By nature, most human beings possess dual natures.
It makes sense if you think about it, actually.
We have our public selves. That’s the self that we present to the world. That self is polite. That self observes “social mores.” That self knows not to cut in line, for example. Or it knows that we use eating utensils to eat, and not our fingers. Our Sunday best self, in other words.
And then there is the private self. That self has no problem eating with its fingers. Or maybe cursing at someone to get out of its way already. Some may call this the “id”, per Sigmund Freud. Or, if we want to be kinder, the casual Friday self.
Often, being creative requires one to get in touch with that darker side. Some of the best art is born from darkness, actually. Art can be a good outlet for that darkness, allowing the artist to express those dark desires. At the very least, people may admire the end result. Or perhaps the artist can even make a viable living by expressing that dark side.
Usually, that dark side is kept under wraps. Artist does his/her thing, perhaps gets praised for it in some way, lets off steam, and it’s done, right?
Well, most of the time…
However, (wait for it) if you are a character in a…you guessed it…Stephen King book, its not that simple. No, nothing in a Stephen King book is ever that simple, is it?
(In case you forgot which blog you were reading.)
One of my favorite novels by The Master is The Dark Half. On the surface, it is a horror novel. After all, someone’s pseudonym comes to life and does horrible things. And don’t get me started on sparrows…
But, as with most of King’s work, The Dark Half is much more that what it seems to be on the surface. This is a novel that has much to say about the creative process, and the effect that process can have on the writer and the writer’s loved ones.
Plus, it takes place in one of my favorite King towns, aka Castle Rock. And it has Alan Pangborn as a character…Pangborn has long been one of my favorite King book boos!
In other words, what’s not to love about The Dark Half? It has a fascinating villain, along with some creepy imagery. It’s perfect, in other words.
So, without further ado, here is my recap and review of The Dark Half.
And, as always:
The book begins in 1960, and we are introduced to a young boy named Thad Beaumont. Thad is an aspiring writer, and already receiving recognition for his writing. Thad has also begun to suffer from serious migraines, but his doctor is unable to find a cause. Along with the migraines, Tad hears the sound of birds.
One day, Thad collapses at the bus stop. He is rushed to the hospital, and his doctors believe that he may have a brain tumor. However, the doctors do not find a brain tumor when they operate on Thad. Instead, they find eyes, teeth and other body parts in Thad’s brain. The doctors believe that they have found an unformed twin that was digested by Thad in the womb. The doctors elect not to tell Thad’s parents the full truth in regards to their discovery, and Thad’s parents are led to believe that the doctors have found a brain tumor. The surgery is successful, and Thad is soon released and goes back to living a normal life.
We are again introduced to Thad, twenty five years later. Thad is married to a woman named Liz, and is the father of fraternal twins named Wendy and William. Thad is also a writer, but has only found success using the pseudonym of “George Stark.” Under George Stark, Thad has written crime novels that have achieved commercial success. The novels written under Thad’s own name have not been nearly as successful, commercially or critically.
Eventually, a man named Frederick Clawson discovers that Thad Beaumont and George Stark are the same man. Clawson attempts to blackmail Thad, but Thad discloses the fact that he is also George Stark in a People Magazine interview, and even holds a mock “funeral” for George Stark. Thad then decides that he will attempt to write a “serious” novel under his own name, and is even glad that George Stark is “dead”, as Stark appears to be a violent, insane man.
Shorty after the “death” of George Stark, strange things begin to happen. Homer Ganache, Tad Beamont’s caretaker, is beaten to death with his prosthetic arm. Frederick Clawson is also murdered. Thad’s fingerprints are somehow found at the scene of both crimes.
In the meantime, Thad writes a mysterious sentence in the novel he is working on. The sentence is “The sparrows are flying.” This sentence is also written in blood on the walls of Frederick Clawson’s apartment. Tad also begins to hear the sound of birds again.
The fingerprints are traced back to Thad, and Thad is questioned by Sheriff Alan Pangborn, who is certain that Thad is guilty of both murders. However, Pangborn becomes less convinced once he speaks to Thad, and everyone is mystified by the murders.
Thad visits his doctor and undergoes a CAT scan, as he has been hearing the bird sounds again. At his office at the university, he appears to go into a trance, where he writes some seemingly random words on a piece of paper. This incident frightens Thad, and he burns the piece of paper.
In New York City, a woman named Miriam is attacked by a blonde man who calls himself George Stark. The man forces Miriam to place a call to Thad, and Miriam tells Thad that she is being attacked. Miriam turns out to be the ex-wife of Thad’s agent, Rick.
Thad is frantic, and finally reaches Sheriff Pangborn. He has Pangborn check on Miriam in New York, and tells Pangborn that Miriam’s attacker is calling himself George Stark. Thad also gives Pangborn the names of everyone associated with the People magazine article on himself and George Stark. Thad gives Pangborn a description of Stark, and tells him that he will fill him on the rest of the details in person.
In the meantime, in New York, the man calling himself George Stark murders three more people associated with the People magazine article in gruesome fashion, along with two police officers. One of the murdered people is Rick, the ex-husband to Miriam. While the murders occur, Thad dreams of them in his home in Maine.
The next morning, Thad tells Sheriff Pangborn everything, including the headaches he experienced as a child, and of how George Stark came to be. Thad is convinced that George Stark has come to life, and is seeking revenge for his “death.” Pangborn is skeptical, but says that he will speak to Thad’s doctors, including the doctor who operated on Thad as a child, to see if he can get any more leads.
The authorities wire-tap Thad’s phone, in an attempt to track down Stark. Shortly after the phone is tapped, Stark calls back, and says that he has killed more people. Later, it is discovered that Thad’s voice print and Stark’s voice print are nearly identical.
Pangborn also places a call to the doctor who operated on Thad as a child, and leaves a message for the man to call him back.
Thad also speculates that he knows exactly what George Stark wants: for Thad to write another novel under Stark’s name. Thad contemplates doing just that, if it will put an end to Stark’s violent rampage.
One day, Thad makes a trip to the local grocery store and receives a phone call from George Stark while he is shopping. This call confirms Thad’s suspicions: Stark does indeed want Thad to write another novel under the Stark name. Stark threatens to hurt Thad’s family if Thad does not comply.
Over the next few days, Thad and his family are on edge, as they wait for Stark to make another appearance. One afternoon, Thad and Liz’s infant daughter, Wendy, takes a tumble from the stairs and receives a bruise. Later that evening, Wendy’s twin brother, William, also receives a bruise in the same place on his body, even though he was not physically injured. This gives Thad some insight into George Stark and his relationship with Stark, even though he is still not sure what to do about Stark.
Thad attempts to communicate with Stark in his study one afternoon. When he does so, he finds out that Stark needs him to write another book because Stark is dying and will only live if Thad writes another book. Thad also sees a large group of sparrows outside of his house, and is forced to stab himself in the hand with a pencil, courtesy of George Stark.
In the meantime, in New York City, George Stark experiences what Thad is experiencing, and also stabs himself in the hand with a pencil. We also learn that Stark’s body is deteriorating, presumably because Thad has not written any George Stark novels. Stark leaves New York City, and makes his way to Maine and Thad.
One day, Thad goes to his office at the university where he is employed during the school year, under the guise of doing some work. However, Thad is really attempting to get in touch with Stark again. Stark contacts him on the phone of one of Thad’s colleagues, and again demands that Thad begin work on a new novel. Thad also finds out that Stark is calling from Thad’s house, and also sees a large group of sparrows again.
Thad’s colleague Rawlie explains the significance of sparrows in folklore: sparrows are psychopomps, or harbringers between the living and the dead. The job of the sparrows is to guide lost souls back into the land of the living.
After speaking to Stark, Thad agrees to meet him at his and Liz’s summer home in Castle Rock. Stark tells Thad that his wife and children are unharmed, but he has killed the two police officers who were supposed to protect Liz and the twins.
On the way to his summer home, Thad calls his colleague, Rawlie, and requests his help. He meets Rawlie, and takes Rawlie’s car, so that he can drive it to his summer home. While he is talking to Rawlie, Thad sees another large group of sparrows.
Sheriff Pangborn is finally able to speak to the doctor who operated on young Thad. The doctor tells Pangborn that he did not actually remove a tumor from Thad’s brain. Rather, he removed body parts of an unformed twin which had been consumed by Thad while he was still in the womb. The doctor also tells Pangborn that a large group of sparrows was seen outside of the hospital during the operation.
Pangborn also receives a report of a stolen vehicle. The stolen vehicle is an Oldsmobile Toranado, which happens to be the vehicle that Thad described George Stark as driving. After receiving the report of the officers killed at Thad’s home, Pangborn deduces that Thad may be headed to his summer home, and follows him there.
Stark arrives at the summer home with Liz and the children. He ties Liz up after discovering a pair of sewing scissors that she had hidden on her skirt. Pangborn also arrives at the summer home, but Stark also captures him and ties him up.
Soon, Thad also arrives at the summer home, and sees that Stark is holding Pangborn and his family hostage. Thad also notices the large group of sparrows, which Stark does not appear to see.
Stark demands that he and Thad begin writing a new novel, and Thad complies. Stark holds Thad’s children as hostages, using them as a collateral of sorts. Liz and Pangborn are forced into another part of the house.
For a time, Stark and Thad work on the new novel. Previously, Stark had literally been deteriorating, but his wounds begin to heal. Suddenly, the sparrow descend upon the house.
The sparrows invade the house and head for Stark. Stark attacks Thad and tries to run from the sparrows but is unsuccessful. The large group of sparrows descend upon Stark, and literally carry him away from Thad and his family.
Some time later, Thad meets with Sheriff Pangborn at his summer house, which has nearly been destroyed by the incident with Stark and the sparrows. Pangborn is still having trouble believing what happened, but knows that he has witnessed something unbelievable. With Pangborn’s blessing, Thad sets fire to the house.
For a time, Thad watches the flames, and then leaves with his family. Pangborn wonders what will become of Thad’s marriage, as Liz has witnessed what Thad is capable of creating.
The Dark Half.
In other words, never a more appropriate title. Especially the second word in the title.
Stephen King has been known, obviously, for his dark subject matter (no pun intended.)
Novels like Pet Sematary, Thinner, The Long Walk, The Dead Zone, Roadwork and quite are few others are books are known to be especially bleak. The Dark Half is another one that it bleak. And I think that The Dark Half may be one of his bleakest, possibly almost as bleak as Pet Sematary.
One of the things I noticed about The Dark Half is the character development. King is known for creating likable characters. I mean, who doesn’t love a Stu Redman, Eddie Dean, Beverly Marsh or even ole long tall and ugly himself?
However, I cannot say the same thing about the characters in The Dark Half. In fact, I would have to say that my favorite character in The Dark Half is the minor character, aka Sheriff Alan Pangborn.
This isn’t to say that I actively disliked Thad Beaumont, who is the protagonist and so-called “good guy.” I just found little to like about him, and thought that he was more of a prop for the bad guy, George Stark.
I would characterize The Dark Half as a book that is more plot driven than character driven. There is nothing wrong with this, either. I actually find the premise of this book fascinating, and yet another underrated Stephen King book.
One of the things I find fascinating about The Dark Half is actually George Stark himself. And there are a few reasons why I find him so interesting.
For one, he is just evil. Pure evil.
With some of King’s bad guys (Jack Torrance comes to mind), sympathy can be summoned. Sure, the person is bad, but they are human underneath it all, and may actually have reasons for being bad, even if we don’t necessarily understand or agree with those reasons.
Not so with George Stark. There is nothing good about George Stark. Nothing good at all. The man (and I use that word loosely, more on that later) is just evil incarnate.
He’s ruthless. He’s vindictive. And creative. He may not be able to write a story by himself, but he sure comes up with inventive, horrible ways to kill people.
In fact, I did think a bit of this guy when I read about Stark:
It’s true that this guy may be a little more humane than Stark, but still, the comparison stands.
And there is just some about a guy who is evil simply for the sake of being evil…in other words, I love it!
Mickey’s a mouse, Donald’s a duck, Pluto’s a dog…
So what the hell is Goofy?
Or, in this case, what the hell is George Stark?
The Master does tease a bit about Stark, but trying to determine his true origin is almost as difficult as trying to determine Goofy’s true species.
We know that Thad had an un-formed twin that he absorbed as an infant. And that parts of that un-formed twin were found in Thad’s brain, of all places.
Somehow, this un-formed twin became an issue right when Thad hit puberty, and developed his writing talent. The doctors removed it. And there was nothing unusual then, other than a large flock of sparrows that invaded the hospital where Thad was staying.
Then, years later, Thad’s wife miscarries. She was pregnant with…twins. Not coincidentally, George Stark comes into being. And Thad starts becoming somewhat successful as writer, using the George Stark pseudonym.
Then, Stark “dies” again, although he refuses to stay dead, and makes life miserable for a lot of people, including the man who is either his creator, or maybe just his brother, aka Thad. And then the sparrows come back, although Stark cannot see them. However, Thad is aware of their presence.
My theory is that Thad has the ability to create twins. After all, he fathered twins twice. He himself was a twin.
So did he create Stark? I think that he did, actually. I think Thad was perhaps blessed (or maybe cursed) with that ability to create and harbor other personalities, much like Susannah Dean of the Dark Tower series. And Thad’s ability to create and harbor these other personalities seems to be directly linked to his creative ability. In fact, maybe Thad’s ability to create other personalities is an extreme manifestation of his writing talent, similar to how Edgar Freemantle (Duma Key) is able to alter reality with his paintings.
Another reason why I love The Dark Half is because this is a book that has a lot to say about the subject of creativity.
King has written several book that touch on the subject of creativity. Duma Key, Misery, Finders Keepers, Bag of Bones and even The Dark Tower are all books that touch on the subject.
Additionally, many of King’s characters happen to be writers, or artists of some kind at, at the very least. Mike Noonan, Bill Denbrough, Ben Mears and Jake Epping are all King characters that dabble in writing of some form. Even poor Jack Torrance (The Shining) was an aspiring writer. Writing is something that King is familiar with (for obvious reasons), so it often gets incorporated into his stories.
However, King is not merely content to incorporate writers as characters into his stories. Since he is The Master, he needs to take an extra step or four.
In other words, King often writes about writing, not just the writer. In fact, the art of writing is a major plot point to several of his stories, including Bag of Bones, Misery and even The Dark Tower.
The effect of fiction on both the writer and the reader is another major theme in many of King’s works. Again, Misery, The Dark Tower, Finders Keepers and Bag of Bones, along with several other stories, also address this theme.
And it could be argued that The Dark Half addresses all of these themes in one fell swoop.
We have the main character, Thad Beaumont, who is a writer. Thad struggles to obtain the kind of success he wants, since the “literary” books that he writes do not sell well, and he is forced to rely on the “pulp” books about Alexis Machine to pay the bills. This is a struggle, and causes Thad to question where he fits in as a writer.
Obviously, The Dark Half deals with the effect of fiction on the reader. When he wrote as George Stark, Thad found a rabid fan base. When Thad writes as himself and not George Stark, his fans (although they could really be considered Stark’s fans) are disappointed, and refer to his work as “terrible.” Often, fans of a particular offer become entitled, and grow angry when the author does not “deliver.”
The effect of fiction on the writer is also addressed in The Dark Half. Thad claims to want to write a “serious” novel, but it seems his heart is never in it. He blames the distraction of George Stark on not being able to write his “serious” novel, However, Thad gets enjoyment when he starts writing the novel that Stark demands of him. Again, this causes Thad to question just where he fits in as a writer, and just what success means. Does success include writing something that he himself is satisfied with? Does it include pleasing his fans? Does include “critical” success?
As most Constant Readers know, Stephen King, for a time, wrote under the pseudonym Richard Bachman. In King’s mind, writing under the Bachman name would allow him to step outside his “genre,” or write works that were not “just horror.” King had become typecast as a horror writer, and feared that he would be unable to explore any other type of writing, as people had come to expect him to write horror stories, and nothing else.
Of course, anyone who pays attention to King should know that he is a great writer, period. He does write scary stories, but there is so much more to King than “horror.” The Dark Tower series is an epic fantasy series, much like Game of Thrones or Lord of the Rings. 11/22/63 is a story about time travel and King’s feelings in regards to the Vietnam War. The collections Hearts in Atlantis and Different Seasons both contain stories that cannot be classified as horror stories. In fact, it can be argued that King’s strength is writing about ordinary people faced with extraordinary situations. This is evident even in his books that are horror stories, in characters such as Danny Torrance, the members of The Losers Club, Jack Sawyer (The Talisman and Black House) and so forth. King’s writing is so effective because people can relate to it, and the situations become that much more believable,
But early on in King’s career, he likely felt compelled to write horror fiction, at least under his own name. People had come to expect that, after all, and wouldn’t read something outside the horror genre, something that dealt with “real life situations.” Even today, there are people who are still prejudiced in regards to King: they either still think he “only writes scary stories” or have no interest in the non-horror works written by King. I have known more than a few people who have complained about that Dr. Sleep is not a direct sequel to The Shining, despite the fact that The Shining was written when King was much younger and in the beginning stages of his problems with drugs and alcohol. Their reactions are similar to a fan’s reaction to Thad’s work not written under the George Stark name: they are unable to read it, because it is not the formula they had grown used to.
In order to write other types of fiction, King developed the pseudonym of Richard Bachman early on in his career. Under the Bachman pseudonym, he was finally free to write other types of fiction, i.e. not horror fiction. And with the exception of Thinner, most of the Bachman books do not contain supernatural themes. Roadwork, The Long Walk, Rage and The Running Man are all disturbing on some level, but they are disturbing because they deal with “real life horrors,” such as the exploitation of our youth, corporate greed and our need to be entertained via television. In other words, Bachman’s work may be a little more mainstream, even though the Bachman books could still be considered to be in the horror category, although not the supernatural or fantastical horror category.
For several years, Bachman, like George Stark did for Thad, provided King an outlet to explore other types of writing. However, all good things must come to end. Like Thad, King was forced to kill off his “twin” when it was discovered that Richard Bachman and Stephen King were in fact the same person. And, like Thad, King went about the “murder” in humorous fashion, even saying that Bachman passed away from “cancer of the pseudonym.”
(Side note: Bachman never died. He just works on the Sons of Anarchy level of the Tower, helping Jax and his friends dispose of dead bodies, demanding to listen to music when he works.)
But, like George Stark, Richard Bachman will not stay dead. Eventually, Bachman emerged in other King works, like the Mr. Mercedes trilogy, Misery and Cujo, which are all books that contain themes of real life horror, as opposed to supernatural horror. Dicky Bachman even managed to publish posthumous works, such as The Regulators and Blaze.
In other words, an artist’s “dark side” can never truly be killed. Richard Bachman is still alive and well, manifesting himself through the works of Stephen King. And George Stark may have been carried off to parts unknown by an unimaginably large group of sparrows, but do we really believe that was the end of him?
Darkness lives in all of us. And like it or not, it is a vital part of the creative process. And any attempts to bury that darkness will backfire on us. Eventually, the darkness will be unleashed. And the world is not usually able to accept or handle that darkness.
Well, that’s it for The Dark Half! Join me next month, when I review and dissect Black House.
Tune in next month…same bat time, same bat channel!
Like of all of King’s work, The Dark Half is set squarely in the King universe and is connected to several other King books. Here are some of the connections I found:
-Part of The Dark Half is set in the town of Castle Rock. Castle Rock is the setting for several King books and short stories, including The Dead Zone, The Body (Different Seasons), Needful Things and Cujo.
-Thad Beaumont is mentioned by Mike Noonan in the book Bag of Bones. It is revealed that Thad commits suicide several years after the events in The Dark Half.
-Alan Pangborn is a major character in the book Needful Things. Pangborn also alludes to Thad’s suicide and the fact that his wife divorces him shortly after the events in The Dark Half.
-The town of Ludlow is mentioned. Ludlow is the setting for the novel Pet Sematary.
-The town of Harlow is also mentioned. Part of the novel Revival takes place in Harlow.