Book Review: The Talisman – Stephen King & Peter Straub

In respect of reading material, 2023 is off to an excellent start for me.

Despite being a lifelong fan of King, and Straub’s Ghost Story having been a favourite since I was a teenager, I’ve never read this before. I did read the sequel, Black House, when it came out and recall liking it a lot.

I loved everything about this book – it’s a beast, clocking in at 980-odd pages but I read it in just over a week. Only some of that week was the Christmas break.

For something so long, the plot’s pretty simple – Jack and his dying mother are holed up in a seedy off-season seaside hotel in New England, when Jack meets Speedy Parker (from a 2023 vantage point it’s hard to get past the realisation that he embodies the lazy Magical Negro trope), who introduces him to the Territories, an Americana Otherworld. On the west coast, in a sort of dark mirror image hotel, there’s an object called the talisman which will heal Jack’s mother’s cancer.

Which is, of course, all of it and not all of it at all, as is the way with all the best books.

The world-building is top notch. The way the two realities map to each other was particularly interesting to me in relation to my own work in progress, and reminded me why I gravitate towards that kind of fiction in the first place. In the “real” America it is ostensibly the 80s, but it a eulogy to a USA that was long gone by then – the 1950s at the latest, more of the 1920s or 30s. It’s a really effective hauntology.

I haven’t read any Straub in a very long time, but it’s still difficult to pick apart whose voice is where in this book, except where there are italics and parenthesis – that’s pure King, but are functions used less than usual – Straub seems to have kept the worst of King’s excesses in check.

Like The Shining, The Talisman revolves around decaying resort hotels. I’m now racking my brains to remember if hotels feature in other King works (not that I’ve read all of the oeuvre, I do have a day job after all). The recovering academic in me started to draft a paper on the subject, but I suspect that since this book is nearly 40 years old, the academic version of Rule 34 applies – if you can think of it, the paper has already been written.

At any rate, I loved it, you should read it, and now I need to re-read Black House.