The Dark Half

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 34)

Like Edgar Allan Poe’s “William Wilson,” Fyodor Dostoevski’s Dvoynik (1846; The Double, 1917), Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1886), Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray (1891), and Joseph Conrad’s “The Secret Sharer,” The Dark Hah, Stephen King’s eighteenth novel, is about a doppelganger. In this case, the alter ego is George Stark, the pseudonym of Thad Beaumont. Under his own name, Beaumont, a professor of English at a university in Maine, has written two critically esteemed literary novels, one of which was nominated for the National Book Award. These novels are caviar to the general, however, and when they failed commercially, Beaumont turned to writing crime novels, full of graphic violence, featuring a character named Alexis Machine. These books, published under the pen name of George Stark, have been immensely popular, but Beaumont feels uneasy about them and finally comes out of the closet to admit that he is really George Stark. He will write no more Stark novels, he says. At this point, People magazine persuades a reluctant Thad to agree to the staging of a mock funeral for Stark, with the epitaph, “Not a Very Nice Guy.”

Shortly thereafter; a neighbor of Beaumont is found murdered, brutally beaten to death with his own artificial arm. When his stolen truck is recovered, smeared with blood, fingerprints lead Sheriff Alan Pangborn to Beaumont. The prints are identical, but Beaumont has an unshakable alibi: He was entertaining a large number of guests, who can verify that fact, at the time of the murder. Meanwhile, the grave-digger at the cemetery with the fake tombstone of George Stark discovers, at the gravesite, a hole that looks as if it had been made by someone digging his way out of the ground with his bare hands; there are footprints walking away from the hole. Pangborn is unwilling to believe it, but the fake burial, coinciding with Thad’s decision to write no more Stark novels, has brought Stark murderously to life. Behaving like Alexis Machine, the lethal protagonist of the Stark novels, Stark systematically kills off all the staff members of People who were involved with the mock funeral, along with the police assigned to protect them once Thad and Pangborn become aware of what is happening.

Pangborn, a rationalist, refuses to believe in the paranormal, though he becomes convinced that Thad himself is not guilty of the crimes and joins with him in an uneasy alliance to try to track down the murderer. Thad’s wife Liz believes in Stark, however, especially when her husband starts getting psychic messages from him. What none of them knows is that Stark may be not only Thad’s pseudonym but also his dead twin brother. When Thad was eleven years old, in 1960, he simultaneously sold his first short story and developed a series of agonizing headaches that resulted in an operation for a tumor on the brain. Instead of a tumor, neurosurgeon Hugh Pritchard found in the brain a blind, malformed, pulsing human eye, part of a nostril, three fingernails, and two teeth. As Pritchard explains to his anesthesiologist and, thirty years later, to Sheriff Pangborn, Thad’s mother initially conceived twins, but the stronger fetus absorbed the weaker one in utero. Such absorption, however, is not always complete. Though Thad, in a way, ate his brother in his mother’s womb, alien matter, which became entwined in Thad’s brain, began to grow when the boy was eleven, whereupon the surgeon excised it. Pangborn thinks, “He is two men-he has ALWAYS been two men. That’s what any man or woman who makes believe for a living must be The one who exists in the normal world and the one who creates worlds They are two. Always at least two.”

Though on the level of plot, The Dark Half is a suspense story of supernatural terror, much of it concerns the nature of writing and of the writer. As their author had been, a number of King’s protagonists are English teachers, and several of them are writers. Novelists sometimes say that their characters take on a life of their own; in a way, their pseudonyms are also characters. As Thad reflects, “George Stark was not real, and neither was Alexis Machine, that fiction within a fiction. Neither of them had ever existed, any more than George Eliot had ever existed, or Mark Twain, or Lewis Carroll, or Tucker Coe, or Edgar Box. Pseudonyms were only a higher form of fictional character.” As Mark Twain, also obsessed with twins, was aware, a pen name can become an alter ego. After becoming established, King himself published his early rejected novels under the pseudonym Richard Bachman, and he gives an ironic credit at the beginning of The Dark Half “to the late Richard Bachman for his help and inspiration.” The dust jacket assures the reader that Bachman is “still at large.”


(The entire section is 2016 words.)


(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

Beahm, George. Stephen King: America’s Best-Loved Bogeyman. Kansas City, Mo.: Andréws and McMeel, 1998. Beahm provides an intriguing glimpse into Stephen King’s life as a celebrity and publishing phenomenon. An excellent resource that helps readers gain deeper insight into King’s works.

Duamant, Tasha. Review of The Dark Half, by Stephen King. Maclean’s 102 (December 18, 1989): 57. Although Duamant believes that King “has created an absorbing story with his regular-guy prose and familiar, all-American settings,” she finds that the novel sometimes lacks the suspense for which King is known.

Hohne, Karen A. “The Power of the Spoken Word in the Works of Stephen King.” Journal of Popular Culture 28 (Fall, 1994): 93-103. A defense of King’s work against the “snobbery of scholars who look down upon the rustic tradition of popular language.” Although Hohne does not deal specifically with The Dark Half, she gives a solid overview of King’s work and calls for academia to recognize “its potential to mobilize mass support.”

Magistrale, Tony. The Moral Voyages of Stephen King. San Bernardino, Calif.: Borgo Press, 1989. A clear, substantive analysis of King’s continuing interest in interactions of good and evil. The author also deals with other recurrent themes in King’s novels: the individual search for identity, self-destructiveness, social decay, and psychological imbalances.

Magistrale, Tony. Stephen King: The Second Decade, Danse Macabre to The Dark Half. New York: Twayne, 1992. This is jargon-free scholarship written for an intelligent popular audience. Critical, but very appreciative of King as a major writer. Views King as a trenchant commentator on an America that sees tawdry weaknesses and menace in the American Dream. Opens with an informative King interview. Cross-analyzes thirteen King novels. Useful chronology and maps of settings.

The New York Times. October 23, 1989, p. B1(N).

The New York Times Book Review. XCIV, October 29, 1989, p.12.

Publishers Weekly. CCXXXVI, September 1, 1989, p.76.

Russell, Sharon. Stephen King: A Critical Companion. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1996. Offers a brief biography of King as well as an overall view of his fiction. Entire chapters are devoted to each of his major novels, including one on The Dark Half. Discussion includes plot and character development, thematic issues, and a new critical approach to the novel.

Time. CXXXIV, November 20, 1989, p.105.