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Friday, February 16, 2018

The Dark Half

Before I talk about this book, I want to take a little bit of time to talk about Misery.

As I said in my last post, Misery won't be getting an adaptation from me, and that's because it has a film adaptation already that's bloody perfect. I don't often say that of King films, but I can't fault a single thing about it.

That being said, it's less the book itself and more about its creation that I want to talk about, because it led, indirectly, to the book this post is about.

As I've talked about before, Stephen King used the Richard Bachman pseudonym starting back in the late 70's, mainly as an experiment. At the time, King had three big hits on the market with Carrie, 'Salem's Lot and The Shining, but these three books were hits because the movie Carrie, directed by Brian de Palma, had been a big hit in 1976, causing the reading public to not only turn the previously little-known novel into a hit but also to see what else King could offer. As all three books were horror tales, he became firmly entrenched in the minds of the public as a horror novelist, and because his books became insanely popular almost overnight, critics tut-tutted him and declared that he was just a pop fad that would soon pass. He couldn't write, and the evidence was that he wrote horror, which wasn't real literature. They assured everyone that once the hype died down, King would be forgotten.

King wanted to know if this was true, so he began releasing some of his other material under a different name, Richard Bachman, most of which was not horror. I've talked about all of it so far, but I haven't really talked about how Richard Bachman died.

As you'll recall in my post on Thinner, I noted that this was the first Richard Bachman novel that began life as a Bachman novel, and the first written by Stephen King the Experienced Novelist, rather than Stephen King the Starting-Out Author. It was written well after King found his voice, and read exactly like a Stephen King novel. It was even a horror novel, which none of Bachman's books had been yet. This was what led to the death of Bachman.

See, King still wasn't sure if the experiment had yielded any results one way or the other. Bachman's books didn't sell nearly as well but the critics were much kinder and readers that knew Bachman liked his work a lot. He was actually in the process of writing another Bachman novel, which became Misery, which was the dramatization of a lot that King was going through.

In Misery, an author who suffers a car crash finds himself in the care of a psychotic former nurse who also declares herself his "number one fan". He's been badly hurt in the crash and is in a world of pain, and really should be in a hospital, but Annie, his deranged caregiver, won't let him go until he resurrects the character Misery Chastain, who he has just killed in the final volume of his best-selling series about her. He depends on her, she demands he do only what she wants, and hurts him if he won't, yet keeps saying she loves him and she's his number one fan.

Annie is basically a big stand-in for addiction, that number one fan that hurts you as it loves you, that you depend on, but will kill you. She's also a stand-in for the kind of fan that won't let you be anything other than what they demand. I get that last one the most, because I've never suffered from addiction (except coffee; can't function without coffee), because I've been on both sides of that. I've been a fan who wanted only one thing from some authors (for example, I really don't care about anything George RR Martin has written that isn't part of A Song of Ice and Fire), and I've been a writer who produced something that people didn't want to read, not because it was bad (in fact, I'm repeatedly told how good the stories I write are) but because it's "not scary". The same thing happened to King.

After he published The Eyes of the Dragon, he got a number of angry fan letters telling him to stick to horror. I am not certain why it was this book that prompted it, since King had already published plenty that wasn't horror, but this was the first time he'd clearly gone to a different genre. One could conceivably call The Dark Tower "horror fantasy" and the sort of thrillers and dark dramas he produced could also probably count as "horror". I don't count them as such because they weren't intended to scare, but I've gone over that in detail before. The Eyes of the Dragon was a fairy tale, and whether or not it was good story might be a matter for debate but that wasn't what prompted the letters. The letters came because King dared to move to a genre that could in no way be called horror. Bad King, how dare he write what he wants to write and not what fans demand! Doesn't he know that as fans, he owes us?

I'm going somewhere with this, trust me.

Now we come to Misery, in which a fan learns that her favorite author has written a story of which she doesn't approve and has decided to stop writing the stories of which she does. She refuses to let this stand. In that story, Paul Sheldon, the writer in question, writes everything under his own name, but has become famous for a series of books he never intended to be his primary focus. He wanted to write about darker stuff, about different kinds of people, about different time periods and different levels of society. But what he became known for were a series of period romance novels about a single set of characters. Now he was so identified with these books that his fans got upset if he even talked about writing anything else, and the one who has him at her mercy demands he destroy his other work and go back to writing what she wants.

But Thad Beaumont, protagonist of The Dark Half, has almost the opposite problem. He, like Paul, wants to write "serious literature", but the stuff he's written under his own name isn't getting him anywhere. Critics love his work, but readers aren't buying. So his wife suggests using a different name and writing under that name for a while just to see what comes of it. She'll come to regret that scenario.

Thad's pseudonym, George Stark, is a writer of very dark, very violent crime fiction, which takes off like hotcakes, especially the ones featuring his villain protagonist, Alexis Machine. For about ten years, Stark's books keep the Beaumonts rich and happy, but Thad himself has a couple of secrets, secrets not even he knows.

The first one is from his childhood; he suffered crippling headaches, always preceded by the sound of sparrows chirping and taking flight. Eventually the headaches lead to a seizure, which leads to surgery, which shows that the "tumor" causing these headaches is in fact Thad's twin, which he absorbed in the womb, and which has spontaneously begun to re-grow. It's removed, and Thad never knows it's anything more than a tumor.

Second, when he writes as George Stark, it's as if he really is someone other than himself. For one thing, he can't write as Stark without using Berol Black Beauty pencils (I don't think they actually exist; Berol's was called "Black Warrior" while Rowney made a pencil named "Black Beauty") and when he does write Stark novels, he takes up several habits he'd been able to kick years ago, like smoking and heavy drinking (Thad, like so many other of King's protagonists, is a recovering alcoholic). But it goes beyond that; he begins to think like the fictional Stark, and for that matter whenever he writes longhand as himself his handwriting begins to get sloppy and unreadable, while Stark's always remains perfect.

Now, there are some parallels here, obviously, with King's own life. He created a fictional persona to release his Bachman books under, including a fake writer profile, and a personality for his alter ego different from his own. But the parallels aren't exact; for one thing, in the story, Stark is the best-seller while Beaumont can't get readers. In reality, almost the exact opposite is true; Bachman at best had a cult following, while King was the mega-star. Also, some suggest that Bachman's books, like Stark's, are less cerebral and more violent. Having read all but one of Bachman's books, I can't agree. Bachman's books were often colder and bleaker, that's true, ending on a downward note very often, but they were also smart books. The books of an intelligent, if cold and calculating, man.

Now let's circle back around to Misery. While he was writing it, a book store clerk named Steve Brown was reading Thinner. Brown was a Stephen King fan, and he began to notice a lot of similarities in how Bachman and King wrote. In fact, they seemed so much alike that he decided he had to find out if his hunch was true. In his research, he realized that he could not confirm anyone having ever seen Bachman in person, and that the mere idea that he was "reclusive" did not do enough to account for the fact. Finally he checked the Library of Congress and was able to learn that the copyright holder for all of Bachman's material was, in fact, Stephen King. He then contacted King's publishing house and asked them what he should do with his new-found knowledge. The result was that King called him personally, suggested he write an article about how he found out, and agreed to an interview on the spot. He then decided that, the fiction discovered, there was no reason to keep writing books under the Bachman name, and Misery became a Stephen King novel.

This is appropriate, because it's a very personal novel that was clearly the work of King from the get-go, but it has some direct ties to The Dark Half, because while Misery focuses on a fan that hates change, The Dark Half focuses on a pseudonym that doesn't like being cast aside. For that matter, he, like Annie, doesn't want the author to write what he wants to write, but has a far more personal reason.

The same sort of thing happens to Thad Beaumont; a law student named Fred Clawson discovers, in almost exactly the same way, that George Stark does not exist and that Thad Beaumont is the writer of his books. But unlike Brown, Clawson decides to blackmail Beaumont. I can't say I really bought this part of the story; after all, pseudonyms get revealed all the time, and yet it doesn't really cause any problems. "Robert Galbraith" was revealed to be JK Rowling shortly after his first book, The Cuckoo's Calling, was released, and she followed that up with two more Galbraith novels that have sold like wildfire. For that matter, there was a dramatic uptick in sales for Bachman's books when it was discovered King was their real author. What exactly did Clawson think would happen if he blackmailed Beaumont?

Well, what happens is that Beaumont goes public, essentially getting the jump on Clawson, who is probably a bit insane (his reaction to Thad's going public is hilarious and sad), and announces via a People magazine story that Stark is dead and that he's going back to writing books under his own name. This story even includes a photo shoot of Thad and his wife Liz standing over a mock gravestone that reads "George Stark - 1975-1988 - Not a Very Nice Guy". They consider the matter, if you'll pardon me, dead and buried.

But this one doesn't stay buried.

The Dark Half was adapted back in the early 90's by horror-maestro George A. Romero, with Timothy Hutton starring, and from what I've heard, it was generally well-received. I haven't seen it. I've seen clips, but not the movie. But there are two things that make me want to do a remake of it.

The first is that this is the story that introduces Sheriff Alan Pangborn, a character King will use again, and who will be a nice link to all the stories taking place in Castle Rock (or near it, in this case; Thad actually lives in Ludlow, and apparently on Route 2, just like Louis Creed in Pet Sematary, but he has a summer home in Castle Rock). Pangborn is George Bannerman's successor as the sheriff of Castle County, and he'll be the central character of another story I'll be adapting; Needful Things.

The second is that the film version doesn't really go in depth about what George Stark is, and to be honest, the novel doesn't, either, or at least, it leaves a lot unexplained. I don't want to give too much away, but it seems like a combo of George already existing and finally becoming real (Thad suggests that when he wrote as Stark it was like being possessed), and not just his body, but a few other things as well. Stark in the novel doesn't look or sound anything like Thad, but he does have the same fingerprints and voiceprint, both of which he uses to make it seem as if Thad is guilty of murder. The film takes this idea and runs with hit, having Hutton play both characters, while the novel explains that George Stark looks like the mental image Thad formed of him, which is partly based on what Alexis Machine looks like.

I have a theory that George Stark comes from a pocket universe formed by Thad's creativity coupled with the ghost of his twin. Stark has always existed on a different level of the Tower, perhaps in a version of our world where he lived and Thad didn't. The only way he can write is by possessing Thad, and the traumatic experience of being symbolically killed off caused him to manifest physically in our world, guided by the psychopomps that are the sparrows. It's a bit more of a concrete answer to the question "why does Stark exist", but I'm not sure it makes any more real sense.

Another thought I kept having as I read, one that I thought about while reading Misery but not so much The Tommyknockers or Home Delivery, is how several scenes would have to be completely re-written if we were to modernize this. Several scenes have a person going out of their way to find a payphone or phone that they'll be unreachable on (when today everyone carries a phone in their pocket), and I also don't know about the idea of a manuscript being turned in in longhand. I don't know the publishing industry inside and out, but my understanding is that today if the manuscript doesn't come printed out (in the right font, too!) double-spaced, etc., it gets rejected immediately, so the idea that Thad could turn in his Stark manuscripts in pencil, no matter how neat his handwriting, might not even work. I could see publishers accepting such a manuscript from their most legendary writer (like, say, Stephen King) but not from a guy like Thad Beaumont, who apparently was a writer who pleased critics but made no money.

I'm setting this one up to be directed by Karyn Kusama who has an eye for artistic horror. Thad Beaumont, who is described as clumsy and bookish, bespectacled but also kind of cold and distant, will be played by James McAvoy, who has the ability to change his personality to look both nerdy and scary. While Stark will be played by a different actor, Thad himself needs to be able to manifest the darkness that came from writing as Stark, especially toward the end when it starts to feel like he and Stark are becoming one.

Thad's wife, Liz, who first suggests creating George Stark, and then regrets it when she sees what it does to her husband, and later really regrets it, will be played by Rachel McAdams. She's around the right age and pretty and blonde, but honestly this is the kind of role that can be played by just about anyone as she's kind of just the damsel in distress.

Now for our antagonist, George Stark himself. Thad has come to identify Stark and Alexis Machine almost as the same person. He imagines Stark as a large, muscular blonde man, as is Machine, who probably did time (hence never learning to type) and has bright blue eyes. The eyes are what led me to Kevin Durand, who is just as large and well-built as Stark is described, and has those piercing blue eyes. He's not blonde, but as the photo shows, he can fake it. He's also got a deep, threatening voice but is strangely charismatic. My thought is that toward the end, in the climax, his face can start to be digitally blended with McAvoy's.

Sheriff Alan Pangborn was a role that I was thinking about even before I started reading, as he's a supporting player here, but will be the lead in Needful Things. Thanks to different production houses and whatnot, Pangborn has been played twice before by two different actors (and a third is on the way); in the existing film version of this story, he was played by Michael Rooker (yes, Yondu) and Ed Harris played him in the film version of Needful Things, less than a year after Rooker's turn in the role. Scott Glen will be playing an older, retired Pangborn in the upcoming series Castle Rock, but this Pangborn should be younger and ready for action. He's not an old man, but not necessarily young, either, and absolutely in charge the moment he enters the room. I found Josh Brolin to fit the image perfectly. And Brolin is one of those actors who can be both a character actor and a leading man.

Rawley DeLesseps is a fellow teacher at the university Thad teaches at, and an expert in folklore. He's a very stereotypical old professor, with the tweed and the tie and the "pip pip cheerio, old fellow, what?" way of speaking. He even smokes a pipe. In the movie, he was changed into a woman, played by Julie Harris, but I wanted the classic old professor. For some reason, I couldn't picture him not having a British accent, even though the book never says he does. I played around with the idea of Jim Broadbent in the role, but switched him out for Bill Nighy, as he can be both funny and really intense, which he'll need to be for at least one scene.

If Alan Pangborn is Castle Rock's Andy Taylor (only far more serious), then Deputy Norris Ridgewick is its Barney Fife, only...well, pretty much just like Barney Fife. It even says in the book that he looks like Barney. Ridgewick is another character we'll be seeing again in other Castle Rock-set stories, and we learn that as silly as he can be, he's no dummy. I pictured him being played by Jack McBrayer, and the picture below is the closest pic I could find of him without his trademark wide, silly grin. McBrayer can do bumbling and funny and yet make you understand the character is not stupid.

Fred Clawson is described as a young law student in the book, and we never see him alive and the whole story of his attempt at blackmail is told in retrospect. He's got to be seen in the film, though, which he was in the original version. He was played by Robert Joy, who was older than Clawson was described in the book, and that's okay, really, because his being a cash-strapped law student isn't necessary for the character. He just has to be cash-strapped, and he's got to be a little shit that you hate from the moment you see him. Jimmie Simpson can do that, as I've often felt he just has a really punchable face.

Finally, I feel like there need to be a few scenes of Alexis Machine in action. He needs to look a bit like Stark, enough that it's obvious who Stark's physical look is based on, but I think it would be cool if what we saw was a movie adaptation of one of the Machine books. Maybe Dolph Lundgren could play himself playing Machine.

And now, we bid a fond farewell to the 80's and dive into what I've heard called one of King's darkest periods (which is saying something). As I've pointed out, I've also read the least of this era's output. I'm heading into Four Past Midnight next, and I'm already certain I'll be adapting at least one story therein.

Next Up: The Langoliers!


  1. I just noticed on your collage banner that over on the righthand side, the copies of "Roadwork" all have the title misspelled. Unless those are the sequel! (James Cameron's "Roadworks"!) Wild.

    This is an excellent crop of casting. The only one that gives me pause at all is McBrayer, but if he's got the ability to play more or less straight -- and I'm guessing he does -- then he'd probably be great.

    Jimmi Simpson is so good for that role that I'm halfway convinced he's in the George Romero movie in that very part. (He's not, but I can kind of make it happen in my brain.) I could also imagine him being a great Thad.

    1. McBrayer has layers, and it’s always easier for a comedian to go serious than it is for a dramatic actor to be naturally funny. Plus Ridgewick is a funny character, or at least a kinda sorta comic relief.

      I’m glad you like Simpson that much. I chose several actors and whittled it down to him. The role is small enough I didn’t want a huge name.

      I never noticed that the banner had the title misspelled. I didn’t actually make it.

    2. Oh, no, I didn't mean to imply you had! I wonder if there actually IS an edition with that misprinted title? If so, I'd kind of like to have one.

      I'm no Jimmi Simpson expert or anything, but I've been a fan of his for years, mostly on the strength of two roles: "Rose Red" and "Virtuality." But then "Westworld" really clinched it, and he was awesome on the "Black Mirror" episode he did this past season, too. I'm happy to see him getting some acclaim finally.

  2. I really let time get away from me. I haven't been able to keep up with this for the past few weeks, and it looks like they've been coming fast and furious.

    I agree completely about the knock on Bachman being unfair. Some of his stuff was pretty pitch-black, but I place both Roadwork and The Running Man higher than your average King fan might. And I love your theory of Stark. I loved the short story Ur, and its alternate universes with Hemingway and I can't even remember what else, but lots of changes to pop culture that would have significantly changed our world.

    I'm always in favor of Bill Nighy in any role, and McAvoy is someone I felt could easily have gotten more accolades, especially for The Last King of Scotland. And this is a very Rachel McAdams kind of role. I find her a frustrating actress. What I mean by that is that she's very attractive, and from all indications is a lovely human being as well, but shes never had a role that stood out all that much to me. I don't believe she's at all a bad actress or untalented, but it would be interesting to see her get a meaty role. She got an Oscar nomination for Spotlight, and again, she was perfectly good in that role, but I didn't think it was necessarily a standout performance.

    Josh Brolin as Sheriff Alan Pangborn? I might have to adjust my reality a little. I would never have thought of that. It might be a perfectly good suggestion, but I'm used to him playing characters who are not terribly sympathetic (and I've seen a lot of his movies). Pangborn has such decency and such an Everyman quality that I've never really seen from Brolin. I'd love to see that side of him, though.

    I've only seen Jimmie Simpson in House of Cards. But now that you mention it, he does have a face that's eminently in need of a good pimp-slap.

    1. Hey, welcome back! I was starting to wonder if I was boring you.

      To me, Richard Bachman writes dark literature, and by literature, I mean something that could be studied and written about. He got a bum rap by people just declaring him a "darker Stephen King". For that matter, Stephen King gets a bum rap about being "just" a horror novelist. But I've said a lot about that. Bachman explores the human condition and its seamy underbelly.

      Brolin never plays good guys? Huh. I've always associated him with stern, rough-hewn good guys. Maybe it's because the two roles I most associate with him are in No Country for Old Men and Men in Black 3.

    2. Boring me? Certainly not.

      I don't mean to suggest that Brolin is incapable of it. I don't think I'd consider Llewellyn Moss a particularly good guy, but relative to Chigurh, almost anyone can be a protagonist. I'd forgotten about Men in Black 3. That's a good example. I was also thinking of Sicario and Milk, where he plays a morally ambiguous (at best) overseer of the Drug War, and a guy who eventually murders the protagonist. But in Everest, he was a protagonist also. I do like him as an actor, and I'd watch him as Pangborn. My reaction I think was just based off of how noble the character is. I think he's one of Stephen King's most heroic characters, at least in what I've read. I'm ready to move along.