Black House by Stephen King and Peter Straub (Talisman: Book 2)

Black House is another book I’ve waited quite a while to read. Back in 2001, when 19 year old me befriended a fellow Stephen King fan at university, who lent me Hearts in Atlantis on audio cassette), he happened to mention he was reading the really awesome new book which King had co-written with Peter Straub, sequel to their previous collaboration The Talisman. So, naturally, after finally getting my hands on an audio copy of the Talisman last year, it was only a matter of time before I ventured into the Black House myself.

The usually quiet Wisconsin town of French Landing is in uproar. A serial killer whom the press have dubbed the Fisherman has already killed and partially eaten three children, and more are soon to follow. Naturally, police chief Dale Gilbertson is eager to see the Fisherman brought to justice, and not just because of the fury of local biker gang leader Beezer St Pierre, whose daughter was one of the first victims, the scandal mongering of bad news reporter Wendell green, or even the fact that the FBI are eager to take the case off his hands. Dale would most like to enlist the help of his friend Jack Sawyer, a legendary LA cop who has retired to French Landing after a stellar law enforcement career. Jack however is a troubled man, beset by visions of flying red feathers and robins eggs, and the dim memories of when he was twelve, when he travelled across both America and the world of the territories to recover a mysterious talisman. Jack’s peace won’t last however, since the Fisherman is no simple psychopath, since behind him is a being of unknown power and intention, a being who resides in a world foreign even to the Territories, a being who is an emissary of the Aballah, the Crimson King.

My lady warned me that Black House is an incredibly different experience to The Talisman, and she wasn’t wrong. Where The Talisman was a clear quest and journey story with a set objective, Black House is in one sense far more like King; or indeed some of Straub’s more standard setup. A sprawling narrative taking in a large cast of different characters dotted around a small American town (albeit Wisconsin rather than King’s usual Maine), where comparatively real world tensions bubble over an extra dimensional cause, with dark humour, human hubris and heroism leading to an unearthly showdown. But Black House doesn’t exactly read like Stephen King either. This is because it’s not just written in the present tense, but directly addressed to the reader, with the authors giving an at times, almost literal birds eye view on events, directly saying “where we are going to go next”, even occasionally regretting at showing the reader particularly horrific sites, or telling the reader how horrible certain people are. By any normal standards of writing, this style should not work, and yet somehow King and Straub actually manage to not just pull it off, but actually use it to make the book even more immediate and compelling.

Where I was fully expecting the action to take a while to get going (as indeed it had in The Talisman), I found that I was oddly captivated here right from the start, even when not much was actually happening, or when (as I thought), I was still on a long introduction, something I directly attribute to the writing style.

Indeed, Black House is one of the most weirdly paced books I’ve seen, since events move at a fairly even, if not actually slow pace, with the book taking place over about three days (not much longer than its rather monstrous 27 hour length). The path takes plenty of side turns; wandering into extra details, pausing for descriptive moments or close up views of minor characters, sometimes even showing the same time period from different perspectives, yet it is this very structure which makes the events of the book so compelling, and sections such as a both pointed and poignant visit to an old folks home, or the oddly sympathetic depiction of a closed psychiatric ward, didn’t feel the digressions they might have done in other authorial hands.

The book also resembles King’s fiction in that it has a large cast of characters, some of whom exist to move the plot on slightly, some of whom are there just to add a note of nuance, yet I found that so many members of the cast had a little extra touch, or an extra dimension to them above and beyond what the plot required them to do, I never minded spending time with them. Thus Rebecca Vilas, cynical and materialistic secretary come escort to a rich and loathsome crook is proved to have a glimmer of soul behind her scepticism, while Lester, the downtrodden, dismal bartender was not quite the harried grump he appears. Indeed, where in King’s earlier works a character like Tansy Freneau, the drug-addled, alcoholic mother of one of the Fisherman’s first victims, and thus an easy prey for supernatural influence, would simply be written out of the plot when her part was done, here she was treated with a surprising amount of compassion. Of course, the authors don’t disappoint in the usual stakes either, with the Fisherman being just as compellingly grotesque, and full of macabre human and unknown menace as any of Stephen King’s previous creations, indeed from a pure mystery perspective I liked the way the reader is told the Fisherman’s basic identity right at the start, but given so many other mysteries to contemplate this almost feels trivial, particularly since the authors avoid the trap of making Jack and the police overly obtuse in finding out things the reader already knows.

For the most part, this nuance passes right along to the main characters. Beezer and the Thunder Five, are very much like friends I made myself at university, death metal, drugs and nihilism on the outside (not to mention the bikes), but intensive intellect and genuine decency beneath, albeit also a touch of nastiness if they take to someone badly.

It was also nice to see a police chief, Dale Gilbertson who was far from the usual obstructive grumpy arsehole, not to mention Wendell Green providing one of the most amusingly loathsome portraits of a journalist since Rita Skeeter.

King and Straub also were able to do something which really should happen more often in fiction, and actually include an awesome blind character without plumbing any of the usual cliches. Although Henry Liden’s job of talented voice artist and radio DJ is a little stereotyped, and I didn’t like the way that he used no mobility aids at all, at the same time, it’s great to see a blind character who is very much a character, both in the senses of being a real human being with thoughts, interests and concerns, (even the memory of a long and happy marriage), and in the more colourful sense of being someone whose stylish, charismatic, extremely accomplished and, yes just plain cool! Not to mention someone who has a major part to play in the plot, and one which does not exclusively revolve around his blindness either.

Ironically, the one character the authors really failed with is Jack Sawyer.

Initially, I thought King and Straub were actually going to pull off one of the most oft attempted, and yet least successful tropes in fiction, the person who is rich, successful, good looking, charismatic and brilliant, yet consumed by loneliness and past demons. Jack begins as a highly successful homicide detective with an oddly lucky streak (thanks to his contact with the Talisman), yet possessing an overall sense of ennui and loneliness alleviated only by his friendship with Henry. Even with the authors directly telling us to like Jack, this is almost forgivable as we see him remember his mother fondly, develop friendships, and finally get his rear justifiably kicked into gear by a vision of old Speedy Parker. The problem however, is that once our hero got off his jackass and actually decided to help, he also took up that succeedinator mantle he’d almost slipped into as a twelve year old. Endlessly calm and collected, the centre of every scene, even rather cruelly selecting who would join his super team to take down the evil, rejecting some perfectly nice people simply because he was Jack and he could.

This was not helped by the insertion of a very ill advised, if beautifully described romance, where Jack feels an instant, love at first sight connection with Judy Martial, the wife of an incredibly nice guy. That Jack would be drawn to someone else who had a connection to the Territories is quite understandable, that Jack then directly cuts her husband Fred out of the loop, even while admitting how good a man he is, feels less than fair. What is even less fair is that Jack avoids cuckoldry because it turns out Judy has a double in the territories who is happily single, a double with whom he also experiences a love at first sight connection.

Indeed, while Judy is as complex and rich a character as any, one with her own rather horrific journey, Judy’s double, for all the authors’ rhapsodise about her queenly awesomeness, feels token at best. She only appears twice in the book, meeting Jack and quietly sitting through an extra dimensional lecture on cosmology with him, then, at their next meeting, taking him for a literal roll in the hay. Given that at that point I don’t believe they’d spent more than an hour together; during most of which they were listening to someone else talk, this made the whole thing feel pretty superficial, not to mention further cementing Jack’s succeedinator status.

Speaking of cosmology, one thing which was seemingly a double edged sword, was that the Black House ties very much into the Dark Tower. Released in 2001, two years before the Dark Tower’s fifth instalment, the book is definitely a background adventure to the main series, and probably the clearest explanation we get of the Breakers, the Tower and the Crimson King’s ultimate goal. While Midworld is as freaky, weird and fascinating as ever; there’s even a cameo from the little sisters of Eluria, At the same time I did feel that the world of the Territories, a very different, but equally fascinating world, was severely short changed here. While I know if I’d read this between the Dark Tower volumes, I would’ve been hanging on tenterhooks at the new information, now, reading it as essentially a standalone side quest to a main adventure, the revelations felt slightly disappointing, though whether this is just my bad luck at reading the books out of order I don’t know.

Another reason I wished we saw more of the Territories, is that Black House is not so much a sequel to The Talisman, as a nostalgic look back at that world, with Jack’s memories of beloved characters like Wolf, or even Jack’s explanation of the sad fate of the grown up Richard Slote, serving to expertly tug at the heartstrings of anyone who got tied up in his journey, something I imagine was doubly effective for those who read The Talisman back in the eighties then came to Black House twenty years later. In an era where congealed, prepacked nostalgia has become the staple fair of Hollywood, it’s almost surprising to see nostalgia done right.

Unfortunately, where the surprisingly compelling pace of the book slightly fell down was with its final third and ending. The haunted house of the book’s title is built up as a huge and awesome threat, not the least because of the machinations of the Fisherman and his extra dimensional masters which centre around it, indeed, one failed attack on the Black House produces one of the most horrifically tragic and downright nasty deaths I’ve ever read in a horror novel.

Yet, when it comes down to it, when Jack and his posse finally take on the Black House and its resident big bad directly, their job is almost too easy.

Where both King and Straub have employed the “power of light conquers all” trope to great effect in the past by ramping up the darkness, here, team Jack get so much assistance from the powers that be, that Black House feels more like a carnival house of horrors, scary landscapes, weird sights and a creepy atmosphere, but nothing that can really do serious harm. This also meant that their confrontation with the ultimate villain was almost a foregone conclusion, despite said villain’s build up throughout the rest of the novel. Indeed, to say how long the book is, the final confrontation felt if anything, too brief.

Then again, the climax is almost saved by the experiences of another character, (someone who reminded me strongly of one of the Dark Tower’s principle cast), who gets to struggle against the Fisherman, is very much out of their depth and finally triumphs despite all of the odds being stacked against them, albeit Jack’s bullying treatment of said person was less than pleasant, even if we were supposed to applaud him simply because he’s Jack.

Unfortunately, given that Jack was not quite an endearing character, the ending concerning him didn’t really land with the punch the authors intended, even though it was otherwise a cleverly constructed twist using something which had been hidden in plain sight from the beginning. Then again, fortunately Jack is only one part of the novel, and there are too many other stories of tragedy and triumph for the fate of one character to change the tenor of the whole thing.

With an awesome writing style, a for the most part nuanced and beautifully drawn cast, a plot that ranges from character drama, to police procedural, to extra dimensional battle, and a truly memorable setting, Black House is definitely a worthy sequel to The Talisman, albeit for me at least, due to a succeedinator hero and a slightly too heavy leaning on the Dark Tower, it didn’t quite hit the heights of mystery and imagination of the first volume.

Still, it’s unquestionably a fantastic ride, with dark humour, pathos, well drawn characters, horror and triumph in equal measure, so even if it didn’t quite cross from being extremely good to excellent, extremely good it still is.

9/10 The Black House! The Dark Tower's nasty little sister

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