"The Talisman," Stephen King and Peter Straub

Pros: Pulls you in…
Cons:after the first 140 pages or so. Heavy-handed morality play
Rating: 3 out of 5


First published 9/1/2001

The plot is pretty simple at its core, and pretty neat. It’s a horror novel written by two of the arguable masters of horror Stephen King and Peter Straub. The protagonist, Jack Sawyer, is watching his mother (Lily Cavanaugh, ex-actress, Queen of the B movies) die of cancer. She’s in New Hampshire, running from Jack’s father’s old business partner, Morgan Sloat (Jack’s dad is dead), who’s a class A creep.

That’s when Jack discovers the Territories, a sort of parallel universe in which a queen (who looks almost exactly like his mother) is dying, and the evil Morgan of Orris is plotting to take over the realm. A plot device (oops, that is, mysterious old guy) explains that there’s a Talisman somewhere in California that can save both Jack’s mother and the Queen, and Jack sets out on his journey.

There are a few other interesting bits to the first 142 pages. You find out that Sloat has a son, Richard, who’s Jack’s best friend. You realize that Jack has been to the Territories before, when he was young, and that his father and Sloat had been going back and forth between the “real world” and the Territories quite often. You meet Jack’s mother, who’s a real character. Speedy (the mysterious old guy) gives Jack magic juice to enable him to flip back and forth between the worlds, and it’s painfully obvious that it’s like the “magic black feather” that lets Dumbo fly in the old Disney movie (in other words, it’s just psychological). In fact, it’s so painfully obvious that Jack should have figured it out a few hundred pages before he did, at least. You’re introduced to the lovely world of the Territories, and meet Osmond, Morgan of Orris’ right-hand whip-wielding insane dandy. This is nifty and important stuff, but certainly could have been condensed into less space.

The Good

There are some wonderful turns of phrase in here:

But Uncle Tommy was already dead; it was just that the news was still on the other end of a lot of telephone wires.

The presence of Straub seems to have mollified some of King’s less lovely habits. There are no rampant indecipherable references to old works to confuse new readers. Bodily functions exist, but do not spew gratuitously all over the place. Some of King’s quirky, interesting characters remain, but overall things are toned down slightly, fixing many of King’s tendencies toward excess. Once the plot actually gets going, it’s fun. It’s frightening in places. It’s engrossing. The characters are interesting. I wanted to know what would happen next.

I found that most of the really frightening things took place in the “real” world, not in the wild Territories. Most of the real terrors came primarily from bad people with just a tinge of the supernatural, rather than the supernatural itself. Like the bar in Oatley, or the Sunlight Gardener home for wayward teenaged boys, and so on. I liked this.

The Bad

There’s the bland first part, which I already mentioned. Toward the beginning there’s also a Koontzian (hey! New word!) tendency to lead the readers around by the nose. Okay, okay. We got the point that Speedy is something weird already. No need to keep driving it home so baldly. Toward the beginning (you may be seeing a pattern here – so many problems could have been solved in condensing the first 142 pages) some of the observations ascribed to Jack seem too adult. Later on (when Jack has had to do some real growing up) the writers seemed to slip under his skin better.

This next one is a half-complaint. I’m tired of the stereotypical wise-man-in-bum’s-clothing plot device (err, character). Luckily, in mucking about a bit with Speedy’s parallel in the Territories and giving that character something resembling an actual position and identity, they partially broke the stereotype. But only partially.

And the Polluted

This is the really annoying part. The entire story was one huge morality play about the evils of pollution. I could have handled it if it were just the subtler stuff – cancer as a metaphor for pollution, descriptive bits about how much better the air in the non-industrialized Territories smelled.

But it was so incredibly heavy-handed. Every time someone switched to or from the Territories, there was a huge spiel about the difference in air quality, how terrible the air was in the “real” world, how sick it made everyone, how it aged them so much faster, etc., etc., ad nauseum. Characters entering our world for the first time inevitably got violently ill, started dying, or had massive allergic reactions to the chemicals in the food. Sometimes all three.

Ugh. A case of the message overwhelming the medium. Come on, guys. A little subtlety goes a long way.

When it comes down to it though, I’m glad I read the book. It was a great story, and once I hit the interesting parts it was difficult to put it down. I enjoyed it. But there are quite a few ways in which it could have been a better book, and that’s disappointing. Every writer of the fantastic seems to play with the parallel worlds idea eventually – it’s a gold mine of possibilities that will probably never run out of usable material for writers. This was a fun treatment of the idea with some very interesting ideas about the parallels between the worlds and how they affect each other.

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