Written with Peter Straub
Random House • 2001 • 625 pages
A Novel Critique
In myriad ways, Black House is a difficult novel to approach. A direct sequel to The Talisman, it is perhaps obviously dependent upon its predecessor for its effectiveness. In more crucial ways, however, Black House is intricately connected to Stephen King's larger Dark Tower opus, making it one of the "minor arcana" books peripheral to the primary seven books of the series, along the lines of Insomnia, Rose Madder, Desperation, and Hearts In Atlantis. The difference between Black House and those earlier books is that a working knowledge of the Dark Tower books (not to mention the prequel short story "The Little Sisters of Eluria," as well as the aforementioned minor arcana books) seems required for a thorough understanding of this novel. Additionally, as the ending is left open for a third volume in this series, Black House feels frustratingly unfinished, somewhat of a catchall for ideas and characters explored in more depth in other novels.
The opening pages are nearly impenetrable. As Needful Things did for the town of Castle Rock, the introduction to Black House travels through the township of French Landing, Wisconsin, charting its geography and offering brief sketches of its townsfolk. But while Needful Things offers a folksy, casual introduction that welcomes the reader into the novel, in Black House, these pages read and feel like pointless exposition. It's not: the remainder of the novel depends on this initial exposure to its large cast of characters and our need to witness them in their natural habitats before seeing them thrust into the mystery, but it's still somewhat tedious.
Beyond the basic narrative thrust, King and Straub also utilize a storytelling technique at once interesting and challenging. Black House is told in the present tense and often references the second person, indicating that "we" are watching events unfold as we would watch a film, as opposed to reading a novel. The oddness and pervasiveness of this device distracts, especially in the initial pages, affecting the reader the way that intrusive 3-D movies do; by calling attention to the method of storytelling, the reader loses immersion in the story itself. (King would later use this "camera" to a much lesser - and arguably more effective - extent in Under the Dome.) However, while this new style is demanding, it does yield pleasures, allowing the writers to talk directly to us in ways that conventional storytelling might not.
At the center of this is Jack Sawyer, last seen returning from a cross-country and cross-dimension trip to locate a mystical Talisman that would save his mother's life (notwithstanding his puzzling appearance to Jim Gardner on a beach in The Tommyknockers). In the intervening years, Jack has become lieutenant in the Los Angeles Police Department, and had worked to put great distance between himself and The Territories, so much so that he now denies its existence. This not only recalls Richard Sloat's self-imposed amnesia about the Territories in The Talisman, but also echoes that of the grown-up Losers' Club of It. While this choice seems to run counter to what we knew of Jack in the previous volume, the conceit of adults repressing memories of fantastical childhoods is a staple in modern fantasy storytelling. States Dr. Michael Collings:
[Forgetting] is a metaphor fantasists may use for the loss of innocence, creativity, and imagination that occurs when child characters mature into the adult world of experience ... In [C.S.] Lewis, Lucy remembers [Narnia], but more importantly, the Professor (originally known as Digory in Magician's Nephew) also remembers, largely because he retains a degree of the childlike within him. Susan, on the other hand, emerges from childhood and embraces the adult world of stockings and make-up ... and she forgets that Narnia is real, considering it merely stories the children had once played.
It may be that the motif is most prevalent in 20th century writers like King and Lewis, and in contemporary filmmakers, because it seems to suggest something of modern psychology, which treasures the child-state and acknowledges that it has particular values that are lost in the adult-state. Earlier centuries seem either to view children as little adults waiting to grow up ... in which case there is nothing noteworthy about the experiences of childhood; or as almost a separate species that somehow transforms into the adult ... and there is neither the means or the need to return; or as something almost to be ignored, since child mortality rates were so high that there is some evidence (as in royal and noble families persisting in christening sequential children with the same name until finally one of them survives the first four or five years) that one simply didn't establish strong emotional ties with them until they neared adulthood.*
Jack dismisses his memories as hallucinations, and when an investigation threatens to force these memories to resurface, he promptly resigns and moves to Wisconsin. More recently, though, Jack has been seeing bird's feathers appearing out of nowhere, and finding tiny blue robin's eggs everywhere he looks - clues to his ties with The Territories, and with his mentor/father figure Speedy Parker from The Talisman. Jack tries to dismiss these appearances as bouts of "waking dreams," but as they continue, it seems that they may be connected to something else happening in town, something a lot worse. A monster known as The Fisherman - a child-murderer with a taste for cannibalism - has come to French Landing. His crimes neatly parallel those of a man named Albert Fish, who, in the 1930's killed and ate dozens of children. In French Landing, three children are now dead, and a fourth - young Tyler Marshall - is captured by the Fisherman while we, the audience, must sit and watch.
Tyler, however, is protected by the fact that he possesses a wild talent, linking him thematically with the recurring special children in King's books (Danny Torrance in The Shining, Charlie McGee in Firestarter, David Carver in Desperation, Duddits Clavell in Dreamcatcher, among others) and their less-frequent appearances in Straub's (psychic and precognitive Tabby Smithfield in Floating Dragon, for example). Tyler is a "Breaker," just as Ted Brautigan was in Hearts in Atlantis - individuals whose psychic talents are directly connected with the destruction of the beams that support Stephen King's Dark Tower.
The mystery of Tyler Marshall's disappearance, coupled with those of the true nature of the Fisherman and Black House itself, drives some of the novel's best sequences. Mysteries and crime stories have long been central to Peter Straub's horror novels - especially in his "Blue Rose Trilogy," Koko, Mystery, and The Throat - but have been more peripheral in King's work. Aside from John Smith's help in investigating the Castle Rock Killer in The Dead Zone, King hadn't really approached mystery in a horror/supernatural context again until Bag of Bones. Black House, then, continues this new thread in King's novels, with central mysteries at the heart of the upcoming From a Buick Eight, The Colorado Kid and Duma Key.
Despite these leanings toward mystery and crime, Black House is literally unclassifiable. Where The Talisman was, at its base, a quest novel, Black House edges more toward the horrific, showcasing both authors' more gruesome sides (a particularly grisly scene happens quite early on; we are asked to study - in macabre specifics - the corpse of one of The Fisherman's prey. It's not an easy segment to read ... or turn away from.) But right when it seems strictly a horror novel, we move easily into the realm of the police procedural (one memorable scene takes place outside where the aforementioned corpse is found.) Once the novel seems to settle there, it's time for a trip into The Territories (Jack's initial "flip" into this world in Black House is exhilarating and frightening, forcing memories to resurface in a complex rush. This again recalls the adult Losers in It, first reacting to Mike Hanlon's phone call, then to their return to Derry, Maine.) The fact that this book can't be easily categorized helps it fit in well with the Dark Tower novels, which move through Western, fantasy, science fiction, horror, and romance genres fluidly.
One of Black House's most successful aspects is in its use of literary allusion. While The Talisman relied heavily on the work of Mark Twain, King and Straub expand that here, referencing Edgar Allen Poe (one of the chapter titles is "Night's Plutonian Shore") and especially Charles Dickens. The title similarity to Bleak House is not incidental; in fact, one particularly scary section in Black House parallels the foggy opening of the former. Also recalling Dickens are the establishing chapters, which introduce the sprawling cast of characters. One benefit of the occasionally lugubrious opening is that it forces us to slow down and grow attached to these people instead of being shown who they are in relation to Jack - as with Wolf, Richard Sloat, and Lily Cavanaugh in The Talisman - we see who Jack is in relation to them. Fred, Judy, and Tyler Marshall; Dale Gilberton, the kind-hearted sheriff; the Thunder Five, college-educated, beer-brewing bikers; Wendell Green, a dangerously determined journalist; and especially Henry Leyden, a blind radio DJ who is easily the most interesting and sympathetic character in the novel. As with Wolf in The Talisman, Henry becomes the emotional core of the novel, and his fate is as unsettling and resonant as Wolf's had been.
Black House is a challenging, complex read, perhaps the least casually approachable book in Stephen King's canon. Readers familiar with Peter Straub's more deliberate pace and style might have an easier time with the structure of the novel, but the Dark Tower elements and intricate connections with other Stephen King novels and stories make this a less accessible experience. While not a bad novel, Black House is far more effective for King's (and perhaps Straub's) Constant Readers.
* Collings, Michael R. "Re: Forgetting in Fantasy." Message to the author. 9 Dec. 2010. Email.