We gave it an A
It’s no coincidence that the title of Black House, Stephen King and Peter Straub’s bloody good sequel to their 1984 best-seller The Talisman, echoes Bleak House. The novel’s hero, ex-L.A. cop Jack ”Hollywood” Sawyer, even reads Charles Dickens’ mammoth portrait of Victorian London to a blind friend, Henry Leyden. Black House also qualifies as Dickensian in other respects: its size (625 pages), scope (spanning two worlds—small-town Wisconsin and a parallel realm called the Territories), and sprawling cast of characters.
Chief among them is Jack. As a 12-year-old in The Talisman, he traveled to the Territories to rescue his mother, B-movie queen Lily Cavanaugh Sawyer. After taking early retirement from the LAPD in his 30s, he moves to the sleepy burg of French Landing—only to get coaxed back into action when the town is terrorized by the Fisherman, a serial child-killer who consumes parts of his victims.
In pleasingly Manichaean style, no morally gray characters exist in Black House: They’re either pure good or evil. Jack’s comrades in his battle against the dark side include the profoundly cool Henry, a disc jockey whose multiple radio personae include blowhard talk-show host George Rathbun (known for his ironic catchphrase ”Even a blind man could see that!”); Henry’s nephew, steadfast local police chief Dale Gilbertson; and the Thunder Five, an intellectual biker gang who get into head-butting bar brawls over fine points of literature.
The villain initially doesn’t seem terribly formidable. The Fisherman, we learn early on, is Charles Burnside, an Alzheimer’s-addled nursing-home resident with a slightly less mature palate than Hannibal Lecter’s. ”BABY BUTT!” he bellows of his favorite meal. ”That’s GOOD EATIN’!” But it soon becomes clear that Burnside has been possessed by a demon who dwells in the Territories—and that Jack must return there in order to end the slaughter.
He finds a passageway through Black House, an abandoned, shadowy abode hidden deep in the forest. ”There’s bad s— in those woods…,” one of the Thunder Five notes aptly. ”Makes the stuff in that Blair Witch Project look f—in’ tame.” Once Jack’s posse enters the titular structure, Black House becomes an old-fashioned haunted house story in the same spirit as The Others. In a typically creepy touch, the rooms can expand exponentially, creating ”a city perhaps the size of London folded under a single weird roof.”
Such a scene of fantasy might seem at odds with the CSI-style police procedural that precedes it, but King and Straub pull off this act of literary alchemy with aplomb. By the way, skeptics shouldn’t let the word fantasy scare them: This is no namby-pamby unicorn tale, but rather a thrilling epic packed with horrifying monsters (one resembles ”William F. Buckley, Jr. with one eye and a face five feet long”) and a surprisingly potent emotional payoff.
References to The Talisman as well as King’s Dark Tower books abound, yet you needn’t have read these earlier works to enjoy the hell out of Black House. Returning characters are quickly placed in context. Jack’s old pal Richard Sloat, now a corporate lawyer, is limned as ”thinning on top, thick in the middle, much in favor of sitting and Bushmills,” and you’ve instantly got a mental picture.
The authors adopt a disarmingly antique tone, making liberal use of the royal we early on (”it is Charles Burnside, ‘Burny,’ we have most come to see”), then pulling back a bit as we get drawn into the story. They’re admirably unafraid to invoke the names of their horror forefathers, most notably paying homage to Edgar Allan Poe’s ”The Raven” via a talking crow.
King’s loyal subjects will hear his telltale voice poking through the prose. His off-color colloquialisms (”f—arow,” ”doodly-squat”) are in evidence, as are his trademark references to baseball players (Pokey Reese, Mark McGwire) and rockers (Korn, Dee Dee Ramone). While it may be King’s brand name that sells Black House, Straub is no slouch when it comes to delivering shocks. His 1979 Ghost Story can stand beside The Shining on a shelf of the scariest novels ever.
Writing fiction is generally a solo exercise, and collaborations often smack of gimmickry. Yet this partnership brings out both authors’ strengths—King’s down-and-dirty storytelling and Straub’s more sweeping literary style. As Jack reads Bleak House to Henry, the novelists observe that ”the story gathers steam, and carries both reader and listener along in its train.” The same holds true for Black House—and what a ride it is. A