Saturday, July 10, 2010

The Talisman by Stephen King and Peter Straub

The Talisman
By Stephen King and Peter Straub
Copyright 1984

It is in The Talisman the Stephen King (and Peter Straub) introduce the concept of “other worlds” existing parallel to our own – the very crux of the premise for the Dark Tower. In the chronology of King’s publishing, this is our first real step into other planes of existence.

The book tells the story of 12 year old Jack Sawyer who must undertake a cross country journey to save his mother, an aging B-movie actress dying of cancer. Jack is bereft of moral support and assistance. His father is dead from a “hunting accident” at the hands of Jack’s uncle, Morgan Sloat. Jack and his mother are residing in a New Hampshire resort hotel in the offseason where Jack knows no one.

It is an old black amusement park caretaker (amazing how it is always worldly black people who dispense wisdom in King novels) who reveals to Jack the importance of saving his mother from the ravages of cancer. Speedy Parker, wandering minstrel and tinkerer of carousels, tells Jack that, in another existence, his mother is a queen whose life also hangs in the balance. Also in the balance are the fates of the residents of “The Territories” who will certainly suffer when their queen dies and the notorious “Morgan of Orris” (Jacky’s Uncle Morgan’s Twinner) assumes dictatorial power – power he will wield without mercy. The Queen’s son – Jack’s “twinner” or counterpart in the Territories died at a young age – and therefore there is no heir.

Jack uses Speedy’s “magic juice” which is a bottle of cheap grape wine to transport himself to the territories – a world similar to European Middle Ages in its culture and governance – to see the queen on her deathbed. He learns that somewhere on the west coast is secreted the Talisman – an otherworldly orb that has the power to rid his mother of her disease. More to save his mother than to save the Territories, Jack sets out on his journey.

Most of his travels out of New England and across the Midwest are undertaken in our world and he encounters many of the problems a 12 year old boy might encounter when traveling alone. Perverts who want sex. Lowlife businessmen who exploit him for slave labor, and eventually ends up as an inmate in a children’s home run by an demented Christian minister.

He also finds assistance in unlikely characters. In the Territories, the gruff chief of the queen’s guard provides assistance in setting him on his course. A werewolf who more closely resembles John Lennon and Larry Talbot joins Jack in his transcontinental adventure. His cousin, Richard, who is Morgan Sloat’s (Morgan of Orris) son joins Jack for the final leg of the adventure in the Territories in the area known as the Blasted Lands.

Jack arrives safely on the west coast and finds that the Talisman is held within a foreboding black hotel known as the Agincourt. Jack must enter this cursed building, emerge with the pink orb that is the Talisman, and return to his mother to save her – and her Territories counterpart – from the ailments that are certain to doom them both.

Peter Straub, who’s written many horror novels – most notably, Ghost Story and King decided to collaborate on the book while both were living in England in 1977. The collaboration did not start until four years later when both were back home in the states. Reading Straub (and I’ve only read two of his novels), he seems an unlikely partner for King. Straub’s text is dryer and his narrative more straightforward than King’s blue collar prose. I can’t help but believe this might have been a better book had King written it alone.

This is not a horror novel. Chronologically, it came on the heels of the horrific Pet Sematary. Just a few years prior, King took his first steps away from traditional horror writing in his novella compilation Different Seasons which are haunting and tragic, but not horror. After writing about a haunted car in Christine and the notorious Maine cemetery that brings the dead to life, King decided to delve into fantasy.

There are several things about this book that make it an enjoyable read. First and foremost is the character Wolf who is a friendly, jovial werewolf – except during that time of the month. But he is not the devious, ravenous, cunning creature brought to life in the Universal Pictures movies. His job in the Territories is to “protect the herd” which means sheep tending. Wolves are schooled in how to protect the heard when the full moon brings out their primal urges. To hurt the herd is to doom the wolf to damnation. When Wolf inadvertently joins Jack in our world, Jack becomes the herd and Wolf sees to his care and protection – even as he turns in the cycle of the moon.

Wolf is simple minded. He reminds the reader somewhat of Tom Cullen in The Stand, but his simplicity comes not from any physiological defect in the brain. Rather, he is simple because his purpose is singular – to protect the herd. He knows nothing more. But he is perceptive, intuitive, and singularly lovable. Wolf is one of King’s (or Straub’s) most memorable characters.

King and Straub also develop well the nature of the Territories – both its good and bad points. It is a simpler place than our world. Neither technology nor pollution befoul its air. It’s people are simple agrarian drones who live by the values put forth in their spiritual tome “The Book of Good Farming”.

The authors develop the theology of the Territories to show its similarities to our own Christianity. Their Bible, is called The Book of Good Farming. Their favorite saying in accepting something fated is "God pounds his nails" which is perhaps a reference to our own Savior's vocation as a carpenter. Their Jesus is referred to as Jason.

The Territories is not without its evil, however. There is the notorious Morgan of Orris – raper of women, power hungry usurper of good, and outright murderer. It’s Morgan’s single purpose to thwart Jack’s saving of the Queen in the Territories and his mother in our world. Both Morgan of Orris and Morgan Sloat of Hollywood, CA pursue Jack in his cross country odyssey. There’s also the Blasted Lands which geographically correspond to the area between Illinois and California. This land which one can infer was subjected to some sort of nuclear incident, is home to evil mutant beings who kill without remorse.

The book’s chief shortcoming is its slow pace. It takes 100 pages for the story to get started. Interludes are too weighty in text. The story frequently stalls and the reader is impatient for things to get moving again. We are not talking of character development interludes or subplot interludes. These are interludes that bear directly upon the story, but are too long in their telling.

This is not a typical fault in King’s writing. If King’s weighty tomes have a fault (and he has written some large books that will challenge your average Sauder book case to hold) it is the many words he dedicates to characters’ back story. Fans of King actually don’t find this as much of a fault as do critics. One must wonder if these overlong interludes are the writing of Peter Straub or the product of poor editing. Either way, the book could have been a tauter story with better editing.

In the body of King’s work, it would rank as second tier novel. It is not in the same league as truly great works like The Shining, 'Salem's Lot, The Stand, or IT. But it is certainly far better than many of his attempts to be an “important” writer with such substandard volumes as Gerald's Game, Dolores Claiborne, Rose Madder, Insomnia, or the horrific and nearly unreadable Lisey’s Story.

Like the earlier novels reviewed here, this book was written before King had developed the scope of his Dark Tower series. The links to that saga are few, but important. The Talsiman, we find out later, is one of 13 orbs – each with a different nature. We find out that healing is but a byproduct of its true purpose and that same Talisman will serve as the object that brings the important turning point in the life of a young Roland Duschaine in the fourth volume of the series, Wizards and Glass. We also know that the Territories are one of the other worlds on the many spokes extending from the Dark Tower. Roland visits the Territories in his journeys. The place he visits and its nature are revealed in the 2001 sequel King and Straub penned entitled Black House.

Serendipity had me reading this book when it was selected by my book/cigar/scotch club’s book of the month. Their critique was helpful to me in writing this one. Their feelings about the book were similar to mine, although some who are not fans of King felt the novel’s weaknesses a larger liability than I. Unfortunately, I am the only member of the club that has taken in the entire Dark Tower series and all its tangents. I tried to convey to them that this was but a small part of a much grander epic story. They weren’t impressed.

The Talisman is an enjoyable page turner to pass the time. If you’re not a King reader and want to find out why so many people love his work so much, this is NOT the novel you should read. For King fans, or fans of the horror or fantasy genres, It is worth the hours needed to follow Jack across the country and back.

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