Catching Up with King: The Talisman

When I moved to Stephen King’s home state of Maine, I thought it would be fun (if a bit cliché) to finally read his books in earnest, and discover how I really feel about his work. For this installment, I locked myself in a toolshed and waited for a werewolf to bring me a copy of The Talisman.

Screen Shot 2019-07-04 at 10.56.29 AMStephen King is not synonymous with fantasy quest narratives – the kind of stories that rely on meticulous world-building, magical elements, and traditional constructions of good and evil. But it’s not for a lack of trying. Although its scope included every random thought in the author’s brain, the spine of The Stand was a fellowship of survivors trekking across a wasted American landscape. His Dark Tower series melded the rules of Hollywood westerns into the formula. The Eyes of the Dragon went full Arthurian legend. And The Talisman was the most overt homage to Professor Tolkien, pitting an undersized hero and his loyal friends against forces of darkness powerful enough to threaten multiple universes at once.

King co-wrote the tale – fleshed out from a rough idea he had in college – with his friend and fellow horror scribe Peter Straub (best known for his 1979 novel Ghost Story, about a group of old men haunted by a past misdeed). In an interview, Straub described the writing process as “each of us firing off hundred-page, hundred-and-fifty-page segments at intervals of a month or so.” To the credit of these authors, this seemingly ill-advised relay race approach does not come off stilted at all. The Talisman has its faults, but it’s told in a seamless voice, one that gleefully attempts to make the fantastical feel tangible.

It’s the story of Jack Sawyer, a 12-year-old boy whose ailing mother brings him to an off-season New Hampshire resort town for reasons neither of them truly understand. While wandering the empty carnival grounds he meets Speedy, a black janitor/blues singer  who introduces Jack to “The Territories,” an alternate universe that’s like a Medieval Times version of America, where every person has a mirror entity called a “twinner.” (I’d bet a tidy sum that the introduction of Speedy was written by King, whose incessant treatment of black people as exotic, magical beings is the aspect of his fiction that has aged the worst.) 2a0998dee205d607c699b07d8ef02e23

Jack recognizes The Territories as a place he used to daydream about, and feels the tug of destiny. And thus his quest is laid out for him – in order to cure his mother, he must walk to the west coast of The Territories and find “The Talisman,” an object that only he can claim. There are several mysteries to be unraveled during his journey – why does Jack have a connection to this place? How did his father die? Why is his mother on the run from his father’s old business partner, the deliciously named Morgan Sloat? What the hell is The Talisman?

King and Straub deliver the answers to most of these questions in a steady IV drip, as Jack makes his way, on foot, across America/The Territories. This first half of Jack’s quest is horror-fantasy at its best – a triptych of subplots that finds Jack trailed by monsters and trapped by a sadistic bar owner, a charismatic cult leader, and a cadre of zombified prep-school students. The more comfortable he becomes with flipping, the more intense the story becomes, as the authors can now drop Jack from a frying pan into an interdimensional fire.

One of my favorite sequences of any King book is Jack’s friendship with Wolf, a lycanthropic shepherd from The Territories. After flipping to America together, Jack and his gentle-giant werewolf buddy end up arrested and shipped to the Sunlight Home for Boys, a nightmarish prison disguised as a Christian reformatory school. It’s all too much for Wolf, who hates tight spaces almost as much as the chemical smell of this tainted world. They need to find a way out before the full moon hits. As a critique of evangelical Christians, a tension-ratcheting set piece, and a showcase for the power of friendship, it succeeds wildly. Unfortunately, it’s the toughest spot that Jack finds himself in for the rest of the book.

images.jpgThe closer Jack gets to his goal, the more rushed and sloppy the narrative becomes. After picking up his best friend Richard (Morgan’s traumatized son) on his way west, Jack flips with him, and then steals Sloat’s battery-powered train to ride through the “Blasted Lands.” In an unforgivable bout of laziness, the authors fill the back of Sloat’s train with assault weapons, minimizing the threat while expecting us to believe that two 12-year-olds would know how to use them. (Picture Frodo and Sam finding a pair of bazookas on the road to Mordor.)

It just gets more anti-climactic from there, as that IV drip becomes a flood, and Jack’s final battle with Sloat doesn’t feel remotely as dangerous as the Sunlight Home. But this is a nearly 1,000-page King epic, and I’ve yet to see one of those end with a bang. And to judge it too much by its destination would be missing the point.

Because King and Straub have written a fantasy about the power of fantasy. It’s not a coincidence that the word they choose to describe jumping between worlds also applies to the pages of a book. The Talisman is a grand argument against the common critique of the genre – that it’s escapist, irrelevant, a way to avoid thinking about the problems of the real world. 9781451697216

This goal is laid bare for all to see when the authors describe Richard Sloat’s reading habits, framing his reliance on non-fiction as a symptom of a trauma victim’s fear of losing control:

“It explained Richard’s iron, no-compromise insistence on reality, the whole reality, and nothing but the reality. It explained his rejection of any sort of fantasy, even science fiction … It became a challenge to Jack to find a story – any story – which would please Richard.”

In King and Straub’s opinion, it’s the inability to be transported that’s the problem. Escape isn’t to be avoided, it’s to be sought. Because while we’re living amongst these characters, and rushing alongside them into battle, we learn things about ourselves that no textbook can teach. Would we trust Wolf to remain loyal in werewolf form? Would we have the strength and empathy to spare Gollum? Are we fans of the journey or do we skip ahead to the destination?

As a lover of the journey, and one of the millions whose life has been shaped by J.R.R. Tolkien, you can count me as a fan of this overlong ode to magic, myth, and the kind of love that inspires elves to sing.

THE “CATCHING UP WITH KING” RANKINGS

1. Pet Sematary

2. Misery

3. Carrie

4. The Shining

5. The Talisman

6. Nightmares & Dreamscapes

7. 11/22/63

8. On Writing

9. The Stand

10. The Gunslinger

11. Bag of Bones

 

The Hobbit succumbs to dragon sickness

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“On The Lord of the Rings we had actors in prosthetics playing the orcs, and I was always a little frustrated by that. If I could have afforded it then, I would have much preferred to have all the orcs CGI. Now, in The Hobbit, I can.”

Peter Jackson

A few months ago, The Hollywood Reporter revealed that as of March 2014, the budget for Peter Jackson’s latest epic – three films based on J.R.R. Tolkien’s 1937 children’s fantasy novel The Hobbit – was $745 million. It’s the most expensive trilogy of all time, costing around $500 million more than Jackson’s last massively successful go-round with Tolkien’s work – those triumphant, absorbing, lived-in adaptations of The Lord of the Rings novels. After seeing the final Hobbit installment, The Battle of the Five Armies, in a packed theater over the holiday weekend, I have no doubt that every penny of that budget was used to make these movies look great. Unfortunately, you can’t finance feeling.

TBOTFA picks up right where The Desolation of Smaug left off, with that titular dragon feeling over it after a far-too-long dwarf fight and laying waste to the vaguely Celtic people of Laketown. It’s a gorgeous and harrowing sequence, with Jackson capturing the grand terror of the dragon’s every swoop, both from above the town and in the thick of its clogged and scorched canals. But before you can relax and honestly hope for a stuck landing, the dragon (77-year-old spoiler alert!) is killed by Bard the Guardsman (Luke Evans). Only after the amber light elegantly leaves its body in midair does the film’s title appear.

You’ve gotten your Smaug, now prepare for the slog.

 

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The rest of the film transforms the last five chapters of Tolkien’s book into a battleground strategy manual. It makes good on its title for sure, with the armies of dwarves, elves, men, orcs and deus ex machinas turning each other into CGI slurry for a huge chunk of the running time. There are stunning visuals here; Jackson does not deserve the “video game” taunts. But he’s blinded by pixels. The patience, warmth and good humor of the underrated An Unexpected Journey are nowhere to be found; characters have no time to talk, let alone develop enough to get us invested in them. As a result, those looking for any kind of message from these movies leave with some paper-thin bullshit. Tolkien taught us a simple, poignant lesson – if you don’t lose sight of what’s truly valuable in life, you’ll be stronger than kings. To do so on film would require some quiet, reflective moments, however.

So instead of letting his universally beloved main character Bilbo Baggins (the perfect and wasted Martin Freeman) steal screen time from the worms from Tremors, Jackson invents the character of Alfrid Lickspittle, the toady to the King of Laketown and sentient insult to our intelligence who spends TBOTFA being cartoonishly cowardly and greedy, pushing old ladies and then dressing up like one to avoid battle (which is funny in 2014, apparently). Instead of letting Bilbo actually have a conversation with Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage), the newly crowned King of the Mountain struck with “dragon sickness,” the character can only come to his senses after a (terrible-looking) CGI hallucination sequence involving a floor of molten gold quicksand or whatever. Instead of having Bilbo do anything, we watch Bard save his “Da!”-yelling kids over and over and over again, because FAMILY. We learn about Legolas’s dead mom, because FAMILY. We hear the warrior-elf Tauriel talk about nothing but love and dudes, because WOMEN’S ISSUES=HALF-BAKED TWILIGHT-TYPE SHIT.

 

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When filming The Lord of the Rings, Jackson had to get creative to avoid blowing his budget. He had to lean on his actors and his script-writing partners. He had to shoot miniatures and build sets and use old camera tricks to make us believe that Ian McKellen was three times taller than Ian Holm. His passion and ingenuity were all over those films as a result; he was Sam carrying Frodo up the mountain. On The Hobbit, with that blank check staring him in the face, he felt like a King. His trilogy that started with such heart has ended in a haze. The dragon lives.

 

 

Catching Up With King: The Gunslinger

When I moved to Stephen King’s home state of Maine this summer, I thought it would be fun (if a bit cliché) to finally read his books in earnest, and discover how I really feel about his work. For this installment, I decided to “cowboy up” – which is a thing you can do, apparently – and take on Book One of the Dark Tower series – The Gunslinger.

“Everything in the universe denies nothing; to suggest an ending is the one absurdity.”
–The Man in Black

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If one wanted to take a swipe at Stephen King, the length of his novels seems to be the obvious place to start. None of the books I’ve tackled here so far have been especially bloated, but his loyal readers are certainly no stranger to shelf-punishing hardcovers. Of course, this invites accusations of King having a problem with endings, or a puffed up idea of his own literary significance, or a celebrity that handcuffs his editors. But I’m pretty sure this line of criticism is a lazy one, because I just read The Gunslinger – the first entry in King’s seven-part-and-counting Dark Tower series, and the opposite of a 1,000 page door-stopper – and it left me wanting so much more.

When this book came out in 1982, it must have thrown King junkies for a bit of a loop. Written in simple, muscular language, The Gunslinger is a starkly different genre exercise then the supernatural/domestic clash fiction that made the author famous. King borrows from an eclectic array of fantasy tropes to build his world – including spaghetti westerns, 1950s post-apocalyptic sci-fi, Arthurian legend and the multiverse theory – boiling them down to the most basic of quest stories, where the obviously good guy (The Gunslinger) follows the obviously bad guy (The Man in Black), across a desert hellscape, getting closer and closer until he finally catches up with him. Plus, there’s a kid. It’s not a bad idea on paper – King writes the weirdo Sergio Leone script of his dreams, adding his own shadows to the good and the bad, but focusing most of all on the ugly, resulting in a Cormac McCarthy-meets-J.R.R. Tolkien mindfuck of a masterpiece. That’s what I wish this book was.

What it actually is, is way too slight. So few characters having even fewer conversations, with the emptiness of the landscape getting more play than anything else. I get that when your main character is the strong, silent, Eastwood type, your story isn’t going to be dialogue driven. But there isn’t much plot here to speak of either – Good Guy follows Bad Guy from Point A (desert) to Point B (mountains). Good Guy picks up Mysterious Boy. Good Guy bonds with Mysterious Boy. Good Guy makes Difficult Choice in regards to Mysterious Boy while following Bad Guy from Point B (mountains) to Point C (fire pit on other side of mountains). The End.

Now, I’m fully aware that context is playing a role here. I read The Gunslinger immediately after finishing The Shining, a gluttonous feast of character development that puts us inside the head of a gifted child, who becomes a portal into the heads of everybody else – while also carefully laying out the dark and complicated pasts of both a haunted hotel and the family trapped inside of it. I also read The Gunslinger with the knowledge that it’s the first book in a beloved fantasy saga – something I usually have a weakness for. So you could say I went in expecting The Fellowship of the Ring, and I got a few chapters of a shorter, picture-book version of The Hobbit.

While there are elements of the story that intrigue me and will compel me to read on – most especially the beautifully regaled flashbacks that make up The Gunslinger’s pre-apocalyptic, pseudo-Arthurian origin story – King’s world just isn’t in the same galaxy as a Middle Earth. Or even a Westeros, for all its obsessive-compulsive flaws. Maybe in future installments, King will abandon the cowboy novelist pose and just write his ass off while losing himself down all kinds of bizarre rabbit holes, fleshing out the scraps of promising meat from this skeletal beginning. Maybe there will be hundreds of pages of stuff that makes the story much longer than it probably needs to be. I can only hope.

Catching Up With King #1: Pet Sematary
Catching Up With King #2: The Shining