The Dark Half
Author: Stephen King
There’s a term in sports called value over replacement player. Essentially it boils down to comparing how a player’s production compares to the average performance a team can expect when trying to replace a player at minimal cost, or by using “freely available talent.” (Thank you Wikipedia for the handy summary.) Because sports fans are crazy, we love trying to figure out what real life player in a given season is the best example of the fictional replacement player concept. The idea of replacement level can be applied to just about anything. What’s a replacement level hamburger? Probably McDonalds or Wendys, certainly not a gourmet burger from your favorite food truck. What’s a replacement level beer? Miller Light? The idea is there are players, burgers, beers, etc. that are worse than replacement level (hello Keystone Light), so it’s not necessarily an insult.
That’s a roundabout way of saying that after reading 26 Stephen King books, The Dark Half is my pick for a replacement level Stephen King book. What sort of qualities would you expect in an average Stephen King book? Takes place in Castle Rock, Maine? Check. Features a writer as the protagonist? Check. Borrows liberally from Stephen King’s own life? Roger that. Ends when the action does, leaving the reader wondering how the hell everybody explains what happened? Unfortunately. In a broader sense, the plot to many of his books could be described as _________ is an evil entity that kills people violently and can only be stopped by our protagonist. It could be the plot to Christine, It, Salem’s Lot, or The Tommyknockers. Here the blank is filled by “an author’s pen name.” The Dark Half is worse than most of those books (not The Tommyknockers) and felt more like an author going through the motions than any of them.
The plot of The Dark Half is about author Thad Beaumont who has just said goodbye to his author pseudonym George Stark. Thad is a klutzy, mild mannered father of twins who has written two moderately acclaimed but unsuccessful books under his own name, and several very popular violent crime books under his pen name. What the general public doesn’t know about Thad, is that when he writes as George he seems like a different person to his wife. He’s short tempered and his mannerisms are even different. They almost match the fictional backstory he’s crafted for Stark, as a man whose spent time in prison and is “not a very nice guy.” Following a People Magazine story about Beaumont figuratively burying Stark, a series of gruesome murders occur that are certainly linked to Beaumont but are even closer related to Stark.
The backstory of The Dark Half is as interesting as anything that occurs in the book. Prior to writing this book, King had occasionally released books under the pseudonym Richard Bachman. My understanding of why he did this was because there was a concern he would cannibalize or flood his own market by releasing so many books under his own name. In addition, King wanted to know if his writing was strong enough to sell on its own without his name behind it. Apparently a store clerk discovered King’s secret before the experiment could fully play out much in the same way that Thad Beaumont’s secret is found out in the Dark Half. The problem with centering the plot of the book around this sort of situation is that at times it felt a little too inside baseball for my taste. While we can all relate to driving cars, seeing clowns or even being eaten by vampires, the author/pen name dynamic felt more like an exercise in King’s writing chops than a story that would grab the general readership.
I did enjoy the police response in this book, as the officers were put in an interesting situation where all the evidence provided one explanation that was either impossible or easily proven false. The other main character in the book is a local sheriff who probably ends up believing in the impossible much sooner than I would have, but it was better to read about him than the typical stubborn (and wrong) law enforcement characters in most fiction. Thad’s wife Liz also gets to participate in a good bit of the action later on, and is proactive enough that her own storyline stays as interesting as Thad’s.
As a villain, Stark was also middle of the road. His motivation fluctuated between revenge and survival but his personality did not really develop beyond evil and mean. As described by King, his appearance was memorable, particularly as his condition regressed. The very nature of Stark made for a difficult character to get a grasp on. Somebody who is not real/ is having a horrific Marty McFly during “Johnny B. Good” performance moment but who also has to be able to overpower others and recover from mortal injuries requires huge suspension of disbelief from the reader. I had an easier time ascribing those qualities to a car in Christine than I did to a pseudonym.