The Talisman by Stephen King
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Twelve year old Jack Sawyer's mother is dying of cancer and the only thing that can save her is The Talisman. Can Jack cross America and The Territories to claim it and save his mother?
I first read The Talisman while waiting for the last three Dark Tower books to be published. Thanks to the magic of getting older, I forgot 95% of what happened. When the ebook fell into my lap, I was ready for a reread.
Brief Side Bar: This book fell into my lap because Goodreads offered me an ebook of my choice in order to share my notes and highlights. At first, this seemed like a pain in the ass but it wound up being pretty useful when formulating my review. Also, it beat carrying the massive hard cover around like a cave man.
The Talisman is a coming of age tale and also a quest story. Jack Sawyer's mom has cancer and the only thing that can save her is The Talisman, a mysterious McGuffin housed in a haunted hotel all the way over on the opposite side of the country. Fortunately, Jack can cross over into The Territories, a fantasy/pseudo-western that exists alongside earth. Still with me?
Co-written with Peter Straub at the beginning of the 1980s, The Talisman simultaneously feels like a dry-run for the Dark Tower and a collection of Stephen King's greatest hits up to that point. Jack's trek across the country is not that unlike the ka-tet's journey to the Dark Tower and the Talisman is referred to as "the axle of all worlds" on several occasions, just like a certain Tower. King flirted with the concept of twinners in other books, though not by name. I have to believe Jack Sawyer is linked to Jake Chambers in some way. Maybe King didn't think he'd ever finish the Dark Tower so he worked as many ideas from it into The Talisman as he could.
The "greatest hits" notion I mentioned? Specific scenes seemed like they were almost lifted from other king books. The talk Speedy gives Jack is a lot like the talk Danny Torrance gets from Scatman Cruthers (I know that's not his name but I can't think of it at the moment) in The Shining. You also get King staples like the spooky tunnel. There were echoes of other, earlier King books in the mix that I've already forgotten. Not only that, there were some future echoes as well. The Alhambra hotel, anyone? Also, there were numerous things that would be revisited during various points of The Dark Tower.
So where is Peter Straub in all this? Honestly, I can't say since I've never read any Straub solo books. However, there are a few times in the text where the writing lacks a certain Kingliness. I'll chalk those up to Straub. There was some backtracking I didn't care for that I'll also blame on Straub.
For a kitten squisher of this size, there wasn't a whole lot in The Talisman that felt like it could be pruned. It takes a long time to hoof and thumb across America and The Territories and Jack Sawyer goes through several hells on the way. Oatley and Sunlight Gardener's boys home were the worst, in my opinion. Give me a railroad trip over a radioactive wasteland over those two places any day.
A co-worker of mine said King is at his best when writing about kids. I didn't agree with him at the time but I saw where he was coming from some ways into this book. While I thought Jack, and later Richie, talked more like seventeen year olds than twelve year olds, what twelve year old doesn't want to go on an adventure? I'd visit the Territories now, as a 40 year old kid.
I felt for Jack's companions at times but I would also be frustrated trying to travel with Wolf. More than once, I would have left Richie behind, though. When Jack finally reached the Agincourt, I had the put the book down so I could finish it at home rather than sneak read the rest in my cube. The big showdown at the end reminded me a lot of something that happened in The Wastelands. I was also really glad of how the ending turned out, the ending of Cujo still fresh in my mind.
The second time through The Talisman was just as enjoyable as the first time thanks to the magic of forgetting. Trial run of the Dark Tower or no, The Talisman is an enjoyable epic and a taste of things yet to come from Stephen King. Four out of five stars.
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