by Stephen King & Peter Straub
Review by Abby Goldsmith, 2002
Be forewarned: This is not The Talisman Book 2. The only connections to the first book are Jack Sawyer (now an adult) and the Territories. There's nothing cute and there's no adventuresome quest. Black House could easily be placed on the horror shelf due to its copious amounts of graphic gore, violence, and general creepiness. If it can be compared to anything, I would compare it to Stephen King's latest horror novels. Black House was a collaboration, but it seems to me that Peter Straub's sole influence was manifested in the love story subplot (we all know Stephen King doesn't do "love at first sight").
So you'll find Black House a worthwhile read if:
If the above does not describe you, then you'd be in for some disappointment.
Jack Sawyer seems promising in the beginning of the book as an atypical hero, with a wealthy background and a serious case of denial and loneliness, but he overcomes his human flaws very quickly and glides through the story from middle to end as easily as Bruce Wayne, impeded only by the stupidity of other characters. Okay, he doesn't have a Batmobile or a cape, but that's all he would have needed to complete the superhero persona.
What set this book slightly apart from others was the narrative voice. The entire story is told in the present tense (which seems like it would get tedious, but actually works here), from the POV of an omniscient narrator with an intimate voice. This anonymous narrator can't resist making little jokes at the expense of the characters, even the protagonists. It greatly spices up what would otherwise be a sort of dull book. The humor is surprisingly witty. I found myself laughing out loud at some of the comments. Reading Black House is like watching a B-movie with a comedian who is giving you a running commentary. The authors all but tell you that this is their intent during the course of the story. Too bad I would have preferred a good movie.
Another little flash of brilliance is the many references to classic literature (Poe and Dickens) that plug into this story with multiple wires. There is some definite homage going on.
There are also enough Dark Tower tidbits to completely clarify what the Beams are, what Breakers are, what the Crimson King is about, how Ted Brautigan from Hearts in Atlantis fits in, and how gunslingers fit in. Brautigan and Roland are mentioned by name. Some critics believe that Stephen King is shamelessly trying to advertise his other works. I doubt this is the case--why on Earth would he need to?--instead, I think that King was concentrating most of his energy on completing his Dark Tower project, and he just loves to weave things together and have favored characters reappear for encore performances. Randall Flagg has appeared in more than one unrelated novel. How many times was the town of Castle Rock mentioned in unrelated stories? King is just having fun!
Back to the review at hand. Black House has its moments, but it also has some extreme corniness, a bit too much adolescent humor (a la Dreamcatcher), enough gore to seem gratuitous, and a plot that meanders like an LSD trip. The characters seem to fall into three categories: 1) amazingly heroic and flawless, 2) good but thoroughly incompetent, and 3) evil and maliciously stupid. They're all rehashed King characters: The single-minded psychotic who creates mayhem until he is faced with something his little brain can't handle. The special little boy who faces the Bad Guy and loses his childhood innocence while (of course) proving to be a hero. The Joe Nobody protagonist who is trying to save the day but has trouble convincing people that he is sane and telling the truth. And the Bad Guy who is actually possessed by a greater evil, but operates under the impression that he is as important as his master. Not much new here in the way of characters.
I am very sad to say that I think Stephen King made a wise decision when he decided to retire. He has written some true masterpieces, and has greatly influenced American (and possibly global) culture, and has given his readers countless hours of entertainment. He has not lost his style, but his muse, I think. For whatever reason, it seems that fresh inspiration has left him (with the possible exception of the remaining Dark Tower books). This is very unfortunate--but King has certainly given enough, and I cannot think of a writer who is more deserving of a long and happy retirement!