Fantastic Voyages 2 : All Manner of Things Shall Be Well

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Father Hank Hank: They’ve made movies out of everything Stephen King has ever put his name to, including his checkbook. (That would be the 1987 classic, “Check Mates,” co-directed by George A. Romero and John Carpenter. “Check” it out!) So it’s odd that there has never been an epic attempt to moviefy 1984’s “The Talisman” or 2001’s “Black House,” King’s fantasy duology about a world just one slip away from ours. The two books were co-written with Peter Straub ( a legend on his own, the frequent Bram Stoker and World Fantasy Award winner/ nominee behind “Ghost Story,” “Shadowland,” “Koko,” etc). Now, if a King / Straub “collaboration” sounds like a marketing gimmick, I will say that “The Talisman” is mostly seamless- and it’s fun to speculate which parts were written by King, and which by Straub.

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“The Talisman” follows 12-year old Jack Sawyer, who’s staying with his mother at Arcadia Beach, New Hampshire, in an Overlook-like hotel called the Alhambra. (King loves the ghostly possibilities inherent in a good hotel, pregnant with the psychic imprints of its guests.) Jack’s mother, Lily Cavanaugh Sawyer, is a fading B-movie actress whose lung cancer is quickly progressing. Lily and Jack have landed in the resort while running away from the greedy machinations of “Uncle” Morgan Sloat, (the manipulative ex-business partner of Lily’s late-husband/ Jack’s mourned-for father.) While wandering along the beach, Jack stumbles into an arcade where he meets kindly blues musician Speedy Parker, who (and this is some questionable behavior) hands Jack a bottle of some foul grapey concoction. Faster than you can say “Narnia” or “Oz” (and those are both short words), Jack is transplanted to the Territories, where Queen Laura DeLoessian is dying of a mysterious illness. Naturally, the Queen looks an awful lot like Jack’s mother, and so the boy must set out on a quest to  look for THE TALISMAN, a mystical item which might save Laura / Lily… not to mention the rest of the world.

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Grandpa Felicius Grandpa Felicius: “Why, this isn’t Walter Scott’s ‘The Talisman’! What swindlery is this?” That was my understandable initial outburst, but then I warmed up to this. And if you’ve had just about enough of dungeons and dragons and games and thrones, you may like to know that, although this IS a fantasy novel full of creatures both wondrous and terrifying, Jack’s quest keeps him largely hitchhiking through the dusty, magical highways of our recognizable America. The monsters here are greedy businessmen, abusive bartenders, gropey Good Samaritans, crazed zealots, and crooked basketball coaches. The novel DOES feature werewolves, including the lovable Wolf, (who wears overalls and John Lennon glasses, and bites people’s heads off when the moon hits his eye like a big pizza pie.)

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Trent Trent: That kid Jack Sawyer is alright, and the book has tons of kick-ass scenes that are half-Western, half “The Hobbit,” half an “American Werewolf in America,” and another half whatever was going through King’s coked-up mind at the time. “The Talisman” also has a trainload of good morality lessons, like the way Jack is a real pal to his nerd friend Richie. You gotta help your buddies even when they’re gross and radioactive, and rashy with exploding blisters, and maybe there’s swollen white maggots falling out of their noses. Friendship! Also, Wolf the Werewolf may be Stephen King’s most bad-ass mascot. Now I want to train a werewolf for “El Gringo” Dingo Skarr’s circus!

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Tracey Tracey: “Jack Sawyer.” Right. Was “Chuck Finn” taken? I’m not saying there aren’t fine moments in “The Talisman,” (the scary interlude with the sadistic, fraudulent evangelist! Wolf’s murderous rampage! The worlds-shattering final confrontation!) But Speedy Parker is another infuriating addition to King’s gallery of “Oh Lawdy, Bossman, I is a Magical Negro Who Don’t Nobody Taught Me No Grammar!” (I know King means well- and he’s only unintentionally appalling- and pretty much everything made before 2001 is racist- but Lawdy!) Also, in a novel so replete with male characters, both heroic and villainous, there’s exactly ONE female character of note, Lily, (or two, if you count her  “Twinner,” Laura.) And SHE spends all 800 pages or so doing not a thing except languish in bed, LITERALLY a damsel in distress! This is supposed to be a grown-ass, worldly movie star… and yet there she lies, waiting for a prepubescent boy to make things right for her?

Beatricia Beatricia: That bitch! How dare she get cancer, when she could have been using that time to do something “empowered”! So selfish of her! Anyway. Stephen King and Peter Straub’s “The Talisman” is an underrated, rousing tale of filial duty. Jack Sawyer should be an example to children who refuse to go on trans-continental magical quests to help their suffering mothers. Trent may play “Call of Duty,” but he doesn’t even obey my call to dinner!

Trent Trent: I’m busy saving the world from WWII zombies, Ma! Nutrition is for Nazis!

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Cousin Franz Cousin Franz: A collaboration between Straub and King should have amounted to double the fantasy and triple the fear, but there’s something uneasy about this story’s balance of those elements. “The Talisman” makes a feint at being Twain-meets-Tolkien, but ultimately keeps pulling back from “The Territories” to explore the overly familiar, small-town, John-Mellencamp America where King feels at home. It’s as if 80% of “The Chronicles of Narnia” had transpired in Oxford. Thick as the book is, it winds up as a “pallid” draft of themes and ideas that would be expanded and developed in the Dark Tower series. (Speaking of “pallid,” that awkward adjective appears every few pages on the novel; I counted dozens of clunky instances, and I’m not sure if it was Straub or King who stumbled upon it on a “word-a-day” calendar.) As for the hero, Jack, who is basically Danny Torrance from “The Shining,”— he is wholly unconvincing as a 12 year old, no matter what harsh experiences may have expedited his growth. For instance, watching a sadistic, whip-wielding, leathered-up villain prance about, Jack decides that he doesn’t “sense true homosexuality emanating from the man.” That’s a damn bizarre “sensation” for any adult to have, let alone a little boy! Elsewhere, our little innocent child sees an object that looks like a vagina, (pre-Internet days, mind you!) Straub must have caught King’s gaffe and tried to “fix it,” because the next line is pretty much, “Except of course Jack had never seen a vagina, or even knew what a vagina looked like, and our previous sentence was out-of-character bollocks, so disregard it!”) In addition, all the intense action scenes in the book go from heroic and violent to downright comical if we had truly pictured Jack as an Uzi-wielding 12-year old mowing down armies of Wolfs and tangling with middle-aged men. This shouldn’t discourage readers; every time you hear it said that Jack is 12, mentally adjust the number to 17, and “The Talisman” might make some sense.

Blurbarella Blurbarella: “The Talisman”– Marketing Gimmick– What Swindlery is This?–  Coked-up– 800 pages or so doing– Transcontinental Magical Quests– Saving the World from– John Mellencamp.”

4 out of 6 Cherries

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