It’s a bold experiment: take an obscure, surreal poem, allow a talented but outside-of-the-mainstream artist to illustrate in black and white, and released it as an oddly-sized and unusually-shaped hardcover book. In other words, it’s a project that most publishers wouldn’t touch.
But Cemetery Dance isn’t most publishers. And, let’s be honest, when the name you’re going to plaster all over the cover is Stephen King, well, go ahead and change “bold experiment” to “unqualified success.”
And that’s what The Dark Man is, by the way: an unqualified success. The limited and lettered editions sold out within two hours of the book’s announcement. The trade edition hardcover will be hitting mailboxes and bookstores in the next week or so. And creatively, the book is firing on all cylinders.
The poem-that-became-a-book, “The Dark Man,” is nothing less than the birth of Randall Flagg, arguably King’s greatest villainous creation. King wrote it in college as a way of documenting a recurring image he had of a hitchhiker in jeans and a denim jacket. King imagined the man had been places, had seen – and done – terrible things, and his musings on the subject spilled out in a short poem scribbled on the back of a placemat.
The poem itself is told from The Dark Man’s point-of-view, and it’s an effectively chilling piece of work. The world he describes is not unlike most King settings, a place where mundane sights like all-night filling stations and wheat fields exist beneath an ominous “savage sickle moon,” and where sits “a gutted columned house leeched with vines.” It’s strong imagery, and it’s easy to see how aspects of the character bled over into King’s later work.
But where The Dark Man really comes to life is in the marriage of King’s text to Glenn Chadbourne’s stark, brutal imagery. Thumbing through the book you can almost feel a cold October wind coming off the pages, and you can almost smell the desperation and fear permeating the desolate, broken landscape. Chadbourne’s distinctive style has graced a number of King/Cemetery Dance projects, but never has it felt like a more perfect fit than it does here. The drawings are dense, packed with details that seem to shift and flow of their own accord so that each time you study the pages you see something else.
It may not be for everybody, but a book like this is sure to please adventurous readers looking for new insight into one of King’s most well-known creations. The Dark Man is a moody leap of faith by the creators and the publisher that pays off handsomely in the end.