The Talisman, by Stephen King and Peter Straub. 646 pages. Viking.
You know how when you’ve been constipated for three days and you finally slay the dragon? How good it feels? And yet, there are still residual cramps that torture you? Well, that’s exactly how I felt when I finally finished reading The Talisman. I worked on it for over two months, occasionally speed reading a section or two while at other times getting caught up in the prose and absorbing it. I started it December 24 of one year and finished March 2 of another. Not since Moby Dick have I labored so hard on a single book.
Here are the positives: 1). The prose is generally delightful. I like Straub’s prose a lot and generally find King’s prose to be perfectly adequate to the story by rather “meh” aesthetically, but King seems to have risen to the challenge of Straub here and the book is finely written. 2). The fantasy setting of the “territories,” which is contiguous with the world we know, was excellent. I particularly liked how everything was experienced so intensely in the territories. 3). The climactic scenes were powerful, both the final battle with the evil and the denouement with the character’s mother.
However, there are a number of things I didn’t care much for and I think they all revolve around one particular issue. The book is way, way too long. I’d say at least 200 pages too long. Every scene is embellished and packed with verbiage. There is nothing here that can be considered lean or stripped down. Instead of a juggernaut, it moves like one of those giant armored buses often depicted in zombie movies. The story rolls slowly along through the horrors and mysteries, powerful but ponderous.
Because of the length of the book, the middle sags like a mattress supported by broken springs, the characters repeat themselves and repeat themselves in thought and dialogue, points get hammered (the book often uses an apropos metaphor of a nail being pounded) flush to the board and then the board gets hammered into mush. I frequently uttered the words, “Get on with it” as I worked my way through. It also struck me as apropos that the main villain is often called “bloat.”
Please note, this is a fantasy novel, not in any way a horror novel. There are a few horrific images in it but the monsters and characters are fantasy based, including the werewolves and the radiation twisted monsters. I like both fantasy and horror, but they do different things to my moods and mindsets.
Also note, the book makes no secret of being—in part—a fantasy retelling of Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain. Even the main character’s name is Jack Sawyer, although the journey across the US smacks a bit of Huck Finn’s journey down the Mississippi.
I didn’t dislike the book. Some things I quite enjoyed. But the sheer length and padding of it made it a tough row to plow. You might find your experience very different, as I might have if I’d read it when I was much younger.
I also want to make clear, I do not dislike Stephen King or Peter Straub’s work. Ghost Story by Straub is in my top 3 favorite horror novels. Some of his short stories in Houses Without Windows still scald me years after reading them. King’s Misery and The Mist were absolutely riveting page turners, and Pet Semetary made me weep with emotion. These are very fine writers but—to me—The Talisman is far from their best work.