Stephen king recently signed a four-book contract for roughly $40,000,000, and The Dark Half (Viking) is the first book. So it's pretty hard to pick this novel up without thinking, OK, Stephen, show me something worth $10,000,000. Within the first ten pages, he gives it his best shot. King takes us through an astonishing scene in an operating room where a malformed eye, part of a nostril, three fingernails and two teeth are removed from the brain of an 11-year-old boy. These are the remains of his twin brother, devoured in an act of in utero cannibalism. How's that for a start?
The boy, Thad Beaumont, mysteriously activates the remains of his twin when he writes his first short story. As we soon discover, this twin continues to take shape in Thad's mind and emerges as an alter ego who writes gruesome murder stories through Thad, under the pseudonym George Stark. The gory fun begins in earnest when Thad is persuaded to "kill off" his pseudonym to write books under his own name, and George doesn't like it.
Among the spectacular throat slashings and grisly shootings, King sprinkles some thoughtful speculations regarding the creative process, psychic phenomena, medical studies about identical twins, police procedure and ornithological folklore. He is a confident storyteller who borrows shamelessly from many sources (and even has his characters crack jokes about them) but transforms those elements into his own style. He infuses everyday objects such as pencils with sinister meaning and sees deadly menace in a flock of sparrows.
The master of horror reaches a new high point in his chilly conjuring, and The Dark Half builds, chill by thrill, to a terrifying climax that will satisfy even the most bloodthirsty fans.
N. Scott Momaday, who won the Pulitzer Prize in 1969 for his novel House of Dawn, returns to fiction 20 years later with another powerful story of Native American life. The Ancient Child (Doubleday) is about a beautiful young medicine woman named Grey and a painter from San Francisco named Locke Setman. Their vividly erotic love story is intermixed with the Kiowa legend of the bear, the mythology of Billy the Kid and a rich poetry of the American West that is spellbinding. The juxtapositions of sophisticated urban life with the timeless Kiowa and Navaho traditions and with fantasies of the 19th Century old West give this book a dazzling complexity.
Three new books about science are outstanding. George Gilder's Microcosm (Simon & Schuster) is a rare, visionary book that shows you the future of the computer culture with such clarity that when you finish, you feel ready for the 21st Century. He provides a step-by-step analysis of how microchip technology is already transforming the global economy, and his chapter on how the telecomputer will eclipse TV in a few years is truly startling. Stephen Jay Gould, who has made the science of paleontology accessible to us in books such as The Panda's Thumb, now illuminates millions of years of prehistory in Wonderful Life (Norton). Like the Frank Capra film of a similar title, this witty, readable book demonstrates the significant role that every organism plays in the drama of evolution. The Cuckoo's Egg (Doubleday), by Clifford Stoll, may be the first nonfiction high-tech detective story. Supported by the FBI, the CIA and the N.S.A., Stoll tracks down a computer spy in Hanover, West Germany, who is breaking into American military and industrial computers and selling information to the Soviets. This tale of a Berkeley, California, systems manager's following the international computer tracks of a hacker in West Germany gives a new meaning to the term technothriller.
As a former Secret Service agent, Gerald Petievich brings a detailed knowledge of police work to his novels that escalates their excitement. In Earth Angels (New American Library), his description of cops caught up in the drug wars of East Los Angeles chicano gangs is very scary. Far more vivid than newspaper articles, this novel gives you a long, hard look at how vicious and violent the gang world can be. Petievich focuses with sensitivity on what this environment does to the lives of four policemen working in an antigang unit.
Most movie reviewing is a matter of immediacy, an entertaining consumer service that fades from relevance as a film runs its cycle from glamourous premiere to tacky video store. Not the reviewing in Harlan Ellison's Watching (Underwood-Miller). Not only is this the angriest, most outraged and outrageous assortment of film commentaries you will ever read, it is also a tough insider's ongoing report (1965 to the present) about the state of moviemaking. Ellison is devastating in his hatreds and euphoric in his praises--either way, you're never in doubt about how he feels. Most important, at the center of these 482 pages of essays and polemics is an articulate, knowledgeable, engaged, colorful personality with a lot to say about movies.
Another impressive mind at work is Steve Erickson's. Although most readers know him as the author of novels such as Days Between Stations and Tours of the Black Clock, his latest book is an excursion into gonzo journalism called Leap Year (Poseidon). Ostensibly, it is an eccentric record of the 1988 Presidential race. In actuality, this book is a marvelously thoughtful, impassioned and funny account of Erickson's travels. He logs thousands of miles in trains and cars while ruminating on the condition of America and hearing the voice of Sally Hemings, Thomas Jefferson's black mistress. Strung together with personal symbolism and fantasy, Erickson's memoir has moments of literary genius.
Curses! Broiled Again! (Norton), by Jan Harold Brunvand: A compilation of the greatest "Have you heard the one about..." legends and tales. From the woman who cooked her insides after repeated tanning-salon visits to the cat saved by firemen then run over by the fire truck. And you thought they were all true.
Ernie's America (Random House), edited by Dave Nichols: This collection of Ernie Pyle's travel dispatches from the Thirties and early Forties reads like a counterculture history book. His eye for detail and his wit and wisdom are enduring gifts.
The Airline Passenger's Guerrilla Handbook (Blakes), by George Albert Brown: Where to sit, when to fly, sneaking extra bags on--aha!--how to make love on a plane. We knew they'd get to the good part.
The Reader's Catalog (Reader's Catalog/Random House), edited by Geoffrey O'Brien with Stephen Wasserstein and Helen Morris: This is a Sears catalog for books, a virtual athenaeum between two covers. Throw in fax and 800 numbers for ordering by mail and you'll never have to use the library again. Uh-oh.
Chills and thrills from King; Harlan Ellison goes to the movies.