Thursday, August 25, 2011

That Awful Woman From the History Department: "The Dark Half" Revisited, Part 3

Earlier this year when I did a multi-post retrospective of The Tommyknockers, I had a lot of fun writing the one wherein I discussed the crossovers that novel has with other works in the King canon (such as The Talisman and The Dead Zone).  I began this blog by writing about Misery, and the reason I started there was simply because that was the point I was at in chronologically rereading all of King's books.  That means that eventually, I'll read -- and blog -- my way all the way through to whatever the then-current novel is whatever he publishes in about 2017, at this rate!); and probably at that point I'll go back and work from Carrie back to The Drawing of the Three just so the blog has covered everything.

I mention this mainly so I can pledge that as long as I keep doing this, I'll make a point out of setting aside one post for every book wherein I discuss that book's ties to the larger King storytelling universe.  I'm hardly the first person to tackle that project, but that's fine by me; I ain't in this to blaze no trails.

There isn't a huge amount in The Dark Half to talk about in terms of crossovers with other King books, so I'll use the final part of this post as a grab-bag to dispense with the remaining thoughts I've got that I couldn't -- or didn't -- work into the first two posts.

First of all, a confession:



I will not be talking about Needful Things in this post.  Well, not much, at least.  Yes, one major character -- Alan Pangborn -- crosses from this novel into that one, as do several minor characters; and a few characters and locations that end up in Needful Things get mentioned, though not seen, here.  Mostly, though, I'd like to save the talk of the connection between the two novels for my inevitable posts about Needful Things several books from now, because I think they have much more bearing on that novel than on this one.

However, Pangborn features indirectly in one of the other major crossovers: he is the replacement for the deceased Sheriff George Bannerman, whom you might remember from both The Dead Zone and Cujo.  This, then, links The Dark Half with The Tommyknockers, which shares a character -- journalist David Bright -- with The Dead Zone.

In an earlier post, I also linked The Tommyknockers with Pet Sematary, which in turn links The Dark Half with Pet Sematary ... although there is a simpler way to arrive at that conclusion: both novels are partially set in the town of Ludlow.

Here's why that is important: in Pet Sematary, Louis Creed has taken a position at The University of Maine, and in The Dark Half Thad Beaumont is a member of the teaching staff in the English department.  In real life, however, The University of Maine is in Orono; at least, the main branch of it is ... and Ludlow is about ninety minutes away.  My conclusion here is that the Ludlow in these two novels is a fictional version of the town, one located in a different part of the state than the real one.  This fictional Ludlow, in fact, seems to correspond to Orrington, a town near Orono where Stephen and his family lived while he was a resident writer at UM in the late '70s.  Why he felt the need to fictionalize Orrington only to name that fictional version by the name of a town that already existed elsewhere in Maine is slightly mystifying; but it does appear to be exactly what happened.

Why do we care about this?  Well, we probably don't, much.  However, I thought it was important to establish two things: one, that the Ludlow of The Dark Half is indeed the same Ludlow as the one in Pet Sematary, rather than the one of the real-life Maine; and, two, that the university where Thad teaches is indeed The University of Maine.

The connection with Pet Sematary is potentially useful in terms of raising the extremely slender possibility that the same Micmac mysticism at work in that novel (and, in a much lesser degree, in The Tommyknockers) is responsible for the sudden transmogrification of George Stark into a corporeal creature.  If George had sprung from the ground of a fake grave in Ludlow, I'd say it was a 50/50 shot; however, he springs from the soil of Castle Rock, and so far as we know the land in those parts was never soured as was the land near Ludlow.  Still, it's tempting to make the connection; there's zero evidence to support it, but it is tempting.

The reason why the setting of The University of Maine is important is that in The Dark Half, the university is never actually named.  I suppose it's possible that King might have caught some heat from the school for its depiction in Pet Sematary; it's not a negative portrayal, but King's story involves a student who gets brained to death there, and the author might have wished to avoid taking the risk of ruffling any school officials' feathers any further in the writing of The Dark Half.  Do we care about that?  We do not; not sure why I brought it up.

We DO care about Wilhelmina Burks, who is a professor in the history department of whatever school it is -- and, for the record, I'm claiming it IS The University of Maine -- and who is mentioned several times in association with her boyfriend, Rawlie DeLesseps, a colleague of Thad's.
"Rawlie DeLesseps and that awful woman from the History Department he’s been going out with since Jesus was a baby," she said.  "The one who goes around blaring: 'Just call me Billie, everyone does.' "  -- Liz Beaumont  (Chapter Seven)
Sound familiar?  It probably does if you've ever seen Creepshow.  In that movie, the character played by Adrienne Barbeau goes around blaring pretty much the exact same thing.  Her name is Wilma Northrup, and she is married to Henry Horthrup, a professor at the fictional Horlicks University (which is located we know not where).

This segment of Creepshow is adapted from a short story of King's called "The Crate."  A fine story, it was originally published in the July 1979 issue of Gallery, and has never been included in one of King's numerous short-story collections.  The adaptation in Creepshow closely follows the short story, including a scene in which Wilma is eaten alive the monster inside the titular rate. For this reason, it is, shall we say, eyebrow-liftingly notable for her to make an indirect appearance in The Dark Half, apparently alive and kicking and still annoying as hell.

How do we reconcile this?  Anyone who noticed the crossover upon the 1989 publication of The Dark Half must have wondered -- perhaps even assumed -- that King had merely forgotten about killing Billie off.  They may even have misremembered some names and assumed that Rawlie DeLesseps and Henry Northrup were meant to be the same character.  And who knows, perhaps King did just get the details wrong.  

From the vantage point of 2011, we've got a better answer, however: The Dark Half takes place in a different universe than "The Crate."  In that universe, she was named Wilma and at some point met and married Henry Northrup; in this one, she was named Wilhemina, and either never met Northrup, or did not marry him, and ended up in Maine rather than wherever Horlicks University is meant to be.

We know for a fact that King was already two books into his Dark Tower series by this point, so it is possible -- maybe even likely -- that the concept of multi-dimensionality had already occurred to him.  Was he playing around with that concept here a bit, in a manner that he thought would attract little attention?  Maybe.

It seems just as likely that the university subplot of the novel simply jarred loose a memory of Billie, and King thought he could use her shrillness as an impeccable alibi for Thad.  He would have then had to rearrange the facts a bit so that he could include her.  This is sheer speculation, but it feels correct, somehow.  What interests me here is that King would have gone to the bother of carefully ensuring that this Billie and the Billie of "The Crate" would be distinct for those who were paying attention. 

That shows a remarkable attention to detail, and serves as another piece of persuasive evidence that a large amount of King's work forms interconnected puzzle pieces of a sort.

As far as connections between The Dark Half and other King works go, that's about all I've got.  It's always possible I missed some; if so, feel free to let me know in the comments section.

Let's move along to some stray thoughts, shall we?  Well; strayer thoughts.

*****

"The May 23rd issue of People magazine was pretty typical. 
The cover was graced by that week’s Dead Celebrity, a rock and roll star who had hanged himself in a jail cell after being taken into custody for possession of cocaine and assorted satellite drugs." -- (Chapter One)
The theme of substance abuse is introduced -- albeit snuck into the background (a bit of scenery as it were) -- quite early on. To some extent, I imagine this novel to be a parable King has written for an audience of one: himself.  Stark feels a bit like a warning, a reminder to keep the demons -- of alcohol, of cocaine -- at bay ... or risk having other people suffer as a result.

With that in mind, the hanged rock and roll star who just couldn't face the same of being busted on a drug charge seems a bit more meaningful; sometimes a bit of scenery can be worth paying attention to.

*****

Also in Chapter One, there is a brief mention of the first George Stark opus, Machine's Way, having been turned into "a smash-hit movie."  Unless I'm mistaken, this is the only time the movie is mentioned.

I think that tells you a bit about how seriously King takes the movie business.  In the world of his stories, movies are worth mentioning, but books can cause people who never existed to come to life!

*****
That’s a hell of a thing to say about your husband, he almost replied, then didn’t.  It wasn’t odd, because she wasn’t talking about him.  George Stark’s methods of writing hadn’t been the only essential difference between the two of them.” -- (Chapter One)
This is an interestingly complex reaction.  Liza has said of Stark, "It's good to have him dead" and "I didn't like him very much," which is a hell of a thing to say, in a way ... because, in a way, she is talking about her husband.  But it's also interesting that Thad's impulse is to be offended.

In that moment, he proves that somewhere inside of him, George Stark is alive and kicking.

*****
“Dodie Eberhart was pissed off, and when Dodie Eberhart was pissed off, there was one broad in the nation’s capital you didn’t want to fuck with.” - (Chapter Six)
King's talent for writing characters is one of his most-trumpeted strengths, and there are a number of times in The Dark Half when he really reminds you how good he can be.  The brief appearance of Dodie Eberhart is one of these times: she is only in one chapter, but she is a fully-fledged character about whom I would be glad to continue reading.

Oddly, I would say that one of the novel's failings is in the main character himself: Thad Beaumont.  He is just a bit of a blank.  Of course, Thad's blankness might be the point; he only has much of a personality when George Stark comes out to play.

*****

There are a few instances in which this novel echoes the films of Alfred Hitchcock. For example, the scenes in which Thad is questioned for the murder of Homer Gamache feel a bit like one of Hitchcock's wrong-man scenarios, and while the story doesn't exactly play out in that manner, it gets close, even involving Thad going on the run to try and fix the problem.

There are also explicit references to Alfred Hitchcock Presents, and it's virtually impossible to not think of The Birds in conjunction with all the sparrows.


Is this useful in any way?  Well, I think it's entirely possible to view the mystery about the nature of George Stark's physical manifestation as a MacGuffin, and I would not bet money against the idea of King being very cognizant of that as he seeded these allusions to Hitchcock through his novel.

*****

From Thad’s journal: 
“I’m sure the police behaved according to their oaths (if they still take them, and I guess they do).  Yet there was then and still is now a feeling that I was in danger of being pulled into some faceless bureaucratic machine, not men but a machine which would go methodically on about its business until it had chewed me to rags ... because chewing people to rags is the machine’s business.  The sound of my screams would neither hurry nor delay that machine’s chewing action.”  -- (Chapter Seven)
Thad -- as Stark -- has, of course, named his most popular character Alexis Machine, so in that sense, Thad may well be talking about Stark in this passage.  Either way, from his vantage point, it's all the same: what the machine -- whether it's a stand-in for Stark or for mindlessly ominous bureaucracy -- represents is threat to familial stability.

King has explored this notion of a threatening "machine" numerous times throughout his career.  Most recently as of the publication of The Dark Half, King had worked with that theme in The Tommyknockers.

*****

In Chapter Thirteen, Norris Ridgewick hollers, "Judas Priest!  I'm a damn lunkhead!"

With the mention of Wilhemina Burke earlier, the pump has been primed for Creepshow a bit, so this recurrence of the word "lunkhead" can't help but make me think of Kig's masterful performance as Jordy Verrill in a different segment of that film.

*****
“The guy with the stupid little pussy-tickler mustache was a lot quicker than Stark had expected.” -- (Chapter Fourteen)
What a terrific opening line that is for a chapter.  If I picked up a novel that opened that way, I'd be so happy I might just bust.
In some way I can't quite define, it's the word "stupid" that really sells that line.
*****

Chapter Fifteen has probably the two best descriptions of how Thad was a different person when he was writing as Stark:
“He didn’t beat me up or wave a straight-razor around at cocktail parties.  But when he was writing as George Stark – and, in particular, when he was writing about 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, just distant.”
And this one:
“There was no big personality change ... but he wasn’t the same.  My husband quit drinking alcohol some time ago, Alan.  He doesn’t go to Alcoholics Anonymous or anything, but he quit.  With one exception.  When one of the Stark novels was finished, he’d get drunk.  Then it was as if he were blowing it all off, saying to himself, ‘The son of a bitch is gone again.  At least for awhile, he’s gone again. ...”
*****

Pretend it’s a book you’re writing, he thought as he turned left onto College Avenue, leaving the campus behind.  And pretend you’re a character in that book.
            It was a magic thought.  His mind had been filled with roaring panic – a kind of mental tornado in which fragments of some possible plan spun like chunks of uprooted landscape.  But at the idea that he could pretend it was all a harmless fiction, that he could move not only himself but the other characters in this story (characters like Harrison and Manchester, for instance) around the way he moved characters on paper, in the safety of his study with bright lights overhead and either a cold can of Pepsi or a hot cup of tea beside him ... at this idea, it was as if the wind howling between his ears suddenly blew itself out.  The extraneous shit blew away with it, leaving him with the pieces of his plan lying around ... pieces he found he was able to put together quite easily.  He discovered he had something which might even work.” -- (Chapter Twenty-two)
This is similar to the game of Can You? that Paul Sheldon plays with himself in Misery.  In that novel, Sheldon is using a distancing technique to channel his creative impulses, so that he can use them to motivate himself to find a way out of the tough situations in which he finds himself.
In this sense, a writer is shown by King to be a person who can -- and does, sometimes even in the real world -- think around corners.

The very creation of Stark was an outgrowth of that type of thinking:

“It didn’t seem terribly fair; he didn’t think he had created George with any evil intent.  He couldn’t see himself as either of those infamous doctors, Mssrs. Jekyll and Frankenstein, in spite of what might be happening to his wife and children.  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.”  -- (Chapter Twenty-four)
It seems that such power has as much potential for harm as it has for good.

*****

I'll be back soon with a look at the movie version of The Dark Half. It was directed by George A. Romero, and from what I recall, it's not exactly the best work of Romero's career.  Either way, I'm going to tell you all about it.

2 comments:

  1. Just finishing this one - good stuff, here. The Pet Sematery/ The Crate connections most especially.

    Along the lines of King creating much-more-memorable-than-their-place-in-the-story would suggest, I quite enjoyed the "Ask Mama if she believes this" character. I think that might end up being the line I most associate with this book, weirdly enough. I was happy to see it appear in the movie (tho, as you pointed out in your movie review, that sequence doesn't come across as successfully as it could; not sure why the perfectly-satisfactory scene in the book was altered the way it was, actually...)

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    1. I often wonder that about scenes in movies or television shows. Even the great ones, like "The Lord of the Rings," include weak-sauce-adaptation moments that make me wonder "why, why, why?"

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