Book Review: Black House – Stephen King

The Talisman was the sort of book that a lot of people idolise, even if so much of it was a product of a darker, far less progressive time. Where that book had a lot of good material, much of it was mired in the unnecessary. Some seventeen years later, Peter Straub and Stephen King teamed up again to bring back Jack Sawyer, in adult form. Like its predecessor, Black House features children in peril, but none of them are the protagonist. This remove makes the novel easier to take because no unsuspecting preteen boys are being preyed upon by literally every car driving man in America, and the two have a stronger grasp of both audience expectation and precisely what they’re plotting.

The Wisconsin town of French Landing is facing a spate of child abductions and, ultimately, consumptions, at the hands of the mysterious “Fisherman”. Jack “Hollywood” Sawyer, retired from the LAPD at only 31, is drawn into the case through a combination of a guilt trip from his next door neighbour and the call of the Territories, the alternate version of the United States that he traveled in his youth and can no longer remember. It becomes increasingly clear to the reader, if not to Sawyer himself, that the case can not be solved by a terrestrially based policeman alone.

Fans of King will feel right at home with Black House: a relatively small town is terrorised by a malevolent presence that exists on the borders of reason. Straub’s influence shows in the location of the action being the Midwest, rather than the surrounds of New England, but neither author gets in the other’s way. Just like the horn that Daddy played, this is fusion writing.
The narrators make their presence known and address the reader with more familiarity than you would expect from a standard novel (that is, none). This works most of the time, but is also key to Black House’s difficult entry passages, almost a fifth of the book. The reader is given a literal flying tour of the town of French Landing, which serves almost as much to disorient as it does to give us a flavour of the place that we inhabit for 800 odd pages. Every time that we are taken out of a character driven scene and swoop across town, some momentum is lost. Eventually Straub and King calm down, but the damage may be done early for less patient audiences.

Despite its length, Black House never feels long. King and Straub work hard to build up a firm ensemble of likeable characters, chief among them blind DJ Henry Leyden, who is several characters in one. Henry is endowed with genuine charisma and only one shortcoming that could not be helped due to narrative necessity. Similarly, key members of the Thunder Five bike gang become significantly more dimensional and sympathetic than they are initially made out to be. Jack Sawyer, in his thirties, is not a traditionally reluctant protagonist and is stronger for that, but it does take him a while to find his stride; that, of course, is his problem, and not that of his scribblers.

Partway through, Black House becomes very obviously a part of The Dark Tower cycle, and something of a sequel to Insomnia and Hearts in Atlantis. It’s hard to know what Straub made of King incorporating logical elements of his solo opus into their collaborative efforts, but these moments, which are spread liberally throughout but are very heavily concentrated around the 70% mark, make the overall work pop while still being accessible for less than Constant Readers. One doesn’t even need to have strictly read The Talisman , but of course it helps.

Black House builds towards something that is inevitable in its brevity, but one never needs feel shortchanged by this. If parts of its further conclusion are unsatisfying, King and Straub are somewhat apologetic in the body of the text. Earlier elements that become blind alleys step to the side for something that is admittedly developed across the text but feels almost like an afterthought. What it ultimately amounts to comes across as logical rather than neat or sentimental, and the final pages aren’t lacking for punch.

With fewer concessions to the Great American Fantasy novel than The Talisman and a marked increase in eldritch horrors and a large number of externalised internal organs, Black House becomes vivid – even lurid – but never exploitative. As Straub and King grow increasingly confident over the course of their shared quest, their novel grows ever more accomplished, building towards something equal to and more than the sum of its parts – rather like the titular house is bigger on the inside than out.
Black House is a sequel, but also an evolution. Jack Sawyer could not have stayed twelve forever, nor should he have. King and Straub are our guides on a masterful journey on the trail of rather more than a few partially digested limbs.

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