Monday, March 14, 2016
It was ordered for me back in January by my loving wife, and was supposed to arrive on the 8th of February. After it was officially 20 days late, I gave it up for lost in the mail.
Three days later it got here, safe and sound. Yay! Still don't have a job, so all is not perfect in my little world, but at least I have a modicum of good news.
Anyway, now on to The Talisman.
This book is a collaboration between King and Peter Straub, two authors whose personal styles are all but diametrically opposed. King's prose and dialogue tend to be pretty down to earth and realistic. He also tends to keep things moving at a nice clip. Straub is quite florid and glacial, at least in my one experience trying to read one of his novels, a supernatural creeper called Shadowland. My chief issue with that book is that its characters didn't talk like people. Their dialogue sounded like they were rehearsing for a play.
But both Straub and King are important names in horror, so it might seem odd that the two of them getting together produces a non-horror novel. The Talisman is pure fantasy from the word go. And it's portal fantasy, for that matter.
As I've said before, I read a shit-ton of fantasy, and it's far and away my favorite genre, but I'm usually not a fan of what I call "portal fantasy". You know what I mean. If I'm looking at books on the rack and one of them says something like "16-year-old Cody couldn't stand the thought of spending the summer on strange old Aunt Hazel's farm. But when he discovers a mysterious door in her attic..." such a book gets put right back where I found it.
But this isn't normal portal fantasy. It's not even portal fantasy of The Dark Tower variety. No, this is more like what would happen if you sat King and Straub in a room together, got them flying high on coke, read The Chronicles of Narnia to them and then told them to write their own version.
The end result is, well, one very odd book. It's not bad; there were some really great parts, and they probably outnumbered the less-than-great parts. It's just...weird. I'm still not 100% sure what it was about. It felt disjointed, all over the map, and that's probably because of clashing narrative styles. I understand that King and Straub basically took turns writing this thing and when one of them got stuck, or felt they'd written enough, they'd send what they had to the other and he would continue from there (though there was an outline, made by King). This means there are plenty of chapters that end on one note and the next begins on a completely different one.
For example, one chapter ends with our young hero, Jack, thinking that he's run into one of his demonic pursuers again, in this case a shape-shifter that calls himself Elroy. And when I say "thinking" I mean the prose literally says "the herdsman was the Elroy-thing". But the very next chapter begins with the words "Except it wasn't." Turns out Jack was mistaken, but I'm not sure how, because the "Elroy-thing" and this herdsman are both described and neither looks anything like the other.
That's the example that really seems to stick out to me. Also, there were times when I felt like I was reading a Stephen King novel (especially when certain words or phrases are repeated to make sure we know they have meaning) and at other times, the story slowed right down and got overly florid and I knew Mr. Straub had taken over.
I remembered liking this book the first time I read it, and I was genuinely excited to get to it this time around. That feeling didn't last throughout, however. It came in fits and starts. The beginning is just...so...slow...and boring as hell. After getting over that hump, things got better for a bit, but honestly, a lot of this made me want to go read a real fantasy novel.
Essentially, this story is about a young boy named Jack Sawyer, the son of an aging B-movie actress named Lily Cavanaugh, who has grown up all his life having very realistic "daydreams" involving other worlds and strange happenings. His father has recently died under somewhat mysterious circumstances, and his father's business partner, "Uncle" Morgan Sloat (does any name scream "I'm the villain!" more than that?) apparently is interested in taking care of Lily and Jack. Lily doesn't trust Morgan at all, and has moved out to a nearly deserted hotel in New Hampshire, taking Jack with her. Jack also doesn't trust Morgan, and his mind for whatever reason connects Morgan to the death of "Uncle Tommy", his father and Morgan's lawyer, who was always good to Jack and who was recently mowed down by a van.
Now Lily seems to be dying, and while wondering what he can do about it, Jack meets Speedy Parker, a friendly old black handy man (shades of The Shining) who seems to know more than he's saying, and that he knows a way Jack can save his mother's life.
You see, Speedy, and apparently Jack's father Phil, Morgan Sloat and probably several others, have knowledge of an alternate world they refer to as "the Territories", and this world is connected in a mysterious way to our own. The Territories are mostly peaceful, agrarian and technologically on par with our own medieval period. As Morgan describes it, "they have magic like we have physics", so it's basically your standard-issue fantasy world, with probably even less thought put into the social, political and geographical landscape than hacks who try to write fantasy by essentially just copying Tolkien's Middle-Earth do.
But then, that's not the point of the story. The point is that Jack's mother is dying, and there's something Jack can get that will save her; the titular "Talisman", which is all it's ever referred to as. It's in a "bad place" on the other side of the country, but Jack can get there by also traveling in the Territories, which are smaller than our world, so he'll cover more ground faster. But then, there's that connection between the Territories and our world that I mentioned. See, stuff that happens in that world affects stuff that happens in ours, such as a murder on that side causing mass death in our own, and many people on our side have "twinners" in the Territories. A "twinner", as best as I can describe it, is the version of you for that other world. Because that world is different, your twinner is different and yet they look like you. Even that doesn't really explain it because we find out that Morgan's twinner looks like him in the fact but is taller and didn't lose his hair, two things that really can't be explained by just "having lived a different life in a different place."
Twinners are a neat concept, but handled weirdly, almost as if Straub and King had different ideas as to what a twinner actually is. Morgan Sloat is the twinner of Morgan of Orris, and in one scene, Jack watches with horror as Morgan Sloat rips open a tear in reality and steps through from our world to the Territories, literally transforming into Morgan of Orris as he does so. This, I took to mean, was an indicator that the two men are pretty much the same man, or at least Orris was the guise Sloat uses when in the Territories. Osmond and his twinner, Sunlight Gardener, also seem to be more or less the same man, with similar mannerisms and memories, just a different manner of dress. Later, we're told explicitly that Orris and Sloat are two different people, alternate versions of each other, and that when Sloat "migrates" to the Territories, he automatically ends up in Orris's body, wherever Orris happens to be. This goes against the scene where Sloat steps through the rip in reality, but King or Straub, whichever of them wrote the later scene that describes what happens when Morgan migrates, tried to cover that up by saying that Sloat had been "lucky" that Orris was already there when he stepped through. This is just lazy writing because Orris was clearly not there in the scene as written, and this was a very transparent attempt to rationalize an earlier scene.
But Jack is "single-natured", meaning his twinner is dead. When Jack flips back and forth, he is in whatever corresponding spot he was in our world or their world. In a weird, almost neat twist, everything about Jack's clothes and items change, as well. His backpack becomes a medieval style traveling bag, his clothes become more medieval and his money becomes what they use for money. He even finds himself automatically speaking and understanding their language. This is never explained. Just part of the magic of flipping over.
Laura DeLoessian is the Queen of the Territories (see what I mean about geopolitical structure not really being explored? How much of the Territories is she queen of? Are there other nations? Do the Territories have a real name or are they just "the Territories"?) and she's dying, as is Jack's mother, because they're twinners. Apparently a twinner's death affects the other, but not always by both of them actually dying. It's very complicated and not really explored at all. A lot of stuff isn't really explored or explained. I sound like I'm ragging on it, but honestly, I think if King and Straub had tried to explain it, it would have been immensely unsatisfying and would have made everything lamer.
And now I want to pause for a moment and share a story with you from the first time I read this. As I have probably mentioned, I'm a divorcee, and the last time I read this I was still with my first wife. I have eczema patches here and there and one of her pet peeves was when I would get itchy in my sleep. For some reason the sound of me scratching at my eczema drove her nuts, and she would tell me to go downstairs until I was finished being itchy. While I was in the middle of reading this, one night I was half-asleep and dreaming that as I scratched my chest, a bridge was being built in the Territories. So I'm not kidding, this conversation happened between my former wife and half-asleep me:
Wife: Quit scratching.
Me: I have to. I'm building a bridge.
Wife: What? Whatever, if you're gonna scratch, go downstairs.
Me: I can't. If I go down there the bridge won't get built.
I didn't know about the conversation until the next morning when my then-wife asked "how's that bridge coming?" and I wondered how she knew about my dream.
Anyway, that's a lot of background for what's really a simple plot. Jack needs to save his mother's life, and in so doing also save the life of Queen Laura DeLoessian, and meanwhile he's being tracked by Morgan Sloat who has dark and sinister plans for the Territories, and wants Jack out of the way before he ruins them.
Sloat's goals are actually kinda nebulous. We don't spend a lot of time getting into his head. It seems like he mainly wants to plunder the Territories for their resources but also wants to rule them. It's semi-explored that becoming the Territories' absolute ruler is more Orris's goal, while plundering for resources is Sloat's. So he's basically every despotic villain you've already seen, not all that interesting, but that's where a dynamic actor could probably help. It's a bit odd just how far Sloat is willing to go to accomplish his goals, at one point even suggesting the death of his son would be an acceptable loss. Did I mention Sloat's just a talent agent? Yeah, he and Jack's dad ran a talent agency that represented his mother. Sloat was more the business end of things, while Phil, Jack's dad, handled the clientele, but Sloat wants to branch into other business ventures and considers nothing too far to go in pursuit of money and power. So, essentially, he's Donald Trump.
I sound like I'm damning this book with faint praise, but I actually do like it. I don't love it like I remember loving it the first time out, but this is an important chapter in the unfolding saga that is the SKCU, so this really needs to be filmed. Not to mention, it later has a sequel, Black House, which is both an awesome book (again, that's my recollection, and I hope I'm right) and very, very tied in with the Dark Tower mythos, so we need a film of this one.
I wasn't sure what format to film this in. Filming it as two movies, a la Kill Bill, would give it more than enough time to tell the whole story, but as I was reading I realized how episodic this book is. Jack literally goes from one bad situation to another, and they don't always build on each other. It kinda feels like I'm watching TV.
I decided to cast this as if it could go either way; a mini-series or two films. The actors I chose have done extensive work in both formats (well, most of them) and would work no matter which way it was done.
I also decided that our main character, Jack, should be aged up to teenage years. I started off thinking he seemed far too mature to be twelve, and as I read I kept thinking that. He's described as twelve but in no way, shape or form written as twelve. Same with his friend Richard, who becomes a major character in the book's second half.
Jack is described as a handsome young lad with hair that's a bit too long, tall for his age, and the more he travels back and forth between this world and the Territories, the more the Territories seem to rub off on him and cause people to be unusually drawn to him. In this case, the actor I pictured might or might not be the absolute perfect choice, but he's a good young actor who matches his physical description and has some residual popularity. I went with Chandler Riggs of The Walking Dead fame.
Thinner is next on the reading list, but I'm not sure if I'll be doing a post for it. There's a film already, and I understand it's terrible, but I've heard from some who've read it that the novel itself isn't really any better. At least the title is accurate as far as the book's length, so it won't take me long (I hope) to get through. After that is another novella that's been filmed already, Dolan's Cadillac. That one probably won't get a post due to how recent the (apparently very, very bad) film version was released. The novel after that, though? Oh, it's absolutely getting a post.