The Horror Story Take on Huck Finn: A Review of The Talisman

It seems that one of the many arguments that Stephen King detractors will try to throw in my face is that he is not “literary” enough.  Yep, literary…whatever that means.

Stephen King

Does it mean that he can’t be taken seriously because he is a best selling author?  But that is pretty silly, since Charles Dickens was enormously popular, sold lots of books and has been the basis for many a thesis and research paper.

Does it mean that someone who writes “horror” cannot be considered a legitimate writer?  Again, pretty silly…Bram Stoker’s Dracula and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein are considered to be the foundations of modern horror and are again the basis for many a thesis and research papers.  In fact, I am sure entire college classes are taught on those two works.

MaryShelley2

No, I think the people who make the argument that King isn’t literary enough are too snobbish to actually read his work and come up with an intelligent opinion.  And I know they have not read the book that is the subject of this article:  The Talisman.  Not only is this book (written by both Stephen King and Peter Straub) a wonderful book, the themes in the book resonate with authors such as Mark Twain and Charles Dickens, and the book pays great homage to these writers.  Pretty “literary”, if I do say so myself.

talisman_largemark twain

Synopsis

The Talisman is centered around a 12 year old boy named Jack Sawyer.  Jack lives with his mother Lilly, an actress who was known as “The Queen of the B’s.”  Jack’s father Phillip died under suspicious circumstances some years prior.  We also learn that Lilly is dying of cancer.  Lilly has moved Jack from Los Angelos to the Alhambra Hotel in New Hampshire.  Lilly and Jack are also on the run from Morgan Sloat, his father’s business partner.  Morgan wants both Jack and Lilly out of the way, so that he can entirely control the business and keep all profits for himself.

It soon becomes apparent to Jack that his mother’s situation is dire and that she does not have much longer to live.  Jack meets an old man who works at at a fun park by the name of Speedy Parker.  Speedy confirms that the situation with Jack’s mother is indeed dire.  Speedy informs Jack that he is the only one who can save his mother.  Speedy also informs (or rather reminds) Jack of the existence of an alternate dimension that he calls “The Territories.”  It seems that Jack’s father Phillip was aware of the existence of this dimension, as Jack remembers Phillip mysteriously disappearing when Jack was a child.  Unfortunately, Morgan Sloat is also aware of the existence of The Territories, and plans to use The Territories and its inhabitants for his own evil plans.

Jack also learns of the existence of “Twinners.”  It seems that people in Jack’s world (most of them, anyway) have a counterpart in The Territories known as a Twinner.  A Twinner is similar in appearance and personality to their counterpart in the alternate world.  Twinners are born at about the same time, and also die at about the same time.  We learn that Morgan Sloat’s Territories counterpart is Morgan of Orris.  Morgan of Orris also has evil plans, as the Territories counterpart to Lilly Sawyer, Queen Laura DeLoessian, is also dying.  Morgan of Orris is planning to take over The Territories upon the death of Queen Laura.  It also turns out that Jack is a rare individual who does not have a Twinner, making him singular in nature.  Jack’s Twinner, Jason, died under mysterious circumstances as an infant.  At about the same time, Jack nearly suffocated to death, but was saved by intervention from his father.  Jack’s singular nature allows him to travel between his world and The Territories.

Speedy tells Jack that he must obtain a magical object known as “The Talisman” to save his mother and Queen Lilly.  Jack then begins the journey to obtain this object, as it will require him to travel across America.  And Jack does indeed travel.  He is  forced to work for some unscrupulous people to get the money he needs to survive, and to dodge Morgan Sloat, who is hot on his heels.  He is also forced to hitchhike part of the way.  Jack also must travel to The Territories when necessary, as distances there are shorter and allow him to cover more ground.

At one point in his journey, Jack comes across a Werewolf in The Territories.  Werewolves in The Territories (known simply as Wolfs) are the shepherds and their job is to “protect the herd.”  Usually, the herd is a flock of sheep or some other kind of animal.  However, Jack’s Werewolf, who simply calls himself Wolf, deems Jack his “herd” and becomes a sort of bodyguard and travels with Jack for part of his journey.  Jack and Wolf are captured into Indiana and are then forced into virtual slavery at a place called Sunlight Gardner’s Home for Wayward Boys.  The “home” is run by a preacher known as Sunlight Gardner.  He uses the home to appropriate state funding.  The conditions in the home are abusive and are somewhat reminiscent of places in a Charles Dickens novel.  Sunlight’s Territories counterpart is Osmond, and both work for Morgan and scheme to keep Jack and Wolf captive.  Jack is finally able to escape, but at the cost of Wolf’s life, as Wolf ultimately dies protecting his “herd.”

Jack then continues alone on his journey, but not for long.  He stops in Illinois and meets up with his best friend Richard Sloat, who is the son of Morgan Sloat.  Richard hides Jack in his boarding school, but Morgan of Orris uses his trickery to shift the school into another plane, which turns the inhabitants into monsters.  The boys are then forced to travel back to The Territories.  They then travel by train through The Territories to complete (mostly) the rest of the journey.  Along the way, they must fight various monsters.  Some of the monsters appear to be creatures that are mutated.  Some are Wolfs who have “gone bad.”  A few others may have been created by magic of some kind.  It is implied that all creatures, along with the train, have been created by Morgan Sloat’s meddling actions in The Territories.

Jack and Richard then reach their destination on the West Court.  They arrive at a hotel known as the Agincourt Hotel.  This hotel is abandoned, and houses The Talisman.  The Talisman is aware of Jack’s present and encourages him to move forward to save his mother and her Territories counterpart.  Jack and Richard then battle Morgan Sloat and Sunlight Gardener.  They win this battle, but Richard is left an orphan upon the death of his father.  The two boys are then escorted back to New Hampshire by another Werewolf who also calls himself Wolf.  He is the littermate of Jack’s deceased friend.  Jack is then able to harness the powers of The Talisman one last time, therefore saving the lives of both Lilly and Queen Laura.

My Thoughts

There are so many things to love about this book but I will try to summarize them.  I read this book many years ago and did not really appreciate it at the time.  However, I also had not read the Dark Tower series, so that may have been the reason why I failed to connect with this book the first time.

One of the favorite things about this book was the whole notion of The Territories.  Almost everyone has a counterpart in The Territories that may look like them to an extent and also act like them somewhat, but is actually a distinct person.  How cool is that?  I would love to meet mine, but we may have to apologize to each other (sorry about my choice in ex husbands, I’m sure his Twinner counterpart was a giant worm or something…I really apologize for you having to be married to a giant worm because of my bad taste).  I also liked how objects in our world transform into different objects in The Territories, but they are really pretty similar when you look closely.  Jack’s money from his world turned into sticks, for example (I think some primitive cultures actually did use sticks as currency).  His tennis shoes turned into a type of sandal.  The Sunlight Gardner Home for Wayward Boys was actually some kind of slavery operations, where the counterparts to the really mean boys in Jack’s world are gargoyles in The Territories.  It was fun to speculate what objects in our world would turn into.  What about my tablet?  Would its Territories counterpart be a a giant book bound in some kind of leather?  Or my cell phone…maybe that would be some kind of bullhorn that’s used as the main form of communication over there?  I could go on and on….fascinating stuff.

gargoyle

As mentioned before, The Talisman does pay homage to a lot of classics, such as The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Oliver Twist, etc.  And I loved that, despite the fact that I have not read any Twain or Dickens in a very long time.  Jack Sawyer did remind me a bit of Huckleberry Finn, as he is a child forced to make his own way in the world and face some adult situations.  I also saw some parallels between Jack’s relationship with Speedy Parker and Huck Finn’s relationship with Jim, although Jack behaved much more kindly towards Speedy than Huck behaved towards Jim (at times).  Speedy Parker is also very similar to Jim, as he is kind and intelligent, and takes Jack under his wing almost like a father would, as Jim did for Huck.  Like Jim, Speedy is often the only person who truly understands the gravity of the situation, and provides a wake up call for Jack, so that Jack can focus on accomplishing the task at hand.  The home for wayward boys also reminded me of an orphanage in a Dickens novel where life consisted of cruelty and bleakness, day in and day out.  The behavior of the boys towards one another (the stronger bullying the weaker) is also something similar to what can be found in a Dickens novel.  Obviously, both King and Straub were influenced by the classics, and that influence is present in The Talisman.

Huck-Finn-003

The Talisman is often billed as a fantasy novel.  However, King and Straub are both authors known for their contributions to the horror genre and they do not let us forget that in The Talisman.  This book is still in the fantasy category, but some parts were simply terrifying.  My favorite part is Jack and Richard’s journey through the Blasted Lands on the train.  The description of the monsters that they boys faced was horrifying.  Some of these creatures are obviously victims of radiation sickness, which was probably a big fear of King’s, as he grew up in Cold War America during the 1950’s and likely saw a lot of propaganda about the effects the explosion of a nuclear bomb would have on a society.  Towards the end of the book, Richard Sloat is stricken with a sickness similar to radiation poison, and we are told that worms are crawling out of the sores on his body.  The death of Sunlight Gardener’s son Reuel and his Territories counterpart is also quite gruesome, as Reuel dies from a epileptic seizure, while the Territories version (which is really more of a mutant than a person) is killed by Jack and Richard.  King and Straub are able to work the horror elements into the story, while still keeping in firmly of the category of fantasy and adventure that is in the vein of Dickens, Twain and maybe even Robert Lewis Stevenson.

treasure-island-image1

 

In my humble opinion, Stephen King is going to be the most debated author of his time.  His work will be heavily analyzed and critiqued.  However, many years from now, when all is said and done, King will in the same canon as Charles Dickens, Tolstoy, Mark Twain, Bram Stoker, Mary Shelley, etc.  In other words, he will be recognized as “literary” which really just means a darn good writer who put out some some works that will be recognized as “classics.”  The Talisman is just one example of one of those works.

Connections

Just for the heck of it, I will list some connections to King’s other work that I noticed in The Talisman.  Here goes nothing:

-Twinners are discussed heavily in The Talisman.  Twinners also play a large part in other King works, most notably The Dark Tower series.

-The phrase “Lit out for The Territories” is a phrase used in several other King books, including The Dark Tower series and Lisey’s Story.

lisey_1

-Jack remembers vising a town by the name of Sidewinder, located in Colorado.  Of course, most of the events in The Shining and some of the events in Dr. Sleep take place in Sidewinder.

the-overlook-hotel

-A man named George Hatfield is mentioned.  George Hatfield is a minor character in The Shining.

-Richard and Jack travel through the Blasted Lands via train and see many strange creatures.  This is somewhat similar to Roland and his friends’ journey through part of Midworld, where they are transported by Blaine the Mono, a sentient monorail.

blaine

-Jack is asked, when he travels to The Territories, “Do ya ken it?”  This is a phrase used many times in The Dark Tower series.

dark tower

-Some of the creatures encountered by Jack and Richard seem to be suffering from radiation sickness.  They are similar to the Slow Mutants encountered by Roland and his friends in The Dark Tower series.

The_Slow_Mutants

-The Talisman itself possesses healing properties.  The rose in The Dark Tower series also possesses healing properties and is said be another manifestation of The Tower itself.  This leads to speculation that The Talisman may also be another manifestation of The Dark Tower, as it seems to possess similar properties to the rose.

Rose

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