Saturday, July 17, 2010

Black House by Stephen King and Peter Straub

Black House
By Stephen King and Peter Straub
Copyright 2001

Black House takes place in 2001. Jack Sawyer, hero of the novel, The Talisman is just 31 years old, but retired from the LAPD where he was once one of its most successful detectives. His last case found him visiting French Landing, Wisconsin where he ties one of the local residents to a pair of grisly murders in the Hollywood area. Sawyer becomes a hero to most of French Landing and he decides to settle there in his retirement, living off of the wealth he inherited from his parents – his mother, Lilly, having died five years prior.

French Landing is bedeviled (much as Derry was in IT) by a serial killer who snatches kids and eats parts of their body. He is dubbed by the local newspaper “The Fisherman” – named after the notorious serial killer of children in New York of the 1930s, Albert Fish.

French Landing’s constabulary would very much like Sawyer’s help in nabbing the killer. He is reluctant, but finds himself drawn in when he meets the mother of the latest victim. He understands that this killer is of two worlds, just as he is, and that the fate of both worlds might lie in him finding The Fisherman and saving the young boy.

One chief complaint about The Talisman was how slow it started. Black House takes even longer getting started. The first fifty pages are the reader, traveling with a crow around French Landing, observing short scenes from the lives of the novel’s principle characters. This is never the best way to introduce characters and is the book’s greatest weakness.

As I said in my review of 'Salem's Lot, one of King’s greatest strengths is in the development of his settings. Be it Jerusalem’s Lot, Castle Rock, Derry, or the other fictional cities in which he has set his stories, the town itself becomes a character. Not French Landing. The first pages basically give us a road map and brief character sketches; nothing more. While the book has plenty going for it, including many hints as to what is coming in the Dark Tower saga, it never really recovers from this weak opening.

Nor are the characters nearly as sympathetic. Instead of the cleverly developed Wolf from The Talisman, Jack’s dearest friend is blind disc jockey and radio host, Henry Lyden. Lyden is not badly developed and the character serves as a worthwhile partner for Jack. But Lyden lacks a sympathetic personality. Wolf was one of King’s (or Straub’s) finest characters. Lyden pales in comparison.

The other poorly developed characters are the biker gang who become central to the story in helping Jack advance on the Black House to save young Tyler and the universe. The bikers are all professional brewmasters at the local brewery. They are also all college graduates who are given to discussing poetry and literature from time to time. One is a failed surgeon. That all works. However, This apparent conflict in personalities, while referenced and developed to a point, never seems to affect the character. They remain bullies and brutes, despite their education and profession. The juxtaposition of the diametrically opposed personality traits could have led to much deeper, richer, characters with internal conflict – again, something we get from King, even in his worst stories. Instead, we get two dimensional characters – smart guys who like to ride around on bikes and bully people.

The chief antagonist (other than The Fisherman himself) is a smarmy newspaper reporter named Wendell Green. The problem with this character is he’s just a little two smarmy. He’s a caricature of the reporter whose motivation is driven not by a love of the truth and a love of telling a story. His motivation is money. I suppose there might be a few who are truly like that. However, as I know from experience, one does not go into journalism to make money. Wendell Green is not complex. He is dull.

The story, once it get moving from its slow start, is engaging. Jack learns from his old friend Parker, now dead in our world, a gunslinger out of the mold of Roland Duschaine in another world, and our old friend Parkus in The Territories, tells Jack that Tyler Marshall is not the typical victim of The Fisherman. Tyler is special. Tyler is a “breaker” whose special powers will be used to destroy the beams upon which the Dark Tower rests as the crux of all existence.

Jack spend little time in The Territories except to meet Tyler’s mother, very happily married in our world, but a widowed queen of The Territories – having succeeded his own mother. He is compelled to help because of his strong attraction and love for this queen. He and his biker buddies discover that the Fisherman’s hideout is the most unlikely place in the entire city and his lair is a house, painted entirely black, hidden in the woods.

As they approach the house, Jack and his buddies know they’ve left our world and entered one dominated by an evil being known as The Crimson King who is imprisoned in the Dark Tower and would see it and the beams that support it destroyed so that he might be set free to unleash his will on all of the worlds of the universe.

While the story generally well paced, it suffers from the same difficulties as The Talisman. It could have been better edited. Although the two writers combine their work seamlessly so the reader has no idea who wrote what, there are simply too many words for several scenes. The scene where the bikers approach the Black House goes on for about 1,200 words too long. The final journey into the pits below the Black House becomes an epic quest in and of itself. Some critics noted that Jack’s journey into the Algincourt Hotel in The Talisman was way too short. They went the extreme in making this encounter too long. As a narrative, it resembles Mark Petrie’s desperate struggle to escape his bindings while the vampire Barlow awaits in the cellar. But King and Straub fail to develop that level of tension.

The ending is an unusual one for a King book. King doesn’t always write happy endings. Check out the endings of Firestarter, Cujo, or The Dead Zone. However, this ending, while I would not characterize it as dark, takes us a direction we did not expect. King and Straub should be applauded for their original twist at the end which was much different than The Talisman which a friend of mine compared to the ending of the first Star Wars trilogy with Ewoks dancing in celebration.

As a baseball fan, I did enjoy all of the reference to ballplayers from a decade ago. Many have names that will always be remembered like Mark McGwire. But other references to players such as Jeremy Burnitz and Richie Sexson are bound to fade with time. Most of the players referenced are members of a sad group of players known as the Milwaukee Brewers of the 2000 baseball season. One of the charms of Kings works is they reference the pulp culture of the time in which they were written, which is why I hate to see them "updated" when they are rewritten for the television or big screen.

Having read outside the chronology of King’s published order of books, I’ve jumped ahead in the development of the Dark Tower saga. The Crimson King was actually introduced in an earlier novel, Insomnia. He receives a great deal of development here to the point that it makes reading Black House integral to truly understanding The Dark Tower.

Besides The Territories, we visit Midworld which is Roland’s home world and where he spends most of his existence. Prior to Black House, Roland has already learned of the beams and the Dark Tower at the center. By the time Dark Tower was published, King’s time of slipping coy, obscure hints at the nature of Roland’s quest had passed and Black House becomes part of its narrative more than a simple sequel to The Talisman.

As a stand alone book, I would rank it as average in the library of King’s work. It’s not quite as strong as The Talisman, but much stronger than his worst stuff. For fans of The Dark Tower, it is essential reading. Because it is a sequel, it make The Talisman an essential element of the Dark Tower saga as well.

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