I remember reading this paperback in November / December 1985 and finding that The Talisman was a pretty good book. But its length – 770 pp – made picking it up and re-reading it no small decision, one I didn’t make until now.
So, how does The Talisman hold up when re-read thirty years later ?
The answer is, pretty good, actually. It’s a better novel than most of those that King and Straub have written since the mid-80s…..
As the novel opens, it’s September 15, 1981, and twelve year-old Jack Sawyer is standing on the beach at the resort town of Arcadia Beach, New Hampshire, looking out onto the Atlantic Ocean. His mother, the retired B-Movie actress Lily Cavanaugh, has moved the two of them from their former home in Los Angeles into the nearby Alhambra Inn and Gardens. Lily is unwell, still recovering from the death of her husband – Jack’s father, Phil Sawyer- in a hunting accident.
Lily passes her days in a haze generated by cigarettes and booze, defying the heavy-handed efforts of her husband’s former colleague and business partner, Morgan Sloat, to sign over her share of the business to him.
Troubled and unsure, Jack can only wander the grounds of the off-season resort and hope that his mother’s condition will improve. In a deserted amusement park he meets the local handyman, the elderly 'Speedy' Parker, who hints that a great journey awaits ‘Travelin’ Jack’, a journey that will be marked by no small amount of danger.
According to Speedy, Lily Cavanaugh is very sick– perhaps dying – and saving her life rests on Jack's shoulders. He is tasked with journeying across the entire country to the West Coast of California.....for on the coast, he shall find the Talisman – a magical artifact of great power, an artifact capable of restoring his mother to health.
But the journey to the Talisman will be no conventional road trip. Jack learns that he has the ability to ‘flip’ into an alternate Earth: The Territories, a medieval world where magic and myth co-exist, and his mother’s counterpart – Queen Laura DeLoessian – is seriously ill, and losing her status as ruler of the land.
Morgan Sloat, too, has a counterpart in The Territories: Morgan of Orris, a sadistic tyrant who hopes to usurp the Queen, and turn the world into his own fiefdom. The only obstacle to his ambitions is Jack Sawyer, for unlike Morgan, Jack has the innate ability to unlock the powers held within the Talisman.
As Jack begins his long journey across America, and also across The Territories, he is pursued by Morgan and his minions; the latter include all manner of monsters – some in human form, and some that are not. But they share the same goal: stop Jack Sawyer from gaining the Talisman…….
Despite its length, The Talisman is a reasonably engaging read, one that brings out the best of each author. Although the first 90 or so pages are rather slow going, serving to lay out the backstory and the main characters, after that the narrative gains momentum. Only in the novel's final chapters, with one confrontation after another that goes on too long, does the narrative begin to flag.
What helps The Talisman succeed as a hybrid fantasy / horror novel are the locales and supporting characters Jack Sawyer encounters on his journey West.
An early set of chapters, set in the Western New York town of Oatley, takes the depressing atmosphere of a dying small town and fills it with supernatural threats, in a memorable way that calls to mind William Kennedy doing a horror tale. Anyone who grew up in a small town in Upstate New York will find much to identify with, in this segment of the book.
Then there’s a lengthy interlude involving the Reverend Sunlight Gardner’s Home for Wayward Boys in Indiana; the Reverend is one of the more memorable villains in fantasy / horror literature and this part of The Talisman is also quite engaging.
A section of the book in which Jack (with a plentiful supply of Uzis close at hand) traverses a Badlands filled with monsters, provides some genuinely entertaining action sequences.
Perhaps inevitably for a book of its length,The Talisman isn’t perfect; the less impressive aspects of each author’s writing styles can’t be entirely eliminated.
For King, it’s the inclusion of his stock Magical Negro character, here in the form of Lester ‘Speedy’ Parker, and a nameless, blind (of course) elderly black man (of course) blues singer (of course). There are also too many of those mawkish scenes that King specializes in: scenes in which characters look at each other with distraught, tear-stained faces and say ‘I Love You’ before going on to confront whatever evil has been placed in their path.
For Straub, it’s the extended, tedious descriptions of phantasmagorical journeys and encounters – the kind that made the narratives in Ghost Story, Shadowlands, and Floating Dragon (in particular) regularly slow to a crawl - that show up a little too often in The Talisman.
But when all is said and done, The Talisman remains one of the better novels these authors wrote, either alone or in collaboration. It’s well worth picking up, provided you are in the mood for a long read.
(The sequel to The Talisman, 2001’s Black House, is a real disappointment – but that’s another Post for another time………)