When I first started Peter Straub’s/Stephen King’s The Talisman, I thought I was being treated to a kid’s book. It certainly starts off like one, with 12-year old Jack Sawyer heading to a mysterious world in the hope of finding a cure for his sick mother. Wild adventures and friends await on a road fraught with danger, and Jack’s evil uncle is close behind, trying to stop him.
But this is a Stephen King novel, and it didn’t take long for The Talisman to morph into something dark, gritty, and vulgar in the kind of way only Stephen King can manage.
My relationship with kid’s books or novels with children as protagonists is strange. I love a great many kid’s books yet, from The Narnia Chronicle to Pullman’s Dark Materials to Harry Potter To Redwall in all its iterations. Yet, as I’ve grown older, I’ve moved away from stories that heavily feature children. There’s just something a bit too farfetched about a kid saving the world. Maybe I’ve grown up; maybe I’m just a cynic. Maybe those two are the exact same thing. Whatever the case, I only glanced at The Talisman’s synopsis before buying, figuring a big ol’ Stephen King novel sounded like a good choice regardless of the topic.
I was surprised at what I found, but not skeptical. Stephen King is very, very good at writing children. I only have to point to It as an example of that.
The Talisman knows that it isn’t a kid’s book, and that’s why I found it so compelling. Jack is young, and that only makes his road all the more dangerous. Even when his journey is being whimsical, there’s still this little haze over everything that something very bad could happen. It’s the kind of realistic fantasy that Stephen King has done over and over again, only now the scale has shrunk to something less crazy.
Basically, it works damn well, and the only reason I’m harping on about it is I find it interesting. The dichotomy of what The Talisman is and how it’s presented is cool. I like that it’s basically a kid’s book for adults. The Territories that Jack finds himself in feel like the kind of parallel universe I’d have enjoyed when I was Jack’s age, only way more dangerous, and Morgan Sloat is basically a Disney villain, only way more ruthless.
Throughout, there are werewolves, big castles, magical trinkets, haunted forests, monsters, and a wild train ride that was a particular highlight. All of these triggered some mental nostalgia of what I loved as a kid thanks to their presentation and the way Jack sees the world, yet there was always something more about them, something real.
For example, when Jack meets Wolf, I immediately fell in love with the big, oafish werewolf. The two hit it off, and Wolf himself is a bit of a simpleton and a complete sweetheart. Yet he is a werewolf, and during the full moon, he goes feral. When the two get stuck in our world, a clock begins ticking down, and the zero mark spells ferocious carnage. Wolf doesn’t want to hurt Jack, not ever, but that means nothing when he changes.
When the two get captured and sent to some kind of strange half-cult wayward house for disgruntle children, the tension of that ticking clock only goes up.
It’s this kind of realistic danger coupled with the whimsical that make The Talisman such an amazing novel, and the dichotomy that is Wolf certainly makes him an amazing character.
The same complexity can be found in Jack’s other companion, Richard Sloat, though for different reasons. Richard’s last name should give that away. The ticking timebomb here isn’t one of carnage but one of revelations, and Richard lacks the fortitude to handle it. He’s annoying at first but for the right reasons, and his story arc is compelling.
I’ve always enjoyed a novel that can instill the concept of “a great distance” in me. Big journeys need to feel big, and that reflection of, “Wow, the start of this quest feels like years ago” is something I find impressive. The Talisman has that in spades, and it’s easy to get lost in how much truly changes between Jack’s first conversation with Speedy Parker and his entering of The Blasted Lands.
It’s a novel where so much happens, yet it doesn’t feel like a big sprint to the finish line. Jack finds himself in numerous places, and the time spent in each one feels natural. This becomes doubly important as he’s racing his mother’s illness, and once he finds the talisman, he still has to bring it back. If Jack gets lost or stuck for a few weeks, that’s a few weeks where his mother is dying.
The Talisman offers the kind of journey where the entire world is against a kid, and that means the falls are brutal and the successes are overpowering.
If I have any criticisms at all, it’s that The Talisman follows the hero’s journey too closely. Jack is called, Jack goes, and Jack eventually finds what he’s looking for. In terms of plot, the book really does play things safely, but when it comes to world building and characters, it’s still an absolute joy. Jack himself is a great protagonist, being just a little self depreciating and cynical, and the people he meets on his journey are all pretty awesome in one way or another. King excels at creating people, and that doesn’t change here.
If it feels like I’ve downplayed Peter Straub’s additions to The Talisman, it’s because I’m unfamiliar with his work. I don’t know what role he had in the writing of this book, but it certainly reads and feels like a Stephen King novel. I personally consider that high praise, but fans of Straub might not.
I really enjoyed my time with The Talisman, and it comes with a high recommendation. If you’re in the mood for a straight-up fun adventure, it’s worth a read.