The Dark Half (1989)
By: Julian on March 19, 2011  |  Comments ()  |  Share 
Author: Stephen King
Publisher: Hodder & Stoughton
Pages: 468
The sparrows are flying again...

From the seventies, Stephen King authored a series of stories under the name Richard Bachman. King's nom de plume was more than just a pen name, though: it was a platform from which the author could write novels that he would not normally publish under his own name. The Bachman books were not strictly horror tales, though many of them are as terrifying as anything in the Stephen King canon, relying on a far more visceral and disturbing brand of horror. A fan revealed King as Bachman, but King subsequently published The Regulators and Blaze under the pseudonym, two lifeless efforts completely eclipsed by Bachman's earlier work.

The Dark Half, written after the King-Bachman connection was revealed, is based on King's experiences juggling both King and Bachman (the book is dedicated to "the late Richard Bachman, for his help and inspiration"). A prologue introduces budding writer Thaddeus Beaumont, aged 11, after his first story is published in the magazine American Teen. Thad suffers from splitting migraines and phantom noises – specifically, the sound of innumerable sparrows. Dr Pritchard discovers that the source of Thad's headaches is a twin that Thad absorbed in utero. This of itself is not uncommon; what is uncommon is that the absorbed tissue is implanted in Thad's brain, and has continued to grow throughout Thad's eleven years. Dr Pritchard successfully removes the tissue – including a fully-formed eye that has popped out of Thad's brain – and Thad's headaches stop.

Fast-forward to the present day. Thad is married to Liz, and the couple have two children, William and Wendy. Thad is also a successful author, although the work that he published under the Beaumont name has enjoyed limited success. Far more lucrative is the Alexis Machine series, published under the name of George Stark. Writing the super-violent, nihilistic Stark novels have drained Thad but before he considers putting the persona to bed (as King did, killing off Bachman with 'cancer of the pseudonym'), a New York law graduate who is obsessed with Beaumont makes the connection and inflicts some subtle blackmail.

Thad doesn't bite; instead, he reveals himself as Stark in an interview with People magazine. Not long after Stark is revealed to be Beaumont's alter ego, Homer Gamache is killed. Homer, an amiable man well-known around town, is hauled from his truck in the wee hours by a well-dressed hitchhiker and is bludgeoned to death with his own prosthetic arm. As the body count piles up, Sheriff Alan Pangborn and his Deputies pay Thad a visit, armed with insurmountable evidence that suggests Thad is responsible for the brutal slayings.

The Dark Half marks the height of King's exploration of writers and their traumas, real and imagined, which began two books earlier with Misery and continued in Secret Window, Secret Garden, a novella published in Four Past Midnight. The Dark Half also marks the beginning of Stephen King's obsession with existentialist themes and bizarre supernatural elements, which would continue throughout the nineties with Insomnia, Rose Madder and The Green Mile, to name three. These themes are my least favourite of the many that King explores in his writing – they have the tendency to make his books bloated and self-indulgent. Worst of all, they encourage the author's most consistent weakness, being an inability to seamlessly and neatly conclude his novels. In the late eighties and into the nineties, with few exceptions, King's novels would spiral out of orbit uncontrollably as they approached their climax. This one is no exception – there's little of the pace and self-control that King exhibited in his earlier novels.

As a story about writers, The Dark Half is quite different to Misery and Secret Window. The most marked variation is that The Dark Half deals with the abovementioned supernatural themes, whereas the other novels do not – both are psychological thrillers. However The Dark Half begins as a psychological thriller before shifting gears completely.

King inevitably succeeds with The Dark Half because of the quality of the prose, the prodigious rate at which the shocks come and the ease with which the characters translate to the page. These three elements are the flipside to King's replicated errors: they are his replicated successes, and the presence of these successes is why King rarely writes novels that are completely disposable. With this formula in place, King is free to experiment with the sort of existential and supernatural themes that totally consumed his nineties fiction: should the plot fail, at least King can't be accused of bad writing.

The Dark Half is a three part novel: the first foreshadows the return of Stark in Thad's life; the second introduces Stark in earnest; and the third depicts Stark taking over Thad and his family. Part One is unputdownable; a powerhouse of horror writing that rounds up King's qualities and marries them to a truly terrifying plot. The change in gears that I mentioned above happens about mid-way through Part Two, and it's from this point on that the novel more closely resembles a fantasy novel than a horror novel.

Let me explain briefly what I mean by that last sentence, because I'm often sniggered at when I register my predilection for horror in the same breath as my distaste for fantasy: horror, particularly supernatural horror but even serial-killer suspense thrillers and creature features, are imbued with fantasy themes, but they do not share the conventions of a work of fantasy. The best attempt I can make to dichotomise 'horror' and 'fantasy', artificial as it is to do so, is by defining 'fantasy' elements as having little-to-no connection to the known. In this respect, horror generally – though not always – more closely resembles science-fiction than fantasy; think vampires, werewolves, prehistoric creatures of the deep, invincible humanoid killers. The Dark Half, whilst not to the degree of Rose Madder and Insomnia, is less of a horror novel and more of a fantasy novel if this definition is to be applied.

Those who enjoy fantasy novels will enjoy The Dark Half more than I did – my aversion towards fantasy novels undoubtedly magnified the book's faults. King completists – and I am one – will have to read this, and horror fans might find themselves a bit more drawn to the novel given George A Romero's screen treatment of it in 1993. The Dark Half is a decent, well-written effort, but King's obsessions during this period just aren't my bag.
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