Epeolatry Book Review: The Talisman by Stephen King & Peter Straub

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Title: The Talisman
Author: Stephen King and Peter Straub
Genre: Fantasy
Publisher: Various – this cover, Ballantine Books, 
Release Date: 1984

Synopsis: The iconic, “extraordinary” (The Washington Post) collaboration between bestselling authors Stephen King and Peter Straub—an epic thriller about a young boy’s quest to save his mother’s life.

Jack Sawyer, twelve years old, is about to begin a most fantastic journey, an exalting, terrifying quest for the mystical Talisman—the only thing that can save Jack’s dying mother. But to reach his goal, Jack must make his way not only across the breadth of the United States but also through the wondrous and menacing parallel world of the Territories.

In the Territories, Jack finds another realm, where the air is so sweet and clear a man can smell a radish being pulled from the ground a mile away—and a life can be snuffed out instantly in the continuing struggle between good and evil. Here Jack discovers “Twinners,” reflections of the people he knows on earth—most notably Queen Laura, the Twinner of Jack’s own imperiled mother. As Jack “flips” between worlds, making his way westward toward the redemptive Talisman, a sequence of heart-stopping encounters challenges him at every step.

An unforgettable epic of adventure and resounding triumph, The Talisman is one of the most influential and highly praised works of fantasy ever written.

Stephen King is quite simply a publishing phenomenon. I’ve never known him to disappoint, and his sheer versatility lies at the heart of his ability to satisfy readers nearly half a century after publishing his first novel. Peter Straub is one of the twentieth century’s best-loved horror writers. Unsurprisingly, given that mutual success and longevity, these two urbane men are very good friends. 

Fear is grounded in the unknown, which can be at its most powerful when it involves having everything you’ve known snatched away, leaving you to step into a bleak landscape: the world you’ve always taken for granted is now entirely different and altered. In this most emotionally engaging horror tale, the crushing change that engenders terror in the principal characters is that 12-year-old Jack’s mother is dying of cancer. His father has already gone, and he’s left to fend for himself in a deserted coastal town. 

Jack then begins his quest to find The Talisman so that it can cure his mother, doing so in the company of a complete stranger. They journey across The Territories, so the novel (while clearly horror) is also easily capable of being classed as a work of dark fantasy. Like much of King’s recent fiction, it straddles a number of genres to produce something new and distinctive. 

I’m a fan of both King and Straub even though their writing styles are quite different. The technical genius of this book lies in its melding of two distinct authorial voices into one seamless unity. Writers are quite an individualistic bunch on the whole, so it is rare for a collaboration to achieve such a perfect blend. 

The Talisman is a very distinctive book by reason of its sincerity. Both authors gave of themselves and their lives in a way that is simply unforgettable. The pain of doing so, its cathartic nature and the emotional openness of the writing made reading the novel a powerfully moving experience. The fact that two authors were working together impressed me even more than if a single writer had achieved it, and it speaks of the strong trust they placed in each other. 

I found the story touchingly life affirming. Its strength lay in its honesty. By the end, I’d glimpsed a little more of the inner lives of two of my favourite writers and come to appreciate them both even more. 

Available from Bookshop.org and  Amazon.

John C Adams

They are a non-binary writer and reviewer of fantasy and horror fiction. They are a Contributing Editor with Albedo One Magazine and a reviewer with the British Fantasy Society and Schlock! Webzine. Their fantasy novel 'Dagmar of the Northlands' is out now on Kindle and Smashwords. They have had short fiction published in many anthologies from small presses and in a number of magazines, including The Horror Zine. They also hold a Postgraduate Certificate in Creative Writing from Newcastle University.

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