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.
Stephen 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.)
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.
The 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.
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
5. The Talisman