Thad Beaumont is a university professor and novelist with two books to his name, one of which was nominated for a National Book Award. However, his greatest success is as the man behind the pseudonymous George Stark, whose four ultra-violent novels have all been bestsellers. At the beginning of The Dark Half, Beaumont has decided to retire the Stark persona after a nosy fan figured out who was behind it. To get ahead of the game, Beaumont participates in a People magazine story publicly coming forward and “killing off” Stark, even posing for a picture at his supposed grave.
Unfortunately, George Stark has other ideas. In a preposterous bit of story magic that only Stephen King would even try to get away with, the heretofore fictional Stark comes to life and is every bit as brutal as his protagonist. The newly animated Stark sets out for revenge on the people who brought about his demise with Beaumont seemingly his final target.
Inspired by King’s own Richard Bachman pseudonym being brought to light against his will, The Dark Half is a nasty bit of work. Stark’s murder spree is brutally violent and at times it feels like King is rubbing it in reader’s faces. There are just so many deaths in a row and there isn’t really anything ennobling to counterbalance them. Thad Beaumont is not one of King’s more compelling protagonists. His personality is not well defined and since the whole story is built around the question of his survival, Thad’s charmlessness is a real problem.
More promising is the introduction of Sheriff Alan Pangborn, a smart, sensible officer who struggles to accept the truth of what’s going on between Beaumont and Stark. Pangborn is a much more interesting character, so it’s easy to see why King gave him a much bigger role to play in his Castle Rock follow-up, Needful Things.
Ultimately, The Dark Half falls into an uncanny valley of sorts. King attempts to provide an explanation for how Stark came to life, but it is so half-hearted and undercooked it undermines its own purpose. The story would have worked better if he had just left it completely unexplained. The unsatisfying nature of the explanation hinders the reader’s ability to invest in the plot.
For a novel with such personal relevance to the author, it’s a bit surprising that The Dark Half feels so inconsequential. Even the ending is a bit of a shrug from King. While the plot is resolved, the results are ambivalent at best. Maybe King should have let Richard Bachman have a crack at this one.