Tattered Tomes: High Toned Son of a Bitch: Stephen King’s The Dark Half, Revisited

The Dark Half cover

As we close out this year’s Tattered Tomes column, I thought it would only be fitting to cover Stephen King’s The Dark Half. It is the first of his novels to feature Sheriff Alan Pangborn, the last of King’s big books during my formative reading years, and probably my all-time favorite Stephen King book. To fully understand the impact The Dark Half had on so many Stephen King fans, one must understand King’s pseudonym, Richard Bachman. Most people know King had a handful of novels published before his breakout hit, Carrie. Commonly referred to as The Bachman Books, these seminal novels were somewhat out-of-print by the time King finally revealed he was, in fact, Richard Bachman. It wasn’t until the Richard Bachman novel Thinner was released that the story of his identity broke, and that was when King decided to get some mileage out of the Bachman backlist by releasing those earlier novels in one omnibus.

Why did King write as Bachman? One must go back further through King’s background—his own formative years—to get a full grasp of his reasons. One of the ‘official’ reasons was back in the early 70’s it was somewhat frowned upon in the publishing industry for genre writers to publish more than one novel a year. King claimed he used Bachman to work around that silly rule. One of King’s early influences, Donald Westlake, also wrote under a pseudonym, the equally well-known Richard Stark. Responsible for the Parker novel series, Stark’s writing is markedly different from Westlake’s own endeavors. Westlake wrote under many assumed names, which allowed him to use different voices for different character points-of-view. King, writing as Bachman, wrote violent novels, rarely supernatural, though he wasn’t afraid to dip his toes into dystopian science-fiction, especially considering The Running Man. The tone of those early Bachman books was angry, vicious, and much brusquer in contrast to his own early work, such as Carrie and ‘Salem’s Lot. This was around the time King was selling his short-stories to men’s magazines like Gent and Cavalier, showcasing his horrors between nude pictorials and ads for the best in adult entertainment.

When Thinner was released in hardback, the book featured the Bachman name. A bookstore employee named Steve Brown read an advance copy of the book and became convinced Bachman was actually Stephen King. After hitting a couple of research roadblocks, Brown checked the actual listing at the Library of Congress and discovered King’s name on the early copyright documents. Brown contacted the publisher with the information and within a few weeks he received a call from King himself, granting Brown an exclusive interview that was later published in the Washington Post. Before that, other readers were reaching out to King about Thinner.

The cat was out of the bag.

It was time for Richard Bachman to go.

RichardBachmanBut when it comes to Stephen King, sometimes they do come back. Only this time, Bachman came back in story form with a different name. Sticking close to his influences, King named the antagonist of The Dark Half George Stark as a homage to Westlake’s famous pen name, Richard Stark. Thad Beaumont wrote the Stark books, and was outed in a similar manner as King, though this time the stakes were higher, with blackmail on the table. Refusing to take the bait, Beaumont holds a mock funeral for Stark. This is the beginning of a dark and twisted tale that is probably one of the most biographical of King’s books.

The Dark Half starts with young Thad suffering from terrible headaches and auditory hallucinations of birds, specifically sparrows, flapping their wings. Doctor’s discover the boy is suffering from a tumor. During the removal surgery, the doctors find not a tumor in his brain, but the remains of a parasitic twin Thad absorbed while in the womb. Flash-forward to adult Thad, who has finally ended his relationship with his more famous pseudonym, George Stark. Though the Stark books allowed him the luxury of writing fulltime and then some, Thad longs to write as himself, and relishes the freedom of letting Stark go.

That’s when the killing begins. Sherriff Alan Pangborn is extremely suspicious of Thad, especially since Thad’s fingerprints are all over the bloody crime-scenes. Some of these deaths are of people that know Thad in some capacity. But Thad’s alibis are solid. Nonetheless, it’s not looking good for Thad at all. Maybe it’s a deranged fan, enraged by Beaumont’s killing off the ever-popular Stark name. This killer could have made copies of Thad’s fingerprints and is using them to frame Beaumont for the murders. As far-fetched as that sounds, the creepy reality is even stranger. Thad begins to have his headaches again, and discovers a page with scribbled handwriting on it, written with one of the black lead pencils he used to pen the Stark novels in longhand. One of the phrases, ‘the sparrows are flying’ is on that page, which prompts Thad to believe that Stark has come back from the grave to wreak havoc on Thad’s life, revenge for such an early demise.

The novel primarily stays with Thad’s point-of-view, though does veer away several times to give us a glimpse of Stark. These breakaway scenes are some of the most chilling in the book. Readers familiar with King’s Bachman books can see the tone change in these sections. Though not exactly in Stark’s perspective, nonetheless, we see the killer doing what he does best. Stark’s main character in his stories is Alexis Machine, a cold-blooded criminal known for his cool demeanor and choppy finishing lines. So, when reading The Dark Half, we see King writing as Stark only using the character of Alexis Machine as his guide, which, if you think about it, is about as meta-fictional as you can get, especially considering King had to write like Stark as writing Machine while under Beaumont’s pen.

While Thad is slowly working out how Stark came into being, we see this unfold in typical Stephen King fashion. Meanwhile, Stark is off making mincemeat out of Beaumont’s blackmailer and everyone else associated with the mock funeral article, all written from the Richard Bachman style. But is Stark the ghost of Thad’s parasitic twin, or a physical manifestation of the darkness of Thad Beaumont? Fortunately, King doesn’t tie this off in a nice tight bow. In an age where horror fiction writers came from a school where everything was explained away, it’s refreshing to see King take a more cutting-edge approach with ambiguity, leaving the questions of Stark’s existence open to interpretation.

Thad discovers that Stark relies on him writing as Stark to stay alive. If Thad quits writing Stark stories, Stark dies. With Thad’s wife and children now the focus of his rage, Stark wants Thad to write another Stark novel, one that ends with him coming out in better shape than he did at the mock funeral. Going back to those black pencils, Thad crafts a story that eventually allows Stark to come to an end once and for all.

The duality of man is one of the most captivating subjects of fiction. Man vs. himself is one of the main thematic conflicts, and the canvas is as wide as the sea on the subject. Most famously covered in Robert Louis Stephenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Stephenson began that tale as a loose and wild penny dreadful, but at the urging of his wife, rewrote the tale to further examine man’s dual nature. There’s a little bit of darkness in everyone, and there are times when we like the darkness inside us. We embrace it, though we’re not supposed to. Thad Beaumont had this darkness inside him as well, and when he embraced it, it came out as the violent and sadistic George Stark.

If that darkness inside Thad was strong enough, then perhaps it was strong enough to bring Stark back from the grave. Maybe Stark was the ghost of Thad’s twin brother. Never fully alive, though conscious enough to take on a physical manifestation. Thad did absorb his twin in the womb, so there’s the possibility that our dark nature is just as innate as our eye color, or as random as the different belly-buttons we have—an ‘inny’, or an ‘outy’. King plays out these questions with Thad Beaumont as our guide, allowing us to look at our own duality from the safety of the page, far away from where our own darkness can hurt us. The Dark Half is King’s own version of the Jekyll and Hyde tale, told from his own twisted perspective, using pages torn directly from his own life. Whenever we hear writers talking about ‘write what you know’, they’re not talking about your job, or your family. They are talking about the personal fears we all have. The realization that inside us all is a darkness, and then embracing such darkness, is both terrifying and exhilarating. There’s a thrill factor there we only dare to explore. King wrote what he knew. He knew Richard Bachman well beyond the paragraph of his brief author bio. He saw the darkness in Bachman, embraced it as long as he could, then when he had to say his farewell, he stepped outside of it to confront it in novel form. The result of that was The Dark Half.

Tattered Tomes returns in 2017 with a laser-point focus on Peter Straub. Previously revisited with If You Could See Me Now, this time I will reread the Blue Rose trilogy as well as Straub’s blockbuster horror novels released right before the trilogy. Joining me on this revisit is Benoit Lelievre of Dead End Follies. Please join us here at the end of January for a Tattered Tomes revisit of Peter Straub’s Mystery.

BOB PASTORELLA


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1 comment

  1. As a Stephen King fan, “The Dark Half” is one of my favourites. The film wasn’t half bad either.

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