THE LONG ROAD 3: THE TALISMAN
1. Not spoiler-free.
2. I’m assuming you’re familiar with the King-lexicon.
3. Not a rated review. Or a review at all, really.
If modern readers often hold the belief that Stephen King is not just a horror author, something I
happen to agree with, he is, at least, best known for his work in horror.
If you ask someone to list off their favorite King stories, chances are the most common ones
you’ll find are horror. IT, MISERY, SALEM’S LOT, THE STAND. Maybe, if they happen to
have a certain deranged look in their eyes, you’ll get THE DARK TOWER as a response. But
the line between Dark Fantasy and Horror is about as thin as the line between levels of the tower,
Still, though, the Tower isn’t King’s only foray into fantastical fiction. He’s gone to that well
many times, most recently with the portal fantasy FAIRY TALE. But there was once a time King
saw fit to trek to a new level of the tower, a place of clean air and incredible adventure. A place
haunted not by ghosts or vampires, but good old American capitalism. And he didn’t go there
“God pounds his nails.”
Throughout his career, King has written a fair number of works in collaboration with other writers. Perhaps most well known to more modern audiences are his collaborations with his son, Owen King, and with the founder and editor of Cemetery Dance Publications, Richard Chizmar. The latter of which produced the GWENDY trilogy, which, in a number of ways we’ll get to another day, connects rather intimately to the Tower. That, though, wasn’t the first time King had teamed up with someone to build on the story of the Tower.
In 1984, between the releases of THE GUNSLINGER and THE DRAWING OF THE THREE, King teamed up with legendary horror writer Peter Straub to write THE TALISMAN, a novel that, despite the pair who penned it, was not really a horror novel at all. Instead, THE TALISMAN is, by every clear measure, a portal fantasy.
The novel follows Jack Sawyer, a twelve year old boy as he goes on a cross country road trip to find a cure for his dying mother. However, Jack’s road trip takes place in two worlds: a fictionalized version of contemporary (1984) America and “The Territories”, a world much like ours but with a mixture of 18th century technology and medieval-inspired aesthetics. The world is filled with guards and kingdoms and knights, but also still lives and breathes in a very American way. The story, filled with both King’s trademark exploration of pre-teen uncertainty and Straub’s trademark atmospheric density, follows Jack on the entirety of his journey. Along the way, the reader is asked to ruminate on freedom, modernity, the peace of the natural world, and what we as a species have done to our planet. We are also, of course, asked to think about what a trip like this does to a twelve year old boy.
King being King and Straub being Straub, the story is dark. Jack suffers. He suffers in America just as he does in the Territories. He is held captive by a wage-thieving bar-owner. He falls victim to the manipulations and imprisonment of a religious fanatic. He watches people, friends, die, and struggles to maintain his path towards the Talisman. Through it all, he’s chased by Morgan Sloat, his father’s previous business partner, who will stop at nothing to keep Jack from his goal. Jack, I’m afraid, does not have an easy go of it. But despite the darkness, there’s beauty and discovery in Jack’s journey, just as there is in any good portal fantasy. Jack sees a world mostly untouched by the cannibalistic development of the modern (for him) world. He meets Wolf, a werewolf-like creature and the single kindest character ever written, period, no discussion. The journey is the point of the novel, and though Jack experiences great horror and heartbreak, he also finds himself and becomes forever connected to the Tower.
That connection to the Tower, though, is exactly why I have elaborated so much on this story in a way I haven’t done in the previous entries. While fans of King and Straub, and generally well informed horror fans in general, certainly know about what is often called “The Straub Duology”, it seems an often forgotten piece of the Dark Tower puzzle. That status raises an interesting issue with THE TALISMAN that makes it very important to the discussion of King’s bibliography.
THE TALISMAN establishes some very, very, important concepts that play vital roles going forward in the DARK TOWER series. Twinners are introduced, as well as the idea of the far reaching influence of evil in the series, though it largely remains hidden throughout the book. The Territories are either a different level of the tower or a land somewhere in Roland’s own world, but it is undeniably an important piece in the quest to the Tower. King’s Tower universe is one of complicated and twisting paths, oftentimes seeming both impossibly connected and confusing in its separation and lack of external direction. This article isn’t about the Tower itself, we’ll get to that another time, ya ken? Instead, I want to touch on the way that other writers have left their mark on the Tower, and undoubtedly will continue to do so.
King’s Tower universe is, to me, a story about connections. About the way characters build connections where they never had them before. The way that Roland and his Ka-Tet make connections with people along their path, changing their lives forever. The way that all of King’s bibliography, either overtly or in ways sometimes too subtle to see at first glance, all find some way to connect to the Tower. Along that path, the long road to the field of roses, a few other writers have left their marks. King’s own son Owen has left some. Joe Hill has made his own mentions of the Tower and its world in his writing, casting connections whether he meant to or not. Recently, Richard Chizmar has laid his hands on the Tower’s story.
But above the rest of them, Peter Straub stands like a titan.
Straub contributed to the Tower universe before it was ever established as such. Anyone who’s read THE GUNSLINGER knows how little of the world’s internal logic existed in that first entry. To make it even more of an interesting situation, neither King nor Straub ever offered any elucidation on how their co-writing partnership functioned. It is unclear who wrote what in THE TALISMAN. It is very possible that some of the concrete, core concepts of the Tower universe, especially concerning its very loose magic system and the nature of the multiverse, were crafted in part by Peter Straub. Perhaps most important is the concept of “Twinners”, which first appeared in THE TALISMAN. Twinners as a concept, the idea of, to put it simply, alternate reality versions of characters, became increasingly important to the series in later entries More than that, it became vital in connecting the other Tower-Diaspora books in King’s bibliography to the main series.
To me, THE TALISMAN represents perhaps the most important thing a fan of the Tower can tell someone heading into the series: It isn’t just the numbered entries that matter. To really appreciate the story of the Dark Tower, there is so much more that someone should read and understand. THE STAND, SALEM’S LOT, IT, and, perhaps most important, THE TALISMAN.
Roland’s journey matters most, sure, but Jack’s trip across the Territories, a trip Peter Straub had a heavy hand in, is one that you must know as well.
You must not forget the face of your father, ya ken?
Thanks for reading.