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Stephen King & Peter Straub – The Talisman

July 23, 2013

54. The Talisman by Stephen King and Peter Straub (1984)

Length: 768 pages
Genre: Horror/Fantasy

Started: 25 June 2013
Finished: 14 July 2013

Where did it come from? Bookmooch.
Why do I have it? Someone – I can’t remember who, but I think it was someone from real life – recommended it to me way back in the day.
How long has it been on my TBR pile? Since 16 March 2008.

A continent of
horrors lies between Jack and
the cure for his mom.

Summary: Jack Sawyer’s mother, an aging B-movie actress, picked him up and moved him from California to a moldering hotel in an abandoned-for-the-winter East Coast tourist town. Jack knows there’s something wrong, that she’s very sick, even though she is doing her best to pretend that everything is fine, and to make things worse, Jack’s late father’s business partner, Morgan Sloat, is harrassing their family, trying to get Jack’s mother to sign over their half of the company. Jack must do something, but he doesn’t know what, until a custodian at a local carnival tells him about the Territories – a magical parallel world, a world that Jack’s father knew how to visit, and which Jack himself can learn to enter. The Queen of the Territories is also dying, and Jack must go there and retrieve the Talisman, a magical object that will heal both his mother and the Queen. But the Talisman is in California – or the Territories equivalent of California. And how can a twelve-year-old boy make it across the country and back, while being chased by Morgan’s evil forces, before time runs out… in both worlds?

Review: There are books that have a time limit for me, or an age limit. I’ve read plenty of books and thought “That was okay, but I bet I would have loved it if I’d read it when I was eight/twelve/fifteen.” Mostly these are mid-grade books that don’t quite make the leap to adult readership, but in the case of The Talisman, it’s more a function of my reading tastes changing over time. Because if someone had handed it to me when I was thirteen or fourteen, when I was in the throes of my horror-reading phase, and was devouring Dean Koontz and Stephen King like they were going out of style, I suspect I would have, if not loved it, at least had an easier time with it than I did as an adult.

Because damn, this book was a tough slog for me this time through. It was slow reading, the pacing seemed really terribly off, it rarely drew me in enough to want to go back to it, I didn’t get along with the prose style, I didn’t really care about most of the characters, I was put off by both the horror/gore and some of the implicit social attitudes in the book, and I knew the quest was going to work out – since that’s how these books go – so I wasn’t particularly curious about the ending. In fact, I almost DNFed the book despite having committed several weeks to it, and already being 80% of the way through. Instead, I buckled down to some serious skimming to get through the last section (which, unsurprisingly, played out very much like I was expecting.)

I think the pacing was the biggest problem. The Talisman is structurally similar to The Odyssey, with the protagonist on a quest, but he keeps getting sidetracked/stuck along his journey. Conceptually, I have no problem with these kinds of road-trip novels, but in the case of The Talisman, the time spent in the various side adventures seemed uneven relative to their overall importance to the story, and just out of balance in general. Fully two-thirds of the book is spent getting Jack from the East Coast to Springfield, Illinois, and then he covers the distance between Illinois and California in only a few chapters, and without any major adventure.

I also didn’t really care for Jack as a character. I got tired of hearing about how the Territories were changing him to this serene, wise, beautiful boy, especially when I found his companions, Wolf and Richard, much more likeable and interesting, respectively. The rest of the characters didn’t fare much better than Jack; particularly distasteful was the character of Speedy Parker, who sets Jack on his way to the Territories with a bottle of magic juice, and could be the model for the “magical negro” character that King’s so fond of, complete with dialect. (Also, the shorthand of “casual use of cocaine = villain” got me thinking – that’s a trope I remember from my teens, when I read a lot of books like this, but not something that I’ve seen at all recently. Is that still a thing in more current fiction?) The book shows its age in other ways, too, not only in outdated cultural references but also in some of the attitudes about race, women, and homosexuals that are implicit in the writing. (To wit: “These [sexual advances from grown men] were annoyances a good-looking twelve-year-old boy in Los Angeles simply learned to put up with, the way a pretty woman learns to put up with being groped occasionally on the subway. You eventually find a way to cope without letting it spoil your day.” What the hell do King and Straub know about how a woman should react to being groped by a stranger?)

Basically, the whole book felt self-indulgent, both in terms of the prose and the plot, without a correspondingly interesting story or compelling characters to merit it. The story definitely has potential: I like the ideas of the Territories, and Twinners, and how actions in one world affect the other; I loved Wolf as a character, and Richard’s contrast to Jack; and some of the individual scenes were very tense and compelling… but the bloat of the book quickly swamped out the good parts. I probably would have put up with it (or even eaten it up) as a teen, but I’ve gotten less patient in my old age. 2.5 out of 5 stars.

Recommendation: It seems like there are plenty of people out there who liked this book a whole lot better than I did, so if you like supernatural horror and/or fantasy quest novels, particularly ones set in the real world, it might be worth a try. But for me, I think I’ve grown out of, or at least away from, this type of book, and King’s style of prose.

This Review on LibraryThing | This Book on LibraryThing | This Book on Amazon

Other Reviews: A Happy Life, Sinnful Books
Have you reviewed this book? Leave a comment with the link and I’ll add it in.

First Line: On September 15th, 1981, a boy named Jack Sawyer stood where the water and land come together, hands in the pockets of his jeans, looking out at the steady Atlantic.

Vocab: (see the whole list)

  • Location 2638: ““Morgan’s diligence is drawn by six pairs of horses and a thirteenth to lead,” Farren said.” – A large stagecoach.
  • Location 3173: “Later on he would leave in a half-paid-for doorsucker Mustang or maybe on a three-quarters-paid-for motorcycle – a big old Harley with a BUY AMERICAN sticker plastered on the nacelle, probably.” – a streamlined enclosure on an aircraft, not part of the fuselage, to accommodate an engine, passengers, crew, etc.
  • Location 3184: “His eyes sparkled an icy blue… and then began to change, to moil and lighten.” – To churn about continuously.
  • Location 3236: “There was a crack and suddenly the imprint of Smokey’s palm was printed red on one of Lori’s pallid cheeks like a child’s Tatoodle.” – It’s a website now, but presumably it was a child’s drawing toy? Before my time, at any rate.
  • Location 5590: “His hair renewed itself, growing forward, first tinting the rondure of his skull, as if some invisible being were coloring Uncle Morgan’s head, then covering it.” – roundness or curvature.
  • Location 7470: “There was another caesura.” – A pause in a line of verse dictated by sense or natural speech rhythm rather than by metrics.
  • Location 8953: “It was a loden coat, fragrant with pipe tobacco.” – A durable, water-repellent, coarse woolen fabric used chiefly for coats and jackets.
  • Location 9080: “Then an irruption of wordless screams and shouts, accompanied by the sounds of heavy furniture moving across a wooden floor.” – a sudden violent entrance; a bursting in.
  • Location 10548: “Orris was the easternmost cantonment of the Outposts, and the only really organized part of that large, grassy area.” – a large camp for training military personnel.

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4 Comments leave one →
  1. July 23, 2013 11:29 am

    768 pages of slow reading doesn’t sound appealing to me. King certainly is wordy!

    • July 24, 2013 12:58 pm

      Kathy – I don’t have a problem with chunksters on principle, and I’ve certainly read others of King’s fatty-fat books, but this one was a slog.

  2. July 24, 2013 2:05 am

    How on earth do you keep track of when you got a book and why? I might remember why I got a book, but I’m unlikely to remember how long it’s been on my shelf waiting!

    • July 24, 2013 1:00 pm

      Bookwyrme – LibraryThing! It’s got a field for date of acquisition, and I (occasionally) put my reasons for wanting a book in the comments. I’ve been using LT a long time, but there are still a few books on my TBR shelf whose date of acquisition is “sometime before mid-2006”.

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