Not Quite Parker: The Dark Half by Stephen King (1992)


In The Dark Half, an author named Thad Beaumont has the unpleasant experience of having his pseudonym, George Stark, come to life and start hacking people up. The inspiration for this story is twofold–Stephen King’s experiences publishing under the name Richard Bachman, and the dichotomy exhibited by Donald Westlake. (The name Richard Bachman was created when King was listening to Bachman-Turner Overdrive and reading a Richard Stark novel).

In this excerpt, Thad Beaumont is speaking to a reporter from People magazine:

“The hardest part was actually coming up with the name,” Beaumont continues, nipping lightly at the pencil. “But it was important. I knew it could work. I knew it could break the writer’s block I was struggling with . . . if I had an identity. The right identity, one that was separate from mine.”

How did he choose George Stark?

“Well, there’s a crime writer named Donald E. Westlake,” Beaumont explains. “And under his real name, Westlake uses the crime novel to write these very funny social comedies about American life and American mores.

“But from the early sixties until the mid-seventies or so, he wrote a series of novels under the name of Richard Stark, and those books are very different. They’re about a man named Parker who is a professional thief. He has no past, no future, and in the best books, no interests other than robbery.

“Anyway, for reasons you’d have to ask Westlake about, he eventually stopped writing novels about Parker, but I never forgot something Westlake said after the pen name was blown. He said he wrote books on sunny days and Stark took over on the rainy ones. I liked that, because those were rainy days for me, between 1973 and early 1975.

“In the best of those books, Parker is really more like a killer robot than a man. The robber robbed is a pretty consistent theme in them. And Parker goes through the bad guys–the other bad guys, I mean–exactly like a robot that’s been programmed with one single goal. ‘I want my money,’ he says, and that’s just about all he says. ‘I want my money, I want my money.’ Does that remind you of anyone?”

The interviewer nods. Beaumont is describing Alexis Machine, the main character of the first and last George Stark novels.

“If Machine’s Way had finished up the way it started out, I would have shoved it in a drawer forever,” Beaumont says. “Publishing it would have been plagiarism. But about a quarter of the way through, it found its own rhythm, and everything just clicked into place.”

The interviewer asks if Beaumont is saying that, after he had spent awhile working on the book, George Stark woke up and started to talk.

“Yes,” Beaumont says. “That’s close enough.”

When George Stark comes to life, he is also Alexis Machine, the character based on Parker. While Parker and Richard Stark may have inspired the character of George Stark, George Stark is not Parker. For starters, he’s not a professional thief. Making money is not George Stark’s goal; instead, his goal is survival, and for Stark to achieve survival, lots of people have to get killed. Despite this, George Stark is not the “killer robot” that King describes. He has a past, unlike Parker. He has emotions. His speech is peppered with colloquialisms and he has a slight Southern accent that pokes through sometimes. The only aspect of Stark that is robot-like is the manner in which he conducts his killings–they are as scrupulously scripted as Parker’s heists.

Why King describes the character one way and then goes off in a different direction I do not know. It’s a fairly minor flaw–most readers had probably forgotten this description by the time George Stark is known in enough detail for the contradictions to start showing themselves. However, it does render the book somewhat of a disappointment for Parker readers seeking a different take on the character–the thought of King writing a Parker pastiche or about Parker with another motivation substituted for money is intriguing, and it’s a pity that that is not the novel we got.

The book is disappointing for other, less selfish reasons as well. I generally enjoy Mr. King’s novels, but this one was a chore to get through. Beaumont and his wife are likable characters, but not so likable that one feels inclined to spend 500 pages with them. The best character, Sheriff Alan Pangborn, is a secondary player (Pangborn gets his chance to shine in the terrific Needful Things, one of my favorite King books).

The Dark Half was filmed by George Romero (Night of the Living Dead), with Timothy Hutton starring as both George Stark and Thad Beaumont. In the film, the George Stark character is inspired by Elvis (!) rather than Parker.

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