Back in the 1980s and early 1990s, before I started actually reading Stephen King, I was under the impression that he was a pretty messed up guy. Wouldn’t he have to be to write the kinds of books he writes? In The Dark Half, King explores that very question and comes to some unsettling conclusions.
This novel, published in 1989, is said to be King’s reaction to the outing of his alternate writing identity, Richard Bachman. The main character, Thad Beaumont, is the author of a couple of moderately successful literary fiction novels under his own name and several gruesome horror novels under the name George Stark. When Thad learns that he is about to be outed as Stark, he and his wife, Liz, decide to take control of the story themselves and put Stark to death while revealing that Thad and Stark are the same man. The trouble is, Stark turns out to be more real than they ever suspected, and he’s not ready to die.
As is typical with King, this is as much a novel of ideas as one of horror. This novel takes a hard look at the work of the imagination and what drives a storyteller to tell particular stories. Thad himself ponders this question as he considers his relationship with his work, both as himself and as George Stark:
He was a writer, an imaginer. He had never met one—including himself—who had more than the vaguest idea of why he or she did anything. He sometimes believed that the compulsion to make fiction was no more than a bulwark against confusion, maybe even insanity. It was a desperate imposition of order by people able to find that precious stuff only in their minds … never in their hearts.
Inside him a voice whispered for the first time: Who are you when you write, Thad? Who are you then?
And for that voice he had no answer.
Although I found the set-up and the ideas behind this novel to be compelling, I was not prepared for the extreme gore involved, particularly in some of the early murder scenes, as Thad’s alter ego takes revenge on those who have cooperated to bring about his demise. King does not generally hold back when it comes to violence in his novels, but he also does not generally feature the kinds of sick and ritualistic killings that appear here. Only Misery comes close to this, in my experience of King, and I thought the violence in Misery was less gratuitous than the violence here. In Misery, it built gradually and added to the claustrophobic terror. Here, it often involved characters we didn’t even have time to care about, and it felt over the top. That wasn’t enough to make me consider putting the book down, but I do mention it as fair warning to those who don’t handle violence and gore well.
Setting aside the extreme violence, I liked the way the novel was set up, and King builds the tension well in the early chapters. Thad and Liz are a likable pair. Their companionable banter made me believe in them and root for them, and the gradual revelations about the struggles they’ve been through only made me want even more to see them stay happy. As the horrors began to unfold, I worried for them. I also really liked the sheriff Alan Pangborn. The early scenes between Thad and Alan are wonderfully tense.
The early portion of the novel was great, compulsively readable, but the book lost some steam in the final third. This is not uncommon with King. I find that he often spends too much time building to the final confrontation instead of just getting on with it. In this case, the payoff is pretty strong, although I think King held back from the conclusion the story was begging for. [Spoilers: One reason I like King is that evil hardly ever wins in his novels. It’s reassuring to know that going in. In this case, however, I really think the whole trajectory of the book was heading toward something more ambiguous, and it just didn’t go there.]
When I’m reading King, I’m almost always immersed and entertained, and that was certainly true for most of The Dark Half. This didn’t turn out to be a favorite King novel, and I wouldn’t recommend it for someone looking to give King a try for the first time. It’s nowhere near his most interesting or entertaining work. I’d start instead with The Dead Zone if you’re interested in more psychological novels or The Talisman (coauthored with Peter Straub) if you’re more into fantasy.