No single book is emblematic of the entire class of bestsellers. By definition, the only necessary quality for entry into the rank is exceptional sales; a bestseller is a unique recipe of ingredients that markets successfully. While the mixture may be singular, the components of one novel are prevalent in other bestsellers. The primary components of Stephen King's The Dark Half, all of which are found in other bestsellers, are its easy structure, its detailed portrayal of New England, and that it is a psycho-horror novel. These classifications ? repeated time and again under the famed King moniker ? equate to a formula book. Further inspection, however, shows that The Dark Half is peculiar; it slightly warps the King archetype. Since The Dark Half does not abide by the King formula, it must not have succeeded because of it. Instead, The Dark Half belongs to a subset of popular culture whose members ? because they deviate from a received norm ? flourish primarily through a creator's branding and producer's marketing.
The first aspect of a formulaic King book is that it does not tax the reader's mind with an elaborate structure or an avant-garde technique. King writes reliably with a simple vocabulary and without awkward construction. Although they spotlight extraordinary situations, his plots are straightforward and fast-paced.
The Dark Half follows the aforementioned style. The vocabulary is uncomplicated; when a simple lexicon was unavailable, King concocted his own words and phrases. When attempting to capture the pith of a foul odor, King wrote, "It was . . . just the smell of bad" (TDH 64). King's knowledge of his lexical spontaneity is evidenced by the characters in the book; Thad, the protagonist, comments on hearing the word "creepazoid" ? "I think that's the first time I ever heard that particular term" (TDH 29). The storytelling is not complex either; in one chapter King retold scenes from the antagonist's point of view (TDH 303-24). Otherwise, the story is strictly chronological. King's "characterization is perfunctory," another technique to make the book simpler (Skow). The result of this methodology is a "page-a-minute joy ride" (Winter). As King's other books are plot driven, so is The Dark Half, "swept along by the sheer vitality of the narrative voice" (Lehmann-Haupt).
Minimalism such as this is not limited to works by King. Simplified format is executed by many bestsellers because it broadens the appeal of a work. An intricate and academic book interests only scholars, not the entertainment-starved masses. Since sales correlate positively to popularity, authors and publishers labor to provide enticing books for the largest audiences. The timeline of bestsellers reveals simplification is not just a modern phenomenon. Pollyanna is an early twentieth century bestseller with grammatical simplicity, more basic than The Dark Half. Recent examples of plain, plot-driven narratives show that King is not alone in the latter decades of the twentieth century. Some are the legal thrillers by John Grisham ? e.g. The Pelican Brief ? and the myriad romance novels by Danielle Steel.
The second aspect of the King formula is his attention to New England color. The Dark Half is set in Maine, state of choice for King novels ? "classic King," as Winter wrote in his review. Characters are "deep in New England grain" (Murphy) and speak with a "down East vernacular" (Lehmann-Haupt). The New England essence permeates the novel's smallest details; for example, Thad was an Appalachian Trail Guide in his youth ? a distinctly northern first-job (TDH 17). King constructed an elaborate small town, Castle Rock, as the backdrop for the grandiose finale. The qualities of Castle Rock are those that "thousands of small New England towns hold in common" (TDH 38). Its residents speak and, in this example from the text, think in the stereotypical northeastern parlance: "Man's takin his own photographs . . . probably better than hers, and apt to last a lot longer, to boot. He's storin her up to put in a book someday and she don't even know it" (TDH 43). The novel's regional realism was so precise that on November 24, 1989, The Wall Street Journal reported the Orono State Police Barracks in Maine was being barraged with calls after its telephone number appeared in the publication. That King thought to check the telephone listings and included the selfsame number alerts readers to his attention to detail.
It is not only the depiction of New England, however, that makes The Dark Half a regional novel; it is the contrast of rural life with metropolitan life. A photographer from New York City brings an elaborate papier-mâché tombstone to Maine for a shoot. Concerning the lady and the unnecessary minutiae of her prop, Thad and his wife look at each other "with a mixture of amazement and bemused wonder" (TDH 19). Local residents of Castle Rock think of the photographer as "High Class . . . only a New York woman would show up in high heels at the end of slop season and then goose-step around a cemetery in them, taking pictures" (TDH 43). King's purpose is not simply to characterize Maine, but to use the common sense lifestyle of its inhabitants to shed light on the impracticality of the cosmopolitan world. That King regularly stresses this in his books demonstrates its appeal to audiences.
In this, The Dark Half represents the subclass of bestsellers which painstakingly depict a geographic region. Peyton Place also caricaturized its eponymous New England town. The book revealed the frigid nature of New Englanders and did not praise their lifestyle like King. Nonetheless, Peyton Place was a bestseller because it exposed a hidden underbelly of the Puritan New Englander. What King does for Maine, Grisham does for the South. The average reader enjoys reading books dyed with local color by authors who are authorities on the details ? e.g. Show Boat, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. Ferber spent four days on a show boat in order to immerse herself in the river lifestyle (Database Entry); Smith's A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is based on childhood in New York City.
The last and perhaps most unique aspect of the formula is his subject matter; King's works, especially his earlier ones, are suspenseful psycho-horror novels. In an interview with Magistrale, King called his stories "nothing more than fairy tales for grown-ups" which are based on the "occasional rare incident" (Magistrale 3-4). He described this concept and how it could form the basis for a story:
I took a trip to the shopping mall. I watched one of those machines that you plug a quarter into and this thing goes around and around. It's a flying-saucer ride made for kids. And I thought, Suppose the kid disappeared. Just disappeared in front of his mother and the people walking around . . . Now, that interested me very much. (Magistrale 3)
This genre ? believably suspenseful horror ? is not parallel to the horror movie genre. Productions like Scream and the Nightmare on Elm Street series were popular for their violent exhibitions; people watched them to be scared. Conversely, readers finish a King novel for the suspenseful mysteries he develops: to see why the child at the mall vanished, or, in The Dark Half, to learn the truth about Thad's relationship with the murderous stranger. While explicit enough to ignite George Will in the Washington Post, carnage is not the main attraction but a device used to thicken the plot. King asks readers to suspend belief for a short while ? not for an entire work ? while he describes normal people dealing with horrific incidents.
The Dark Half is a psycho-horror novel that grips readers by way of precocious storytelling. As Stade wrote, King is "a very good storyteller," and The Dark Half is both a "parable and chiller" (Stade). The plot opens gently; Thad, a writer, has just abandoned writing under a famous pseudonym, George Stark. While Thad wrote critically acclaimed and, ergo, unsuccessful novels, Stark wrote gross horror that reaped him a fortune. (This is a fitting critique about best-selling authors and the starkness of their works). Thad is soon confronted by police who have enough physical evidence to convict him of murders from Maine to Washington. Thad's airtight alibi saves him from prison, but he learns that Stark ? the "dead" nom de plume ? has somehow come to life, exacting revenge on every person who contributed to his demise. Readers know the truth from the start, but the novel horrifies them and keeps their attention as Thad wrestles with his culpability and as Police Chief Pangborn confronts Stark's existence. The Dark Half concludes with a dramatic, supernatural confrontation between the two halves of Thad's consciousness.
Yet this finale is predictable from early on in reading, as are many of the other scenes. Plot twists and surprise endings ? not predictability ? are the attributes of popular fiction; The Sixth Sense, one of the most successful movies of 1999, triumphed at the box office because of its unforeseeable conclusion. Predictable stories need another quality to account for their accomplishments; in The Dark Half, it is suspenseful writing. In particular, King halted scenes at climaxes, tantalizing readers by delaying the resolutions. When the police first knock on Thad's door, he has no idea why they have come to him. Once Pangborn tells Thad they have enough evidence to arrest him for murder, the section ends (TDH 80). Almost like a commercial break on television, we are required to imagine Thad's response and must wait for King to reveal the truth.
This combination of suspense and predictability has been utilized by other best-selling authors in the typically-predictable horror genre. The Exorcist deals with a young girl's possession by a demon. From the preface, readers know she is not suffering from a mental or emotional disorder, yet the doctors and priests must convince themselves of the truth. For readers, suspense is in the characters' realizations and in how they will act thereafter. Like The Dark Half, The Exorcist is grotesque fiction, yet in both cases the crux of the novel is not sacrilege. Bestsellers in other genres are also successful because of suspense. Ian Fleming's James Bond is largely predictable, yet succeeded because readers enjoyed the ride, not just the conclusion. Agatha Christie's murder mysteries ? most whodunits, in general ? are comparable because the reader can fathom alternative conclusions, of which only one will be correct. Suspense in any genre is patently favored by the public and is, therefore, a widely used component in bestsellers.
Simple structure, a Maine setting, and a suspenseful psycho-horror subject create the core of the familiar Stephen King book. That these are popular qualities in narratives is evidenced in Stade's opinion that "few writers are better than King at giving readers what they want." The Dark Half appears, at first, to fit King's formula well. Many critics detected elements of his earlier successful novel in its style and themes. Winter compared it to Cujo and Pet Sematary; Lehmann-Haupt called it a "cross between Pet Sematary and Misery" (Lehmann-Haupt). These bonds to previous works solidify the notion that The Dark Half is one in a line of formulaic bestsellers by King.
Archetypes create authors who decorate the annual bestseller lists. Some novelists in league with King are John Grisham, Sue Grafton, Michael Crichton, Tom Clancy, and Danielle Steel. They were formerly nonentities who conceived a recipe which reading audiences loved. Rather than abandon the formula and develop other methods, each has produced the same type of book with phenomenal success. Grisham writes Southern lawyer novels; Grafton writes murder mysteries where each book begins with a successive letter of the alphabet; Crichton writes science fiction; Clancy writes about covert government operations; and Steel writes romance. As for King, he "has horror-fiction down to a fine and frightening psychological science. That's why his stories are so good, that's why he can produce so many" (Liberatore). Each author has his or her own niche for executing their formulas. Over time, these methods have become exclusively associated with their respective authors; readers expect their new books to be confined to their regular topics.
Such was largely the case with the release of The Dark Half. However, upon further analysis, the novel appears to violate the standard King formula. For one, despite its simply constructed nature, it was more cerebral than his other works. Thad is a very smart man ? a critically rewarded author and a college professor; insight and intellect create an above-average King character. While underdeveloped, one of the novel's most intriguing themes ? the relationship of an author to himself and to his work ? offers more than the ghostly isolation study of The Shining or the dead animals in Pet Sematary.
This departure, however, can be overlooked by devoted King followers, explained as King's maturation. Yet there is another, more drastic departure from the formula; in The Dark Half, readers must suspend their belief ? not at one particular moment in time ? but throughout the book. Consider four of his other works: Misery, The Shining, It, and The Stand. Of these, only The Stand was published after The Dark Half. They each ignore likely reality and venture down an unlikely path only for a short time. In Misery, a successful author is tortured by an adoring fan ? not improbable in an era of rampant stalking. The Shining offered both a rational and supernatural explanation for its main character's insanity. In It, a motley group of children discover an evil being that kills other kids; readers can accept their lives at all moments except when they confront the murderous clown. The Stand proposed a reality where a catastrophic disease levels the population, and those immune struggle to rebuild society. Epidemics are close to the popular consciousness; films like 12 Monkeys, Armageddon, and a novel by Crichton, Outbreak, individually explore the concept.
Some may argue that King ordinarily incorporates unbelievable occurrences in his works, occurrences that are not even remotely possible in real life; thus, The Dark Half is not a violation of the form. To a degree, however, demons and vampires are as acceptable as anthrax poisoning because they exist in the constant thoughts and fears of society. The Exorcist is just as believable; demonic possession, like King's occasional vampire or ghost, may have been invalidated by science and rational thought but is real in urban mythology and religious dogma. The standard King formula is as he described it in his interview with Magistrale: a regular world like Maine or New England where an unexplainable, but not unbelievable, event occurs.
The Dark Half, however, leaves readers with too many unexplainable events; so many that it falls short of King's own definition of his typical works. From the start readers are confronted with a baffling situation. Young Thad's headaches, supposedly caused by a benign brain tumor, are in fact "an eye . . . part of a nostril, three fingernails, and two teeth. One of the teeth had a small cavity in it" (TDH 9). If this was the one strange happenstance King framed his story around, The Dark Half would not violate the formula. Yet there are more. For one, Stark emerges from the soil in Castle Rock in the middle of the night soon after Thad abandons the pseudonym. Spontaneous incarnation is a dubious act, even to those who can accept ghosts and aliens. Whenever Thad lapses into a mental conversation with Stark, countless sparrows blanket the landscape, from his first operation as a child (TDH 347) until he finally extinguishes Stark in the finale (TDH 389). Furthermore, readers must also accept that Stark is the only person incapable of seeing these sparrows. Lastly, the novel ends with the sparrows carrying Stark through a hole "torn in the fabric of reality" (TDH 423). In the standard King novel, we could accept any one of these, the exact fingerprints between two people, or even the mental connection between two strangers. For readers to accept all of these within one story is too much and is, therefore, a violation of the King formula.
Two incidents give credit to the notion that The Dark Half violated King's archetype. The film based on the book, released in 1993, was a failure. Readers might have bought the book because it appeared to abide by the standard and spurned the movie because the book was not what they expected. Another indication that the book breached the classic formula and disappointed readers is the sales of King's next book, 1990's The Stand. It was a second edition with 400 additional pages of previously excised material; readers knew most of the book from its first publication. Despite the evidence that King was returning to his timeworn formula, the book only sold just over 600,000 copies ? hardly a King record. Readers, perhaps, were still disenchanted from being fooled by The Dark Half.
While it was a successful novel, The Dark Half is not a successful attempt at Stephen King's regular formula; it was a free-rider on his renowned name. When a reader randomly purchases a book, he cannot tell what it will contain. The simplest way to satisfy the reading urge, then, is to identify an author's name with consistency and search for books by him or her. Thus, Stephen King's moniker emblazons more than half the cover of this book. His name signifies his reliable formula; this is branding. While The Dark Half breaks the King formula, his name alerted readers to the opposite; they believed that the book did indeed fit the mold. This is part of the reason the novel sold so well.
A second, non-content related factor for The Dark Half's success is its marketing. By 1989, the average Stephen King novel was a bestseller before it was printed. In 1987, he published four books, his last being The Tommyknockers ? critically, his worst effort. King went from releasing multiple books in 1987 to none in 1988 and most of 1989; he had announced a temporary retirement. Then, in October 1989, Viking published The Dark Half. King was asked to appear on a morning talk show on Halloween; he replied, "?I will do it [publicize the book on television], but I won't do it on Halloween.' If they can't have Freddy Krueger, they want Stephen King" (Magistrale 2). Nevertheless, Viking turned the release into an event; this was King's first book after a hiatus, released to coincide with the holiday for horror fans. Evidence for their knowledge is the print run. In 1989, The Dark Half's first printing of 1.5 million hardcover copies was the largest ever, surpassing the 1 million copy record set by Jean Auel's The Mammoth Hunters in 1985. Most of the copies sold, making The Dark Half Publisher's Weekly's second best-selling hardcover fiction for the year.
While The Dark Half seems to fit categorically with many bestsellers because of its content and style, it in fact belongs to an elite category of popular fiction which succeeds because of branding and marketing. It is like Star Wars: Episode 1 in this. The Star Wars series was innovative and highly successful in the early 1980s. However, the prequel was panned for its lack of plot and excessive special effects. This film, like The Dark Half, succeeded because of the name attached to the product, a name which fans linked with past quality. Because of its opportune market timing, The Dark Half is again similar to the film industry; just as Christmas movies play in December, The Dark Half coincided with Halloween. Lastly, films released in the summer are leased to a large number of theaters and are shown on more screens than movies released any other time of year. This is because there is a higher demand for movies in the summer months and the distributors can capture more market share by making films more ubiquitous. Viking acted analogously by pre-printing 1.5 million copies; The Dark Half was available to anyone who wanted to read it. The Dark Half superficially compares to novels and is actually more similar to films; this demonstrates how the popular reading audience is merging with the popular movie-going audience, how the line between book and film marketing is blurring.
The Dark Half teaches us, then, that a book can be a bestseller as long as it appears to imitate a popular formula. Deviations from the norm succeed via this camouflage and through opportune marketing. A book's actual content may have little bearing on its success.
King, Stephen. The Dark Half. Viking. New York, 1989.
Lehmann-Haupt, Christopher. "Books of The Times; From Stephen King, A Writer's Demon." New York Times. Page C20, October 23, 1989.
Liberatore, Karen. "The 'Endsville' in the Horror Writer's Mind." San Francisco Chronicle. Sunday Review page 1, October 29, 1989.
Magistrale, Tony. Stephen King, The Second Decade. Twayne Publishers. New York, 1992.
Murphy, Ray. "King treads on dark, familiar ground." Boston Globe. Living page 32, October 31, 1989.
Skow, John. "The Dark Half." Time v. 134. Page 105, November 20, 1989.
Stade, George. "His Alter Ego Is a Killer." New York Times. Section 7, page 12, October 29, 1989.
Will, George F. "The Lure of the Lurid." The Washington Post. Page C7, December 10, 1989.
Winter, Douglas E. "Venturing a bit into the magical." The Washington Times. Page E2, November 29, 1989.