Monday, November 3, 2014

The Talisman


             I really was going to review The Orange Eats Creeps, I promise. It's actually a pretty cool book from what I've read of it. But I realized something: This past Friday was Halloween, marking my fourth year writing for Geek Rage/Strange Library. And this past month? Stephen King month. And these two things led me to remember something I've said again and again, something I should have scheduled into the month, and something on which I should finally deliver. I've been saying "I'll get around to it" for years. Four years, to be exact. I think anyone would want me to, well, finally get around to talking about it. So I decided, emergency executive decision, first to do a video review of The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon because I have an awesome collector's-edition pop-up book of that, and then, after that, on the spur of the moment, to finally talk about the book that gave Stephen King and Peter Straub my undying respect. The book that made me a King fan to begin with. A book that has stayed with me for a little under an entire decade now. 

I think it's finally time, dear readers (all two of you) to talk about The Talisman.

                      I think it's brilliant. It's a book I've read more than Harry Potter, topping out somewhere around the mid-double digits. Even though I know the plot, even though every twist and turn in the novel is one I've already experienced, even though I know how the story's going to end. It's lurid at points, yeah. It's really dark at points. There's one section that still really disturbs me, and a section that grossed out my dad when he read it to make sure it was okay for me. The villains are despicable, the heroes are severely underpowered, and the plot-- while a little formulaic-- seems fresh and insane enough to be well worth the read.  It's a book that has affected my life in a great number of ways, and it's a book I couldn't see my life being the same without. While not particularly complex and while the individual elements aren't particularly impressive, this book has affected me in a way that few books have managed to. And I know, it sounds like I'm overselling it here, and maybe I am. But if I wanted to talk about books that have affected me (and I do), I would have to talk about The Talisman, and it would be high on the list. 


Well, more, as always, below.

"Who played them changes, Daddy?"
- Jack

"Go on. Get out. Before I change my mind."
- Lily Cavanaugh

                      Jack Sawyer and his mother Lily Cavanaugh have come to the Alhambra Inn in New Hampshire, the next on a long list of places they ran to get away from Jack's uncle, Morgan Sloat. Unbeknownst to Jack, Lily came to the Alhambra, a huge gothic building in a failing New Hampshire resort town, to die. Her cancer is terminal, and she wants to go out on her own terms, not in a hospital she can't afford, and certainly not beholden to Sloat, a man who radiates insidiousness and some kind of power beyond comprehension. He's a well-connected man, and one who seems to want to help poor Jack and his mother. But at the same time, he seems to want them under his thumb where he can control them. 

                      Jack, meanwhile, spends his time kicking around the resort town in its off-season, a place seemingly devoid of much to do or many people who would take notice of a boy like him. At a loss for something to do, Jack makes his way to the Arcadia Funworld, where an old black man named Speedy Parker hangs around. Parker, oddly, seems to know more about Jack than Jack does himself. Jack isn't doing too well himself, as he's been seeing things he calls "the Daydreams", odd things like a gull turning to talk to him while eviscerating a seagull, or a funnel suddenly appearing in the sand and telling him his mother is going to die. And then, one fine day, Parker tells him that he's going to have to journey across the country, because there's a very important magical item that won't just help his mother, but heal his world, and another, darker world. 

                      The other world, known as The Territories, is dying as well. The queen of The Territories lies ill of a mysterious incurable disease, and if Jack can save his mother, then perhaps Queen Laura will be saved as well, and thus two separate worlds. So Jack, after a quick jaunt into The Territories where he sees that yes, everything Parker said was absolutely true, decides to make a journey to "the other Alhambra", a forbidding black hotel somewhere on the coast of California, to save everything.

                     What follows is a strange journey through two worlds, one a strange alternate Earth full of bloodthirsty monsters and strange feudal kingdoms, the other a world entirely like our own, but full of people who know where the magic between the worlds exists-- and how to use it. Jack will brave horrifying things in his quest, including a decaying half-human cowboy, a brutal boy's home, terrors from beyond even context or sanity, his uncle's goons, and numerous other dangers. But at the end, hopefully, it will all be worth it and everyone will be saved. 


 So, some background:

                              When I was about ten, I stumbled on The Dark Tower. Within the next week, I'd tried to pick up and read the second volume, The Drawing of the Three. My parents were, of course, not pleased with this-- my mom because she saw the author's name and went "No", and then my dad read the half-chapter about Eddie Dean the heroin mule and went "Your mother's right. No." But because they recognized that I did want to read Stephen King, and I was getting older, finally they made a deal with me: My dad would find the book Stephen King wrote for his children, and I would be allowed to read that. 

                             I suppose it's time to reveal something I've been keeping under my hat* for a long time. The book King wrote for his kids was The Eyes of the Dragon, the book I reviewed a few weeks ago. The book my dad brought home-- my first Stephen King book and the book that eventually led me to read such things as Something Wicked This Way Comes and A Graveyard for Lunatics and all those other kinda dark books, and probably set me up for my never-ending love affair with Preacher-- was in fact The Talisman. And to his credit, he read the thing first, so he knew what I was in for when he gave me a book containing a train shootout between two twelve year old boys and a group of decaying soldiers that explode into maggots when shot. 

In hindsight, as much as I've complained, my parents did a fairly good job raising me. 

                           And I admit I was a little reluctant at first. Because I didn't know how many of Stephen King's books were fantasy**, but I knew The Dark Tower was. I hadn't heard much about The Talisman, just seen the weird broken-glass cover design and the generic title and thought it wasn't anything special. But, since my mom and dad had gone through the trouble, I started to read it. And I was hooked. I'd never encountered this particular mix of pitch-black YA fantasy, gothic horror, and I hadn't actually encountered many quest fantasies done right, period. And so many of the fantasy books I'd read started with several chapters devoted to the hero puttering around his or her hometown before getting into the actual magic. But I liked the book. It was a little like The Neverending Story, but not as lyrical. More overt darkness and less existential darkness. It also probably helped that I was the same age as Jack at the time, well, maybe off by two years. 

                              So what do we have? Well, the most important quality, more important than any of the other qualities the book has, is empathy. What Stephen King and Peter Straub were able to do was create characters that, even when they act a little unrealistically, actually stay with the reader. The Talisman is so wonderful, so wrenching, because it makes you feel every twist, every gutpunch, every loss, every weird desolation with absolute clarity. While the book doesn't necessarily describe everything well, what it does do is make the emotions vivid enough. I know I've said it before, and I'll say it again, but there's a point where a character's death almost made me drop the book. Worse, it came after one of the most triumphant moments, allowing a catharsis that almost made me giddy to end with one of the most crushing scenes in the book. The Talisman hits emotional peaks and valleys like many books try and fail to. But most devastating of all, it allows something that not even the hated "Clockwork Girl" allowed itself to do: It allows itself a sense of hope. It allows a small light to lead you through the darkness, that little sliver that makes you think things will actually be okay, thus making it just as disturbing when they're not. 

                               The reason the Sunlight Home section, from its beginning to its brutal catharsis, is so disturbing isn't because of all the terrible things that happen there, it's because it keeps telling you it'll end, that it gives it so many chances to end. When it finally does choose an ending, it feels like a relief simply because it's not the ruthless emotional pummeling that came before. The nightmare, in its own way, is kind of over. But this leads me to another strength, one just as important as all the others: The characters in The Talisman actually feel believable. Jack and Lily have a whole bunch of in-jokes with each other. As Jack and his cousin Richard crack jokes on their way to California, they sound a little more mature and wizened from their journey, but they also sound kind of like twelve year old boys. Sunlight Gardner actually sounds suitably deranged in his own way. And then there's Wolf. Dear, sweet Wolf. Wolf is probably the best character in the whole book, better than the incredibly obscure Speedy Parker, the more or less hero-archetype Jack, more than anyone. Wolf is a character that generates true love, true warmth, and some actually funny moments. For some reason, this goofy side-character is the most fleshed-out among all the characters in the book, and it really works. Him getting into trouble is one of the major turning points of The Talisman, and it's something that spurs the character arc forward. The plot arc involving him is the empathic core of the book, and he remains the heart of it until the final pages. 

                                    And the final thing that left an impression on me is kind of spoilery, but I gotta talk about it anyway. It's important. So here goes: All that emotion, all that character, all those vivid, creepy scenes are blown out of the water by a single powerful moment at the end of the book. Jack is basically forced to make a choice, or rather something tries to choose for him. And it says a lot that the choice he makes is actually the most powerful thing he could have done. That when given such a choice, he did the only thing that mattered, the only thing he could do. In the end, it's not a show of force or power that saves the world, it's a show of restraint. It's when someone holds back. There's no catharsis, the day is won by someone actually using reason and sense. And that's a pretty cool plot element to me. Usually, the protagonist gains overwhelming power, but in The Talisman, he only changes internally. He uses what he gained to remain himself, and that's far more powerful than any godhood or wizardhood or whatever you may. 

                                    I will warn you that this isn't a nice book, though. It's unrelentingly dark at some points, even when you do know what's happening. People are crushed both physically and mentally, and there are some incredibly sick parts. It also drags some in the second section, "The Road of Trials". I'm not quite a fan of that one. But they're minor quibbles. This is, as far as I'm concerned, a classic. You can hate on Stephen King all you like. You can say that Peter Straub doesn't have many good ideas. But the two of them together made The Talisman, a book so rich and vibrant and wonderful that I cannot recommend it enough. Buy this. Borrow this. Steal this. Well, okay, don't steal this. But read it. At the very least, it's an interesting book, one worth looking into. At the most, it's something that more people should read. 

And now, dear reader, it's time I leave you for a bit. Right here and now. 

- A month-long hiatus begins as I enter Long Books Month
- A possible account of NekoCon. Hopefully, a good one with a decent angle

*Most people who have seen me in the flesh are now wondering how the hell I would ever wear a hat. 
** I know now that the answer is "everything post-1983"

No comments:

Post a Comment