December 18, 1989 12:00 PM

by Stephen King

Twins. Good twins. Evil twins. Identical twins. Missing twins. The many novelistic permutations presented by this particular accident of birth are so tempting that sooner or later even the most inventive writers cannot help but succumb to the lure of this surefire plot developer. So we shouldn’t hold it against King that his 23rd novel makes use of the hoary device. After all, these are twins with a twist.

As in many of King’s books, the central character of The Dark Half is a novelist. As Thad Beaumont, he writes critically acclaimed, serious novels nobody reads. As George Stark, he churns out grisly best-sellers about a vicious killer. Stark, of course, is just a pen name—or is it? This doubt is established in an attention-grabbing prologue, which details an unusual brain operation performed on 11-year-old Thad Beaumont.

The body of the book starts promisingly as well—how could it not, considering the fact that the opening chapter is all about an article in…PEOPLE magazine. The story describes Beaumont’s blissful domestic life with his wife and twin babies and also tells of Beaumont’s decision to “kill off’ the successful but surly Stark. Before long, people who have done something to incur the wrath of Stark begin to meet violent ends. Beaumont is the prime suspect since his fingerprints are all over the first victim’s van, but the writer has an airtight alibi. As the body count rises, the evidence would seem to indicate that Stark, Beaumont’s alter ego, is responsible for these murders. How can this be? It’s a long journey from pseudonym to psychopath.

King himself wrote five novels under the name of Richard Bachman. They sold only moderately well until 1984’s Thinner, which made it to the top of the bestseller list when the author’s real identity was revealed. In a coy note that introduces The Dark Half, King writes, “I’m indebted to the late Richard Bachman for his help and inspiration. This novel could not have been written without him.” In other words, this book is nothing more than an extended in-joke.

The joke begins to wear thin as the narrative careers further and further away from reality. The Dark Half also contains some of the grisliest deaths and most gruesomely descriptive writing in the King oeuvre. For example: “The skin of her face was cracking like a Ming vase. Her glazed eyes suddenly exploded. Noxious green jelly, sickeningly warm, spurted up into his face.” Yecch!

This novel starts well but soon disintegrates into a bloody miasma of implausibility. Call it The Dark Three-Quarters. (Viking, $21.95)

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