Wednesday, August 24, 2011

It Takes a Hero to Keep On Squeezing: "The Dark Half" Revisited, Part 2

“You’re a ghost,” he said.  “A weird kind of ghost.  We’re all standing here and looking at a ghost.  Isn’t that amazing?  This isn’t just a psychic incident; it’s a goddam epic!”  -- (Chapter Twenty-five)
One of the most problematic elements of The Dark Half is the (seeming) lack of clarity on the subject of what, exactly, the corporeal version of George Stark is.

The above statement from Thad -- uttered to George himself -- is probably the most definitive information we get ... but should we assume that Thad knows what he's talking about?  I don't know that that would be a safe assumption at all.

So let's spend a bit of time trying to figure out what's up with Mr. Stark.

Whoops!  Wrong Stark.  (We know what's up with that Stark: an overdose of awesomeness.)

Let's try that again, shall we?

Nope, that's not right, either.  (That one; what's up with him is he's just no damn good at politics.)

Close enough, I guess.

As I mentioned in my previous Dark Half post, the problem I had with the novel for many years is that the idea of a pseudonym coming to life and seeking retribution for his "murder" is just ... well, it's daffy, is what it is.  The fact that such an out-there idea was able to find any purchase at all is a major testament to King's considerable narrative powers.

I'm tempted to think that the story might have benefited from there being no explanation -- no hint of one, even -- as to how and why George is able to come to life and start exacting his vengeance.  If he were simply a pure mystery, he might have had more power over our imaginations.  Of course, that's not really what this novel is about thematically (see my previous post for some exploration of that novel's themes of addiction), so from that angle, it wouldn't have worked to have Stark be a complete cypher.  And on the other hand, if King had answered the riddle definitively, the novel would have lost even more of that mystery and supernatural awe that it already had lost.

To be honest, I'm not even sure why I care about the rationale behind Stark's existence.  There are plenty of supernatural stories in which we don't know the specifics of why; so why care about the why in this book?

I don't know.  But I do care about it, apparently, and so I've got to figure it out, to the extent it can be figured out.  Is that a flaw in the writing, or a flaw in the reading?  Maybe a little of both.


Option #1:  George Stark is exactly what he seems to be, i.e., the ghost of a man who never existed.

If this is so, how is it so?  In a normal ghost story, the haints -- I love that butchered word -- are the spirits of deceased people who once existed as flesh-and-blood creatures, either on our plane of existence or on some other.  This is patently not the case with George Stark.  (You might be starting to protest about Thad's twin -- I'll get to that in a bit, but for now, I'll say this: Thad's twin was not Stark.)  "Stark" was literally a figment of Thad's -- and, to a lesser degree, Liz's -- imagination.

It's also false to say that George is a ghost, because, plainly, he does exist in the physical sense.  He's decomposing, true ... but in order to decompose, you have to be composed to begin with, and ghosts are generally not composed of anything.  They occasionally exert influence over physical objects, but Stark's capabilities go well beyond exerting simple influence: he is acting directly upon objects.

So, is George simply a ghost?



Option #2:  George is inhabiting the reanimated -- and somehow matured -- body of Thad's never-born sibling.

Tempting.  But where would the body have come from?  How would it have kept growing?  Those are unanswerable questions.

Also, while George certainly seems to possess self-identity -- despite not knowing when, exactly, he came into existence -- he does not seem to in any way believe himself to be Thad's brother.

My verdict to this option is, again, no.


Option #3:  George is a demon possessing the body of some innocent victim, and simply pretending to be "George Stark" as a means of tormenting Thad.

There's nothing to indicate that this is the case.  So, again, no.


Okay, so if he's not a ghost, and he's not Thad's deceased sibling, and he's not a demon, what the hell is he?

Option #4:  George Stark, in his corporeal form, is something fundamentally different from any of what was guessed at above.

Clearly, this is the correct option (he said with great and almost certainly misplaced hubris).  And here is where, if you want to make sense out of this element of The Dark Half, you essentially have to make up your own story.  That's right, you have to resort to fanfic to solve the riddle of George Stark.

Did Stephen King write the book this way on purpose?  Is it instead a case of King writing a novel without any particular regard for the whys and hows?  Beats me.  And really, it doesn't much matter.  A lot of readers won't care even slightly about the whys and hows, and they're probably right to feel that way.

A lot of other readers will care about the whys and the hows and, not being given them, will find that the novel holds no particular power over them.  They're right, too, and I was in that category for a long time.

Some of the rest of us, though, will find that our minds naturally begin filling in these blanks.  And we are right to do that.  After all, this is a book that is strongly about the power of the imagination, so it seems right that it would cause some reader's imaginations to begin flaring.

Here, then, are my ideas on this particular novel's whys and hows:

Thad Beaumont, as we know, absorbed a twin in utero, and certain parts of that unborn sibling ended up inside Thad himself, developing as he developed.  We also know that Thad's brain developed in such a manner as to give him a strong imagination, and a strong urge toward imaginative creation.  (These are not the same thing.)  The very development of these talents and urges might have been due to the growth of his sibling's tissue inside his brain: as that sibling's tissue grew, it pressed into Thad's brain, shaping it and causing electro-chemical actions and reactions, some of which were apparent to Thad in the form of painful flashes of light in his vision.

As this happened, something else happened to Thad's brain (or was perhaps there all along): he developed an ability to exert mental energies that physically acted upon the world around him.  In this sense, Thad is similar to other King characters with "wild talents": Carrie White, Danny Torrence, Johnny Smith, Charlie McGee, Jack Sawyer, etc.  Each of those characters have to have some sort of trigger to be able to access their powers, and perhaps Thad is no different: in his case, it comes when he is a mature adult and he attempts to do something that his subconscious rebels against, namely, disposing of a valuable sub-personality he has developed over the years.

During a time of stressful artistic block, Thad began creating in a different manner from his accustomed habits, and in so doing accessed parts of his brain that he had never used before.  The evidence seems to indicate that these parts of his imaginative and creative urges were even more potent than the ones he has been accessing previously, and as a result his career achieved a new level of success.  The effects on his personality during these times were not particularly beneficial, though, and eventually his conscious mind developed a need to shut those areas down.  His subconscious mind, however, rebelled against this decision, and accessed even deeper -- more primal -- and more powerful levels of his creative urges.

When this happened, his brain was able to send out the mental equivalent of a distress signal, and in so doing it reshaped energy into matter, then invested that matter with the semi-separate personality ("George Stark") that Thad had created.  Once this bizarre reverse-sublimation had occurred in the physical sense, George Stark was free to do as he wished.  There was a catch, however: while Thad's ability to mentally create a physical being were considerable, they were not perfect, and Stark can only last a certain amount of time before his matter ceases to be cohesive.  But, having sprung like some redneck Athena from Thad's mind, he possesses some of Thad's gifts, and if he can get to Thad in time, he can force a transfer of power from Thad to himself, and thereby complete his odd birth.

How's that sound?

I don't know about you, but I like it.

The alternate version went something like this: Thad can mentally open doorways into parallel dimensions in his brain, and he subconsciously opened one in which George Stark was real and pulled him through.  The problem with that one is that if that were the case, Stark ought to have more memories than what he has.

And thus endeth the expose of George Stark.

Sigh.  Again, close enough.

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