Sunday, September 4, 2011

The Dark Half by Stephen King

The Dark Half
by Stephen King
Copyright 1989

When we last visited Castle Rock, we visited Castle Rock of the past. It was 1960 and Gordie LaChance and his friends traveled across the Maine countryside to see a dead body.

Our next visit opens around that same time. Thad Beaumont is 11 years old and has one a writing contest with a short story. Young Thad enjoys writing stories and longs to write more. But before he can get his budding literary career going, he is afflicted with killer migraine headaches.

He has the classic symptoms of a brain tumor. He has seizures and an x-ray reveals a mass on Thad’s frontal lobe. An operation will be necessary to remove the mass and determine if it is malignant or benign.

When the doctors open Thad’s skull, they receive the shock of their lives. Instead of a mass of cancer, they see a clouded eye. Once the shock wears off, the doctor explains that what they are seeing is the remainder of Thad Beaumont’s twin which he absorbed in the uterus. The doctors remove the eye as well as a couple teeth and a fingernail that continued to grow long after the fetus that was Thad’s twin was absorbed.

We then flash forward to the year 1988. Thad and his wife are looking at a People magazine article written about themselves – or more specifically about Thad and his other half. The picture with the article features Thad and his wife, Liz, standing before a tombstone that bears the name, George Stark. Below his name is engraved, “Not a Very Nice Guy.”

Stark was Beaumont’s pen name. Under his own name, he wrote one novel that won an American Book Award and two more that did not fare so well. Depressed over the failure of his books, Thad adopted a pen name and began writing violent, gangster novels featuring a hero named Alexis Machine. Those novels did quite well and earned Thad a great deal of money.

But a law student stumbles onto Thad’s secret. He tries to blackmail Thad, but Thad thwarts the greedy blackmailer by outing himself. He no longer wants to write Alexis Machine novels anyway and he resents the intrusion. So, the publisher stages the publicity photo and article to kill George Stark once and for all.

A few days after the photo session in the cemetery, Castle Rock’s grave digger finds a giant hole in the ground where there ought to be no grave. He also notices claw marks in the hole as if someone were pulling themselves up and out and footprints leading away from the grave.

That evening, a man is murdered in Castle Rock and his truck stoeln

The next day, Castle Rock County sheriff Alan Pangborn (having taken over as sheriff after the death of George Bannerman in 1983 when Cujo did a number on him) show up at Thad’s doorstep prepared to arrest him. Pangborn and the state troopers with him tell him there has been a murder in Castle Rock and the murdered man was beaten to death with his own prosthetic arm. The man’s vehicle has also been located and Thad’s prints are all over the murder scene.

Thad has an iron clad alibi. He held a party that evening for members of the faculty at the college where he teaches English. He was in their company into the wee hours. Sheriff Pangborn has quite the conundrum. He has irrefutable evidence that Thad literally wallowed in a murder victim’s blood, yet Thad could not have possibly been there.

The next day, in New York, the young law student is sliced and diced with a straight razor. Then Thad’s agent is killed. The killer makes her call Thad and he listens with abject horror as the murder cuts her throat with a straight razor. Thad calls Sheriff Pangborn and tells him what has just occurred. Police protection is provided for everybody else in the city who was associated with the People magazine article. But against a man as strong and as wily as George Stark, police protection is no good.

He goes on a murderous rampage that night until everybody he can find associated with the People magazine photo shoot and article are dead.
Written on the wall, in blood, at each murder scene is the phrase, “The sparrows are flying again.”

The authorities are perplexed since Thad was obviously at home when the murders occurred in New York. Thad and his family are provided police protection. A wiretap is installed on their home phone. They wait for another call.

They don’t have to wait long. A man calls claiming that he once believed he was George Stark and tells Thad that he spent time in a mental hospital. Now that he’s killed these people, he’s got things straight. He knows he’s not Stark. Thad knows it is really Stark and that Stark is trying to fool those who are listening into believing a rational explanation.

Shortly after Stark’s call, Thad retreats to his study and falls into a trance. He awakens to find that he’s written several cryptic words and phrases in pencil, one of which is “The sparrows are flying again.” Thad is sure he knows what has happened and knows he’s responsible.

Sheriff Pangborn stops by the Beaumont residence one evening and Thad and Liz lay out a theory that they can hardly believe themselves. They tell Pangborn that the killer is none other than George Stark who has somehow come to life to seek revenge for having been killed off. Pangborn is incredulous and dismisses the theory. But he can’t dismiss the fact that science and reality are conflicting with each other in the case.

Meanwhile, Stark is cooling his heels in Greenwich Village. He’s purchased some Berol Black Beauty pencils and pads (Thad always wrote Stark’s novels with Berol Black Beauty pencils) but finds he can’t write. He needs Thad to help him with that. He decides it’s time to head for Maine and find his other half so they can start the new Alexis Machine novel. It is Stark’s hope that, as the process gets rolling, the writer will be the one to die and the nom de plume will be the survivor.

Thad tells Pangborn about the surgery he had as a child. Thad doesn’t know all the gory details, but knows enough to perk Pangborn’s interest because the sheriff is grasping at anything now that will help him solve the murder committed in his jurisdiction.

Pangborn tracks down the surgeon who performed Thad’s operation. The surgeon tells the sheriff what they found that day and about a strange event that occurred at the hospital that evening. As young Thad convalesced after his surgery, the hospital was besieged by sparrows. Thousands of sparrows descended upon the hospital, slamming themselves against the glass windows and the wall of the hospital

Thad decides to seek out information on what the sparrows have to do with the entire episode. He consults his friend and fellow professor Ronnie Delesseps (a name that hard core King fans will remember) who teaches a class on American folklore. After some research, Delesseps tells Thad that sparrows are psychopomps. Psychopomps are creatures that guide spirits to and from the material world to the spiritual plane. He warns Thad that they are not to be messed with.

A short time later, as Thad and his police escort are gathering some files in Thad’s office, Delesseps tells Thad he has a call in his office. Thad answers the phone and it is Stark. Stark is calling from his home. He is holding Liz and their twins hostage. Stark tells Thad that he must lose his police protection and head for home if he wants to see his family again.

Thad slips his protective detail with Ronnie Delesseps’ help and heads for his Castle Rock summer home where he is to meet Stark and his family. As he heads there, he notices that there are sparrows everywhere.

Meanwhile, Pangborn gets a call from a Castle Rock local who says someone has just driven a car out of his barn out in the country. He says it is an old Toranado with Mississippi plates and bearing a bumper sticker that reads, “High toned son of a bitch.” This matches the description of the car Thad conjured up in his own imagination when creating George Stark. Pangborn heads for the Beaumont’s summer home as well.

Pangborn drives to the Beaumont summer home and notices that the woods and the road are covered by sparrows. He tries to sneak up on the home, but Stark catches him and takes him back and adds him to his cache of hostages.

As Thad makes his way toward his summer place, he can barely pass because of the sparrows that are in the road and flying around. He eventually makes it and is relieved to find his family unharmed. Stark, however, is looking pretty bad. He is literally decomposing before his eyes. It’s time to write, Stark tells Thad. Thad can feel himself warming to the task.

They go to Thad’s study and Thad writes the opening paragraphs to the new Alexis Machine novel. He presents them to Stark who approves of them with delight. Thad notices that, after the writing, Stark’s appearance has improved. Thad invites Stark to crank out a few paragraphs. Stark takes the pencil and finds that, in the presence of his other half, the words flow and he writes fantastic prose.

Meanwhile the sparrows are swarming outside the residence. Thad knows that Stark does not know about or even notice the sparrows. When Stark is deep in his writer’s trance, Thad produces a bird call and sounds it. The sparrows attack. They crash through the windows and collapse the wall in Thad’s study. They begin to devour Stark. He fights with his straight razor, but to no avail. There are simply too many birds. The sparrows eventually take off, carrying the remains of George Stark off to another plane of existence.

The epilogue opens with a chapter from the new Thad Beaumont novel, The Sudden Dancers. The narrative then cuts away to the aftermath of the bird attack. Pangborn knows the truth and knows the truth will not suffice to explain the murders of so many people. Therefore, he and Thad decide to burn the place to the ground with all of the sparrows and all of the evidence. There, the story ends.

Stephen King, he of the long and sometimes laborious back story, he of the dozens of intricate subplots and minor characters, tells one of his most linear and straight forward stories in The Dark Half. Other than Carrie, which was written by a much less mature King, no other King book is easier to read.

The book was inspired by the death of King’s own pen name, Richard Bachman. The circumstances that killed George Stark are almost exactly like those that killed Bachman. Like the fictional Thad Beaumont, King decided to out himself and Bachman on his own terms rather than let a meddlesome third party do it.

King has made it clear in various essays that he was not pleased about the outing of Bachman and that he had plans for the nom de plume, including publishing Misery under his name. One can’t help but think the inspired writing of the killing of the various parties involved in the outing of George Stark was inspired by this real life anger.

But the book is more than just King telling a tale based on his own bitter experience of being outed. It is about the dual nature of the writer. When a writer is writing, he’s not himself. He’s not necessarily another person, but he is not the person that others see, interact with, or even know. The writer is living entirely within his own head. The writer is God in the world he inhabits inside his head and behaves as such.

The writer finds sympathy with the most evil people and beings. He commits acts in his books that he would not otherwise commit. He unleashes terrible events and harms the innocent. The writer (or the muse if you are so inclined to believe) is much different than the person.

People assume that writers of horror are twisted, mentally ill people. By all accounts, King is your average Joe. He owns a home (actually, several of them). He loves his wife and kids. He hates signing autographs, he loves rock and roll music and the Boston Red Sox and is a politically active Democrat. If one can ignore the fact that he is one of the most prolific writers of the 20th century and is making his mark in the 21st, King is as average as they come.

It is in The Dark Half that King sets the stage for the climactic ending of his series of novels set in Castle Rock. He has introduced and developed Sheriff Pangborn. He’s given us nodding acquaintances with Pangborn’s deputies. We’ve learned the names of a few of Castle Rock’s more important citizens and businesses such as You Sew and Sew and the Mellow Tiger. King will give us one more flyover of his fictional city in the novella, The Sun Dog published in the collection, Four Past Midnight before bringing the action to a head in Needful Things.

A note on Ronnie Delesseps. This was the original name in the story, The Crate, that was included in the movie anthology Creepshow. Delesseps was the college professor beleaguered by the crass, noisome wife. The name was changed to something more pronounceable in the movie.

The Dark Half does not rank among King’s best works, but stands as a good one and a worthwhile read. It’s not a bad first book for someone who’s never read King before. While Stephen King fans embrace King’s lengthy character development and subplots, they can distract the casual reader. No requisite knowledge of the lore of Castle Rock is necessary to enjoy The Dark Half. It is a story that is fast paced, has a plausible premise, and a great climax.

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