THESE ARE the key ingredients: a boy and his mother in peril, a murderous manipulator of people and finances bent on gaining control of an entire population, a weird place (continent? world?) peopled by primitive humans and bizarre creatures, some vaguely humanoid working on the side of good and some for whom the word monstrous was invented. Would you accept a benign werewolf? How about a crocodile thing that bites off hands? Imagine a repellent, toothy head that sprouts worms. Add to this a grail in the form of a talisman that possibly can provide the boy with powers to triumph over evil and you have this book . . . but only in its essence.
Much of Stephen King and Peter Straub's The Talisman occurs in The Territories, an altrnate-universe just a hop and a nod from the reality you see when you look out your windows. You can go to The Territories by willing it, by drinking a hideous concoction, or sometimes by accident -- perhaps you uttered the wrong words when you thought you were only invoking your mantra.
In The Territories live not-quite-doppelgangers whose names and features and activities only echo conventional reality of the world where the protagonist was born. His name is Jack Sawyer but in The Territories there was a Jason counterpart most foully murdered. Black Speedy Parker in Jack's birth world becomes Parkus in The Territories, brown and not black.
Stephen King and Peter Straub have exerted much effort in selecting names to good effect. Sloat is a villain. Roll that on your tongue. It carries reminders of bloat and gloat. You know he's bad even before you meet him.
In fact, if this book is to be faulted, it is mostly on the basis of contrivance. It is not so much a novel as it is a film vehicle and Steven Spielberg already has the movie rights. You can expect to see the worms emerge from the head, arms devoured and bloody stumps spouting gore -- all on wide screen with full color and a superb soundtrack to provide every scream and moan. And there's a chase to delight any director -- on a bizarre railroad train, with scenes made even more bizarre by the presence of hand grenades, crossbows, machine guns, spears and explosive plastique -- a mixture to rival A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court.
Certainly, The Talisman concludes with a rousing confrontation in an extraordinary setting that is just familiar enough to make your neck hair stand on end. This review won't spoil it for you with too much detail but the old hotel, black as original sin and with stinking sea water lapping at its pilings (sea water occupied by hideous creatures, of course) is a fitting place for the tale to reach its climax.
You may gather that this is a recommendation to go out and get the book for a long and enjoyable read -- but only if you are into good horror and suspense. If you're not one for the crackling fire in the fireplace, late night outside and a single lamp lighting the pages while you wonder "What was that creaking noise on the roof?" -- then forget it. This is no longer a recommendation.
Perhaps that is too severe, and I'm being a fellow author too much aware of the literary plumbing, because The Talisman is a good read. You find yourself caring whether Traveling Jack-Jason will triumph, whether the good queen will survive the evil machinations of the awful Sloat, whether the werewolf will turn wolf and gobble up our Jack before he can find a secure retreat . . . and whether the next scene will assault your senses with even more frightening creatures. King and Straub fans will be delighted and Spielberg can rub his hands with gloating glee because the box office lines are sure to be long ones.
Is this a literary masterpiece to live for the ages? Who knows and who cares? The Talisman is exactly what it sets out to be -- a fine variation on suspense and horror filled with many surprises, a ground King and Straub have plowed before with great success, together and individually. Together, they demonstrate once more that they are the Minnesota Fats of the novel-into-film. When they say six ball in the side pocket, that's where the six ball goes.