Black House by Stephen King and Peter Straub
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
For some reason, I wasn’t expecting much from Black House. While I really enjoyed The Talisman, the first novel in this duology, I feel like I’ve heard a good bit of negative commentary about this particular book in the past. Can I actually pinpoint any of said comments? Nope. Not a one. Maybe I was thinking about a different book. Because Black House was everything I should have expected: scary, moving, and vital to the Dark Tower.
“I must not be so bad if I have a friend like that.”
I love the narrator’s voice in this book. To me, it’s reminiscent of Dickens with charming, gentle directions of “let us look here” and “this is our destination” and so on. This creates an interesting dichotomy with the darker, more horroresque elements of the novel. And this book is absolutely a horror novel. Like its predecessor, there might be elements of portal fantasy and mystery here, but Black House is unequivocally and firmly planted in the horror genre. So much so, in fact, that there were multiple parts of the story that had me feeling squeamish and contemplating putting the book aside. I’m incredibly glad that I stuck it out, because this story ended up being far more important in the scheme of things concerning the Dark Tower than I expected.
“What you love, you must love all the harder because someday it will be gone.”
Michael Collings called this book “a linchpin narrative bringing together—explicitly, undeniably, and utterly—the mythic worlds King and Straub have drawn, pulling them together and knotting them at the core…” While I haven’t read any of Straub’s work outside the predecessor to this book he wrote with King, The Talisman, I can absolutely see how vital this book is to King’s Dark Tower landscape. While all of the interrelated novels on the extended Dark Tower reading order list I’ve been using do indeed tie into the narrative in some way, The Talisman and Black House feel essential to the overarching story. While I think the duology would be a powerful story on its own, the connections it provides in King’s larger picture feel truly inspired. If you’re thinking about embarking on a trip to the Dark Tower, absolutely do not skip these two books.
“The King is in his Tower, eating bread and honey. The Breakers in the basement, making all the money.”
Outside of its contributions to the Dark Tower landscape, I have some mixed feelings about Black House. On the one hand, I was utterly charmed by the narrative voice, as stated above. There were also a handful of characters who shone so brightly they almost burned, my favorites of these being Henry and Beezer. On the other hand, there were multiple descriptive passages that felt almost like murder porn, and it gave me the willies, to use a King-ism. It felt almost gleeful in its visceral depictions of carnage. And I initially thought I was going to hate this book because of the changes in Jack Sawyer’s character from The Talisman, but thankfully those alterations weren’t permanent.
“Yes, it’s always the past. That’s where the hurt is, all you can’t get over.”
Again, my main complaint with The Talisman comes back into play in Black House: while I loved some of these characters, anyone being portrayed as villainous had absolutely zero redeeming qualities. I can’t stand caricature villains, and there were multiple characters I feel fit that bill in this book. There is a struggle, a nuance at the core of all of the protagonistic characters I came to love in this story. They weren’t perfect, which just made me care about them even more. But the villains? They’re cardboard. Malicious, sadistic, evil-to-the-core cardboard. While I’m not saying that I wanted to root for the villains in any way, I wish there would have been just a tiny bit of nuance there.
“Ka is a friend to evil as well as good. It embraces both.”
This was also another monster of a book that I believe could have been edited down one or two hundred pages and become a tighter, even more engrossing story. But it was compelling despite its verbosity, beyond a shadow of a doubt. Black House is a book that I thought about even when I wasn’t reading, which I think is the highest mark of a good story. I can’t wait to see what parts of this book carry over into the last half of the Dark Tower series. (Side note: The audio of this book is narrated by one of my absolute favorite narrators, Frank Muller. If you’re an audiobook person, both this book and The Talisman are fantastic listens!)
You can purchase this book from: Blackwell’s | Bookshop.org (Support Independent Bookstores) | Amazon US | Amazon UK | Audible | Libro.fm (Another way to support independent bookstores!) | Book Depository (Free shipping worldwide!)