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Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Stephen King: "The Dark Man"

Author:  Stephen King 
Artist: Glenn Chadbourne
Title:  The Dark Man 
Genre:  An Illustrated Poem
Publisher:  Cemetery Dance Publications (7/2013)      

            THE BOOK             
     Basically, this is an 88-page book that is 8.3 x 5.6 x 0.6 inches in size with black and white artwork that visually interprets one of King’s earliest poems. Some reviewers have carped about the book’s size, its price ($16.99 on amazon), and its lack of color illustrations. Yes, all of those facts are true, but if you’re a King fan—particularly if you’re a fan of The Stand or Dark Tower—you’ll be fascinated by this visual presentation of the birth of the Dark Man (aka Randall Flagg).    

            THE POEM               
     According to King’s back-cover note, he wrote “The Dark Man” on the back of a paper place mat in a grease-pit diner when he was a college student. “It came to me out of nowhere, this guy in cowboy boots who moved around on the roads, mostly hitchhiking at night, always wore jeans and a denim jacket….that guy never left my mind.” The poem is presented twice in its entirety—once in its illustrated version spread out over 80-odd pages, and once consolidated into its regular poem structure on the final pages of the book.       

     As an introduction to the Dark Man persona, the poem works perfectly without the illustrations, but the words hit with more force with the addition of the visual details. King, in the manner of many young poets, forgoes punctuation and capitalization. (Imagine e e cummings writing about a world that is ghastly and barren instead of mud-luscious.”)       

            THE ARTWORK               

     Although you won’t find the identity of the artist on the cover or the title page, you’ll find his name on the copyright page: Glenn Chadbourne, the well-known horror illustrator. Chadbourne’s highly detailed pencil drawings create exactly the right (or wrong) ominous, desolate atmosphere of the poem, showing the Dark Man always on the outskirts of human contact as he strides “the fuming way/of sun-hammered tracks and/smashed cinders.”  Chadbourne’s spot-on visual interpretation allows his illustrations to combine with King’s words in a perfect, if gruesome, marriage.  

     Some dark details jump out at the reader (the beetles and spiders; the abandoned, broken doll), while others lurk in the background (the shadows, the skeletal remains of a dead animal—or is it the rusty skeleton of a piece of machinery?), but all of them form a perfect storm of moody foreboding that perfectly captures Flagg’s inner rage and essential blackness.    

     The Dark Man himself is always pictured as a rough, black shadow (except at the end when he turns into King himself in a tongue-in-cheek drawing facing the author's bio. page). The Dark Man is always an observer—never a participant. He lurks in the shadows, watching (and hating) people going about their humdrum daily lives. In one scary sequence, he hides in a cornfield, staring out between the stalks at a couple drinking cheap whiskey in their run-down shack while overhead shines "a savage sickle moon that bummed my eyes with bones of light."  

     Even when “normal” details are included (like ripe pumpkins and tomato plants), the mood is undercut and overwhelmed by accompanying darkness (in this case, a ghastly, grinning scarecrow). The feeling of desolation grows as the poem progresses. For example, an amusement park that appears operational early in the poem shows up later as a ruined and abandoned wreck. (This particular detail was particularly poignant to me because I just finished reading the stories in the new anthology, Carniepunk.)      

            FINAL ANALYSIS               
     If you are addicted to King’s dark worldview; if you were scared silly by Flagg’s sinister ruthlessness in The Stand; if you are a fan of deep, dark horror; if you want more from a book than one quick read-through—then you might want to shell out the money to buy this book. If you’re a mid-level King fan with an interest in looking in on the roots of King’s Dark Man character (who appears in so many of his works), why not check this one out of your local library? Either way, do yourself a favor and give it a read.

     My recommendation is to read it through quickly the first time, concentrating on the words more than the illustrations. Then, read it a few more times, page by page, taking in Chadbourne’s artwork with its fine, grisly details: the hollow-eyed hobos, the derelict amusement park, the barren landscape, and the Dark Man himself in all his relentless savagery as he ends his rant by leaving behind a horrific "sign to those who creep in fixed ways"his way of warning the world that "I am a dark man."

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