The last Stephen King book I read was the one about the car, Christine, and it scared sixteen-year-old me enough that I haven’t picked him up since, with the exception of the collection of short stories that has The Body and Shawshank Redemption in it. What can I say? I’m a weenie when it comes to scary things, and since quite a lot of my reading is done at night, after the house is quiet, I don’t need the book I’m reading to add to my already vivid imagination about what’s outside my windows. The trees scraping against the awnings do quite a nice job of that all on their own. So when The Talisman arrived in my Kindle inbox, I accepted it with more than a smidge of trepidation. But I was assured that it was “not scary”, and so I embarked on the fantastical journey of twelve year old Jack Sawyer, a young boy intent on crossing the United States in search of a mythical talisman in the hopes of curing his mother of the mysterious illness that is eating her alive.
Jack’s mother, the once beautiful Lily Cavanaugh, former B-movie actress, mysteriously moves Jack and herself to the Alhambra Hotel on the coast of the Atlantic Ocean. In season, the hotel is a resort destination, but when Jack and Lily arrive, it’s past Labor Day, and everything is shuttered, the shops closed, the ocean grey and angry. Bored, Jack meets Speedy Parker, the old man who takes care of the local amusement park. Speedy, it seems, knows Jack, appears to have been waiting for him, actually, and through Speedy, Jack learns that he must strike out west to find the cure – the Talisman – that will save his mom.
What follows is an epic adventure of a young boy hitch hiking across the United States, flipping in to an alternate universe every so often. This other world, the Territories, is an amalgamation of a medieval world and a horrific one, where queens lay dying, werewolves protect the herd, and the Blasted Lands have been laid waste by the action of humans in this world. Jack flips back and forth from our world to the Territories, moving ever westward, surviving on his wits and a handful of well placed strangers and friends. It’s two of those friends – Richard and Wolf – who made the story come alive for me. Wolf, a boy-werewolf from the Territories, tasked with keeping the herd safe, a gentle giant whose unflinching devotion to Jack leads him in to this world with its confusing smells and loud noises, ultimately sacrificing his life for Jack. And Jack’s childhood friend Richard, picked up at boarding school in the midwest halfway through the journey, steadfastly refusing to believe that this whole thing isn’t a dream, might just be my favorite character in the story. Richard, with his brave, trembling lip, with his insistence that he is just feverish and hallucinating the bugs crawling from the walls, with his unspoiled heart full of love and loyalty for Jack, so much so that he willingly gets on a train and rides through the desert night armed only with an AK-47 and Jack’s determination that they must continue west.
There’s a reason Stephen King has sold eleventy billion books, and it’s not just because people like scary stories. The man can write. One of his greatest strengths is that he can create whole worlds with boy-werewolves, religious fanatics, empty suits of armor, enormous sea creatures, barren deserts, time travel, and alternate universe travel, and at no time do you ever question him. You wholeheartedly believe everything he tells you. King sweeps the reader along in his story, and it all makes sense. He paints the story with such vivid detail that more than once, I dreamt of the Territories and the mutilated humans and animals of the Blasted Lands, of Richard’s boarding school and Jack and Wolf’s time at the hellish Home for Wayward Boys in Indiana, and of Jack’s mother, waiting for death in the grey and abandoned squalor of the Alhambra Hotel. I could see the empty amusement park, its carousel quiet for the winter, I could feel the cold of the unheated hotel rooms, and I could smell the clean scent of the ocean as Jack and Richard made their way west.
If you haven’t visited with Mr. King in a while, pick something up. He’s long, but he’s worth it.