaches and seizure-like behaviors that prompted his brain surgery as a child; he also has an unwelcome psychic connection with George, and other strange, unknown faculties. Arguably even more disturbing than Thad's relationship with George is his relationship with sparrows; readers of The Dark Half may never look at a cloud of hundreds of sparrows skirling to and fro in the air in quite the same way again. (However, be warned: the reference work cited in Chapter Twenty: "Over the Deadline" -- Franklin Barringer's Folklore of America [pgs. 305; 309; and 314] -- appears to be fictional; the Library of Congress's online catalog has no listing for a Franklin Barringer as of 17 January 2012. Readers wishing to find real-world books containing the information imparted in "Barringer's" tome could start with Philippa Waring's The Dictionary of Omens and Superstitions [1978; reprinted 1985].)

The Dark Half is a much more successful exploration of the darker side of a writer's life than King's earlier The Shining; this was my third favorite Stephen King novel, after Firestarter and Christine. George Stark makes a chillingly effective antagonist, one who is as machine-like and nearly superhuman as Anton Chigurh in the Coen brothers' 2007 adaptation of Cormac McCarthy's 2005 novel No Country for Old Men; one imagines that Charles Ardai would've rather that King turned in a George Stark-style novel for his Hard Case Crime line instead of the meta-mystery The Colorado Kid. The out-and-out supernatural elements are nicely underplayed here, and, when they do finally take center stage, are appropriately awe-inspiring and terrifying.

The main supporting character, Castle Rock Sheriff Alan Pangborn, is a competent, deeply rational skeptic to the weirdness unfolding here; he's very much a Scully to Thad and Liz's Mulder, which only means that he helps to sell the supernatural horror. (He also makes a star turn in a subsequent King novel, the 1991 Needful Things, which was touted as "The Last Castle Rock Story," although that turned out to be untrue.) The coda to Thad Beaumont's story is in King's 1998 novel Bag of Bones (which won the 1998 Bram Stoker Award and the 1999 British Fantasy Award) about another author with writer's block.

This being a novel about a novelist, it should come as no surprise that King name-checks a good many authors (sometimes rather confusingly, as when he names Horace McCoy as a hard-boiled crime novelist [p. 74]; I was under the impression that only two of his books -- They Shoot Horses, Don't They? and Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye -- could be considered as such), slips in the occasional unattributed quotation or reference (Stark thinks of Liz as "a veritable queen of air and darkness" [p. 148], the title of the revised second book of T.H. White's Arthurian tetralogy, The Once and Future King, which in turn comes from a poem by A.E. Housman, "The West," collected in Last Poems [1922]), and tips his hat to Poe's story about doppelgängers, when he has Thad thinking about his "William Wilson moment." My favorite literary reference comes near the end of the book, in Chapter 25 ("Steel Machine"), when Thad recounts a panel that he was on with William S. Burroughs: "'...some kid asked Burroughs if he believed in life after death. Burroughs said he did -- he thought we were all living it'" (p. 430); this is essentially a modern take on Christopher Marlowe's Mephistopheles telling Faust, "Why, this is hell, nor am I out of it", but it's not as pithy as Burroughs's observation that "A paranoid man is a man who knows a little about what's going on."

But the real value of reading The Dark Half, over and above the it's-harder-to-do-well-than-it-looks entertainment value, are the bits of disquieting insight into the metaphysics of writing, as when Thad thinks, in Chapter 18 ("Automatic Writing"):

"When he began writing, it was often like this -- a dry and sterile exercise. No, it was worse than that. Starting off always felt a little obscene to him, like French-kissing a corpse."

-- p, 264


Or, a bit further on in the same chapter, when Thad thinks:

"..when it came to ritual, writers were as superstitious as professional athletes. Baseball players might wear the same socks day after day or cross themselves before stepping into the batter's box if they were hitting well; writers, when successful, were apt to follow the same patterns until they became rituals in an effort to ward off the literary equivalent of a batting slump...which was known as writer's block."

-- p. 272


Which goes far to explain why so many writers end their careers by becoming self-parodies.

Or, when Alan Pangborn, in Chapter 23 ("Two Calls for Sheriff Pangborn"), first seriously considers the writer's vocation:

"But writers INVITE ghosts, maybe; along with actors and artists, they are the only totally accepted mediums of our society. They make worlds that never were, populate them with people who never existed, and then invite us to join them in their fantasies. And we do it, don't we? Yes. We PAY to do it."

-- p. 379


Would-be writers would do well to read The Dark Half, along with King's On Writing; if the one book doesn't give them pause, perhaps the other one will.



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