King's Highway pt. 54: The Dark Half

This one has quite a few "variant covers:"

Probably my favorite - simple and effective. Nice colors.
Also good.
Actually, I like them all except for the generic one I bought. Which I won't even reproduce here. But here are some others.

There's even more, but I'll stop there.

Some fun fan art.
Before we get into the book and then the movie, ask Mama if she believes this... did you know there was a videogame? I sure didn't.

I'm on record as wanting an It NES game. But, really, most everything King's done could and should be available to play as a game, NES or otherwise.
The Dark Half is a simple enough plot. As a child, Thad Beaumont suffers from a brain tumor. He hears sparrows when the headaches/ seizures come on. The tumor is removed, and he grows to adulthood and becomes a teacher/writer. The novels he publishes under his own name don't sell all that well, but the novels of his pseudonym, George Stark, sell pretty well. A "creepazoid"figures out that Stark is Beaumont and tries to extort Thad and his family. Rather than acquiesce to this, the Beaumonts decide to "kill" Stark and release the story to People magazine, replete with a fake-burial and fake-tombstone (Here lies George Stark - Not a Very Nice Guy.)

Only, Stark doesn't want to stay dead. He materializes in the grave, escapes, kills everyone that was involved in the farce of his death, then terrorizes Thad's family directly. But Stark is coming physically unglued:

"Something seemed to be wrong with the underlying structure of the man (Stark)'s face. It was as if he were not simply decaying, but mutating in some horrible way."

Stark demands Thad help him write a new novel and holds him and his family hostage to accomplish this.

 "It was his eye that Stark wanted - no, demanded. That odd third eye that, being buried in his brain, could only look inward."

Sparrows gather ominously around "the cabin in the woods, Stark is consumed by them and sucked into the sky ("a black hole that bore the unmistakable shape of a man struggling.") Thad and family (and Sheriff Pangborn, who we'll see next in Needful Things) burn down the house and move on. (Tho they do not, as readers of Bag of Bones know, live happily ever after.)

The above set-up is a negative-print-image of King's own experience in interesting ways. His own novels sold quite well, but those of his pseudonym's (Richard Bachman) sold poorly. Until he was approached by one Stephen Brown, who was, by all accounts with which I'm familiar, not a "Creepazoid." Bachman was then said to die of "cancer of the pseudonym." (This didn't stop him from publishing a few more books, though, as we'll get to next time or the time after that.) And - as was mentioned by ChrisC in the comments last time for Tommyknockers - King's own relationship with Bachman and what it meant to his own frame of mind/ inner-psychology is certainly interesting and has some obviously-non-literal parallels with the grisly struggle between Thad and George.

As he mentions in On Writing, "Traditionally, the muses were women, but mine's a guy; I'm afraid we'll just have to live with that."
Does it work as a novel? Yes and no. "Work" might be the wrong word. It's a fun enough read, to be sure; it's a page-turner, the characters are believable, etc. For me, it was an interesting reversal of the traditional-King-book complaint, i.e. that he "loses steam at the end." Here, it is the beginning that has some trouble finding its pace. (In particular, the People piece just doesn't read like a People piece, to me, and the scene at the table reading it, as interspersed with Thad-and-fam joking, never really "clicks." Maybe just for me; so it goes.) Whereas as the last act is where the writing really "hums."

Speaking of the fam, the twins never really seem like more than message-indicators to me. (i.e. when someone said something about the duality of Thad's situation, the twins bump into one another, or cry out suddenly, or cry or laugh, etc. Set dressing.) King doesn't let their subtext work on its own without calling attention to it like that, which is interesting given the novel's other concerns, but a little distracting. When George puts them in danger, I am less emotionally invested in them. Still, the "twin" motifs running through the book are fun, and I didn't think to start noticing them until well-into-it, so that's my bad.

The incidental characters are fun, as per usual. Rawlee (more on him below) and the FBI wiretap guys do more than just fill plot-shoes; each is brought to life with real economy of word.

Where it fails-to-excite-me is on the question of how exactly George Stark came to be, or rather the discussion of this, throughout.

King loves the ECs, and so do I. And had this plot been published therein, I don't even think I - or anyone - would even ask this question. But an EC-tale in novel-form, which this feels like in some spots, and especially one where characters say things like "It's not like this is some EC comic," provokes different concerns and questions of its author.
Actually, given the whole split-self/ psychic-toilet-externalized spirit of the piece, maybe this is a better EC cover.
The novel spends a little too much time having characters ask (understandably, sure) "how can this be?" without getting anywhere, or offering suggestions/ denials as to how George might have materialized in the flesh. There's more fat to trim than usual. (And it's one of his shorter books.) Should we just go with it, like in other King works? I'm not bogged down in why/ how Carrie has telekinesis, for example; I'm happy to accept it as metaphor and let King tell the story he wants to tell. And as George himself says at one point, "How it happened doesn't matter - what matters is that I'm here."

While true we don't really need to know from a psychological-reading-standpoint, (i..e George is just a fictional metaphor for property dualism or anything of that nature; the umbrella's kind of large here and I don't mean to pin it down by that name) it does matter if characters keep asking questions that work-against-themselves. The glandular-deterioration thing is a good example. It suggests that George's physical existence is tied to Thad's. Sort of like "The Enemy Within," another exploration of this sort of thing, from Star Trek: TOS (that's "The Original Series" to ye unenlightened out there) but there's no transporter-malfunction in The Dark Half. How George gets into this predicament is never really explained, and it kept putting in mind how he came to be in the first place. Each time it's addressed, its haziness grows a little more urgent.

The Truth Inside The Lie has this to say:

"...Maybe he's a ghost; maybe he's the ghost of Thad's never-born twin; maybe he's a Forbidden Planet-esque projection of Thad's subconscious, a Monster From The Id with a southern accent and decomposing flesh. King never quite manages to spell that out one way or the other, but I'd argue that he gets away with the omission ... barely."

(That's from a review of the film, actually; here's the review of the novel. Both are worth reading, particularly the bits on the connections to King's other work such as Pet Sematary and "The Crate," and the overlap of Wilhelmina Burks and Rawlee.)

The character of Rawlie is turned into "Reggie" in the film and is played with considerable gusto by Julie Harris. She hams it up, sure, but as the "eccentric English professor," she definitely adds to every scene she's in.
Does it need to be addressed? Maybe so, maybe not. I think your answer to that depends on how swept-away you are in the prose. It's a fun read and all, but for this reason, I find "Secret Window" to be a more compelling take on similar subject matter. 

 Here's what the New York Times book review has to say:

"On the whole, Mr. King is tactful in teasing out the implications of his parable... No character in the novel comes right out and says, for example, that writers exist (at least to readers) only in their writing, that each person (at least to himself) is his own fiction, that the writer's imagination can feel alien to him, a possessing and possessive demon, a Dracula arisen to prey on the whole man and his family. Nor does anyone in the novel say outright that reality inevitably leaks fiction, which then floods reality, that reality and fiction feed on and feed each other, that they are at war yet they are twins - so identical that attempts to say which is which only lead to more fictions. Such things are better left unsaid, anyhow. Stephen King is not a post-modernist. "

I'm not sure I agree with this last bit (emphasis mine) at all, though it's important to recognize this review was written around 1990, before King started appearing as an explicit character in his work. Still, it seems odd to me to approach the story this way, almost dismissively, as if the idea that SK might be self-consciously-commenting-on-his-role-as-a-storyteller-in-the-telling-of-this-story can be dismissed so totally. That tells you a lot about how critics were viewing his work in 1990, and how changed the situation is in 2012. (Now critics take aim at his post-modernism.) 

"Thad closed the eyes God had put in his face and opened the one God had put in his mind, the eye which persisted in seeing even the things he didn't want to look at. When people who read his books met him for the first time, they were invariably disappointed. This was something they tried to hide from him and could not. He bore them no grudge, because he understood how they felt... at least a little bit. If they liked his work (and some professed even to love it), they thought of him beforehand as a guy who was first cousin to God. Instead of a God they saw a guy who stood six-foot-one, wore spectacles, was beginning to lose his hair, and had a habit of tripping over things... What they could not see was that third eye inside his head...

"That eye, glowing in the dark half of him, the side which was in constant shade... that was like a God, and he was glad they could not see it. If they could, he thought many of them would try to steal it... even if it meant gouging it right out of his flesh with a dull knife."
(Particularly interesting in that this is precisely what happens to Thad at the novel's beginning. "In addition to the eye, they found... two teeth. One of the teeth had a small cavity in it.")

Now, on the subject of "Writers and Metafiction in King's Texts," here's a good article. (I hope throwing these links at you isn't bad form; if you want more than the meager bits presented here, have at them) It's tempting to speculate where King's head was "at" when he wrote this. A common aspect of recovery-therapy (assuming this was written in that period after The Tommyknockers when he was "drying out," as I think it was) is coming to terms with "flushing the psychic toilet," i.e. externalization of all-negative-traits into a different persona. It's a huge topic, beyond my ability to relay concisely enough for this blog, but if we read George as a literal example of this, it makes a certain amount of sense.

"'But do you kick the guy out?' Thad went on. 'No. For one thing, he's already been in your house for awhile, and as grotesque as it might sound to someone who's not in the situation, it seems like he's got... squatter's rights or something."

Learning to "re-integrate the negative" is part and parcel of the process. No two recoveries are exactly the same, but certain roadmarks on the road to recovery are. Relapse is avoided by learning what makes the addict tick and what his/her triggers are. Getting to a point where negative emotions don't provoke someone rushing to the psychic bathroom to vomit up their "bad vibes," or place them wholly on someone else, etc. Looked at through this lens, George Stark is like the revenge of the therapy doll, i.e. that pillow/ sock puppet a therapist will have you yell at to come to terms with beating yourself up.

It's possible (not a given, obviously) King simply transposed some aspects of this into fictional form, here. I looked around for specific interviews with the author that might address this but didn't find any, alas.

The idea of "parasitic twin" - overtly - and "doppelganger" - less overtly, but still above-ground - is all over the text, of course. Basically, it could be all of the above in a Cuisinart. Or none of it; it could just be King writing a "Hey, this is a cool idea" tale.
Stark - again, like Kirk's evil twin in "The Enemy Within" - is perfectly happy with himself, while Thad - and Kirk - realizes in order to survive, he has to defeat-but-reintegrate the bad with the good. There's a Germanic (I think) pagan tradition of vomiting up the nemesis that seeks to destroy you. Can you believe in this day and age I'm having trouble finding it for you? Googling those search terms is interesting, though; I'm on the wrong side of the algorithm.

George Romero adapted the novel for the screen in the early nineties.

I only saw this for the first time a few months back but watched it again last night to re-familiarize myself. (Unfortunately, I fell asleep towards the end, which is becoming a real damn problem in my advancing years. But! YouTube to the rescue.) I like it. The same problems that exist in King's novel re: wait-now-how-did-George-come-to-be-in-that-grave exist here, as well, but it's visually-striking and moves the story along well.

It clips off the very end of the book, which may be a bit sudden, but it also seems like it tells everything it sat down to tell. I didn't need to see the Beaumonts walk back to the world; ending on the swirling-psychopomps taking Stark to pieces and swirling away worked for me.

Timothy Hutton in particular really shines. Thad is characterized well, and he imbues Stark with a menace not seen in any of his other roles. Arguably his best performance, but for me, his second-best. (For many years, The Falcon and the Snowman was my Fourth of July-viewing film, though I've skipped it the last few. It's an underrated film, though, as is his performance in it.)

The sparrows of the film deliberately invoke Hitchcock's The Birds
Unfortunately, Romero's film is shot rather darkly - a new release with color correction would probably do wonders for its reputation - and my prntscrs of good-sparrows-examples are too unreadable. But here's a great shot from The Birds.
This may put some strain on the whence-this-menace Stark-metaphors of the book by doing so, but it didn't bother me. Unless the film is hack work - and this isn't - any visual-recall to Hitchcock is always welcome.

A young Thad works on "Here There By Tygers" at his typewriter; again, my prntscrn failed me. But a nice touch.

Michael Rooker as Pangborn is another selling point. Rooker's played a variety of roles over the years, but usually he's the villain (and usually inept) or duplicitous in some way. He brings a humanity and accessibility to Sheriff Pangborn that he doesn't normally get to showcase.

"Slow Cooker" is not among the featured selections of my old band's MySpace page, but as a result of its chorus, I to-this-day mentally rhyme 'Michael Rooker' with 'Slow Cooker' whenever either term crosses my path. MICHAEL ROOK-ERRRR...!
Romero and King don't seem to work much together anymore, do they? Romero's an interesting director. Night of the Living Dead is an acknowledged classic, to be sure, but does his uncompromising "maverick" status seems to prevent him from the kind of widespread appreciation many of his contemporaries enjoy? The Dark Half may not be as daring and iconic as that one, or Martin or The Crazies or Dawn of the Dead, but it's a solid "mainstream" pic. It's a shame it didn't seem to fare too well with the critics or at the box office.

(And then there's Knightriders, which I've tried to watch a few times. What the hell is going on with this movie? King (and Tabitha King) are in it, briefly, as spectators, towards the beginning. I have a feeling somewhere in this movie is at least the suggestion of a masterpiece, but it seems to be mining similar ore as Electra-Glide in Blue, and that "obscure indie American-70s * generational-commentary knights-errant-on-bikes" spot is already taken in my DVD folder. One of these days, though, I have to finish it.)

(* It wasn't released until 1981, but let's not kid ourselves: Knightriders is a 70s movie.)

(King as "Bachman" in Sons of Anarchy)


  1. Another engaging entry. I didn't remember that movie being directed by Romero.

    As for Tim Hutton, I think my favorite turn by him is (and I kid you not) as Archie in the Nero Wolfe movies and show on A&E years back.

  2. I definitely think that a reader's -- or a viewer's, for that matter -- enjoyment of "The Dark Half" is going to be directly related to the issue of whether they accept the fact that Stark's physical existence is never explained. For me, I wish King had explained it on the one hand, but then on the other I feel glad that he decided to leave it mysterious. And I can come up with my own explanations that work reasonably well, so for me, the approach works.

    Speaking of Timothy Hutton, I thought it was a nice bit of meta casting that he had a role in "Secret Window."

    1. True - damn, meant to mention that, but it totally slipped my mind.

  3. Here's King's comments on the Dark Half, special thanks to Hans Lilja who's page these words came from. Here's the link to the full length essay for those who want to read it:http://www.liljas-library.com/bachman_king.php

    And here is King on the Dark Half: "He (Bachman) took on his own reality, that's all, and when his cover was blown, he died. I made light of this in the few interviews I felt required to give on the subject, saying that Richard Bachman had died of cancer of the pseudonym, but it was actually shock that killed him: the realization that sometimes people just won't let you alone. Put another way, Bachman was the vampirish side of my existence, killed by the sunlight of disclosure. My feelings about all this were confused enough (and fertile enough) to bring on a book (a Stephen King book, that is), The Dark Half. It was about a writer whose pseudonym, George Stark, actually comes to life. It's a book my wife has always hated, perhaps because, for Thad Beaumont, the dream of being a writer overwhelms the reality of being a man; for Thad, delusive thinking overtakes rationality completely, with horrific consequences."

    Now taking King at his word (you don't have to) Stark is then a fictional character that has come to life on his author, placing Dark Half in a category of King stories related to the idea of fiction becoming (at least momentarily) real on the writer.

    The list (I believe) includes the following:
    Dark Half.
    Secret Window.
    Unmey's Last Case.
    Rose Madder.
    Insomia (after the fact).
    The Dark Tower series.
    Lisey's Story.

    Taken together, these tales could comprise what could be called the "Mythpool" cycle or maybe the "Secret Window Series," both terms being euphemisms for the imagination, or the archetypes of the collective unconscious.

    What they all seem to imply (at least within the fictional Kingverse) is that some people some kind of ability to bring their fictions to life. In real life, of course, this is all a kind of metaphor for the author exploring just what it writing?

    For what it's worth, and this is just fan theory, I think the Mythpool in Lisey is actually the reality behind both Mid-World and the Dark Tower, in other words they don't exist except as figments of a fictional version of King...yada yada as Jerry would say.

    I didn't know whether to bring Regulators into the discussion, even though it does touch on the topics brought up in this post.

    Oh well. Here's a parting link that brings all these ideas up in a humorous fashion. The Nostalgia Critic review of "Last Action Hero:



  4. "Desperation is about God; The Regulators is about TV. I guess that makes them both about higher powers, but very different ones just the same."

    I look forward to reading these two; what an interesting summary of both.

    Thanks for the link to Lilja's Library. I thought about including it, actually (or at least a link to the Why I Was Bachman essay) but figured this one was already getting a little link-heavy. (The comments, of course, are a whole different ballgame!)

    Why do you include Rose Madder and Insomnia on your list of fictions-becoming-real-for-the-writer? Just curious.

    1. I know what you say about Madder, to be fair, it's about the picture and how it's related to the Tower series and all so I thought, you know another form of fiction coming to life etc.

      Maybe I should have thought better. again, oh well.


    2. Speaking about the anger management link for a moment, though. It made me remember King's comment to Neil Gaiman that Doctor Sleep was "The cheesed off thing to do."

      One wonders if some of the some vibes you ascribe to Dark Half went into King's deciding to do Doctor Sleep, this time stemming from the seeming fact that the accident has "Slowed down" (King's words) his ability to write at the same pace and idea clip as he used to.

      Just a thought.


    3. Maybe King is writing at a slower pace than he used to and maybe he isn't, but his output doesn't show many signs of it. He's published two novels -- one them of epic length -- within the past thirteen months, plus nearly a dozen short stories. He's got two novels set for publication in 2013, and is apparently already most of the way done with another one.

      King would perceive that much differently than I do, of course; but I'm not sure I perceive a slowdown -- or a drop in quality -- at all.

    4. Well, I'll admit I've never been bothered by all of his later writings the way a lot of fans who seem stuck in the Eighties seem. I even like Dreamcatcher....Yes, that's correct.

      For all that, there's something lacking in books like Duma Key and Dome (I haven't gotten to any of his recent short stories yet, I'm the lazy route and waiting for the inevitable story collection).

      Maybe what I should have said was compared to how he used to write and the speed with which he wrote from say, 1988-2001. King says he likes work as fast on a story as possible before it starts to become "Work" (his word).

      If I had to guess what that means, and this is all it is, it's the idea that unless King can "feel" his stories, whatever that means, writing either becomes a chore or the ideas lose some sort of vibrancy (sorry, best I could do) that makes them less, I don't know, urgent or important to him somehow.

      Here's an interview Lilja did which I hope explains what i mean, I'm convinced the accident explains the following dialogue, and why I wonder if King still has day like the ones he talks about here:

      Lilja: Do you work more now than you did before?

      Stephen King: It comes and it goes. It comes and goes in streaks. I had a time last year in January and February when we were down here in Florida and I couldn’t really seem to get anything going. It just... nothing really seemed to work. It all fell apart like in my hands like tissue paper and this year it’s like I can’t do anything wrong, I really feel like I’m in a groove. I should not say that, now it will change.

      Lilja: I hope it won’t.

      Stephen King: I hope it won’t either.

      Lilja: Do you work on several projects at the same time, or...?

      Stephen King: Not any more. I’m too old for that and you know it used to be that I would work on something fresh in the morning and then I would rewrite at night but I also used to get loaded at night. I used to drink a lot and that’s kinda like... it’s a medicine for...I don’t know...insecurity or something because I’d work and be a little bit loaded and I say, “Damn this is good” and it wasn’t always, so...

      Lilja: It’s better when you’re not drunk then?

      Stephen King: Yeah!

      Lilja: Yeah, I’m glad to hear that.

      Stephen King: Now instead of working morning and night I have a tendency to work mostly in the morning... once every two or three weeks I’ll push everything aside and I write one of these Entertainment Weekly columns and... I don’t know... that’s a little bit harder than it used to be. You just want them to be good and at the same time you want them to feel casual and kinda off the cuff, it’s not easy to achieve that all the time but the column’s been kind of fun. It’s certainly given me a chance to do something different and that’s OK.

      Again, it's just stuff like that that gets me thinking and wondering, knowing however is way different.


    5. It's certainly an undeniable fact that King is getting older; and it's also an undeniable fact that we all change from one year to the next, even if the changes might not be all that perceptible. So has King's writing changed post-accident? Sure, because he himself has changed. But that would've been the case whether the accident happened or not; all it changed were the specifics.

      It seems to have maybe made him a bit more introspective, which is maybe part of the reason why he has spent the past few years returning to old wells by revisiting ideas he'd previously abandoned (Under the Dome and 11/22/63) and by crafting followups to tales everyone thought were totally finished (The Wind Through the Keyhole and Dr. Sleep).

      My point is: if this is what King in decline looks like, he's going to have an awfully good decline.

    6. "I even like Dreamcatcher....Yes, that's correct."

      Hey, so do I! That'll be the first one I re-read, down the road. (Followed by Duma Key, which is one of my favorites of his whole catalog.)

      "My point is: if this is what King in decline looks like, he's going to have an awfully good decline."

      I agree - actually, the more I go over the 21st century stuff (particularly his short fiction or the Full Dark, No Stars novellas) the more I'm of the opinion that he's even better with age. There's an undeniable energy to his younger stuff (be it his youth, the drugs, the booze, the whatever) and a maturity to his later stuff (be it the accident, the recovery, the age, the whatever). Whatever the case, it's just humbling to realize all of this sprang from the same dude's mind.

      Someone needs to do a Dickens and King seminar - how they each captured their age and cranked out such a frightening amount of startlingly good material. And achieved similar popularity, to boot.

    7. "It seems to have maybe made him a bit more introspective, which is maybe part of the reason why he has spent the past few years returning to old wells by revisiting ideas he'd previously abandoned (Under the Dome and 11/22/63) and by crafting followups to tales everyone thought were totally finished (The Wind Through the Keyhole and Dr. Sleep)."

      I've been thinking along these lines a lot this past week, as I wrap up 11/22/63 and Under the Dome, as well as some other works. I wish interviewers would follow this line of thought and get him talking about this. At the beginning of the 21st century, in the midst of publishing some of his greatest work, what was it about these "trunk" ideas that got his gears going?

      He's on record as saying a notebook is a great way of making sure a bad idea never ideas... there's just a lot of food for thought/ inquiry, there.

      (For the record, tho I haven't finished either, I very-much-enjoy both 11/22/63 and Under the Dome, so I don't say this with any negative reflection on them.)