Sunday, July 28, 2013

A Review of "The Dark Man"

Yesterday, I received my copy of The Dark Man, a new Stephen King book.  I suspect that most people who read my blog will have heard of it, so you know what we're talking about already, but for those of you who did not know about this book, here's a summary.

The Dark Man is a Cemetery Dance hardback release of a poem Stephen King first published in 1969, in a college literary journal.  The poem is a mere 41 lines long, which means that even if you pay really close attention to it, you can read it in a few minutes.

To be blunt, this is an extremely minor work of King's.  Now, y'all know me.  I own the Sci-Fi Channel remake of Children of the Corn on Blu-ray.  I own -- and reviewed -- Creepshow 3, which doesn't even have anything to do with Stephen King.  I'm not one to let a lack of quality deter me from being as completist as possible when it comes to my King collection.  So when The Dark Man was announced, I rolled my eyes, sighed in mild frustration, and reluctantly set the money aside.  Was I filing this under the "cash-grab" category?

Yes indeed.




In the end, I think that was probably a little unfair.  But only a little.  I still think it's a minor work at best, and I don't entirely know who the book's target audience is.  That said, there are things I like about it, so I don't feel as if my money was wasted or anything.


The big selling point for the book has been that it is a semi-lost origin for the character Randall Flagg, the villain of The Stand (and of several other books, including The Eyes of the Dragon and The Dark Tower).  Here's what King had to say to an interviewer in 2004 about Flagg's genesis in "The Dark Man."

Actually, Flagg came to me when I wrote a poem called "The Dark Man" when I was a junior or senior in college. It came to me out of nowhere, this guy in cowboy boots who moved around on the roads, mostly hitchhiking at night, always wore jeans and a denim jacket. I wrote this poem, and it was basically just a page long. I was in the college restaurant, only "restaurant" is too grand a word (it was like a grease pit basically). I wrote the poem on the back of a placemat. It was published, as a matter of fact, but that idea of the guy never left my mind. The thing about him that really attracted me was the idea of the villain as somebody who was always on the outside looking in and hated people who had good fellowship and good conversation and friends. So, yeah, he was there, really, from the beginning of my writing career. He's always been around. 

Let's have no confusion on the subject: "The Dark Man" is an important work for King scholars, if only as a Flagg genesis point.  That importance cannot, and should not, be denied.

However, I've seen a few reviews of this book that indicate it is a Rosetta Stone of sorts, one that illuminates not only The Stand but the journey to The Dark Tower, as well.  Technically, I guess those reviews are correct; nevertheless, I don't think much of that is in evidence in the poem itself.  Here's an excerpt:

i have slept in glaring swamps
where musk-reek rose
to mix with the sex smell of rotting cypress stumps
where witch fire clung in sunken
psycho spheres of baptism

And so forth.  There's nary a capital letter in sight, and a great many lines that probably ought to end in a period have none.  It's by no means the worst poetry I've ever read.  Shit-fire, man, I've written poems twenty times worse.  At least.  If someone had turned "The Dark Man" in during one of the poetry-writing classes I took in college, I suspect we all would have nodded approvingly and had many kind things to say.

That doesn't make "The Dark Man" anything special.  As poetry, it's mediocre.  Its historical value is immense, but that doesn't mean "The Dark Man," in and of itself, is a notable work.  For my money, it isn't.

So, why has this poem been released on its own, as a standalone book?  Is there accompanying essay material to flesh it out, perhaps?  Is the book primarily a study of the poem's historical significance?

Nope.  It's a picture-book.  The whole poem has been illustrated by artist Glenn Chadbourne.  There are something like 73 pages' worth of illustrations, which amounts to nearly two pages per line.  

Right about now, you might find yourself thinking, "Hey, does that mean this is really a Glenn Chadbourne book based on a Stephen King poem?"  I'd answer that question with a yes.  And yet, you will notice that Chadbourne's name is nowhere on the cover of the book.  In my mind, that is a real shame.  So is the fact that Chadbourne is credited on neither of the two interior title pages.  The cynical side of me figures that the reason for this must have been that Cemetery Dance wanted to market the book as a Stephen King book, and was afraid that if Chadbourne's name appeared on the cover, it might make people less inclined to buy the book.  Except...CD hasn't been shy about saying right up front that the book  consists of a fully-illustrated King poem; they certainly haven't been obfuscating that fact.

So why isn't Chadbourne's name on the cover?  It doesn't make sense to me, and it makes me a little bit angry on his behalf. 

[EDIT:  Brian James Freeman of Cemetery Dance informs me via the messageboards at TheDarkTower.org that it was Chadbourne's decision to restrict his credits, wanting instead to keep King's name front and center.  That says a lot about Chadbourne's self-effacement and humility, which matches with all the positive things I've seen people say after having spoken to him.  So, unsurprisingly, the cynical side of me has once again been proven wrong.  Well done, Bryant!]
  
Chadbourne's art here is strong, and while I don't think it does anything to make "The Dark Man" a less minor work, it does at least give certain moments of it a grandeur and scope that the words themselves do not entirely possess.

Here's an example from near the very beginning:


Sorry for that scanner shadow on the left; I didn't want to bend the book farther than I already was doing.


I love that page.  I can practically feel him walking.  There are other pages I don't particularly like, but by and large, the art is really quite good.

One of my major problems with the book is that the poem itself is spread out over too many pages.  Also -- and we're headed into pedantic-land here, so pardon me -- it sort of bugs me that the layout of the text ignores King's poetical formatting and line breaks.  I snarkily mentioned the lack of capital letters and proper punctuation earlier, because I generally loathe that people think doing things like that make something poetical.  They don't.  They make an author lazy.  (They make people on Facebook and Internet messageboards lazy, too; but I digress.)
  
Yeah, sure, okay; the poem is reproduced at the end on its own, for those who wish to read it divorced from the imagery.  But to me, if you're going to publish a book devoted to a poem, maybe you ought to show a little more fidelity toward the poem itself?  And for better or for worse, an author's choices regarding line breaks et cetera are sort of crucial in a poetical context.

Here's an example of what I'm talking about:

i have ridden rails
and passed the smuggery
of desperate houses with counterfeit chimneys

In my mind, each line should be given its own page.  Here's what actually happens:










The effect here is to refashion the poem.  In essence, the layout changes the poem so that it reads as follows:

I HAVE
RIDDEN RAILS
AND PASSED
THE SMUGGERY
OF DESPERATE HOUSES
WITH COUNTERFEIT CHIMNEYS

The words are the same; the emphasis is not.  If you've never been in a literary program, odds are good that you won't mind in the slightest, and to you, I would say this: it's okay for some.  Others?  Not so much.

That divide notwithstanding, Chadbourne's art on these pages is strong.  I'd kind of like to have seen the dark man actually riding a rail, as opposed to just being near one, though, but let's not worry about that too much.  The art is good enough that that doesn't bother me.
  
However, in some ways it is doing the poem a disservice.  The art is good enough to want to linger over, but lingering causes the poem to lose the forward momentum.  If I read the words "the smuggery" and then look for a while at the accompanying illustration, and then flip the page and read the words "of desperate houses," the words have not really been combined in the manner they ought to have been combined.  Unless you are imagining William Shatner narrating the poem (an idea I knew to be genius the second I had it), the distance created between the words is working against the poem, not for it.  The book's layout is forcing the reader to give the art preferential treatment over the poem; or, alternatively, to give the poem preferential treatment over the art.

My point is, it all fails to add up to a cohesive whole.  The poem has a few decent moments, and the art is at least 75% excellent; but there seems to be a divide between the two, and I believe the layout of the words is what's causing that.

So, to sum up:

  • a mediocre poem
  • that has historical significance but little inherent literary value
  • illustrated lushly and copiously
  • by someone whose name is not even on the book's cover
  • given hardback treatment with a $25 price tag

Odds are, you know already whether this is something you need to own.  If you're a "yea," I don't begrudge you; if you're a "nay," I sympathize.

If you're like me, a "nay" who bought it anyways, then welcome to the club.  We meet here infrequently, but with gusto.

By the way, this makes me remember that two of the King books I don't own are the two Chadbourne-illustrated volumes of The Secretary of Dreams (which were King short stories with accompanying art).  I missed out on the first due to not having a job at the time, and secondhand copies are too rich for my blood.  So if somebody out there has copies they'd like to donate, or scans they'd like to email me, get in touch; it'll do wonders for your karma.  You might even go to Heaven because of it.

It certainly wouldn't hurt your chances...

14 comments:

  1. Great looking illustrations, I'll give it that.

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  2. I will say this about Chadbourn's artwork. it is sufficiently creepy to remind me of the work of another artist.

    I've mentioned this elsewhere, but does anyone remember a trio of story collections called "Scary Stories to tell in the Dark"?

    If not, here's a story with an illustration that Chadbourn's images put me in mind of:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=J2yc9dReFh4

    All can say is what I said before, these stories were my "Tales from the Crypt" growing up. In fact, I think these books are what got me hooked on horror. Which is strange because Stephen Gammel's illustrations by rights should driven me away.

    Seriously, these guy's drawing's are Effed UP! What helps, or doesn't depending on how freaked you are, is the narrator for the above link. Seriously, the guy has a voice creepy enough to go along with the images.

    Believe it or not, It's Heat Meiser from Rankin-Bass, and he also narrated Underdog (the cartoon, not the movie).

    Other than that, I'm trying to keep a straight face by imagining Shatner cast as Flagg.

    All I can do is think "Say "Therrrrre's...Some one on the wing!"

    The way he says it in my head just makes me realize how much of a weird resemblance there is between him and Elvis....Apologies for that!

    ChrisC

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    1. I think I've got a copy of Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark somewhere... I'll have to dig for it.

      Heat Meiser, as well! Nice.

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  3. Yeah! That comparison to "Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark" is a very apt one, I'd say. Haven't read one of those in decades!

    If you gave me a time machine, I'd use it to back in time, kidnap William Shatner out of 1967, bring him back to the present, and film a version of "The Stand" wherein he plays Flagg, Trashcan Man, AND Stu.

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    1. WILLIAM SHATNER in Stephen King's... The Stand. (That should be read in diminishing font...)

      The mind boggles. Happily.

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  4. My next planned series of posts for the blog (apart from the weekly "Under the Dome" reviews) is a retrospective on the miniseries version of "The Stand." I watched part one tonight, and it includes a scene in which Harold Lauder brings Frannie Goldsmith a copy of a literary journal in which he's just had a poem published. Once Harold leaves, Frannie's father reads a few lines of the poem aloud; they are lines from "The Dark Man."

    Which makes sense, thematically.

    However, King (who wrote the screenplay) perhaps issues the most damning review for the poem I can think of: he has Mr. Goldsmith read the lines in a tone implying stentorian pretension, and Frannie waves at the air the way you'd try to wave a smelly fart away.

    Jeez, Steve; it's not THAT bad...

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  5. Love Chadbourne's illustrations but this product does not offer the bang for buck I need to purchase it.

    I'll just have to be content with my copy of Knowing Darkness.

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    1. Well, that's a book that is easy to be content with!

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  6. I LOVE King's poetry and have searched exhaustively for it. I would love to read this poem, but cannot find it anywhere, and do not want to spend $25 on one poem with artwork which I could do without. Is there any way you'd post the poem itself?

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    1. No, I'm afraid not. That would seem like potential coypright violation, and I'd just as soon not wade into those waters.

      Sorry!

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  7. I finally read this... got it from the library. I feel like eh... just not worth the money. Though the illustrations are wonderful!

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  8. You said: "The Dark Man is an important work for King scholars, if only as a Flagg genesis point". Agreed. After all, if you didn't already know this (or even if you did), Melville actually wrote "Billy Budd" as a poem long before it was a novella. Essentially what we have here is the earliest draft of that great scene in The Stand where Flagg is walking down the highway - or to use a pop culture example, it's as if we were looking at Stan Lee's first ever sketch of Spider-Man.

    That being said, did King really need to turn "The Dark Man" into a pricey illustrated book, breaking up the poem's enjambment in the process? Probably not - I think it might have worked better tucked in the back of one of his short story collections. (It is tempting to ask why he didn't pull this out when he was fishing through his juvenilia to put "Skeleton Crew" together.)

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    1. I did NOT know that about Melville. I know virtually nothing about his work, actually; maybe some day.

      I absolutely agree with you that the poem is valuable from a historical perspective. And it's got its moments; it's not like it's a terrible piece of work or anything. Mediocre, yes; terrible, no. Deserving of its own hardback release?

      Probably not, although the art certainly pushes it closer to that edge (if not over it).

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