Book Review: The Talisman, by Stephen King and Peter Straub

Book Review: The Talisman, by Stephen King and Peter Straub

The Talisman by Stephen King
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I’ve been reading a lot of King lately. Very rarely do I binge read a particular author. I feel the need to mix things up in my reading life or I find myself burned out and unable to appreciate a book I should love because I’ve consumed too much of the same thing in a row. I might love pizza, but I would find it far less palatable if I had to eat it for every meal. I feel the same way about my literary diet. So I’m a readerly butterfly, flitting from author to author and genre to genre as they grab my attention. However, this is my fourth King novel in a row, and it’s the fourth in a row I’ve thoroughly enjoyed. I think that’s because each of these four novels, whether King penned them alone or with the aid of a co-author as with this book, vary drastically from everything else I’ve read by him. And yet what makes them so incredible is the way they tie into each other and refer back to things King wrote before them and foreshadow books he would write after.

The Talisman is the first book King coauthored with Peter Straub, who is an author I’m unfamiliar with. However, after reading this book I’m interested to try something he wrote independently. Because The Talisman was wild, y’all. This book contains the most hardcore, horrifying hero’s journey I’ve ever encountered. Some of the more recent King books I’ve read felt very removed from the horror genre. While they might’ve had instances of horror, that is not the genre in which I would classify them. Not so with The Talisman. While the story relies heavily on the building blocks of portal fantasy, it is unequivocally horror. There was a whole lot of freaky in this book.

Jack Sawyer is just a twelve-year-old kid who wants his mom to get better. This desire along with a “chance” meeting with a kindred spirit and mentor send him on a journey unlike any our world or any other have ever seen. For his task is not just to travel cross-country in search of a Talisman that can save his mother’s life, but to save the Queen of another world called the Territories. These two worlds, and more besides, are irrevocably tied together, and Jack is the only one who can get the Talisman that can save them. Along his very long, arduous journey, Jack meets wonderful people and horrible people, makes friends he loves with all his heart and villains so vile that his loathing for them knows no bounds. He sees and tastes beauty unlike anything he ever imagined, and sees horrors that would break the mind of any adult who saw the same.

It’s one helluva trip.

King paved the way for this story with a single, profound line of dialogue in The Gunslinger: “Go, then. There are other worlds than these.” That concept is the hub around which the happenings within The Talisman occur. This story is very much about the possibility of parallel worlds and the versions of ourselves that might reside in those worlds. The concept of twinners, those with a soul twin in another world, is one that I’m positive will pop up again and again in King’s work, and one that feels connected to books in his catalogue that I’ve already read.

What holds me back from giving this book a 5 star rating lies mostly in the characters. While I did love Jack and liked the friends he made along the way, those portrayed as evil felt like cardboard cutouts of dastardly villains. All they were missing to complete the look were mustaches to twirl while they laughed maniacally. They were stupid and repetitive and, while they were indeed scary, I could help rolling my eyes at their mannerisms and speech patterns. I was also driven just a little bit crazy by Jack’s friends, who tended to be so out of their minds with fear that he had to just pull them along until they could finally serve their purpose. I’ve also noticed that King has a tendency toward the mystic negro trope which bothers me and seems borderline, if accidentally, racist. And, as with quite a few of his older works that I’ve read, King’s overuse of slang in his works prematurely ages them, and there was an abundance of such slang in this book.

However, the story and the telling of it were so incredibly compelling that I can’t really hold these shortcomings against the book or its authors. Even with its failings The Talisman still provided me with a phenomenal reading experience. It was moving and unpredictable, and I was on the edge of my seat for all 900+ pages. I’m one step nearer the Tower, and I’m so glad I’ve chosen to take the scenic route.

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