Written with Peter Straub
Viking • 1984 • 646 pages
A Novel Critique
Stephen King and Peter Straub first broached the idea of collaborating on a novel in the late 1970s. In Danse Macabre, King praised Straub's novels, touching on Julia and If You Could See Me Now before a full analysis of the book Ghost Story. He states, "Ghost Story is at first glance an extravagant mishmash of every horror and gothic convention ever yarned...," while interpreting Straub's earliest work as "cool, rational, almost disconnected from any kind of emotional base." King refers to this style as "mainstream horror," known today as "literary horror," a term Straub himself bristles at.
Two writers approaching horror from different angles: King's more robust and colloquial style merging with Straub's more reserved delivery. But despite hype to the contrary (and critical backlash from the puzzled media), the collaboration The Talisman wasn't a horror novel. Instead, The Talisman is an epic fantasy involving alternate universes, beautiful queens, despicable villains, and a boy's quest to save his mother's life.
His name invoking the stories of Mark Twain, twelve-year-old Jack Sawyer stands at the center of The Talisman. His mother - former B-movie actress Lily Cavanaugh Sawyer - is dying of cancer. The two of them are in hiding in New Hampshire, at the Alhambra Inn and Gardens, "a great Victorian pile on gigantic granite blocks," on the run from Jack's father's business partner, Morgan Sloat. We learn these things in the opening pages of The Talisman, and they evoke a sort of stasis. Whether intentional or not, the reader is keenly aware of a feeling of dead time, of a story waiting to begin. The pacing at the outset is slow, methodical, concerned more with information, tone, and setting than a swift narrative. King would return to this sort of opening with his later novel, Insomnia, as well as with his and Straub's sequel, Black House.
With its origins in classic quest literature such as The Lord of the Rings (Jack actually goes to the movies to see the animated film adaptation at one point, making the allusion text), The Talisman also expands on themes King first explored in The Stand. As in that novel, examinations and critiques of contemporary America are woven into the fabric of The Talisman. The potential aftereffects of nuclear testing (later explored by King in The Waste Lands and The Tommyknockers), absentee parents (The Waste Lands again, and Hearts In Atlantis), and false religious dogma masking deep corruption and cruelty (Under the Dome) are only the most potent examples. In addition to thematic similarities, specific moments and locales reverberate from both authors' previous works: Jack's friend Richard attends a boarding school reminiscent of that in Straub's Shadowland, and Jack's nightmarish trip through the Oatley Tunnel recalls Larry Underwood's trek through the Lincoln Tunnel in The Stand.
Jack's travels also take him into a parallel world known as The Territories, a medieval-type land vaguely analogous to the United States ("an agrarian monarchy," one character explains. "They have magic like we have physics."). Events in either land - such as births, deaths, or catastrophes - reverberate in the other. People, too, have equivalents, known as Twinners. Lily Sawyer's Twinner is Laura DeLoessean, the Queen of the Territories. She is also dying, and her death would send The Territories into chaos. Jack's search for The Talisman, then, has larger repercussions than that beyond his personal quest to save his mother's life.
As Jack "lights out" (the archaic phrasing lends to the book's mythic tone and structure), the pace quickens and the book's voice grows more confident and inviting. While some incidents along the road reveal both authors' backgrounds in horror, The Talisman's identity remains firmly that of a fantasy quest. Jack faces seemingly endless challenges on his journey (Part Two of The Talisman is titled "The Road of Trials), strengthening his character; this recalls the coming-of-age structure of "The Body," albeit with otherworldly elements. While Jack's trials are exciting and involving, their constancy can be disheartening. One of the best scenes in The Talisman, then, is a blissful moment in which Jack watches men with wings flying; it is not a moment particularly necessary to the narrative or Jack's quest, but its impact on Jack serves to underscore the beauty and mystery of The Territories.
Journeying alone at the outset, Jack is soon aided by allies, most notably Wolf (a childlike werewolf from The Territories whose mission becomes saving Jack at any cost) and Richard, a childhood friend whose disbelief in The Territories prefigures Stan Uris's debilitating pragmatism in It. Additionally, the mysterious Speedy Parker appears early on to provide the tools and knowledge Jack will need on his journey. While most directly related to Dick Hallorann of The Shining, Parker recalls a long line of surrogate fathers in King's work: Ben Mears in 'Salem's Lot, Larry Underwood in The Stand, Roland of Gilead in The Gunslinger, Uncle Al in Cycle of the Werewolf, even the elderly Jud Crandall of Pet Sematary and the poisonous John Rainbird in Firestarter. This recurring motif would continue to evolve over King's career, manifesting later in Bag of Bones and Hearts In Atlantis, coming full circle in The Talisman's sequel, Black House, when Jack Sawyer himself becomes a father figure.
Later books would find King exploring other fantasy worlds. Following the young adult fairy tale The Eyes of the Dragon, King would continue to explore and expand the mythos of the Dark Tower. As Dragon - as well as books as diverse as The Stand, Insomnia, and The Regulators - was folded into the larger landscape of the Dark Tower, so too were the Territories. Following a suggestion by Peter Straub, Black House would be set firmly in the Dark Tower universe, retroactively putting The Talisman into that continuity. The Black Hotel Jack must conquer in the novel's climax can now be interpreted as the structural analogue to the Dark Tower itself, much as the properties of it and the Talisman - "the nexus of all possible worlds" - seem to be.
The Talisman may be a comparatively difficult book to approach, especially for readers familiar with the immediacy of most of Stephen King's work. However, the world-building and slow escalation of the novel's opening sequences have a purpose, blossoming into a satisfying and rewarding read as-yet unlike anything either King or Straub had published before.