Monday, August 22, 2011

It's Good to Have Him Dead: "The Dark Half" Revisited, Part 1

A few weeks back, I threatened promised to post an essay dealing with The Dark Half, which I'd recently finished rereading, and guess what?  The time has come.  It is here.  I've finished taking notes, I've got the day off from work, and I'm sitting down at the computer to type it all up.  I'm sure it's going to be fun to write, it's just that ... well ... I keep hearing these rustling sounds outside, and these little chirps.  I think there might be some birds outside.  Usually, this makes my cats go sit with their faces in the window, making these little frustrated noises, like they're trying to tell the birds, "Oh, you let us get out and see what happens to you."  But today, they're all hiding, almost as if they're afraid of the birds.  Hmm.  I hope it's nothing for me to be worried about.


The Dark Half has never been one of my favorite novels by Stephen King.  I enjoyed it reasonably well when I first read it, but never had much urge to read it a second time.  In that fashion, over time I began ranking the novel near the bottom of my list of personal favorite King books.  And yet, upon rereading it, I found it to be a considerably better novel than I'd been giving it credit for over the past couple of decades.

I experienced something similar when I reread The Tommyknockers earlier this year.  I'd only read that novel once, hadn't liked it much, and promptly relegated it to the bottom of some mental opinion barrel, and when I reread it, I was rather shocked to find myself not only enjoying it, but hella enjoying it. (I always wanted to use "hella" in a sentence.  Crossing off the list ... now.)

I'd be a liar if I said I enjoyed my reread of The Dark Half as much as I enjoyed my reread of The Tommyknockers.  I didn't, and while some critical part of me might have to admit that The Dark Half is a better novel in some ways (it's tighter in construction, if nothing else), ultimately I got a lot more out of the stories of Bobbi Anderson and Jim Gardener than I got out of the stories of Thad Beaumont and George Stark.

However, I did find The Dark Half to be a much better book than I'd previously given it credit for being.

What always bothered me about The Dark Half was that I simply could not buy into the central conceit of the novel: a writer's forcibly-retired pseudonym comes to life and starts causing bloody mayhem for the writer and everyone he knows.  I found that to be a fundamentally silly idea, and it was even sillier in the movie version (despite a pretty good performance by Timothy Hutton as both Beaumont and Stark).

So, what changed between the first time I read the novel and this time?

I did, of course.  Not that any major life experience is necessary for grasping the story here; it isn't.  However, what never occurred to me before is simply that this story is supposed to be a bummer, even though it may not entirely seem like one to people who are only concerned with whether the good guy lives and the bad guy dies.  And at first glance, it seems that that is exactly what happens in The Dark Half; certainly that's how I took it the first time I read it.  That's an incorrect reading, though, and reading it that way causes the story to seem a bit unbalanced; I think it was this failure in my analysis that caused the book to fail to resonate with me over the years.

It'd be wrong to call The Dark Half a tragedy, but it's right to say that it is a story wherein the villain is defeated and yet the heroes do not win.  I don't think I ever viewed the story through that prism before, and knowing it from the outset this time made me a bit more mindful of -- and, therefore, a bit more responsive to -- some of the novel's themes.

For starters, The Dark Half forms an interesting quasi-trilogy with Misery and The Tommyknockers (his two novels previous to this one in terms of their publication).  All three of these are about the power of writing, and all three are also about addiction.  And for that matter, The Drawing of the Three, which was published right before this "trilogy" began, is also heavily about addiction ... so I suppose that in terms of that theme, we're actually dealing with an unofficial quartet.

The commonly accepted wisdom is that The Dark Half is a metaphor for the real-life events surrounding Stephen King's use of the pseudonym "Richard Bachman."

But look, here's the thing: as a metaphor, it really doesn't work at all.  Allow me to explain.

In The Dark Half, as far as the book-buying public is concerned, George Stark is the man, and Thad Beaumont the shadow he casts.  In real life, it wasn't like that; King himself was the best-selling household name, and "Richard Bachman" was a ruse he came up with as an experiment (to see if he could become not merely one, but two, best-selling authors) and also simply as a means of getting some of his work published that might not otherwise have seen the light of day.  (This latter concern was due to publishers not wanting to flood the market with too many King novels ... a state of mind that had utterly vanished by the time The Dark Half rolled around, but was a genuine concern during the early '80s.)  Bachman was runoff water in a storm gutter; Stark, in The Dark Half, was the storm itself.

Whereas in The Dark Half there is real, significant financial risk -- for the Beaumonts, and for Stark's publishers -- involved in the unmasking of Thad Beaumont as the guy writing the bestsellers, this would not, in the real world, have been the case for the King family, or for his publishers.  Quite the contrary, if anything (seeing as how the revelation that Bachman was actually King automatically meant that the demand for all of "Bachman's" books went through the roof and began selling at a King-ly rate).

Also, in The Dark Half, Thad has historically used the Stark pen name as a way of writing things too ugly to use in his Beaumont novels; indeed, he is using Stark as a conduit through which his baser instincts can come through.  Again, this doesn't match the King/Bachman story; there is nothing in Bachman that is perceptibly darker in content than what King published under his own name.  Again, it's quite the contrary: think of Greg Stillson kicking that dog to death in The Dead Zone, or of certain climactic events in Cujo, or of practically all of Pet Sematary and Apt Pupil.

I'd also point out that George Stark was created by Thad -- with Liz's help, or at least at her indirect suggestion -- as a means of breaking through a particularly bad case of writer's block.  Though King had written about writer's block both before and after The Dark Half, he has also claimed to have never suffered from it during his career as a published author.  I see no reason to doubt his word on this, and certainly his output belies anyone who makes claims to the contrary.  Here, again, Richard Bachman is wholly distinct from George Stark: Bachman had to be created because Stephen King wrote more than his publishers were willing to accept!

"Richard Bachman" author photo from Thinner

I think it's safe to make the claim that the first four Bachman books are stylistically different from what we think of as King's style.  However, that does not seem to have been in any way due to conscious effort on King's part (and while you can almost make the same claim about Beaumont, his style is still extremely different from that of "Stark."). 

No, the difference in "Bachman's" style is due simply to the fact that those novels were written early in King's career.  In The Art of Darkness, Douglas E. Winter places the dates of composition for Rage as 1966 (with a revision in 1971), The Long Walk as 1969, The Running Man as 1971, and Roadwork as 1974 (written after completion of 'Salem's Lot).  It is almost possible to look at Rage as a piece of juvenilia, albeit exceptionally accomplished juvenilia; The Long Walk is a highly compelling novel, but shows signs of the author very badly wanting To Say Something, a pitfall King has mostly avoided during his career as a novelist; and The Running Man, though entertaining, is a bit too sloppy to feel like it came from the same man who wrote even Carrie, much less The Shining.

Of these, Roadwork is maybe the most distinguished; it's a straightforward character piece about a man who has reached the end of his rope and has then decided to let it hang him ... though not without kicking around a bit in hopes of breaking a few jaws before the light goes all the way out.  It's not as conventionally compelling as The Long Walk, possibly due to its lack of genre elements, but it definitely shares some of that novel's tendency toward self-conscious Seriousness.  And understand: I'm not criticizing that impulse toward striving for relevance.  If anything, I look at those novels as marvels of passion and yearning for social change.  Roadwork also shares some of the same martyrdom themes that you will find in The Dead Zone, and while that novel is much more accomplished, I think both read as having come from the same author.  Indeed, The Dead Zone is also striving -- successfully, this time -- toward Seriousness.

However, by the time Thinner rolled around, King seems to have mostly purged himself of those types of socially-aware stories.  Or, at least, if he continued to write them, he ceased to publish them.  The Stand has foregrounded political elements, and they are present as undercurrents in Firestarter (and, to a lesser degree, Apt Pupil).  Hearts In Atlantis and Under the Dome go in those directions to one degree or another, and you can make arguments for both The Tommyknockers and Insomnia as being primarily political novels; I wouldn't, but you could.  For the most part, though, after The Dead Zone, King has produced work that is much more about the general human condition than it is about society in a specific sense.

As for Thinner, the final "genuine" Bachman novel...?  It's got about as much to do with the earlier Bachman novels as did Christine, which is to say nothing at all.

My point is that for all practical purposes, there is no difference between Stephen King and Richard Bachman; there is only the difference between Stephen King the not-quite-mature novelist and Stephen King the mature novelist.  With that in mind, I think we need to begin to put to rest the idea that The Dark Half is a metaphor for King's experience being Richard Bachman.  Sure, a few details (such as the discovery of the pseudonym by an overly snoopy fan) are similar, but in all the important ways, it just doesn't track; Richard Bachman and George Stark have almost nothing in common.

Might it be truer to suggest that Stephen King and Thad Beaumont have something in common?  I'd say that's a definite affirmative, and here is where we start to get into the meat of what makes The Dark Half work.

I think I've said it before in one of my earlier posts, but it's always worth repeating: I have very little intention of trying to interpret King's biography through his works, or vice versa.  Is Liz Beaumont -- or Lisey Landon, or any of King's other fictional spouses to fictional writers, for that matter -- a stand-in for Tabitha King?  Don't know; don't care.  That doesn't matter to me at all.  I might find myself idly wondering about things like that from time to time when reading one of his books, but you're not going to catch me writing lengthy essays about it.

The only instances in which I become interested in writing about King's life is when it comes to the elements of his life about which he is on the record.  For example, the subject of addiction and alcoholism.  It is by now a well-known part of King's for-the-public biography that he experienced some severe battles with drink and drugs during the '80s.  He wrote eloquently about it in On Writing, and has frequently brought it up in interviews.  Therefore, in my mind, it's fair game to suggest that in, say, The Tommyknockers, when King is talking about Jim Gardener's struggles with the bottle, he's using his own experiences as a basis.

Does that mean that I'm suggesting King at some point in his life became so drunk (or high) that he, like Jim Gardener, blacked out and did not come to until finding himself on a beach several days later?  No, I'm not suggesting that at all; he might have, for all I know, but it's more likely that he simply extrapolated that event as something that theoretically could have happened to him under certain circumstances.  By the same token, Misery can be seen as being informed by King's struggles to kick his cocaine habit, and I suspect that he also used that experience to inform Eddie Dean's battles with heroin withdrawal in The Drawing of the Three.

In The Dark Half, we're confronted with one of King's recurring types of protagonist: the writer.  And before you ask, yes, I do figure that every time King writes about a writer, he's writing about himself in some way.  That's not very insightful criticism, I know, but it seemed worth restating.

Add to that the fact that in The Dark Half, Thad is a former alcoholic who became an unpleasant person to be around both while he was drinking and while he was playing the part of George Stark, and you all of a sudden come up with a metaphor that works better than the Stark=Bachman equation.  What George Stark really represents is the tendency of past addictions to come back to haunt you.  Sure, you may have quit snorting coke; but nobody bothered to ask the coke if it was finished with you.  And one day, you're tooling along without a care in the world and a little voice pops up inside your head, saying, "Wouldn't a line or two be just awesome right about now?"  If you listen to that voice, you can end up hurting every person you know and care about ... maybe fatally.

That's what George Stark represents.  And the end of the novel might involve a legion of psychopomp sparrows returning George Stark to the neverwhere in which he belongs, but they can't carry away the darkness within Thad; it's already right where it belongs.

Pay attention to these thoughts Alan Pangborn has about Thad toward the end of the novel:
You don’t understand what you are, and I doubt that you ever will.  Your wife might ... although I wonder if things will ever be right between the two of you after this, if she’ll ever want to understand, or dare to love you again.  Your kids, maybe, someday ... but not you, Thad.  Standing next to you is like standing next to a cave some nightmarish creature came out of.  The monster is gone now, but you still don’t like to be too close to where it came from.  Because there might be another.  Probably not; your mind knows that, but your emotions – they play a different tune, don’t they?  Oh boy.  And even if the cave is empty forever, there are the dreams.  And the memories.  There’s Homer Gamache, for instance, beaten to death with his own prosthetic arm.  Because of you, Thad.  All because of you.  -- (Epilogue)
The problem is that while the physical manifestation of George Stark was created in a freak confluence of supernatural events, Stark's darkness -- his rage, his homicidal urges, his ruthlessness -- were offshoots of Thad's own psyche.  Thad Beaumont liked being George Stark.  As Stark, he was able to keep the words (and the blood) flowing, and he literally bought a home for his family with the money it earned him.  George is entirely justified in looking at that house and feeling indignant at the thought of Thad living there.  After all, Thad did very little to earn it; it was George who earned that place.  So sure, Thad has succeeded in banishing George Stark back to the underworld; but it was Thad who created him in the first place, and if he did it once, he might someday do it again.

What's amazing to me is that from 1987-1989, King published four consecutive novels that dealt as openly as this with the theme of addiction, and that he did so from a completely different angle each time.  In The Drawing of the Three, Eddie Dean gets super clean ... but it's basically only because he -- what with being lost without any smack in an alternate dimension and all -- has no choice but to go cold turkey; in Misery, Paul Sheldon only becomes an addict at all because he is in excruciating agony, and would probably be force-fed the pills even if he didn't feel like taking them; in The Tommyknockers, Jim Gardener's weakness -- his alcoholism -- is arguably one of the only things that ends up permitting him to save the day, and is therefore, perversely, a strength just as much as it is a weakness ... although it's just as possible to say that if he wasn't so weak, he'd never have had to save the day at all

Then, in The Dark Half, King approached the topic from the point of view that even if one stops taking the drug, the impulse to take it may not be so quick to die.  Of all of these, I think Misery is the most powerful statement on addiction and The Tommyknockers the most complex; the award for darkest undeniably goes to The Dark Half, and it's interesting that that seems to have been King's final word on the subject.

This is a fascinating series of works that, taken in tandem, add up to a powerful exploration of a subject that -- for better or for worse -- is clearly close to Stephen King's heart.  It is, of course, a subject that is hardly restricted within King's canon to these four novels: The Shining deals with it head-on, and 'Salem's Lot obliquely.  I'd argue that Christine, Pet Sematary, and Roadwork heavily come at it through metaphor, and that the entire series The Dark Tower might be said to be about it; there may also be others that aren't occurring to me right off-hand.  Either way, this quartet of addiction-focused novels represents a remarkable moment in King's career.

But wait ... there's more!

That's right, I'm not done talking about The Dark Half just yet.  In the next few days, there will be three additional posts about this novel.  In the first of those, I'll be considering the novel's supernatural conceit: George Stark ... pseudonym come to life, malevolent spectre of a murdered twin, or opportunistic ghost seeking a more earthbound existence?  There's some palaver to be had about that, and I'll try to put forth my thoughts on whether King is being intentionally vague or distractedly sloppy by not pinning the matter down a bit more solidly.