Friday, December 14, 2012

Killing Time in the Territories

I grew up on Stephen King, but until recently I never checked out The Talisman, his 1984 collaboration with Peter Straub.  Last month I read it back-to-back with their 2001 follow-up Black House.  This marked a rare occasion where I enjoyed the sequel more than the original.

One of the things I love about King's fantasy works is that his worlds don't seem like they were created so much as discovered.  As he uncovers places like Delain and Mid-World line by line, they operate so consistently within their own fantastic logic that they feel absolutely real.  In The Eyes of the Dragon and the first four Dark Tower books, we aren't being told a story so much as getting a report from someone who has his eye pressed to the magic keyhole.  Unfortunately, as I read The Talisman, I felt like King and Straub were just making it up as they went along.  The Territories, the parallel universe in which half the book's action takes place, seemed like an anything-goes dreamscape where the authors took license to dump whatever they wanted.

Despite their efforts at providing back-story, the characters weren't sufficiently realized.  I never really liked Wolf.  The way he constantly barked his name (in the vein of Gollum's habbit of making a swallowing gollum noise in his throat) was just obnoxious.  On that note, I couldn't suspend my disbelief long enough to buy his name.  Really, guys?  A wolf named Wolf?  Was his mother just out of ideas at that point?  Also, good guys aside, Morgan Sloat was a sorely underwhelming villain.  Whenever he made an appearance, I imagined him at a support group with Dr. Evil telling him that he's "just not evil enough."  Sorry Morgan, you're the Diet Coke version of Randall Flagg.

My other major beef with the book is its shallow understanding of human behavior.  At one point, the book's 12-year-old protagonist Jack Sawyer is sexually propositioned by an adult male.  He then recalls previous instances of being groped by adults in California, and compares them with his recent encounters with "Eastern gays", the implication being that homosexuality and pedophilia are synonymous, and that gay men routinely hit on underage boys.  I find that incredibly offensive.*  Also of note is the supporting character Richard Sloat, Jack's scientifically-minded best friend.  Throughout the story, foolish, rational Richard denies the existence of the Territories, even after he's been transported into them and personally interacted with their inhabitants.  He walks around uttering there's-no-such-thing-as-magic like a mantra, the big mean scientist who would stand with his arms folded while Tinkerbelle perished.  Guys, scientists aren't like that.  Most people who enter the scientific fields do so out of an inherent sense of curiosity, not because they don't believe in fairies.  If presented with evidence that magic exists, they'd be all over that shit like white on rice, eager to learn everything about magic there was to know.  Richard's character gives the story an anti-intellectual flavor that left a bad taste in my mouth.

However, while the first book didn't do anything for me, I did get a kick out of the sequel.  In Black House, we're treated to a localized murder mystery with a supernatural bend, complete with the sense of place that is the hallmark of the authors' work.  The characters are three-dimensional and attractive (I liked the literary gang of biker-brewers particularly), creating a well-defined community dynamic.  Moreover, the connections to the Dark Tower universe reminded me of the delicious intrigue that made that story arc so much fun.**  All in all, I enjoyed this one, but only enough to make up for dragging myself through the first one.

Bottom Line: Read these books if you must read absolutely everything by these guys.  But if you're a first-timer looking for a place to start with either one, there are plenty of better choices.

*I'd like to make it clear that I'm not accusing King of being a gay-basher.  His anti-bigotry credentials are well-documented, not the least of which being that his daughter Naomi is an outspoken lesbian.  In short, do I think King is homophobic?  No.  Do I think The Talisman is homophobic?  Yes.

**Of course this was written before King essentially told us to go fuck ourselves with the last three books in that series.

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