by Stephen King and Peter Straub
review by Kevin Quigley
The cinema starts at once: we begin the novel Black House two hundred feet above Coulee County, floating high above the township of French Landing, soaring through its police station (where we glimpse two cops arguing and hear the raucous, ebullient voice of radio announcer George Rathbun for the first time), cruising through its darkened streets, and taking a short tour through Maxton Elder Care facility. All of this is done in one sweeping journey, one Steadicam shot, told in the conspirator’s second-person we. In a stinking back room at Maxton’s, we are asked to pause for a moment, to take in the sight of an extremely unpleasant fellow lying awake, a fellow who may or may not be faking an advanced case of Alzheimer’s disease. “A powerful smell of excrement contaminates the air,” we are told, and then, in almost a whisper: “…it is Charles Burnside, ‘Burny,’ who we have most come to see.”
Thus we begin the surreal trip into the pages of Black House. In the first hundred pages, we are introduced to the citizenship of French Landing – Dale Gilberton, the kind-hearted sheriff; the Thunder Five, college-educated, beer-brewing bikers; Fred, Judy, and Tyler Marshall, a small family on the verge of a tragedy; Wendell Green, a dangerously determined journalist; Henry Leyden, a blind man whose radio personalities include the effusive George Rathbun; and, of course, our old friend Jack Sawyer. The years have not been kind to Jack. When we finally meet up with him (a hundred or so pages in), we learn that he is a retired homicide detective, and that he quit the force in Los Angeles due to a traumatic event that nearly forced him to remember a past he is trying to forget. And just lately, he has been seeing bird’s feathers appearing out of nowhere, and finding tiny blue robin’s eggs everywhere he looks. Jack tries to dismiss these bouts of weirdness as “waking dreams,” but as they continue, it seems that they may be connected to something else happening in town, something a lot worse. A monster has come to French Landing, you see, a monster known as The Fisherman, a serial child-killer with a taste for flesh. His crimes neatly parallel those of a man named Albert Fish, who, in the 1930’s killed dozens of children … and ate them. In French Landing, three children are now dead, and a fourth – young Tyler Marshall – is captured by the Fisherman while we, the audience, must sit and watch.
But while the brutal child killer wants nothing more than to carve up young Tyler for dinner, something else – the Fisherman’s higher power, you might say – is preventing him from it. For Tyler is special. Tyler has a great wild talent that creatures corrupt and evil will stop at nothing to harness. It is here we learn that the thrust of Black House connects intimately with Stephen King’s sprawling epic, The Dark Tower, and that the events between these covers might impact the multi-volume work for years to come.
When we last saw Jack, he had returned from a cross-country and cross-dimension trip to locate a mystical Talisman that would save his mother’s life, an act that carried reverberations throughout worlds without number. The parallel world Jack traveled in to find The Talisman – a medieval-type land where magic is the norm and men can fly – was a place called The Territories. Through the years, Jack has put great distance between himself and The Territories, so much so that he now denies its existence. Now, because to the world-hopping terror that is The Fisherman, Jack must learn to reclaim that childhood fairyland – and everything that comes with it – if he is ever to save young Tyler’s life.
Black House is literally unclassifiable. It’s a direct sequel to The Talisman, a terrific epic of a book … but, at its essence, a standard quest novel. Black House edges more toward the horrific, showcasing both authors’ more gruesome sides (a particularly grisly scene happens quite early on; we are asked to study – not glimpse, study – the corpse of one of The Fisherman’s prey. It’s not an easy segment to read … or turn away from.) But right when you have it easily pegged as a horror novel, we are swept into the land of the police procedural (one memorable scene takes place outside where the aforementioned corpse is found.) And as soon as we get comfortable there, it’s time for a trip into The Territories, and the great fantastical wonders and terrors that land holds. The fact that it can’t be easily categorized helps it fit in well with King’s Dark Tower books, an ongoing series of novels located somewhere in the muddle of the western-fantasy-sci-fi-horror-romance genre. And fit in it must: the authors here have taken great pains to cement this novel in the ever-growing pantheon of books Stephen King is weaving into his epic work. In interviews, King has said that the Dark Tower connections were all Straub’s idea; if they were also all his execution, then he has done his homework. Black House ties together the Dark Tower series proper, Hearts in Atlantis, Desperation, and the novella “The Little Sisters of Eluria,” while at once remaining its own story as well as the sequel to one of each author’s most popular books.
What makes Black House work is its sense of individuality while working in steeped traditions. In addition to the Dark Tower stuff, the authors have given us allusions to Edgar Allen Poe (one of the chapter titles is “Night’s Plutonian Shore”) and Dickens (the title similarity to Bleak House is not incidental; in fact, one particularly scary section in the Black House parallels the foggy opening of the former), but we are made very aware that Black House is its own book early on. The opening chapters – which, to tell the truth, are sometimes excruciatingly slow – establish the novel’s main characters, thrusting us into the world of French Landing for nearly a hundred pages before we ever catch up with Jack Sawyer. This device forces us to slow down and see the townspeople as flesh-and-blood, not just supporting characters to a guy we knew a long time ago. It’s a shrewd move: instead of being shown who they are in relation to Jack, we see who Jack is in relation to them.
Also driving the book is the flat-out mystery at its core. Where has Tyler been taken? What does the Fisherman want with him, if he’s not going to kill him? What, exactly is Black House, and what supernatural forces surround it? And how the hell does this all interlock with The Dark Tower?
All these questions are answered, and King’s Constant Readers will pick up on things a little earlier than their casual-reader friends. This is not to say that “only the true fans will get it,” only that those with a greater knowledge of past works may enjoy this volume a little more.
There are only a few problems with Black House, and while they are minor, they do bear repeating. Like the opening of The Talisman, this book starts off seemingly directionless. In the former book, we are faced with about twenty pages of description and slow characterization before we can truly get into the story. While we recognize later that the opening was necessary and understand why it was necessary, it’s always a bit of a challenge to break on through. The same thing happens here, and it goes on a bit longer – about forty pages. It’s certainly necessary; we are being introduced to a large cast of characters and we need to see them in their natural habitats before seeing them thrust into the mystery … but it’s still slightly tedious. By the time we discover the legless body in an abandoned restaurant, we are ready for real action, and the novel doesn’t disappoint.
At times, the crow’s-eye view of events and the constant present-tense are distracting, but not overly so. It’s a testament to both King’s and Straub’s talent as authors that they are able to pull off both gimmicks so well. At Black House’s best, the pages simply fly, and at times it seems as if you are watching the action rather than reading it. The sudden – and shocking – twists near the end seem perfectly fair in the context of the book, even though one of them had me nearly throwing the hardcover against the wall in anger. When a book elicits that much emotion in you, you know you have a keeper.
One last thing: for many King readers, The Talisman and Black House are the only Straub they have read. This is a mistake. The Hellfire Club is one of the best novels I’ve ever read, and I urge everyone to do the same. For those interested in a precursor to The Sunlight Home in Talisman, go visit the boarding house in Shadowland. And if you want an introduction to what I think of as “the slow Straub style,” do yourself a favor and read Mr. X. Straub’s books may take a little more patience than the often fast-paced land of Stephen King, but I know from experience that the wait is worth it.