The Talisman by Stephen King and Peter Straub (1984) 769 p.

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I wouldn’t describe myself as a Stephen King “fan,” though from what I remember from Goodreads’ Most Read Authors feature (which they inexplicably scrapped in January) I’ve read something like twenty books by the man. My opinion on King as a writer is probably not uncommon: he writes great, page-turning popular fiction, isn’t about to win the Pulitzer but still has far more skill than the average airport fiction bestseller, and he got some truly great speculative fiction books under his belt before going off the rails sometime around the late 1980s. (I’d prefer not to conclude that this was because he kicked cocaine around the same time; maybe it was because he’d become so enormously popular and wealthy he figured he must be doing something right and no longer felt compelled to listen to his editors, a tale of woe common to many bestselling authors.)

So while I haven’t read all of King’s early (i.e. good) work, nearly all of it is on my to-be-read pile. The Talisman for some reason was not. I think it’s because it was co-authored, which to me always smacks of the lesser-known author doing most of the work while the more famous one puts his name on the cover to shift copies. That doesn’t seem to be the case with The Talisman; supposedly Straub and King each wrote a chapter then sent it to the other to edit, and if I didn’t know any better I’d say King had written the entire thing. It’s only because I was looking out for it that I was occasionally able to spot a more Kingian tone to some of the chapters: more 20th century pop culture references, more of an inner monologue, more of a sense that the writer is getting really obsessively invested in certain villains – the televangelist running a juvenile detention centre in Indiana is pure Stephen King.

Anyway, regardless of who’s at the helm, it’s a pretty solid fantasy/horror story, once in which readers of the Dark Tower series will immediately feel at home. At the beginning of autumn in 1981, 12-year-old Jack Sawyer finds himself in a deserted New England seaside resort, dragged out of school in New York by his ageing mother, who was once a Hollywood starlet. Jack only slowly realises that she’s dying of cancer and has come to this old resort, where she once had happy memories, to die. Struggling to accept this, Jack befriends an old black janitor named Speedy Parker at the nearby mothballed amusement park. Speedy (100% a blatant Magic Negro archetype) tells Jack there’s a way to save his mother – if he travels into another world, a mirror world of America called the Territories, and retrieves something called the Talisman.

This of course sounds silly written down, but King handles it in that deft way he had back in his prime, slowly revealing that Jack has had visions and “daydreams” of the Territories for his whole life, and run-ins with denizens of that world, because his own late father (and his father’s business partner Morgan Sloat, who becomes the novel’s antagonist) had visited the Territories themselves. Speedy Parker’s befriending of Jack, therefore, is not the coincidental accident it first seems. To retrieve the Talisman, Jack must travel to California’s counterpart in the Territories. Having been granted the power to flip between the two worlds at will, Jack sets off on a great road story from America’s east coast to its west, facing dangers in both worlds.

The bulk of the novel in fact takes place in our own world, which is fine, because this kind of Americana is where King excels. (I have a pet theory that he is in fact the most fundamentally American writer of the 20th century.) There are entire segments which add nothing to an already very thick book, but which I was quite happy to read, because they’re just pitch perfect. I particularly liked the thread where Jack ends up in a sort of implied indentured servitude at a dive bar in a bleak little rust belt town in upstate New York, which shows more than anything how well King – though by the time of writing this he was presumably already a millionaire – knows as well as anybody that 1970s and ‘80s impoverished, backwater, blue collar way of life:

They were town men from a rural area where the plows were now probably rusting forgotten in back sheds, men who perhaps wanted to be farmers but had forgotten how. There were a lot of John Deere caps in evidence, but to Jack, very few of these men looked as if they would be at home riding a tractor. These were men in gray chinos and brown chinos and green chinos; men with their names stitched on blue shirts in gold thread; men in square-toed Dingo Boots and men in great big clumping Survivors. These men carried their keys on their belts. These men had wrinkles but no laugh-lines; their mouths were dour. These men wore cowboy hats and when Jack looked at the bar from in back of the stools, there were as many as eight who looked like Charlie Daniels in the chewing-tobacco ads. But these men didn’t chew; these men smoked cigarettes, and a lot of them.

 

I compared this book earlier to the Dark Tower series, which is a both a good and bad thing. When The Talisman is at its best – showing the creepy, unsettling ways the creatures of The Territories are seeping into an all-familiar, all-American 1980s setting, from highway rest stops to industrial kitchens to a fancy prep school – it’s great, and reminded me of the very best of the Dark Tower series. When it’s not-so-great, it reminded me of… well, not the worst of the Dark Tower series (which becomes truly dire) but certainly the more annoying tics and habits of Stephen King. There’s a climactic battle which is rather Hollywoodesque, all bright lights and little substance; by that third act of the book in general, King has been drinking a little too much of his own Kool-Aid. (Robert Burns has nothing to do with this story, no matter how many times you have the characters quote a line from his poem.)

On the whole, though, The Talisman was a great read. It’s not up there with something like The Mist or the early Dark Tower books, which stand as the best things King’s ever written. But it’s definitely on par with a novel like The Dead Zone. If you like King’s work in general, you’ll like this.