(with Peter Straub)
The Talisman marks King’s first collaboration with fellow horror author Peter Straub. Those who have read King’s study of the genre, Danse Macabre, will remember that King cited Straub’s Ghost Story as one of his essential reads*, so it is satisfying that the two finally managed to find the time to put this epic novel together.
A classic fantasy quest, The Talisman follows its twelve-year-old hero, Jack Sawyer, from New Hampshire to California. The novel opens at the Alhambra Hotel in off-season Arcadia Beach, where Jack’s mother, Lily, a faded B-movie starlet, is slowly dying of cancer and hiding from her rapacious brother-in-law, Morgan Sloat. Jack is befriended by a mysterious handyman, Speedy Parker, who awakens in him memories of his childhood daydreams and the place which these allowed him to visit: the Territories.
Spoilers ahead! As Speedy proves to Jack, the Territories are real – a parallel world which reflects a twisted version of real life. Using a bottle of sickly, bitter wine, Jack is able to flip over into the Territories. We gradually come to understand that this feudal, agrarian land mirrors the US in terms of geography, although the Territories are compressed; a hundred feet travelled there equates to roughly half a mile here. Another important factor to note is that characters in the Territories have ‘twinners’ in this world – for example, Speedy Parker parallels Parkus, while Morgan Sloat parallels the monstrous Morgan of Orris. Twinners are able to flip between the two worlds, their consciousnesses rudely inserted into the parallel body. Jack is free from this limitation, his twinner having died in infancy (while he escaped a similar fate by moments). King and Straub feed us (and Jack) this information gradually through Speedy Parker, who promptly sends his young friend on a mission – to save his mother (and her twinner, Queen Laura DeLoessian), he must seek out a talisman in the far reaches of the land and return it to Arcadia Beach. A lot of the detail, however, is only filled in as Jack’s journey progresses.
During the course of Jack’s travels, King and Straub expertly contrast moments of wonder (Jack’s exploration of the Queen’s Pavillion with Captain Farren; winged men flying for the fun of it) with scenes of terror (the approach of Morgan of Orris’s gothic carriage; an encounter with his insane henchman, Osmond), all the while giving us little hints of the true nature of the Territories and Sloat’s plans for them. Jack comes to realise that his flipping between worlds can cause devastation to both worlds (in the form of earthquakes), and we later find that a civil war in the Territories resulted in the much larger scale First World War.
Jack is beset by evil forces in both worlds, although those in the US proper are more prosaically threatening. Jack applies for a job at the Oatley Tap, a seedy tavern in a nothing town, and is effectively enslaved by Smokey, the brutish owner. He is also warned off his quest by a demonic cowboy, Elroy, who represents everything that Sloat has corrupted.
However, Jack also finds companions along the way, most notably in the form of Wolf. The Wolfs (the Territories’ version of werewolves) are shepherds loyal to the Queen, although some of their number – including the previously mentioned Elroy – have become ravenous, evil killers. Jack’s Wolf is a simple, friendly soul, who almost loses his mind when Jack accidentally flips them both into the US. Although I can’t be sure, Wolf seems to me to be very much a King character – lovable and innocent, but with a dark edge (for example, in a terrific section in which he locks Jack in a shed until his monthly change is completed, “protecting the herd” with a barely suppressed sense of malevolent hunger). When the two companions are subsequent arrested for vagrancy by a corrupt police officer and sent to Sunlight Gardener’s correctional facility for wayward boys, Wolf’s fate is heartbreaking. This, again, is another strong section from the authors, building to a ferocious climax which is both tragic and satisfyingly violent.
From this point on, Jack’s fate becomes gradually intertwined with that of Richard Sloat, his oldest friend and Morgan’s son. Arriving at Thayer boarding school, Jack finds that his story is greeted with blank disbelief by Richard, whose desperate need to cling to reality is eventually explained: he once stumbled into the Territories as a child and met something… nasty. However, when rogue twinners lay siege to the school, Richard is propelled into flight with Jack across the Territories’ radioactive desert, the Blasted Lands (which corresponds to the nuclear test sites in Nevada). After a great deal of hardship, a ferocious battle and a bad case of radiation poisoning, the two boys arrive at the abandoned town of Point Venuti, California, and the Black Hotel, home to the talisman itself.
Major spoiler ahead! At its heart, The Talisman is a traditional tale of good versus evil, and some critics of the time dismissed the ending of the novel as being predictable. Personally, I think I would have felt a little cheated if the book had ended any other way – especially after how much investment King and Straub demand of the reader in Jack as a protagonist. And while it will surprise few people to learn how it all turns out in the end, the authors make a point of suddenly opening up a whole realm of possibilities when the talisman is finally located – it is a lynch pin at the centre of a multitude of parallel worlds, including (but by no means limited to) the Territories and the US. Indeed, by the end of his quest, Jack has come to think of the US as the 'American Territories', and reality itself has taken on a new and complex meaning for him. So I’m not sure I would agree that everything about the conclusion to The Talisman is predictable. But even if that were the case, this book is worth reading for the journey alone.
Notes for the obsessive factfan: King would later expand on the multiple world idea in his Dark Tower series, as well as completing (again with Straub) a sequel of sorts, Black House, which explicitly links the two sets of stories together.
* I would also highly recommend his increasingly meta ‘Blue Rose’ trilogy (Koko, Mystery and The Throat), which completely took over my life one summer.