There are some books that stay with you for a very long time. This is one of them. Set in the universe of the Dark Tower and the Territories, Stephen King brings to life the epic journey of a young boy to save his mother. From one side of the States to the other. Hitchhiking through dangerous situation, meeting all kinds people and battling his own uncle. It’s the story of Jack and his mother, Queen of the B movies, Lily Cavanaugh.
PS: The story of Jack is continued in The Black House * Stephen King And Peter Straub
The story begins with Jack and his mother going into hiding at a resort (reminded me of the Overlook Hotel from The Shining). They are running away from a very aggressive uncle Morgan, who is after Lily Cavanaugh’s fortune left to her after her husband died. Uncle Morgan and Jack’s father have both started a business in Real-Estate based on selling properties and taking advantage of the market to make a profit. From Jack’s flashbacks from his early childhood, we can tell that some of the deals were not quite legit and that Jack’s father was slowly manipulated by the more versatile Morgan. When he refused to budge on a matter, he conveniently died during a hunting accident. Left orphan, Jack now only has his mother to rely on and even she is dwindling away as a slow cancer eats at her bones and makes her weaker.
We are slowly introduced into a story of walking dreams and when Jack meets Speedy Parker (a kind maintenance man for the local pier), he finds out that his dreams were not only dreams but scenes from an alternate reality called “The Territories” – a world that was well known to his father and Uncle Morgan. Speedy also hints that there might be more Territories in the same manner that Roland hints “There are other worlds than these” in the Dark Tower epic.
Speedy gives Jack a foul-smelling liquid to drink when he wants to flip on the other side and teaches him the rules of jumping between worlds:
- You can take things with you but they will be converted to their Mid-World equivalent
- When you walk in the Territories, you walk double (or more) the distance in the States.
- There are magical items and creatures in the Territories like Werewolves and Vampires and talking animals.
- Jack is singular. Every creature has a twin in the Territories but Jack’s twin died during infancy in the Territories and survived in this world. So when he travels from one world to another, he is still himself and disappears from the place of origin.
- Jack’s mother is the Queen in the Mid-World, but she is very sick and dying (just like Lily)
After being told that there is a magical item at the other end of the continent that Jack needs to posses in order to save his mother, he takes a small backpack from home, tells his mother that he needs to go and save her and embarks in one of the most epic journeys I have read in a book.
“A universe of worlds, a dimensional macrocosm of worlds—and in all of them one thing that was always the same; one unifying force that was undeniably good, even if it now happened to be imprisoned in an evil place; the Talisman, axle of all possible worlds.”
The Journey takes him through both America and The Territories and during his adventure Jack gets to use his wits and receives help from unusual friends. He meets Wolf – a kind werewolf who helps him when Morgan first tries to kill him.
“Wolf! Right here and now!”
He flips with Wolf to America and we get to see the disgusting and smelly world that we live in through a Territories creature’s eyes.
The quotes from Mark Twain, that open and close the story, make me think that Jack Sawyer’s surname isn’t coincidental, although I reckon The Talisman is more Huckleberry Finn than Tom Sawyer.
Jack gets into all sorts of trouble – becomes a slave in a tavern full of drunks, gets imprisoned in a youth reformation camp that reminded me of “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kesey” by how the inmates jumped at the occasion to “confess” their or other’s sins and nearly gets killed again when one of the boys shoots him. Wolf saves him but dies in the process (spoiler, sorry).
He goes to Richard (his best friend from childhood) and who is Morgan’s son. Together they jump in the Territories but Richard’s mind is fragile and he nearly goes mad as he can’t cope with the switch. They train-jack Morgan’s train and run it through something like The Wastelands where crooked trees and radiation-poisoned creatures ran.
Jack reaches his destination with Richard more dead than alive and finds out he needs to go inside a dark house and retrieve the Talisman. Morgan focused all his forces there to stop him and destroy the Talisman but with Speedy’s help, Jack and Richard manage to get in.
It’s a great story and a magical journey through which Jack grows. Yes, he saves his mother in the end but it’s not the goal but the path taken that makes all the difference.
The Talisman is fraught with emotion – Jack is a very emotional child, who felt very real to me, and his quest to save his mother is so damn brave and admirable. It’s really something special to watch his growth and development as he travels across America. The collaboration between King and Straub felt pretty seamless – I honestly just felt like I was reading a King book, I’ve yet to read any Straub so can’t really comment if it felt like Straub’s writing, but King was definitely stamped all over this one.
The novel requires a flexible mind, and is based on the assumption that other worlds exist just below the surface of the one we all live in. Normally this kind of thing would only appeal to me in a purely Science Fiction setting, what with “parallel worlds” and all that. However, the authors manage to keep things tight, and steer clear of over-indulgence. It’s a story about the fantastical, but it’s also a chilling tale of fear and the macabre. This is not Narnia.
He went down the stairs on all fours, silent as oiled smoke, eyes as red as brake lights.
Don’t you sometimes think there’s more to life than order?
Don’t you want just a little magic?