The Stephen King Project – The Talisman (1984)
About the project
I will be reading all of Stephen King’s books in order of publication (with the exception of The Dark Tower series which I will read together, at the end of this adventure) and writing a review of each. I’ll be looking at the recurring themes, the tricks he likes to use, the way he develops character and the way that his craft has evolved in the 44 years since Carrie was first published.
The Talisman is a dark fantasy story that Stephen King co-wrote with Peter Straub, another acclaimed horror writer. On paper, it should be a great book, and again, as someone who loves both fantasy and horror, I would have expected to love it.
The problem is, it’s just not that great.
I’m sure, by now, you understand just how hard it is for me to say that. I guess we all want our heroes to stay on their pedestals, and I love so many of his other books, but this one just left me feeling ‘meh’ – after both times I’ve read it.
The Talisman tells us the story of Jack Sawyer, a 12-year-old boy with a lot on his mind. His father was killed in a hunting accident a couple of years before the book begins and now his mother has cancer and is clearly dying. Add to that a predatory business partner of his father’s and it’s no wonder Jack is struggling. When he meets Lester ‘Speedy’ Parker and is told that he can go on a grand adventure to save his mother, it’s not really surprising that he jumps at the chance. What I did find surprising, to the point of being unbelievable, was how easily his mother agrees to let him set off on his own to an unknown location for an unknown amount of time…
When Jack was younger, he used to daydream about another place, a cleaner, nicer place. Speedy tells him that not only was this place real, but that he can visit again by ‘flipping’. The Territories, that other place, are a sort of twin to this world and many people from this world have ‘twinners’ over there – people just like them who share their lifeline and moments of import. The Queen, Laura De Loessian, is the twinner of Jack’s mum and she too is dying. Jack has to travel to a place on the other side of the US (and the territories) and retrieve a talisman, which will heal both women.
Sounds interesting, I hear you think. So, what was the problem?
Well, to begin with, I think this book falls down in the area that you can usually rely on King to be on top of his game. I don’t think Jack is a particularly interesting character. Now, we know that King can write great kids – Danny Torrance in The Shining, Tad Trenton in Cujo, the entire cast of IT – so I don’t think the problem is the protagonist’s age. Perhaps it was the cowriting that resulted in such a lacklustre main character, but whatever it was, he didn’t really capture me.
I also felt like this book kind of recycled some of King’s previous characters. Speedy Parker reminds me a lot of Dick Halloran in The Shining. Both of these characters are black, and I fear that King may be relying on stereotypes, however I leave that to someone with more knowledge to judge. Wolf (who is, in my view, the best character in The Talisman) is so much like Tom Cullen from The Stand that I kept expecting him to say ‘M-O-O-N, that spells …’ and Morgan Sloat came very much to remind me of Flagg as he appears in The Stand, especially when Morgan and Jack face off for the final time. I guess over time, it’s to be expected that some recycling of characters will occur, but in this context, it just feels lazy.
My other complaint about this book is the pacing. In my opinion, it is far longer than it had to be. Jack’s journey to the black hotel really drags along at times, with side stories that seem to have little or no bearing on the main plot. This is the first time that I’ve ever felt that the criticism toward King of writing bloated works or being too wordy was accurate. I think this book could have been half the length and carried the plot just as well, if not better. When I was about two-thirds of the way through this book, I received a review copy of Starsight by Brandon Sanderson; if I hadn’t been reading The Talisman for this project, I’m fairly sure I would have put it aside for Starsight since I was struggling.
It really pains me to write a review like this, where I can’t point to any particular thing and say, all that might have been a disappointment, but this bit was really good. It might seem like the problem must be the cowriting, but I have previously read Black House, a sequel to The Talisman, and I found it to be far better.
Have you read The Talisman? What did you think of it? Am I the only one who found it disappointing?