There will be light spoilers in this review, but I tried to keep them on par with what would be revealed by the synopsis of the book. There was simply no way for me to review this while keeping every detail concealed.
King crafted something both horrifying and utterly fascinating from his frustration over the loss of Richard Bachman. For those who aren’t familiar with Bachman, he was King’s pseudonym, under which he wrote Rage, The Long Walk, Roadwork, and The Running Man before accidentally outing himself in his fifth publication, Thinner.
This little book was conceptually more in line the stories for which King was already well-known. When a bookstore employee, who was a big fan of King, scored an advanced copy of Thinner, he did some digging and became convinced that King and Bachman were one in the same. King decided to get in front of the news and gave said reader a one-on-one interview, in which he admitted to the world that he was indeed Richard Bachman. This resulted in more sales for his Bachman books, but King was unhappy with the loss, feeling certain that Bachman had been developing his own voice and would soon have generated success and a loyal fanbase without the addition of King’s name to the byline. Regardless, Bachman was now dead, though King would eventually publish a few works under Bachman’s name “posthumously.”
King’s experience with the loss of his Bachman pen name is unequivocally the inspiration behind The Dark Half. Here we have a situation that is somewhat the reverse of the real life story. Thad Beaumont is a literary novelist whose name is fairly well-known and who has been recognized by prestigious groups of intellectual award givers as deserving of recognition, though he has never really sold well with the general public. George Stark, Thad’s pseudonym, is the more popular author of the two, publishing bestselling crime novels to overwhelming approval from the general public. Stark’s true identity has recently been discovered and, instead of giving in to blackmail, Thad decides to simply reveal himself to the world and retire Stark permanently. Unfortunately for Thad, Stark isn’t going anywhere without a fight. Brutal murders are committed, and irrefutable evidence leads to Thad being found guilty as sin. There’s only problem; Thad did not commit these crimes. They were perpetrated by someone with whom Thad once shared a body and a mind and a pencil clutching in a hand. The existence of this someone is a physical impossibility, and yet it’s true all the same.
I love the personification of ideas that have populated our stories since before we knew how to write. Here King took the concepts of an evil twin, a brain child, and a pseudonym and created something appalling and malevolent and, most horrifying of all, real. King did a wonderful job of taking these little idioms that litter our language and breathing some sort of cancerous life into them. There is a scene at the beginning of the book, when Thad is just a sick kid on an operating table, that was one of the most horrifying visuals I’ve ever read, and it’s definitely going to stick with me.
Speaking of horrifying, this book is exactly what twelve-year-old me always expected to find when I eventually read my first Stephen King book as an adult. The Dark Half is cluttered with graphic details of violence and gore that could incite nausea within even the strongest of stomaches. These details are laid out with a maniacal amusement that is just as disturbing as the bloodbath itself. The description of the antagonist is one of the most sickening things I’ve ever read. Now, none of these are complaints, mind you. As I said, this is what I expected from King when I was a child, though I’ve actually gotten far less of it than I anticipated as I’ve read his work. In my opinion, this book is quintessential King, the literary equivalent of a campy, ultra-gory B-movie.
Okay, a couple of random things I liked. I really enjoyed the idea of sparrows as psychopomps, and the large role they played in the story. A sparrow seems like such a benign bird, certainly not ominous like a crow or raven or buzzard. However, a large enough grouping of any creature can be terrifying, as King demonstrates perfectly here. The importance placed on twins also intrigued me. I’ve always been interested in twins because my father is an identical twin, so the inclusion of twins in a story always piques my interest. Also, I loved the inclusion of Alan Pangborn, Sheriff of Castle Rock. While I read Needful Things first, which features him as one of the main protagonists, Alan is first introduced in The Dark Half. I found going back and reading about his life before the events of Needful Things incredibly interesting, and I think filling in my knowledge of a character I already cared about dramatically increased my enjoyment of this book. This is one of the few instances where I am actually thankful that I read something out of order. Unfortunately, Alan was the only character I really cared about. Neither the protagonist nor his wife were especially likable, whereas the antagonist seemed more like a caricature of evil than an actual person.
There were some parts of the book that were slow and meandering, and I think that the book would have benefitted from some editing of these areas. If it were shorter and sharper and presented the story at a breakneck speed, I honestly think that this book could have been a classic of the horror genre. But while it wasn’t perfect, The Dark Half was seriously fun. If you’re looking for something scary and so blood-soaked that it edges into cheesy, this book is totally for you.
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