Full disclosure: Stephen King is my favourite author. I’m not sure how much that affects the bias of my review but I thought I’d be upfront about it. I haven’t loved every book he has done, but his average is pretty high with me. I do wish to get to the point where I have read all of his books and there are some holes in the backlog that I need to fill. So that’s why I have just read The Dark Half which was published 1989 instead of his latest work. I’ll get to the newer stuff… eventually.
The premise for The Dark Half involves the main protagonist, Thaddeus Beaumont, an author of fiction (Go figure!) who is looking to retire his secret pseudonym, George Stark. Under his own name Thad writes high brow literature that is well revived by the critics but the sales of which doesn’t exactly pay the bills. What does are the salacious and trashy tales he writes under the George Stark pen name.
When a super-fan figures out the Beaumont-Stark connection, he attempts to blackmail Thad by threatening to go to the press if he isn’t compensated to keep quiet. Instead Thad is convinced by his publishers to go public himself and have a mock funeral for George Stark. A fake tombstone is fabricated and a full-page feature spread is printed in People magazine where Thad describes Stark as “Not a very nice guy”.
Stark, however, isn’t taking any of this lying down. Yeah, you heard me right. Stark becomes sentient and manifests himself into reality. It turns out that Stark is a little more than just a pseudonym but a leftover from Thad’s twin brother who was absorbed in the womb when the two were just zeitgeist. Wacky! Stark really is “Not a very nice guy” as he is big, mean and out for revenge on all of those who were involved with his “death”.
The Dark Half has a few moments of brilliance, two of which stood out to me. One is where a lonely State Trooper discovers the truck where Stark eliminated his first victim. The description of the gruesome sight from his view was a great read! He kept saying to himself “Mama, you ain’t gonna believe this!” The other features a bit character who was once a call girl and is now a tough New York City slum lord. Her reaction to stumbling upon a similar gruesome scene is done in a tough, New York City way was horrific as it was amusing.
Outside of a few moments, the book is fairly average for King. I usually become attached to the characters he creates, and they are a big reason why I’d will allow his stories to bend freely with reality. King ability to portray characters in all their various aspects is what I like most. His stories will more often than not have a good vs evil thread running through the plot, but his protagonists are almost always gray, making them as human as you or I are.
It is true that Thad does struggle at times with letting Stark completely go. He is tempted on some level to give into Stark which would allow him to continue to write the way he has always enjoyed. Liz, Thad’s wife, also admits to herself on a deep level that she is attracted to Starks resemblance to Thad. But Stark is so evil, neither of them contemplate these interpersonal thoughts in a serious way.
Stark is a ruthless killer, and I think King made him this way so we wouldn’t get too attached to the man-ghost. Part of his motivation is survival, which after all is something we can all sympathize with. Keeping those murders at the forefront of the reader’s mind with the constant threat of more violence to characters we have a greater attachment to keeps who the real bad guy is in check. The downside to this is a rather cut and dry ending that I think it would have been a little more interesting if Thad had a greater doubt in his mind if he was doing the right thing.
The most unexpected part of The Dark Half is how it gives us some insight into King’s writing process. At the time of the book’s writing, King himself had just outed his doppelgänger Richard Bauchman, an experiment to see if he could sell books without his famous name attached to the work. We see how Thad and Stark begin writing a novel with an idea for a good story and work from there. We know that King is pulling for personal experience here and the process is fascinating to a fan like myself.
I would recommend The Dark Half if you have read a bunch of King’s better work and are looking for more. There is a lot that is good here and I was still turning (swiping) the pages as fast as I could just to see what would happen next.