Stephen King & Peter Straub,
Black House
(Random House, 2001)

Black House is, to paraphrase a line from an early Peter Straub novel, a great ghost story in which the ghost is underutilized. It's an impressive piece of writing, however, and one I enjoyed a great deal. It works a little better as a stand-alone novel than as a sequel, oddly enough, and deals well and (for the most part) fairly with its characters and the reader.

The novel is the authors' sequel to The Talisman, and that is using the term "sequel" very freely indeed. Only two of the first novel's characters appear in Black House, Jack Sawyer being of course the primary one. And instead of ranging across the country and a couple of universes, Black House pretty much stays in one place ... which may be the book's biggest flaw, but I'll get to that later. The story finds Jack Sawyer, young hero of The Talisman, now a young retired cop living in a Wisconsin town. A series of grotesque murders have taken place, committed by the book's nominal villain, the Fisherman. Judy Marshall, the mother of one victim, is going mad and doing some ... ah, rather unusual things -- with her tongue. And the whole thing is somehow connected to Jack Sawyer's Territories (which he barely remembers), and to other, darker worlds, as well.

MINOR SPOILER: I would like to point out here that Black House belongs as much in King's Dark Tower cycle of novels, as it does in the Territories King and Straub created. Many King fans have wondered if the two worlds might indeed be one and the same. They aren't -- but neither are they very far apart, it seems. The authors do a very good job of connecting the two universes, and in the process they tell a good, though not a great, story. They pull a lot of different tricks out of their collective bag, and while a good deal of it works, not all of it does. A few examples:

Perhaps searching for a way to approach their work from a new angle, Straub and King chose to write in the present tense, which I found enjoyable. King has written a few short stories in that style, but never an entire novel, and the results are interesting. The collaborative work with Straub has a nice flavor to it, perhaps even better than their work in Talisman -- but there is also a lot of what's called "author intrusion" -- lines that are too-sly asides, cutesy-clever remarks and cajolings of the "come, Constant Reader, and we shall go" variety. This I did not enjoy a bit, because its overall effect was to put the story at one remove from Constant Reader (in this case, me). As a result I found the story lacking in any real heat. Events seemed muted, even when they were meant to be GOOD AND LOUD -- and the "Constant Reader" stuff, which wears very thin after the first 50 pages, was a big reason why.

Another flaw is the pacing -- when I said Black House stays in one place, I meant it! SPOILER ALERT: For all the talk of this being a Talisman sequel, there is very little of the Territories in it, and Traveling Jack Sawyer does most of his traveling on the back roads of Wisconsin. That's not to say that the setting isn't interesting, because it is -- but it's also one of the stock weird-small-town portraits both authors could paint in their sleep. In fact, it's my opinion that both the setting and a great deal of the characters are more Straub's than King's -- most if not all of them could have stepped straight out of Mystery or the Wisconsin-set scenes in Koko -- which makes things interesting, as the "events" in Black House (when things do happen) are pure King. The biggest problem is that the setting is a very sleepy one, which makes for a somewhat sleepy novel. And while there's a lot of talk about borderlands and slippage, the authors show us very little convincing evidence of either until very late in the game. As a friend of mine has said, there just wasn't enough of the Territories (the ghost I referred to above) in this one.

There are other, less severe problems -- minor characters who appear, seem about to contribute something major to the narrative, then disappear forever, other major characters who are given ignominious and gratuitous exits (even for a novel by King and/or Straub!), too-obvious name symbolism, a Boo Radley slimy-newsman type who quite frankly borders on caricature, the least believable biker gang since The Wild One ... but these are, in the end, minor things. As a whole Black House has more on the ball than off, with moments of humor and horror, drama and wonder, what I thought was a very appropriate ending, with more than one mythical resonance, and that's pretty good -- even if the authors never do explain what the deal is with Judy Marshall's tongue. Oh, well -- maybe they'll do that in the NEXT sequel.

book review by
Jay Whelan

28 August 2010

Agree? Disagree?
Send us your opinions!

what's new