Stephen King & Peter Straub,
The Talisman
(Viking, 1984)

The Talisman is a collaboration between two markedly different authors, a collision of worlds that produced an unexpected classic of fantastic literature. It is a brilliant, glowing, fantasy/quest adventure that, despite a slow start and some odd turns here and there, succeeds on just about every level.

The plot can be summed up in a few sentences: young Jack Sawyer must save the life of his dying mother by traveling to California and retrieving the Talisman. Also involved are his travels through an alternate reality called The Territories, a medieval world where magic reigns and people Jack knows on Earth have "twinners." Lined up against Jack are the diabolical Morgan Sloat and his minions, such as the maniacal Sunlight Gardener and the demonic, shape-shifting Elroy. On Jack's side are guide and mentor Speedy Parker, Sloat's skeptical son Richard and Wolf -- more on him in a minute.

I just told the basic story in a few moments; Stephen King and Peter Straub spin this into more than 600 delightful pages. It is an epic coming-of-age journey, a strange and beautiful admixture of Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn, The Lord of the Rings, the Round Table's quest for the Holy Grail, Jason's quest for the Golden Fleece and the Christian idea of ressurrection and rebirth. Pretty impressive, eh?

The novel is full of King's immediacy and intimacy, as well as Straub's sensuality and more surrealistic tendencies -- note for instance Jack and Richard's journey through the Blasted Lands, which is a precursor for The Waste Lands in King's Dark Tower novel of the same name. The passages here read like King but have Straub's fingerprints all over them. Of course, I could be wrong; King and Straub both play with each other's styles and sensibilities so much in Talisman that playing who-wrote-what guessing games is silly. Even so, I still enjoy it, and I also enjoy the King/Straub collaborative "voice" very much, which is neither as cold nor as dull as some critics (not mentioning any names, like, say, HARLAN ELLISON) would have us believe. However, having said that, I will also say this: King rails against overuse of adverbs and the passive tense in On Writing, yet there are an overabundance of both here. However, as someone who overuses both, I should probably just shut the heck up.

The story does move slowly at first -- sedate is perhaps the best word, and I think that's as it should be. The Lord of the Rings didn't exactly get off to a slambang start either, and look at what Tolkien did with it. In any event, once you get into the story, the pages fly by. I just read the whole thing two weeks ago, and devoured it in about three days, just as I did when it was first released (gulp!) a few decades ago. And although Jack's "Road of Trials" takes off on some odd tangents (such as the shootout at Camp Readiness, which is still too weird for me), it is still a great story, well-crafted, well-told, full of many interesting and amazing characters.

And that brings me to Wolf -- one of the finest characters either author has ever created. What a beautiful switch on every werewolf cliche ever created, from Curt Siodmak to Robert Louis Stevenson. Just the idea that Wolf should be a good guy, let alone shepherd to a flock of Territories sheep (hysterically called "creep" by Jack), is such a brilliant conceit that it still floors me. What the authors then do with Wolf is even more impressive. Wolf is man's best friend on two legs; he's loyal, brave, fearless (sort of), fearsome, comic and damn near steals the book away from its stalwart protagonist. Talisman achieves some of its finest (and funniest) moments in Wolf -- I can almost hear his snarly voice shouting "Right here and now, God pound it! Wolf!" as I write these lines, and I can't suppress a grin. Every kid should have a friend like Wolf ... as long as they have a good strong padlock on them, that is. Heh heh heh.

Sorry. Anyway, The Talisman is a hard book to put down ... in any sense of the phrase. I loved it then and love it now, and I can't wait to see what happens next, now that this chronicle of a boy has at last become the chronicle of a man.

book review by
Jay Whelan

11 September 2010

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