Saturday, August 25, 2012

Stephen King: The Talisman (with Peter Straub) (1984)

Adventure. Danger. A quest of some noble purpose.
Dreams of fear and glory.

(The Talisman)

In The Talisman, 12-year-old Jack Sawyer must travel across the United States on foot - from Arcadia Beach, on the Atlantic coast of New Hampshire, to western California - to find and bring back a talisman that will help save his dying mother.

Stephen King and Peter Straub have created a classic quest story, with plenty of fantasy thrown in. With the help of Speedy Parker, a black musician and maintenance worker at an amusement park near the hotel, Jack sets out on his adventure armed with an old road atlas and some baubles that will aid him in his search.

Speedy also helps Jack understand the "Territories", which is another dimension or reality that somewhat parallels our world. The Territories - "an agrarian monarchy, using magic instead of science ... they've gone on like that for centuries" - is populated by Twinners, who are doubles or doppelgangers of people in the "real world". Not everyone has a Twinner and most people are not aware of them. Twinners share many of the same qualities as their counterparts, but they are not the same person. One character describes them as two sides of the same coin.

The Twinner of Jack's mother, Lily Sawyer (aka the "Queen of the B Movies"), is Laura DeLoessean, the Queen of the Territories. Where Lily is suffering from cancer, Queen Laura has a strange sleeping sickness. The counterpart of Morgan Sloat, the former business partner of Jack's father, who is pressuring Lily to sell her portion of the business, is Morgan of Orris. While the Morgans are not alike physically, both are depicted as ruthlessly greedy and cruel. (Places and events can also have Twinners. For example, a palace coup and brief civil war in the Territories years ago had a ripple effect that erupted into World War II. As one character says, "I think we're affected all the time by things that go on in the Territories.")

It turns out that when Jack was six or seven years old, he used to occasionally "flip" over into the Territories; back then, he simply called it the Daydreams. (If the allusions to Mark Twain are not obvious enough, King and Straub title the first section of the novel "Jack Lights Out".)

Jack is reluctant to embark on his long journey, but his concern for his mother's health pushes him forward.
Fear and loneliness combined in the sharpest, most disheartening wave of unhappiness he had ever known. ... [A]ll safety and reason seemed to have departed from the world. ... [But by] the end of his first days on the road, he seemed to himself to have grown from childhood right through adolescence into adulthood - into competence.
As Jack heads west, he hitches rides from strangers, works odd jobs for a few dollars, and often sleeps outside or in cheap motels. In one interview, King said he wanted to show the underside (a subsociety) of Ronald Reagan's America, "the ebb and flow of an underclass, the dregs of society, the roadies who are put upon by other people, the unhomed and homeless drifting just below everyone's sight."

Anthony Magistrale, writing about Jack's ordeals working at Smokey Updike's Oatley Tap bar and in the fields for the sadistic preacher Sunlight Gardener:
[These chapters] epitomize Jack's experiences on the road. The boy finds himself in a bondage (he keeps referring to the metaphor of the pitcher-plant) that neatly parallels Huck's servitude at the hands of the Duke and King. Huck and Jack are trapped by virtue of their innocence and vulnerability, manipulated by men without scruples who are interested only in obtaining power and lining their pockets.
During his journey in the Territories, Jack befriends a boy-wolf creature named Wolf who ends up flipping back with Jack into what Jack starts referring to as the "American Territories". Wolf is unnerved the bustle of modern society, and repulsed by the horrid smell of engines and pollution. At one point, the American Territories are described as the "smell of too many people running too many motors". As Wolf suffers panic attacks, Jack learns the often difficult responsibility of caring for others.

In discussing The Talisman, Douglas Winter (author of Stephen King: The Art of Darkness) refers to Leslie Fielder's controversial 1948 essay "Come Back to the Raft Ag'in, Huck Honey!", which explores the undercurrent of homosexuality in Huckleberry Finn and other classic American novels. Winter believes that King and Straub consciously invoke this sentiment as Jack openly expresses his love for both Wolf and Richard, often holding their hands to comfort them, offering intimacy and encouragement. And that affection is reciprocated. While never sexual, it evidences deep concern and a tight fraternal bond.

The Talisman is blunt statement against, and a warning against further, environmental degradation. The differences between the Territories, where the air is clean and fresh, and the smells of plants and food are alarmingly crisp and wonderful, and Jack's real world, are made obvious.

The book does seem to be about the death of the land, the terrible poisoning of the land.
The Territories represent that most American of mythical landscapes, and in its fading beauty, we experience a recovered sense of what America, in its rush to wealth and technology, has lost ...
The Talisman, even more explicitly than Huckleberry Finn, is a discourse on the destruction of the pastoral ideal and its technological aftermath. In America's cities and suburbs, Jack and Wolf cannot dream of honesty and wholeness; only in the Territories is some measure of psychic unity still available. ... Inherent in this perception is a sense of tragic inevitability that somehow is never fully counterbalanced by Jack's personal survival or the Talisman's magical properties. It is, however, this aspect of The Talisman that effectively links the novel to Huckleberry Finn, Walden, Moby-Dick, the stories of Hemingway and Faulkner, and the poems of Robert Frost: all are unflinching, characteristically American examinations of the implacable advance of history.
Later in the book, Jack, now joined on his journey with his childhood friend Richard Sloat (Morgan's son), ends up travelling by slow train through an area called the Blasted Lands, which parallel the vast tracts of American west used by the United States military for decades to test nuclear weapons. There is an acidic taste of rusty metal and rotten fruit in the air, a "stink of missed connections, of blasted hopes and evil desires ... [N]othing seemed to have escaped withering, crippling damage".

Winter notes the transportation link to Twain's steamboat.
[F]or the boys, the railroad, like Twain's steamboat, is the symbol of an older, lost America, supplanted by even greater machines; but in the Territories, it is a symbol of the new order of a secular, technological culture. ... [Sloat] has imported the black magic of modern technology - not simply the train, but automatic weapons and explosives; ... he has infected the land and its people with the diseased world view of sterile rationality. ... Sloat and the cancerous engines of "progress" are superseding the old wisdoms, the intimacies between humanity and its environment.
Beneath the surface of Twain's adventure story is a subtext concerning America's transition to a new age of industrial capitalism; the novel initiates Twain's skepticism about industrial civilization and his faith in the kind of world that humans create. ... The Talisman, even more explicitly than Huck Finn, is a discourse on the destruction of the pastoral ideal and its technological aftermath. In America's cities and suburbs, Jack and Wolf cannot dream of honesty and wholeness; only in the Territories is some measure of psychic unity still available.
Jack's journey - his "coming of age in a time when the assembly-line mentality of the rational world seems to hold sway over instinct and imagination" (Winter) - also reenacts the westward American expansion.


In a flashback we learn that Morgan Sloat and Jack's father, Phil Sawyer, were also able to flip into the Territories. Sloat wants to import modern technology and weapons into the Territories, where he believes he can take over when Queen Laura dies. (Sloat's plan is a nod towards Twain's A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court.) In a flashback, Sloat remarks to Sawyer: "Can you imagine how much fucking clout we'd swing if we gave them electricity? If we got modern weapons to the rights guys over there? Do you have any idea? I think it'd be awesome. Awesome."

The American capitalist has been setting the time for society since the start of this country, and in exporting the doctrine of oppressed labor to the Territories, Morgan Sloat represents the most contemporary illustration of capitalist imperialism.

In light of this pessimistic portrait, it is not surprising that both Huckleberry Finn and The Talisman should also highlight the unholy alliance between religion and money. In Huckleberry Finn, the word of God [through Sunlight Gardener] is used to justify even slavery, the most inhuman of acts, while in The Talisman a warped religious vision rationalizes the psychosexual exploitation of children in Sunlight Gardener's home. ...

The climatic scene of Huckleberry Finn occurs when Huck elects to forsake the moral posturing of his society and "go to hell" rather than return Jim to the institution of slavery ... Just as Huck selects human compassion over social and religious dogma, Jacks risks his life and his quest by refusing to abandon wither Wolf or Richard. The journeys down the Mississippi and across America parallel one another insofar as they are really about the moral educations of Huck and Jack. ... [B]efore the Talisman can work its healing magic, Jack must possess a set of moral principles that makes him worthy of its powers.

Towards the end of the novel, the talisman is described as "the nexus of all possible worlds", giving rise to comparisons to King's Dark Tower series. (There are clear references to some of King's other books. At one point, the evil Osmond is referred to as "the great and terrible" (Pet Sematary); a building complex is known as the Rainbird Towers (Firestarter). No doubt there are others, and references to Straub's books, as well.


The idea of a collaboration between King and Straub began in 1977. Each man had been an admirer of the other's work. King dubbed Straub "the best writer of supernatural tales that I know" while Straub saw King as his "ideal reader" and said that meeting him was like "suddenly discovering a long-lost family member - of finding a brother, really".

In 1981, the two men discussed collaborating on a novel. The idea for the story came from an old project of King's, but it was Straub that injected "enough vitality to make it roll," King says. "So in that sense, it's probably more his book than mine". The Talisman is an amalgam of both men's writing styles - King's "more robust and colloquial style [and] Straub's more reserved delivery" - and, as such, is more mannered and deliberate and lacks the incessant momentum of King's novels.

There was no problem working together - our styles seemed to melt together. The book has its own sound; it doesn't sound like me and it doesn't sound like Steve. And that's nice - that's what we wanted. I don't think it's possible, really, for anybody to tell who wrote what. There were times when I deliberately imitated Steve's style and there were times when he deliberately, playfully, imitated mine.
When I worked on my half of the copy editing, I went through large chunks of the manuscript unsure myself who had written what ... In fact, there were several times when I was reading through the thing that I thought I really did a good job, and it turned out it was Peter. And the only way I could tell was the typing style. He will double space after periods and between dashes, and I don't do that.
More comments on the writing of the book can be found here.


The novel ends with an epigram from Tom Sawyer:
So endth this chronicle. It being strictly the history of a boy, it must stop here; the story could not go much further without becoming the history of a man. ... Most of the characters who perform in this book still live, and are prosperous and happy. Some day it may seem worthwhile to take up the story again and see what ... they turned out to be; therefore, it will be wisest not to reveal any of that part of their lives at present.
It would be nearly 20 years before King and Straub would revisit Jack Sawyer (Black House, 2001).

Next: Thinner (as Richard Bachman).


laura k said...

Did you like this book? Did it work?

That Huck Finn essay was written in 1948?? I had no idea it was that old.

allan said...

Did you like this book?

Not as much as King's novels. I did not get that compulsion to keep reading.

laura k said...

It sounds like a mess.

So I guess 1948 is the correct year. Huh.

allan said...

Not a mess. Entertaining, but down the list.

Meg said...

Quite enjoying your take here on King's work.

I'm excited for you to get to It (fairly soon). It's pretty sloppy in some ways and has other flaws too, but I like the characters and the epic feel of the thing. Very curious to see your opinion.

Zenslinger said...

I really enjoyed the coming-of-age aspect of this book, and liked some of the straight fantasy elements since I had been reading similar stuff as a teenager. I haven't had much urge to revisit it. If I had any, listening to Black House on tape about ten years ago knocked it out -- I did not recognize Jack Sawyer from the earlier book, and I found the endless approach of the house to be so turgid. The Dark Tower connection was a bit interesting, but given the size of the thing, I didn't find much to recommend there.