by Renee Asher Pickup
When I was a kid, I loved birds and was terrified I would go crazy.
Why do kids develop the phobias they hold? Why do kids get wrapped up in specific fears that don’t seem particularly likely? I don’t know. I was (and still am) absolutely terrified of cockroaches. Phobia level. That one makes sense, at least. Going crazy, though? That’s so specific. I didn’t know anyone who had “gone” crazy. No one in my life was being put on twenty-four hour holds or experiencing psychosis (at least, not that I knew of). But some part of me understood that I spent a lot of time in my head, and I spent a lot of time making stuff up, and maybe (not definitely, but maybe) that meant I was nuts.
Stephen King’s criminally underrated The Dark Half knew this fear. I grew up with King, so I don’t remember the year I picked this one up. What I remember is the automatic writing scene, where Thad Beaumont’s hand is taken over by something he can’t control, and then stabs him. I remember the abject horror I felt. The way my breath caught in my throat and I panicked for a moment because it felt like it could happen to me. Thad Beaumont had a brain tumor, Thad Beaumont was crazy, Thad Beaumont had an entire dark side come to life, George Stark: Not A Very Nice Guy. And Thad Beaumont was the character that managed to embody all my fears about my mental health in one charming, if not clumsy package.
Since that first reading, I’ve accumulated eight copies of the book in three languages. I named my dog Beaumont, and later, my cat Thaddeus. I quietly raged when Stephen King blithely killed Thad off page in Needful Things. My office has scattered book and movie paraphernalia, including a framed poster from the Romero adaptation and a bag of bird seed used to promote the book.
These days, I don’t have to worry about going crazy. I have a diagnosis, a therapist, and medication when I can’t quite manage it on my own. It’s nothing like I thought it was, and it didn’t come from “method writing,” but it does often feel like a dark partner sitting around, waiting to make my life miserable. After reading the book, I read the interviews where Stephen King talks about fearing insanity after living with his mother who was a psych nurse. It shows in his work, but people usually cite The Shining as the best example. For my money, it’s always Thad. The mild-mannered dad and professor who just wanted a taste of success with dark, gritty novels about bad people doing bad things. If George Stark isn’t an analogue for mental illness, trauma incarnate, and the darkest parts of the human soul, what is he?
There are things that are scary as you read them, and things that scare you long after you close the book. George Stark, if not the personification of something more, is only scary on the page. He’s almost cartoonish in his villainy. He drives a big black car called a Tornado, with a bumper sticker that says, “High Toned Son of a Bitch.” He kills people with a straight razor and stuffs their genitals in their mouths. I’m not saying he’s not scary – I’m saying, you close the book and a character like that doesn’t keep you up at night. He was the embodiment of a character Thad created to write bad things, and the character that did the bad things in the writing. Nothing too scary about that – except, he was part of Thad. He knew everything that Thad knew, but not the other way around. He could ruin him and was intent on trying. Most terrifying of all? Thad sort of liked the high-toned son of a bitch. Thad sort of wanted to keep him around.
That’s the part that keeps a person up at night. The idea that there is a darkness so violent and terrifying, and yet so attractive, sitting somewhere inside of us just waiting for a grave to crawl out of, or a way in. That if the darkness manages to take hold, we might like it a little bit. Or a lot. We might like it too much to push it away, or, if we do, we might keep a little part of it with us, for old time’s sake.