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

I was first recommended The Talisman way back in 2001 by a King loving friend. Despite being a collaboration between King and Straub, I assumed, like Under the Dome and The Green Mile,The Talisman was one of the books in the King canon that I’d not yet read, but was well known by King fanatics like my friend.

Oddly though, it seems that this one always gets forgotten by Stephen King fans, which is quite an oversight since it really is extremely good.

One time famous B movie actress; Lily Cavanaugh Sawyer, is dying. So is Laura DeLoessian, queen of the territories, a magical, medieval world existing as a strange mirror to the familiar world of 1980’s America. Prompted by the wise old Handyman Speedy Parker, twelve year old Jack Sawyer finds himself leaving on a long, lonely journey in search of the Talisman, a mystical object which can cure both his mother’s illness, and the queen’s.

Jack’s journey will not be an easy one. The loathsome Morgan Sloat; his father’s one time business partner, is waiting like a vulture for Lilly to die so he can take over the remaining shares of her business, just as Morgan’s territories counterpart, Morgan of Orris is waiting to snatch power the moment the queen’s life ends. Jack’s quest will take him across both America and the territories, meeting friends and enemies along the way, facing dangers which range from evil Ents and Morgan’s feral minions, to enslavement at a grimy pub, to captivity in a boys remand home run as a religious cult under a sadistic leader.

Yet beyond it all lies the Talisman, an object as mysterious as it is powerful lying at the axle between worlds.

One reason why I suspect Stephen King fans tend to miss out on the Talisman, is the book’s writing style. Apparently, the two authors tried to unify their style so that people could not tell who wrote what. This means the Talisman’s style is a little closer to Straub’s than King’s, making the book both far more stark in some places, and far more poetic in others, without the profusion of linguistic asides or artful profanities we’re used to in King’s writing. The Talisman also resembled Peter Straub in that the first hour or so is slightly on the slow side, with Jack only given the information he needs to start his quest in small dribs and drabs. Indeed, whilst “infodump” has sort of become a dirty word in fantasy literature these days, I personally would rather have had old Speedy give Jack everything he needs to know in one session then pack Jack off in a hurry, rather than have Speedy simply tantalise both us and Jack with a word or here and there.

As with Straub’s novel Floating Dragon though, matters very much picked up after the initially slow start, and once Jack’s odyssey begins the journey is a compelling one. Indeed, quite a few scenes in the book, from Jack’s encounter with angel-like flying men, to even Jack’s sight of Queen Laura, exists simply as sights along the way, yet are none the worse for that, indeed the Talisman is almost a written example of the idea that travel broadens the mind, and while we see Jack grow and mature as a character, part of this growth comes as much through the sights he sees and the sheer toll of the journey itself as through the obstacles he overcomes directly.

Obstacles of course he does have in plenty though. I am quite a lover of journey stories, partly because you never know just what the road might sweep you next, and that’s absolutely true here. I especially applaud the authors for not slackening the pace once Jack returns from the territories, indeed this is one occasion where the fantasy definitely doesn’t all stay in the fantasy world, and where the horrors Jack confronts, from morphing mutants to greedy bartenders, are just as dangerous and in some ways just as otherworldly as what he finds in the territories, particularly since we’re dealing with a child protagonist in an otherwise adult novel who very much has to learn as he goes along.

One minor issue with this learning, is I do slightly wish the authors had been a little more nuanced with the scumbags Jack encounters. Indeed, whilst I don’t doubt a twelve year old hitchhiking across 1980’s America would encounter a sicko or two, the fact that Jack and the authors always refer to these as “queers,” “gays,” or “sissies” as though all gay men were automatically a danger to young boys is definitely a product of a book written forty years ago, and in this case not a welcome one, indeed though Jack is mentioned as having a homosexual uncle, (a friend of Jack’s father), unfortunately he doesn’t really register enough to add any kind of nuance.

Character generally however is one of the book’s stronger aspects, indeed, though many of the characters are only met briefly along the way, from the sadistic Osmund to the brave captain Faren, for the most part the friends and enemies Jack meets definitely make a lasting impression. I do wish we’d seen a little more of Jack’s mother, since the loving relationship the authors describe is slightly at odds to the somewhat snarky interactions we actually see in the novel, though the authors (probably I suspect in this case due to Straub’s influence), are more than able to give a poetic impression of Jack’s feelings. Similarly, while I do slightly wish we’d seen a little more of Queen Laura (who barely appears at all), at the same time, learning about her through what others, especially the gruff yet honourable captain Faren think of her is a far more humane way to understand the territories side of what Jack is fighting for, especially set against what we learn of the evil of Morgan of Oris, a scheming noble bent on ruining the territories who could even give Stephen King’s Flag a run for his money, indeed where some people apparently disliked the interludes in which we get a sloat’s eye view on events, myself, I appreciated how the nasty, egotistical world of Hollywood screen politics morphed into the equally nasty world of court intrigue as the book progressed, with Morgan’s discovery of the territories and his efforts to exploit them through the guise of his alter ego, contrasting beautifully with Jack’s fantastic journey.

The most memorable characters of all are Jack’s travelling companions, Wolf and his friend Richard.

Werewolves and other lycanthropes are common enough in fiction these days, however the idea to combine a werewolf with the characteristics of a loyal sheepdog is a novel one even now. What I especially love about Jack’s friend Wolf, is that he is a complex character, both intensively lovable and deeply loyal, and yet at times exasperating, pitiable and occasionally alien and dangerous, especially in his understandable confusion about our own world and his reactions to ordinary things such as cinemas. Indeed, much of the growing Jack does is in direct response to his need to take care of Wolf, and in turn, recognize Wolf’s need to take care of him.

Unfortunately, Richard; Jack’s best friend and second companion is a little more of a disappointment. Somewhat resembling the rationalist Stan Uris from Stephen King’s It, Richard at first can’t believe the strange things that are happening to Jack, and desperately looks for alternative explanations, finally falling into an almost catatonic coma. At first, I believed this was the beginning of Richard’s arc, that he’d go from awkward to awesome and finally show his worth, especially since he’s the son of Morgan Sloat and thus we’d expect him to have a confrontation with his father. Unfortunately, almost as Richard finally accepts what is happening and ceases to be a deadweight, he is struck by a disease, and becomes so ill Jack is forced to literally carry him, indeed were Richard female I’d definitely describe him as a damsel whose chief function is to be rescued and taken care of, than have any active part in the plot in his own right.

It also did not help that as the book progressed, Jack became increasingly overpowered and very much the soul focus of the authors’ attention, with both the authors telling us literally how beautiful he was, and him having the strange ability to easily accomplish rather difficult tasks, such as Rambo-ing his way through an enemy army with machine guns and explosives. Of course, King and Straub are generally far too careful, and far too good at writing dark and severe dangers to turn Jack into a completely despicable succeedinator, and each time I thought they’d gone a little too far, made Jack a bit too super heroic, there was always something foul or nasty waiting around the next corner to pull Jack’s aspirations back to earth; such as the shocking reappearance of the kindly old Speedy Parker.

The book’s climax, despite Jack teetering slightly on the edge of succeedinator-hood, is a fantastic one. Indeed, like both Floating Dragon and many of King’s novels, though the Talisman is a good 27 hours long, the climax takes literally the final 8 to happen, with ever more horrible places to visit and more desperate actions on the part of Morgan and his allies, and while I do wish Richard had his own chance to shine in the conclusion and to confront his father, I can’t deny what we got was definitely satisfying enough, with villains vanquished, and an ending which was as artistically mysterious as you could wish, indeed in some ways even more mysterious than King’s final explanation of his epic Dark Tower series, which also featured a confluence of realities.

All in all, despite a few dated references to homosexuality, a slow start and a slightly damselly best friend, the Talisman was a truly epic journey. Many reviewers describe it as a kid’s book for adults, a conclusion with which I wholeheartedly agree, indeed if you spent your childhood entranced by authors like C. S. Lewis (who even gets a wonderfully offbeat acknowledgement), Susan Cooper or Alan Garner, books where children must journey off alone into mysterious other worlds upon epic adventures, then you should be pleased to know the Talisman provides just the same sort of experience, but with the added punch of being a little darker, a little more poetic, and far less safe.

9/10 Now I know why Sloat is such a deadly sin

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1 positive reader review(s) for The Talisman

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from Austria

Yes, I too read and enjoyed The Talisman immensely. It was quite a few years ago but I remember the story well, and fondly. I remembering what an accomplishment it was for two authors to come together and create such a seamless narrative. I have always enjoyed parallel universe settings and the contrast between the two in this book really worked well for me. Jack's story, and his journey is fascinating to follow and I highly recommend The Talisman to all fans of Stephen King, Peter Straub, parallel universes and fantasy books.
9/10 ()

9/10 from 2 reviews

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