Monday 2 January 2012

Devouring Stephen King (and Peter Straub): The Talisman

Mleurgh. Stephen King, what have you done? I'm forced to think that collaborating with Peter Straub was a terrible idea, and really, you should have just gone it alone. Really. I am, of course, going to blame Straub for everything that's wrong with this book, and I think that's a fair response- I've become accustomed to a certain level of quality from Stephen King, and this book ain't even close to that. King has never done this to me before, therefore it must be the new guy's fault. Are we all clear on that? Good, let's proceed!

Firstly, it took me a millennium to get into this book (that's a lie, but I did start it in October, and just didn't have the energy to struggle on with it) if, indeed, I ever 'got into it' at all. To be honest, the concept is pretty interesting- the world where you have daydreams is real, changes in that world affect things in our world (and all the other worlds, and hello some of The Dark Tower's lovely lovely 'science') and this one kid (Jack, the tiny boy hero) has to go out on a quest to get this mysterious object (The Talisman) so that he can save his mother's life, but also save all the worlds, which are being attempted-ly taken over by this evil overlord, who also happens to have been his dead father's best friend.

This all, I realise, sounds amazing. And it really could have been, I think, but somehow the entire thing (and I really do mean all 766 pages of it) kind of fell flat for me. I didn't exactly hate it, and it wasn't badly written (if either of those things had been true then I probably would have had to stop reading it) it was just so... meh. Look at me, explaining myself like a pro. Ok, here are the things that bugged me, mainly (everyone loves bullet points, right?):

  • Unecessary plot things- I want to say plot twists, but they weren't really twists, and I want to say devices, but that sounds wrong too. The thing is this- there's this character called Wolf who Jack brings over from the Territories (the daydream-ish world) into our world, and if you thought King and Straub were going somewhere with this, you'd be absolutely wrong. Wolf whinges, gets Jack in trouble, and generally does nothing useful, and he's in a HUGE chunk of the book, during most of which I was just hoping that he'd get run over or something because he contributed NOTHING to ANYTHING. God!
  • Lack of connection to the characters- With It (a mere 2 books away now!), King makes me love and feel deep compassion for 7 separate characters. With The Talisman, I don't even care about Jack, and he's the book's entire focus. There's a great deal of emphasis on what Jack is doing, and what the different worlds look like and consist of, which is fine, but on its own, it's extremely annoying. I need some more reasons why I should love Jack, some endearing vulnerabilities, just more of a backstory and a reason to root for him (other than, if he doesn't succeed, the world(s) will be swallowed up in darkness and evil. Which is a pretty good reason, I guess...)
  • It's confusing- And not confusing in a way where you're meant to be confused and then everything will have been sorted out for you by the end- confusing as in, I still don't know what having a 'twinner' really means, and whether or not going to the other side means you're there in your twinner's body or as yourself... (told you it was confusing). Basically, a bit of clarity would have been nice, thank you very much.
  • It's not exactly all about the women- And that's an understatement! I'm not saying that Stephen King is the supreme teller-of-women's-stories, because, let's face it, he isn't (which is ok... sort of) but The Talisman really takes the piss. There are genuinely two female characters- Jack's mother, who is dying of cancer and has to stay behind while he goes off on his quest, and her twinner, Queen Laura, who is even more passive and is unconscious for the whole of the book. And that's literally it- Jack makes friends with a male wolf, he goes into a correctional facility for boys, even goes to an all-boys school to track down a friend. Women really don't factor at all in this story, and while I would normally let that go (begrudgingly), there was so little else to keep me captivated that I couldn't help but notice the distinct lack of ladies (and the passivity of the ones there were). Lame, guys. Very lame.
These were the main things that bothered me, and I probably could go on but I won't because I can't even be bothered. At one point I thought the problem was just me- that I wasn't in the mood for Stephen King (for over two months...) or I wanted to read something just entirely different, but actually I started reading Thinner (the next book on my list) immediately after The Talisman, and lo and behold, I was healed! So what I'm saying is, it wasn't me, it was this book. King, I'm giving you the benefit of the doubt this time, since you've served me so well in the past, but Straub? Well, let's just say don't call me. And I won't call you either...


  1. I have only read Ghost Story by Peter Straub, but I did LOVE that book. Still, I am too much of a Stephen King fan to disagree with you and blame King instead for whatever is wrong. I started reading The Talisman right after I finished Ghost Story, but I just couldn't get into it. It's one of those books I put on hold, that I intended to continue later... Reading your review makes me wonder if I am ever really going to read it.

  2. To be honest, I probably wouldn't have bothered finishing it if I wasn't trying to read ALL THE STEPHEN KING THINGS! I am sort of joking about blaming Straub entirely, except I'm also kind of not because I do love the King!

  3. Oh man, it bums me out that you didn't like The Talisman. It's one of the few books that I've read twice and I really enjoyed it each time.

    A word of warning, if you didn't like The Talisman, you're going to hate Black House because it suffers from sequel-itis and it's just not as strong as The Talisman.

    Or maybe you'll love it it - who knows? :)

  4. Oh, that's such a shame. I'm with Brooks, I loved The Talisman. I read some Peter Straub after and I have to say I'm not a fan but I loved The Talisman and Black House. It's been years since I read it but it was like and old fashioned fantasy quest story. I also like the character Wolf.

  5. @Brooks- I am genuinely already dreading Black House but I've got 30 books to go before I even have to think about it! Although I am kind of thinking that I don't actually *hate* Jack, there just wasn't enough about him necessarily to make me care about him that much, so I wouldn't necessarily mind him turning up again as an adult. Maybe.

    @Karen- I guess it is like an old fashioned fantasy quest story, and maybe that's why I didn't necessarily love it- I think I'm more one for the horror, PLUS the character development that King normally does SO WELL, and yet together they really don't do here (I like to imagine this conversation:
    King: Well, shouldn't we add more about how he loved his dad, and why his mum's so important to him and stuff like that?
    Straub: Shut up, King, let's just add more fantasy shit and another swapping of worlds and just describe stuff- readers don't need to love the characters for gods sake!) Also, I really really hated Wolf, but I respect the fact that you like him :)

  6. I'm with you on wishing I could have put it down halfway through. It always worries me when I find hardly anything to redeem a work and wonder if I've missed something or just didn't get it. It's reassuring to know I wasn't alone in not liking The Talisman.

  7. ACk, NO, i absolutely loved these books. The Talisman especially! Jack is probably hands down one of my favorite characters. I can't explain why, but I really felt like I could have been Jack making my way across the country dealing with all the crazy stuff he did. When he gets stuck in that town working in that bar, that was insane! I don't know why, but other than The Dark Tower series, I would have to say The Talisman is other favorite. I am actually only reading your review, because I got side tracked looking for something, ANYTHING that would be similar to The Talisman.

    I was actually shocked to see this review! But I understand that everyone has different likes / dislikes. Anyway, hopefully Stephen King will come back and blow us away with some more fantasy, for me 1963 was kind of a bummer. And Under The Dome really fell flat. I feel like Kings recent works have been getting a little watered down. Poor guy is getting old I guess :(

  8. I stumbled upon this when I googled "The Talisman horrible book" (and I googled this after I found out that Steven Spielberg is going to be producing a The Talisman film). I'm glad to see I'm not the only person who feels this way. I too was trying to read my way through all the King books and when I got to The Talisman, I remembered that I had tried to read it years earlier and stopped midway through. Tedious is how I would describe this book. All Jack has to do is get from one coast of the USA to the other. I realize the reason he had to do it mostly by foot was due to the fact that he could accidentally cross over at any time, but I think I'm still taking my chances on a bus and ending the story in 50 pages; learn to duck and roll, buddy!

    Funny, I don't feel the same about the great eagles in LOTR, because the journey WAS interesting and lead to silly things like character development. I pity you for having Black House looming in the distance. Black House was moderately more interesting than The Talisman, but that's like saying "Transformers is a better movie than Transformers II".

  9. I read this book when I was something like 12 and I think I liked it more or less, but it is much more niched towards 12-14 years old than anything else I have read by SK except The Eyes of the Dragon. I really would not like to re-read it now. Odd that 2 great horror writers would get together and chose to write this!