(Jan 17 – Feb 20)
The Dark Half is an interesting read, and arguably one of King’s most personal novels. Written in 1989, it concerns an author of literary novels, Thad Beaumont, who secretly writes violent (and far more successful) pulp novels under the pseudonym of George Stark. When his double life is discovered, Beaumont chooses to kill off Stark rather than be blackmailed. Unfortunately Stark, who proves to be every bit as violent and unpleasant as the novels he writes, doesn’t want to stay dead.
Most people who know Stephen King will know that he also wrote a handful of novels under the pseudonym Richard Bachman. And that King was eventually found out and also decided to retire his alter ego—a process which went far more gracefully for him than it did for Beaumont. Nevertheless, this event clearly provided the spark for The Dark Half.
(Intriguingly, King was writing Misery as a prospective Bachman novel when he was found out. Given the subject matter of Misery and that it was written as a response to the negative audience reaction after King ‘dared’ to step beyond his genre confines with Eyes Of The Dragon, this adds a fascinating layer to an already exceptional novel).
The other aspect of The Dark Half that draws heavily from King’s personal life is that of family. This was the last book King wrote and released before he went sober (he started going to AA meetings the same year that The Dark Half was published). I’m not across the timeline of King’s personal life, but my understanding is that his wife, Tabitha, staged an intervention at some point after the writing of The Tommyknockers—and with that novel’s themes of addiction and loss of control, there’s a reasonably valid reading of it as a cry for help. Equally, The Dark Half can be read as a manifestation of King’s fears about what could happen if his addicted self—his own dark half—got out of control, and how his family would contend with and suffer from that.
So, The Dark Half belongs to a long tradition of King novels that feature a writer as the main character (Salem’s Lot, The Shining, etc). However, very few of those come as close as this one does to featuring Stephen King as the main character. With no pun intended, it’s one of King’s darkest novels. Things turn out ok by the end of the story (oh: spoiler!), but in later works we eventually find out that not only did Thad Beaumont’s wife leave him following their encounter with George Stark, but that he later killed himself. Yikes! Luckily things turned out far better in King’s real life. He’s still writing, still married and, one assumes, still sober.
There’s one adaptation of The Dark Half (filmed in 1991 and released in 1993, which I haven’t seen). Despite it boasting George Romero as director, I remember being a little deterred at the time by the casting of Timothy Hutton in the twin lead roles. I had generally liked Hutton in the few films of his I had seen (at the time) but he seemed a little too ‘light’ for this one. Given the film didn’t exactly get the box office or critics very excited, I mostly forgot about it. However, having more recently seen Hutton in the very excellent Haunting Of Hill House I’m now considering putting aside my misgivings and giving The Dark Half a watch sometime.
In a fun bit of trivia, The Dark Half introduces the character of Sheriff Alan Pangborn (played here by Michael Rooker), who also appears in the movie of Needful Things (played by Ed Harris) which was released in the same year. Alan Pangborn’s predecessor as Sheriff of Castle Rock was George Bannerman, who also appeared in two films (The Dead Zone and Cujo) released in the same year (1983, exactly a decade earlier, in fact) and played by two different actors (Tom Skerritt and Sandy Ward). I should have a residency on IMDb with this sort of stuff …
As you will deduce from the dates at the top, this wasn’t a particularly swift read for me (and there were a couple of big pauses early in February). It started off well, but then I hit a bit of a narrative wall. See, the plot can be roughly broken up into three acts. There’s Act One, with George Stark coming to life and causing all sorts of mayhem—this is the sort of thing that narratives thrive on; you can have all sorts of things happen and, because it’s Act One, there’s no need for any sort of payoff, it’s all just build up. Act Three is the inevitable confrontation between Stark and Beaumont; the resolution. The problem here is Act Two, which can be mostly summarised as follows:
Beaumont: “George Stark is going to come for me.”
Stark: “No, I’ve had my fun now—I’m not coming for you.”
Beaumont: “I think he’s lying. He’s still coming for me.”
Stark: “Guess what? I lied: I’m still coming for you.”
You can probably guess that Act Two commits that very worst of all narrative crimes: it’s lots of people sitting around waiting for something to happen. Because it’s Stephen King it’s highly readable nothing, with lots of great character work going on. However, given the excellent setup of Act One it’s hard to sustain the tension; indeed, this is most likely King trying to give us a breather before ramping things up again. Sadly, it didn’t quite work for me.
Outside of that, however, there is still a lot to recommend in The Dark Half. Legacy King fans will appreciate the regular bouts of violence and gore, as well as the simmering menace that George Stark provides throughout. Stark himself is a fantastic character; brutal, terrible and perversely charming.
Overall a perfectly fine novel, but one that somehow falls short of essential King for me.
Next time: there’s a new store opening in town …