Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Stephen King: The Dark Half (1989)

Author's Note: I am indebted to the late
Richard Bachman for his help and inspiration.
This novel could not have been written without him.

Who does a writer become when he sits down to write?

That is the central question of The Dark Half, Stephen King's third consecutive novel – after Misery and The Tommyknockers – to feature a writer as its main character.

King experienced a series of crises in the mid-to-late 1980s and, because he often uses writing as a form of self-analysis, they appeared in his fiction. Judging from Misery's plot, King had severe reservations about his fame and was concerned about the psychic cost of celebrity. His drug and alcohol addictions were raging out of control (this was also the third book in a row to feature an addict or former addict), and he was forced to admit he was the author of five novels attributed to "Richard Bachman".

The Dark Half was written as a response to the sudden death of Bachman's literary career – or perhaps as a way for King to flesh out his myriad feelings about the Bachman phenomenon in general.
For a while I started to think, "Suppose Bachman wasn't dead?" And immediately the idea jumped to mind: What if a guy had a pen name that didn't want to stay dead and isn't that an interesting idea and how would that work out? It just stayed like that for a while and didn't get written. Then the thought that finally drove me to start writing was the idea: Suppose Bachman collaborated on a book with me? And so originally, The Dark Half was submitted as a collaboration by Stephen King and Richard Bachman. But Viking didn't like the idea. They thought it was confusing and that people would think it was a collaboration like The Talisman.

Thad Beaumont's first novel was a finalist for the National Book Award. After an unsuccessful follow-up, Thad experienced a severe case of writer's block. He was able to write again only (at his wife Liz's suggestion) by doing so under another name. Using the pseudonym George Stark*, Thad published four best-selling crime novels. After more than a decade, Thad feels trapped in his literary double life and wants to return to serious fiction. And when someone tries to blackmail him by exposing him as Stark, Thad is thrilled, and announces the secret himself to People magazine, which publishes a photo of a fake grave site, complete with a tombstone marking the dates of Stark's existence.

*: Donald E. Westlake's pen name "Richard Stark" was the source for both "Richard Bachman" and "George Stark".

As the darker side of Thad's persona, Stark is vivid enough that Liz speaks of him as a real person, as an unevictable intruder in their home.
George Stark wasn't a very nice guy. ... [H]e was in fact a horrible guy. He made me more nervous with each of the four books he wrote, and when Thad finally decided to kill him, I went upstairs to our bedroom and cried with relief. ... He was an ugly, dangerous man when he was ... living with us.

[W]hen he was writing as George Stark – and in particular, when he was writing about [professional hit man] Alexis Machine – Thad wasn't the same. When he – opened the door is maybe the best way to put it – when he did that and invited Stark in, he'd become distant. Not cold, not even cool, but distant. He was less interested in going out, in seeing people. ... There was no big personality change ... but he wasn't the same.
I don't know how he came to be. ... I don't have the slightest idea when he became a ... a separate person. He seemed real to me when I was writing as him, but only in the way all the stories I write seem real to me when I'm writing them. Which is to say, I take them seriously but I don't believe in them ... except I do ...
After the mock funeral, the doppelganger refuses to stay buried. Somehow Stark escapes "the womblike dungeon of Beaumont's imagination" and emerges in the real world "like some weird cancer in human form". He begins hunting down and killing everyone associated with the article that put him in his grave, including the journalist, photographer, and Thad's agent. Stark is determined to live again, either by Thad writing another Stark novel (which he has vowed never to do) or some (further) collaboration between the two. In the end, Thad will be forced to confront "his dark half", the uncontrollable and malevolent side of himself.

Despite King's top-notch storytelling skills, I could not accept The Dark Half's premise: that Thad's pseudonym has somehow come to life as a separate human being. I realize that may seem somewhat odd considering the plots of some of King's other books – vampires in rural Maine, haunted cars that drive themselves, a spaceship buried in the woods – but despite his lengthy explanations of how Stark came to be (it involves an unformed twin being absorbed in utero), he simply couldn't win me over. (Maybe if Stark was a spirit or evil force rather than an actual person ...)


John Sears (Stephen King's Gothic) describes The Dark Half as "a fable of writerly creativity gone monstrously wrong, a version of the allegory of the author enslaved by a popular readership". Thad Beaumont, like Misery's Paul Sheldon, has become successful by giving his readers what they want, and putting aside the kind of fiction he would rather concentrate on.

Just as Thad's novels are quite different from the grisly books he wrote as Stark, the themes of the Bachman novels are the polar opposite of King's fiction. Where King emphasizes redemption and the power of love, Bachman's landscapes are unrelentingly bleak, degraded, full of despair, and devoid of hope. Anthony Magistrale says the early Bachman books (Rage, The Long Walk, Roadwork, The Running Man)
served as a kind of laboratory for the young King. ... Bachman supplied King with a necessary alter ego ... a voice to help release some of King's own literary demons. Bachman permitted King to indulge his darkest fantasies and speculations. ... [The Bachman work] "is best interpreted as representing a pessimistic side of King's psyche.
In addition, Michael J. Meyer notes that "despite Thad's alleged aversion to the type of writing Stark produces [and Stark's murderous impulses], his attraction to Stark is depicted as similar to alcohol or drug addiction".

Amy Joyce Palko: Charting Habitus: Stephen King, the Author-Protagonist and the Field of Literary Production (2009):
Thad is brought face to face with his pseudonym-made-flesh and is forced to recognize that he cannot ever truly break free from his role as a writer of popular novels and return unscathed to his role as writer of serious literary fiction. ... Within this one man, there is an inner conflict pertaining to the dominance of either serious or popular fiction which is ultimately irresolvable.
King uses obvious elements of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Frankenstein, and Edgar Allan Poe's short story "William Wilson" (which Thad mentions at one point), and name-drops dozens more writers and books throughout the novel, including Elmore Leonard, Ernest Hemingway, Brideshead Revisited, Franz Kafka, Hamlet, Sidney Sheldon, Little Black Sambo, and Saul Bellow, while also including numerous literary pen names, such as Mark Twain, Lewis Carroll, George Eliot, Tucker Coe, and Edgar Box.

In creating George Stark, all Thad Beaumont wanted to do was keep writing:
He had not set out to write a series of novels which would make a great deal of money, and he had certainly not set out to create a monster. He had only been trying to feel a way around the block that had dropped into his path. He had only wanted to find a way to write another good story, because doing that made him happy.
Likewise, Stephen King did not set out to become world's most famous author, and he certainly did not plan on creating the fame and celebrity that he has "enjoyed" for decades. Like Beaumont, King somehow created a monster. (A minor character, speaking about Thad, says, "I pity famous people ... [they] must live defensive, disorganized, fearful lives ...") All King has wanted to do was have the space and freedom to write another good story. Writing, he has said many times, has kept him sane.

Next: The Stand: The Complete and Uncut Edition.


Zenslinger said...

This is the first of King's books that I have never read.

laura k said...

This is the first of King's books that I have never read.

This is a funny sentence. :)

This sounds like an interesting premise, if a bit familiar (Jekyll/Hyde, Frankenstein, etc.).