Monday, February 11, 2013

REVIEW: Black House by Stephen King & Peter Straub

RATING: 4.8/5

Jack Sawyer – the loveable young hero from Stephen King and Peter Straub’s The Talisman – is all grown up. Ultimately the story of Black House, however, is not all about Jack which, in my opinion, makes this a much more successful piece of storytelling (though I’m sure most fans of The Talisman will disagree).

We find ourselves in the middle of a murder case in the small town of French Landing, Wisconsin; a murderer – affectionately labeled “The Fisherman” by scummy news reporter Wendell Green – is killing and eating children and writing nasty letters to their parents. Jack “Hollywood” Sawyer, now a retired coppiceman, is being swayed to join the case by his friends Henry – a blind radio show host with multiple eccentric personalities – and Dale, the town’s chief of police. We see this story unfold from multiple perspectives; we are, at times, with Jack, Henry, Dale, or Fred Marshall – a loving and caring father with a boy named Tyler (you might be able to guess what happens to him in the story) whom we also accompany from time to time, Judy Marshall – Tyler’s seemingly psychotic mother, Wendell Green, some of The Fisherman’s victim’s parents, the murderer himself, a bird named Gorg, and others.

That last one – Gorg the bird – is perhaps the most jarring, the one that might turn most people off from this book (at least those familiar with the authors’ other work and with The Talisman). The way in which this story is told is quite strange at times; King and Straub constantly break the fourth wall by referring to us as an audience (and our view of what’s happening in the story) directly. We fly, with the authors, high above French Landing as Gorg, observing bits and pieces of town life and the people there going about their daily lives. When we aren’t following Gorg, we are being shown (as if through some magical two-way mirror) the story playing out in its entirety right before us. The authors use this to their advantage several times later in the story to build suspense and tension; they show us something unknown to the character(s) we’re watching – something only we as an audience can see – and force us to witness it with our eyes wide open, unable to interfere or do anything to stop it. They are letting us in on the joke, one might say.

I thoroughly enjoy this. Most people won’t, but I do. I found it hard to follow at first, but I really got into it after a bit. The way it’s written, you can feel the banter between King and Straub oozing out of the pages– the interplay of styles and ways of describing things is very fun to read and, since we’re already watching the story from behind the fourth wall (which is now a two-way mirror, of course), adds to the telling of the story as a whole. We are at the authors’ mercy, and they love it.

This book is not for everyone. Not for every Stephen King or Peter Straub fan, nor for every Talisman fan. I like that this book is not just about Jack Sawyer. It’s not a quest book like its predecessor.  I love that it’s a study of a small town trapped in the middle of a crisis – one that very few have the privilege (or burden) of knowing is a part of a much more severe situation (yes, this book is basically a branch off of King’s Dark Tower series). I love how each and every character is fleshed out; by the end, I felt very strong emotions (good and bad) for every single one of them. They all have depth and, in watching them the way we did, we learn a great deal about who they are as people. There is, however, a very substantial amount of description; sometimes it can be tedious, other times thoroughly enjoyable. The way the story’s told is weird. It’s hard to get into initially. But it grabs you and makes you care about what you’re reading (or seeing, if you prefer, through that mirror).

This book is admittedly not for everyone, but I loved it.

***This review can also be found on Goodreads and Amazon.


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