Tattered Tomes: Revisiting The Talisman by Stephen King and Peter Straub

It was the biggest horror fiction collaboration ever. A venture so huge the publishers spent half a million (which was quite a lot for a release in 1984) promoting the book. Two horror writers, the best of the best at the top of their game, writing together for the first time. They were thinking bestseller lists, movies, sequels, you name it. Well, The Talisman by Stephen King and Peter Straub certainly made the bestseller lists. As for the movie deals, those have yet to be seen, but the rumors suggest that after the success of Stephen King’s IT remake, that maybe it’s about time to adapt this story and pull it out of development hell.

Maybe a series? Who knows?

I first read The Talisman when it released in hardback because face it … no one was checking that book out at the library before me. And after the other person who was a little quicker on the draw finally returned it two weeks later, I was up next. Librarians really will call you when your requested book becomes available. My plan was to study the book like some kind of weird horror scholar to discover who wrote what sections of the book, but that didn’t work out as planned. I imagined several legal pads filled with my hastily scribbled notes, divining the pages with references of each writer’s individual style to point out that King wrote this chapter, or Straub developed this character, or the mention of this city means King wrote this because this is where so and so had that weird vision in one of his other books. Of course, I devoured the book in about a week and returned it promptly, too overwhelmed by the story to even think about my project. A few years later I picked up the mass-market paperback with plans to dive into it again, but that never materialized due to my college studies.

The book concerns one Jack Sawyer. Newly planted in New Hampshire, Jack comes to realize his mother is sick, probably dying. Lily Cavanaugh, ‘Queen of the B movies’, is on the run from Jack’s father’s nasty business partner, Morgan Sloat, who works in shady deals and is an all-around slimeball. Jack befriends the old maintenance guy at the run-down amusement park where he lives named Speedy Parker. Seems as though Speedy knows more about ole’ Traveling Jack than he lets on, and finds a deep sorrow in the boy. Speedy introduces Jack to The Territories; a parallel world where everyone has a double, or ‘twinner’. Some can flip between worlds with their twinner, and then some, like Jack, can flip by drinking a magical wine. Jack flips to the other side, and discovers a world much different than his own, a world where the queen is dying, just like his own mother. Jack must seek out a Talisman to save the queen, and his mother, before it’s too late. Jack meets all kinds of characters along the way, including a werewolf named Wolf, Morgan’s henchmen who are desperately hunting for the boy, and his own friend Richard Sloat, who helps Jack for the remainder of the story.

The Talisman has shades of horror, but is more fantasy than any other genre. The overall story is one of those ‘coming-of-age’ stories that are immensely popular unless you’ve read too many in one year, as I have. Then they become exercises in tolerance. The stories begin to jumble together. Let’s just say that if this was an actual review, I might not be so kind to this book after reading many of the same type of stories in such a short amount of time. Fortunately, this column isn’t going to break down what worked and what fell short because it’s just not fair to the story, or the authors. Nonetheless, The Talisman has some of the best writing I’ve encountered by either of the authors, with deep characterization and fulfilling arcs, bountiful descriptions that work on several levels at once, and excellent pacing that keeps you turning the pages. If there’s one thing that bothered me about the book that I can mention here, is that the villains of the story seemed a little foppish and weak, definitely not as menacing as their literary counterpoints in similar tales. They felt a little cartoonish and goofy, but perhaps that’s the point. Or, perhaps I’m just jaded and need stories with badass bad guys hellbent on being as bad as they can with their badass selves.

There has been a lot of chatter from people over the years disputing the authorship of the book, with some making the audacious claim that King wrote most of the book and Straub just came up with the idea.

Utter hogwash.

Let’s go ahead and clear this mess up right now. Though there is no official record of who wrote what section of the book, Peter Straub has mentioned in an interview how the writing process worked out. Quite simply, the two writers became friends when King briefly moved to London. This is when they first thought of the collaboration idea, though prior commitments with both authors prohibited working together at the time. Four years later, with time now on their side and Straub living stateside, they got together, worked out a massive outline, and one day began writing at Straub’s computer, each taking turns at the pages. Then they continued working on the outline via computer modem and banged out sections until they were tired of writing, each taking over the other’s work until the last 100 pages. Then the authors sat down at one computer and finished the book. I used to think I could tell who wrote what sections of the book, but honestly, and especially after working on a collaborative project myself, it’s easier to think that both writer’s styles complement one another quite well, and that trying to figure out who wrote what is a mystery not worth solving. Both King and Straub deliberately tried to imitate each other’s style; not to try and confuse or trick their fans, but to dive deep into the creative process and find some common ground with voice, so the narrative would read as though it was written by one person.

Even with this reread, I kept trying to figure out who wrote what, and it’s maddening. There are long sections where I’m convinced I’m reading Straub, only to find tidbits of information that points to King. Straub also included subtle references to King’s works before The Talisman, such as Firestarter and Pet Sematary. And then there’s the connection to The Dark Tower series, tenuous at first glance, and probably more of an overall reference to King’s entire body of work, which seems to be all interconnected to some degree, usually more peripherally than directly.

Nonetheless, The Talisman is a thrilling read, and one such book that should be a part of every horror fan’s education. As mentioned before, the book is firmly set in the fantasy genre with shades of horror through-out. One doesn’t have to go far to find the deep connection to the works of Mark Twain as well. As we’re slowly discovering, or rediscovering, the lines between fantasy and science-fiction and horror and weird fiction are becoming more blurred every day, echoing our own fractured and unstable reality as we deal with life in the 21st century. King and Straub penned a massive, rollicking fantasy with a relatable character faced with tough choices, caught between worlds where a decision in one can have heavy consequences in the other. The sequel to The Talisman, Black House (also by King and Straub), features a grown-up Jack Sawyer, now a burned-out detective, and ties in a little closer to King’s Dark Tower series than the previous book. I’ve never read it. Maybe this year, who knows. Rumor is that The Talisman is being developed for a television series. Definitely crossing my fingers that the powers that be don’t screw it up. Time will tell.

Tattered Tomes will return at the end of the month for the beginning of The Barker-Rama. Me, Benoit Lelievre of Dead End Follies, and Christopher Novas of Penboys Reviews, will be reading Clive Barker’s Books of Blood, volumes 1-6 (including Cabal) through 2018. After reading so much awesome Peter Straub, we decided it was time to cleanse the palate with someone much different than what we had been reading, and Barker seemed the most logical choice. The Books of Blood have been most instrumental in my horror education, so please join us with this read, or reread, if you will.

We have such sights to show you.



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