The Dark Man
Cemetery Dance • 2013 • 88 pages
A Poem Critique
For nearly fifteen years, Stephen King has been mining his past to bring the world new stuff. In 2001, he gifted us with a continuation of his stalled 1980s project, The Plant. Blaze, a lost novel King wrote around the time of ’Salem’s Lot, was finally published in 2007 as a Richard Bachman novel. Years after swearing that no new short story collection would include old works, King included a lost story from the 1970s, “The Cat From Hell,” in his 2008 collection, Just After Sunset. Novel ideas King attempted and discarded in decades past emerged as 11/22/63, Joyland, and Under the Dome – the latter accompanied by an unprecedented online release of an early draft from the 80s. Recently, uncollected prose versions of two Creepshowstories – “The Crate” and “Weeds” (otherwise known as “The Lonesome Death of Jordy Verrill”) – have made their way into Shivers collections, published by Cemetery Dance.
Cemetery Dance is at it again, not with a story, but with a poem: “The Dark Man,” one of the most important of King’s career. Between 1969 and 1971, King published seven poems, on par with his short story output at the time ... then stopped. Almost none of those early poems have been included in King’s official collections, which is especially mystifying, since work like “The Hardcase Speaks” and “The Dark Man” are direct thematic antecedents to later prose. “The Dark Man” is vital, as it serves as an introduction to one of King’s most enduring villains: Randall Flagg.
In a 2004 interview with Borders Books, King explained:
Flagg came to me when I wrote a poem called “The Dark Man” when I was a junior or senior in college. 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. I wrote this poem, and it was basically just a page long. I was in the college restaurant, only "restaurant" is too grand a word (it was like a grease pit basically). I wrote the poem on the back of a placemat. [T]hat idea of the guy never left my mind. The thing about him that really attracted me was the idea of the villain as somebody who was always on the outside looking in and hated people who had good fellowship and good conversation and friends. So, yeah, he was there, really, from the beginning of my writing career. He's always been around.
First published in King’s college literary journal, the insouciantly named Ubris, “The Dark Man” has surfaced a few times, but never as part of King’s official canon. Cemetery Dance has remedied this, with their surprise announcement of The Dark Man as a limited edition stand-alone book. Nestled in King’s publication schedule between the outstanding Hard Case Crime novel, Joyland and the highly anticipated Doctor Sleep, The Dark Man is the perfect slice of summer darkness.
If a poem – even one as weighty and important to King’s career as this one – seems a light prospect to hang a book on, be assured that the poem itself is only half the story. Artist Glenn Chadbourne has packed this thing with artwork, over seventy individual pieces designed to intrigue and unsettle. Those familiar with Cemetery Dance’s The Secretary of Dreams know what they’re in for. Chadbourne’s thrilling illustrations aren’t mere addendums to the text; instead, they transform the text. Sometimes he interprets King’s words literally: the line “I forced a girl in a field of wheat / and left her sprawled with the virgin bread” streaks across apocalyptic drawings before landing on “a savage sacrifice,” a terrifying Grand Guignol still life. Other drawings interpret. King’s “psycho spheres of baptism” and “overhung mushroom sky” allow Chadbourne’s imagination to run manic. The artist has done some incredible work in the past, but it’s not overstatement to declare this his best effort to date. Stephen King was 22 when he wrote “The Dark Man,” and its creation was compulsive. The drawings here capture that spirit and energy completely, and the result is as impressive as it is disturbing.
Stephen King has had a very long, very impressive mainstream career. Perhaps more than any other writer, he has been able to find inroads and pathways beyond his major success. He still publishes short stories in magazines, writes paperback exclusives for vintage press houses, and offers digital-only stories and essays you can only read on your iPad or Kindle. He’s continued to publish limited editions, as well, concerned with not only the story but importance of the book-as-object, something to be marveled over and cared for. Cemetery Dance is releasing The Dark Man as a limited-edition hardcover, each version more sumptuous than the last. There’s a 52-copy signed (King and Chadbourne) lettered edition in a traycase that comes with an original drawing by Chadbourne; a signed numbered, traycased edition of only 500 copies; a slipcased unsigned “gift” edition with a Dark Man drawing by Chadbourne that’s not in the book; and a regular trade hardcover. All of them have different colors and perks like embossed endpapers, gilt page edges, satin bookmarks, the works: everything you expect with a Cemetery Dance edition. In every version, King’s poem is printed, unadorned, at the end of the book.
For those interested in King’s career beyond the bestsellers, especially in the unpublished and uncollected work of his early career, The Dark Man is a treat. Opening to the copyright page and seeing “© 1969 by Stephen King” is mind-blowing; that’s four years before Carrie made her big splash. It’s good for King scholars, too: “The Dark Man” was the genesis of “Night Surf,” The Stand, Eyes of the Dragon, and the latter books of the Dark Tower series; theses could be written on how this little poem exploded into a career of vast proportions.
But, and this is important: it’s also just a damn fine poem. When it comes down to it, the work itself is always the most important aspect. It’s good work. Exciting work. No comforting rhymes. No shards of light. It’s the direct precursor to “Paranoid,” King’s most disturbing collected poem to date. You don’t have to be a collector or a poetry major to love The Dark Man. You just have to like being scared.