Sunday, September 16, 2001

Review: "Black House" by Stephen King and Peter Straub

It's been 17 years since the first time Stephen King and Peter Straub teamed up to write "The Talisman," one of my favorite books by either author. Now the dynamic duo of horror is back for a follow-up, "Black House" (Random House).

It's been a long time since Jack Sawyer last visited the Territories, and he's convinced himself that the fantastic place he explored as a 12-year-old is just a figment of an overactive imagination. He's since gone on to become a successful LAPD detective, and thanks to an inheritance from his mother, retire at the age of 35.

When he visited the rural Wisconsin town of French Landing on a case, Jack fell in love with the charm of smalltown life and decided to make it his new home.

For a while, Jack lives a dream life in the Wisconsin countryside. But it turns into a nightmare with the arrival of a serial killer dubbed the Fisherman by a sensationalistic writer at the local newspaper.

As the killer takes another child, the townspeople are turning on police chief Dale Gilbertson and his police force. Gilbertson tries to press Jack back into police work, but the real call to action comes from the Fisherman himself, who sends the admired detective a grisly calling card.

Dangling the latest abducted child Tyler Marshall as bait, the killer draws Jack into a game of cat-and-mouse that forces him to face the reality of the Territories and enter them again.

Though I loved "The Talisman," with its blending and blurring of the fantasy and horror genres, "Black House" began to alienate me from the very beginning. It starts by addressing the reader directly and telling the story in the present tense - two things that I find very annoying. Then the book meanders for the first 50 pages, introducing the scene and the cast of characters, but not really getting to the story.

After a half-hour of reading, I was determined not to like this book. Then, something strange happened. Beginning with the introduction of Fred Marshall, the book slipped into a rhythm. Soon, I was absorbed in the story, finding myself lost in the world of French Landing and the Territories.

Part of the reason is King's hallmark treatment of small town life. The bumbling Barney Fife-type police officer who truly wants to be a good cop, the small-time journalist who wants to make a name for himself and doesn't intend to let the facts get in the way, the town grapevine that twists and distorts information until its almost unrecognizable - all of these things, or others very like them, are familiar to small-town residents. The details add a flavor to the story that draws the reader's interest, while at the same time serving to ground the story in reality and make the supernatural elements all the more believable.

Thrown into that mix are some oddball characters - like blind radio announcer Henry Leyden who seems to have a deeper knowledge of things than he lets on, and the gang of college-educated bikers that also aren't quite what they appear. These characters present a bit of a mystery and pique the reader's interest, adding some spice to the tale.

Seventeen years of refining their art clearly shows as Straub and King flex their literary muscles a little more than in "The Talisman." In the end, some of the very things that I disliked about "Black House" at the beginning were the things that set it apart from their other work and make it one of the best books either author has produced in a while.

It's been a long wait, but for fans of King and Straub, it's worth it. "Black House" is the kind of book you can get lost in, only to look up at 5 a.m. and realize you only have a couple of hours to sleep - that is, if you can get to sleep after some of the scenes.

In the press material for the book, Straub says another collaboration with King is on the horizon, and he promises this one won't take another 17 years. Fans of the duo can only hope that's the case.

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