(The Dark Half)
It’s difficult for me to imagine writing a story on a typewriter, let alone a pencil. I have actually done both in the past, of course, I’m old enough to have used typewriters, and, at least when I was in school, it was much more common for kids to write assignments, including stories, in pencil or pen than anything else.
But I haven’t seen a typewriter since the one my grandparents had in their house when I was a kid – before I was in middle school, they had a computer, and I did a lot more typing on that as well as the wordprocesser I had in high school. By the time I’d reached a double digit age, about the only creative writing I did with a pencil were my attempts at poetry. And of course, I’ve been using a modern computer with internet capability for most of my adulthood. I don’t try my hand at fiction anymore, but I barely even write notes to myself in pencil or pen. I can’t write this post without several different tabs open in my browser. So the whole idea of a man writing a book with a pencil just sounds bonkers to me.
It must have happened, though. The jumps from typewriters to early computers and then to modern computers and the internet all happened within my lifetime. Typewriters pre-date me, of course, but not by as much as books do. So writing books longhand must have been an ordinary thing at one point. And I wouldn’t make the claim now that nobody writes that way anymore — there are plenty of people who are anti-technology out there. Some of them must write. Someone probably does it.
There’s also the matter of ritual. That’s real. Again, as a writer — even a boring, workmanlike, not very creative writer, I need certain conditions to be met in order to write. If I’m doing my paying work, I have to use Word. I don’t need Word in the sense that my jobs require it — they mostly want me to submit things in Google docs or on their platform. But I can’t write in Google docs, let alone some random platform’s text space. I just stare at the empty space. Instead I write in Word and copy and paste into Docs or the platform. I need Word, and I need specific settings in Word that I picked out. I had a minor freakout just this week when I somehow accidentally switched from print view to web view and didn’t realize what I’d done, so couldn’t put it back until I figured it out. I couldn’t possibly write in web view. Why? I don’t know. I’m not writing this in Word — personal writing takes place in Scrivener. I’ll copy and paste this into WordPress later. Why can’t I just write this into WordPress? Shrug No idea. When King says “writers are as superstitious as professional athletes”, he’s correct — I don’t think of myself as superstitious at all, I think of myself as a skeptic and nonbeliever, if anything, but one look at my writing habits tells you that there’s some superstition under the surface.
There are a few other things too — I want certain tabs open. I need a certain level of noise — too much and too little are both problems. The point is, when Thad Beaumont thinks about the ritual of writing, I understand what he means. And when he says that as Thad Beaumont, he needs his typewriter, but as George Stark, he needs a specific brand of pencil, I also understand what he means. Because the ritual of writing is real. It’s also individual to the author, and maybe the type of writing that they’re doing. King didn’t make that up for this book, he just explained it. I assume he has his own rituals that are just as necessary.
The Dark Half is a book that makes me think a lot about writing. About the process. About the strange whatever-it-is that makes word flow a thing that happens to me sometimes, that I don’t really have a ton of control over, but also can’t avoid. About the ritual. About the division between different types of writing.
Once again, King writes what he knows. So he writes about writers. And, interestingly, I think the story of how Thad Beaumont’s pseudonym got exposed is fairly similar to how King’s pseudonym, Richard Bachman, got exposed. Although I imagine King didn’t go through all the supernatural twin and sparrow stuff. It should probably be annoying — maybe it is if you zoom out and focus on the many writers in his pantheon — but once you get into the story, you’re too intriugued to actually be annoyed with yet another writer.
Of course The Dark Half is good. It’s got twins. Twins are always interesting — I don’t know if they’re interesting to themselves, but twin stories interest most people who aren’t twins, anyway. It’s got Sheriff Alan Pangborn, who tends to be a fan favorite among Castle Rock fans. Speaking of which, it’s got Castle Rock. It’s also got spooky birds, another good trope of scary fiction.
But underneath it all, The Dark Half is, I think, mostly a story about writing. About where the words come from, the rituals that accompany the words, the feeling that there might be another… entity of some sort who’s really responsible for the words, because when they’re really flowing through you, they don’t feel like they’re coming from you at all. I think The Dark Half may be more a story about writing than even Misery.
I feel like The Dark Half doesn’t get talked about much or show up on the usual lists of recaps and ratings of great Stephen King books. But I think it is a pretty great Stephen King book if you care about Castle Rock, if you care about Alan Pangborn, and mostly, if you care about writing. Of course, if you’re only a casual visitor to Castle Rock, if you don’t care about reading Needful Things and understanding just what’s been happening in Alan Pangborn’s life prior to the events of that book, and if you don’t care about writing, then it’s probably more middle of the road. But it’s still a good story that contains a lot of good story tropes. It’s kind of circular — it’s a very story-like story, with obvious tropes and tricks, that’s also about the process of creating stories.
Because it’s a Castle Rock story, it obviously shares characters and story links with other Castle Rock stories. It also makes mention of Ludlow — Thad’s winter home — where the events of Pet Semetary took place. And this may not be a connection, but Liz Beaumont lost her first pregnancy by being pushed in a store. She didn’t see the pusher and doesn’t know if it was accidental or on purpose. Of course one would usually assume such a thing would happen accidentally. But isn’t there a person in King’s Dark Tower series who liked to anonymously push people in order to harm them? Jack Mort is a New York character, sure, and I’m not entirely sure that he fits into Thad and Liz’s when. Or their where. But the inclusion of a harmful push that might have been intentional does make me wonder if either Mort or one of the darker characters that seem to be associated with him somehow was responsible for Liz’s miscarriage. Or maybe pushing was just on King’s mind at the time. As far as it goes, it’s an unusual stated reason for a miscarriage, at least.
I looked this up to find out if there were adaptations, and lo and behold, there’s a George Romero adaptation from 1993. I’ve never seen it and wasn’t aware of it, but I’m interested to know if it was any good. There was also a video game, believe it or not, published by Capstone and released for — I’m not kidding — DOS in 1992. I can’t imagine what that looked like, or why they picked this novel to be a video game. Wikipedia also informs me that this was announced to be a film adaptation by MGM in 2019. Apparently, that hasn’t actually happened yet, but who knows? That wasn’t so long ago, so maybe it’s still coming. I think this probably could make a good movie. It could probably also make a terrible one, so we’ll just have to hope for the best.