King's Highway pt. 32: The Talisman

Welcome back to the Dark Tower National Park and Wildlife Reserve. (For a free road map or to follow along at home, see here. ) Today we cover a Dark Tower "side-trail," his first collaboration with Peter Straub... 

Part one of a planned trilogy

"The Talisman is an epic fantasy involving alternate universes, beautiful queens, despicable villains, and a boy's quest to save his mother's life..." (as excerpted from here.)


"Jack's travels also take him into a parallel world known as The Territories, a medieval-type land vaguely analogous to the United States ("an agrarian monarchy," one character explains. "They have magic like we have physics."). Events in either land - such as births, deaths, or catastrophes - reverberate in the other. People, too, have equivalents, known as Twinners. Lily Sawyer's Twinner is Laura DeLoessean, the Queen of the Territories." Queen of the B-Pictures in our world... get it? "She is also dying, and her death would send The Territories into chaos. Jack's search for The Talisman, then, has larger repercussions than that beyond his personal quest to save his mother's life."


"Twelve-year-old Jack Sawyer stands at the center of The Talisman. His mother - former B-movie actress Lily Cavanaugh Sawyer - is dying of cancer. The two of them are in hiding in New Hampshire, at the Alhambra Inn and Gardens, "a great Victorian pile on gigantic granite blocks," on the run from Jack's father's business partner, Morgan Sloat."

"Journeying alone at the outset, Jack is soon aided by allies, most notably Wolf (a childlike werewolf from The Territories whose mission becomes saving Jack at any cost) and Richard, a childhood friend... Additionally, the mysterious Speedy Parker appears early on to provide the tools and knowledge Jack will need on his journey. "


For this cowpoke, the trail's difficulty was too disproportionate to its personal enjoyment. Many people love this novel, but I just couldn't get into it. More on that below. I gave it 200 pages and then read a summary of the rest. Speedy Parker struck me as a lazy cliche, and then he gives a "magic potion" to our main character... that was about it for me (although I stuck with it for much further than that). I don't know why, exactly, that rubbed me the wrong way, but it really did. (I had the same problem with The World of Tiers. I just disliked the opening/ dimensional bridgeway so much I couldn't access anything else. I'm very picky when it comes to how people get to and fro other dimensions in fantasy. One man's back-of-the-wardrobe is another's magic potion, I guess.)

(It's actually kind of funny. I never had a problem with how the JLA used to hook up with the JSA, regardless of how it was done, but something like a magic potion or Tiers strikes me as "totally wrong." Go figure.)

So, I didn't read this one.

It's okay, though. I like having certain blank spots on the map to fill in later. I wouldn't want to live in a world where I've drained every last bit of text from an author whose work I enjoy as much as King's. (For the same reason, I refuse to read The Old Man and the Sea by Hemingway, or Tender is the Night by Fitzgerald until my 60th birthday. You've got to save some things for rainy days in old age. Or the after-life. Where, hopefully, they'll have books.)

The idea of "reviewing" a book one hasn't read is ludicrous, of course. (A side note: a few folks have told me how much they hate King's writing in response to my telling them of my work here on the King's Highway... right before telling me they haven't read any Stephen King. How is it possible to respect someone's opinion of an author he/she's never read? It boggles the mind/ buggers comprehension. Yet, people expect me to. It doesn't work like that, folks.) So, this particular blog should not be seen as a review, more as an admission of failure to get into it. Was it the characters? The "third" writer's voice created by the synthesis of King and Straub? Or was it merely that I was reading the Dark Tower books at the same time, and this was one mystical-quest-through-unknown-lands-too-far for me?

Whatever the reason, I'll see you in later years, Talisman. I intend to read Black House, though, when I get to it a few blogs down the road.


I had a few of these magazines, I think, back in the day. Wish I still did.

 Let's see what George "Path of the" Beahm has to say in The Stephen King Companion...

"After discounting the Stephen King sycophants - everything King writes is just simply wonderful, doncha think? - and the natural animosity of mainstream critics, you're left with the only ones who matter: those who bought the book and what they think.

These people are divided into two camps: those who read the story and loved it, and those who, for whatever reasons, couldn't get into it.

Try as I did on several occasions, I just couldn't get into the story. Having read (and reread) virtually all the King novels and a number of Straub's novels, I find that The Talisman remains an oddity on my King bookshelf: the unread book. (I might add that I felt the same way, initially, about Tolkien's trilogy, The Lord of the Rings. On the third try, I got into the story and it swept me away. When I finished, I was sorry that the story had ended.)

I'll try again, of course, but what's interesting to me is that I'm not alone. I've talked to other people who read widely and deeply in and out of this field, people who have read all of King and all of Straub, and they either loved The Talisman or couldn't get into the story.

It happens. So read the book and tell me what you think."

I wrote George and asked him if he'd ever finished this. No response at press-time. That happens a lot. :-)

In William Goldstein's round-table with the authors from Publisher's Weekly, it is revealed they were working from a much longer outline, then just scrapped the second half. That's very telling. In other words, what stands as the published version of The Talisman is where the story was more or less abandoned mid-route. Unfair? Perhaps. Like I said, this story has plenty of admirers, so I'll just assume it works the way it is and the fault is mine and move on.

As for our purposes here, i.e. how it relates to Roland and his ka-tet:

"Following the young adult fairy tale The Eyes of the Dragon, King would continue to explore and expand the mythos of the Dark Tower. As Dragon - as well as books as diverse as The Stand, Insomnia, and The Regulators - was folded into the larger landscape of the Dark Tower, so too were the Territories. Following a suggestion by Peter Straub, Black House would be set firmly in the Dark Tower universe, retroactively putting The Talisman into that continuity. The Black Hotel Jack must conquer in the novel's climax can now be interpreted as the structural analogue to the Dark Tower itself, much as the properties of it and the Talisman - "the nexus of all possible worlds" - seem to be."

Also: isn't the Talisman one of Maerlyn's Globes? I'm asking you, internet - I googled it and got this result, but, as I haven't read the last three Dark Towers just yet, didn't want to chance any huge spoilers.

(Interestingly, as well, during Kevin’s nightmare in "The Sun Dog," reviewed here, he dreams he is a bum in Oatley, the same town where Jack Sawyer works while traveling across America, here.)

The Dark Tower III: The Waste Lands


  1. I've tried reading King, as we've discussed, but I just can't reach that point where a writer's style "clicks" for me. Sometimes it takes me a while, and it's like learning another language to get used to the way a writer chooses his words and builds his phrases. Then, suddenly, like tuning an old AM radio, there is a tearing screech of static and then the right frequency is hit, with smooth, mellow tones from then on. I just haven't been able to hit that point with King.

    I approach a book of his, and it looms before me like an obsidian wall, with me searching for finger and toe-holds. I haven't tried in a good while, mostly because his books are usually not the kinds of books I'm looking to read.

    It's interesting you bring up your dislike of magic potions or magical portals as ways to travel between worlds, because I can relate. Not on the specifics, but more in the way that certain things can really turn me off a book, and even I can't quite explain why. Take the Dark Tower books. "Ah," I thought, "King is doing epic fantasy! Maybe these will be the gateway drug for me when it comes to King." But then...six shooters. Nope, not for me.

    With your description of The Talisman, what stood out to me was the real-world people heading into a fantasy world. That is one of my longest-standing turn-offs, in books and movies. There are exceptions that work for me; Roger Zelazny's "Amber" series, for example, but the characters move through so many realities that none of them last long enough to aggravate me. Beyond that, anything like that trope grates on me, from A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court on down. I know we've discussed genre-crossing in other contexts (RPGs), but it usually doesn't work for me when it comes to books like this.

    I can understand giving up on a book after 200 pages. That's more than a fair chance. I grew up reading fantasy and science fiction before the convention of 500+ pages books became the norm, so 200 pages often constituted most or all of a story, including epic ones like Ringworld. If a book doesn't have its shit together by page 200, that's the writer's fault, not the reader's.

    1. I agree with feeling fine bailing after page 200. (Hell, after page 100, usually, sometimes even less than that.) The Talisman seems to polarize its audience. Very few people seem indifferent to it. Its readers seem unable to get into it (at least on first read) or really enjoy it.

      I wouldn't classify Roland's gun as a "six shooter," though; if he only had a measly six shooter, I might not be into it, either, but he can achieve a much greater and grislier body count with his sandalwood-handled-hand-cannons. Not to quibble on semantics, just saying!

  2. Well, Brian, unlike you I actually HAVE read this novel. Probably five or six times, over the years. And I don't like the damn thing, either. I reread it a couple of years ago, and I genuinely struggled to get through it.

    "Black House" is better, but I'll give you fair warning: I hope you like descriptive writing, because boy, you will get a LOT of it.

    1. Who is this 'Brian...'

      Bryan, not-just-the-President of the Bryan-with-a-Y Club but-also-a-member.

      just kidding, of course. (I ain't the President!) That's funny that you've read it so many times. I'm kind of looking forward to Black House, even though this one didn't quite do it for me.

    2. How did I get that wrong?!?

      Might have something to do with the fact that I work with a Brian, who is also my best friend of the past nearly twenty years. Or, also, that I'm kinda dumb. ;)

      I have a suggestion, by the way: if, when you decide to return to "The Talisman," you find yourself struggling with it again -- which you probably will -- opt for the audiobook. It's read by Frank Muller, who was a dadgum genius at what he did. It'll help, believe me.

    3. I deserve it, actually - I hardly ever tweet/ blog/ email under my actual name. I probably should streamline my online presence all under one name one of these days.

      Will do on the audiobook, that's an excellent suggestion. Frank Muller was the man. I can't recall which book(s) I heard him read, but I remember making a note of his name when I did. (And have come across it several times in King-related stuff) I had a job a few years back where my commute was an hour each way, and I listened to so many audiobooks those 2 years...

  3. Hey, just passing through (several years after the fact). I'm really enjoying your SK insights - you and Bryant have a pretty solid tag team analysis going between your two blogs.

    I had to comment on your Talisman entry as it definitely rings true. I recently finished reading it after years of thinking I should - one of those ones I wasn't overly familiar with but heard good things about. I had similar struggles with the beginning section - I had to take a break from it barely 30 pages in because it wasn't at all compelling, then when I got back to it I must have read that part over twice more to understand where it was going.

    That said, once Jack started on his journey I thought it picked up, and from the Oatley ordeal on I was on board. I do think the flow of the story suffers a bit from the competing writing styles, with the result that I really enjoyed certain parts (Oatley, most of his time with Wolf, the escape from Sunlight Gardener), but then slogged through other parts (the bad acid trip at Thayer, portions of the end game). The ending was somewhat abrupt and unsatisfying, which makes sense given your comment about it ending prematurely compared to the original story outline.

    Overall, though, I would have to say that I land in between your two extremes - I certainly didn't love it, but I didn't hate it either. Parts of it were definitely enjoyable. I would say I'm glad I read it, but I see no need to keep the used copy that I picked up to do so - that is typically a good gauge of how much I like a book. I do think I will check out Black House at some point, although I may need to wait until after I (finally) give the DT series its deserved attention. But for now, it's onward with Duma Key, picked up thanks in no small part to strong recommendations from both you and Mr. Burnette. Thanks, and keep up the great win!

    1. That would be great writing, not win. I swear auto-correct gets dumber every day.

    2. Thankee, Sai! Definitely drop back in anytime and let me know what you thought of Duma Key. I revisited that one last year to see if it still held up and I'm happy to say (at least for me!) it does and gangbusters:


      Someone has to make that movie, damn it.

      I'm looking forward to The Talisman (and Black House). They and Lisey's Story are the only King I have left for rainy day never-read-it King reading.