Sometimes when you encounter a truly great example of a certain artistic medium, you are immediately aware of its greatness, and it leaves a powerful impression that does not fade. I felt that way the first time I saw “Goodfellas,” the first time I listened to “Born to Run” by Bruce Springsteen and the first time I read “The Talisman” by Stephen King and Peter Straub.
When I am asked what my absolute favorite book is, my answer is this one, without a moment of hesitation. This is a masterpiece of dark fantasy that truly has everything: incredible writing, a story that moves at a breathless pace, unforgettable characters and a profound emotional impact. “The Talisman” features all of these elements and more.
The plot is fairly simple. Jack Sawyer is a 12-year-old boy living in a rundown beach town in New Hampshire. His father was killed under mysterious circumstances, his mother, a retired film actress, is close to dying and his evil uncle, Morgan Sloat, is trying to take Jack away from her. Jack meets a man named Speedy who works at the nearby amusement park who tells him a shocking story: there is a parallel universe called The Territories that is interconnected with our own, and certain people have doppelgangers in that world. Jack’s mother is the Queen in The Territories and she is also dying. Sloat’s double is trying to destroy that world and ours as well. So Speedy sends Jack on a quest to California to retrieve The Talisman, a powerful magical object that will defeat Sloat and save both dimensions. He gives Jack a magic potion that will allow him to navigate between the real world and The Territories.
What follows is an amazing quest filled with adventure, horror and an incredible group of allies and enemies. The book moves at a locomotive pace, and that is mostly due to the nature of King and Straub’s collaboration. One author would write Jack into a problem and the other would write him out of it. That is why so much happens in this book. Jack meets a friendly werewolf simply named Wolf, and their relationship has tragic consequences. Jack spends time imprisoned in a boy’s home, run by Sloat’s partner in crime, the Reverend Sunlight Gardener, who is Pat Robertson crossed with Adolf Hitler. Jack eventually meets up with his friend Richard, who happens to be Sloat’s son, and Jack is forced to become his protector through an unforgivable landscape.
This may sound like a typical young-adult fantasy, but it is not. “The Talisman” is extremely violent and terrifying, not a surprise given the writers involved. But one of the most fascinating things about this book is that is about the landscape of America itself. Jack does spend parts of his journey in The Territories, but is not a safe fantasy world. It is a fun-house distortion of America that does not always protect Jack from the evils of the real world. This story is still a fleshed-out portrait of everyday people living in small-town America, just on a wider canvas, a theme that has run through all of Stephen King’s best work. He and Straub combine their unique voices into one, creating a seamless narrative that works beautifully.
This book has enough happening within its nearly 700 pages of length to fill a series of novels, but none of the characters get lost in the shuffle. Jack evolves from a scared kid into a brave, determined young man who will do anything to save his family and friends. Sloat and Gardener are two of the most sadistic and twisted villains in modern fiction, posing as legitimate threats to Jack’s quest. I have read this book three times, and I will definitely read it again because of its ability to pull off all the elements needed to make an unforgettable book.
“The Talisman” is a must-read for fans of King and Straub, but also for anyone who just likes a good story. It is a surprisingly influential book, with works like “Harry Potter,” Neil Gaiman’s “American Gods” and Guillermo del Toro’s 2006 film “Pan’s Labyrinth” working in its shadow. It is available on the third floor of Penfield under the call number PS3661.I483. To anyone who says there are no good books to read these days, I say look no further.