I’d just read the sequel, Black House, so thought I would reread this, because I read it so long ago that I’d forgotten parts of the story. I see I gave it four stars after my first reading, and after reading it this time seriously considered dropping it to three, but then decided to leave it.
Jack Sawyer is a 12-year-old boy whose mother is dying, and he sets out in search of a mysterious talisman that might be able to heal her. He has to travel across the United States, partly in the real world, and partly in a mysterious other world called The Territories, where travel is sometimes faster, but more dangerous.
Jack is quite an engaging protagonist, and some of the people he meets in his travels help him, while others hinder him or overtly hostile. Many of the people in this world have opposite numbers in the other world, called “twinners”, In ther help and hindrance he gets, Jack is a bit like the hero of Sammy going south, which is also about an epic journey by a young boy, though it takes place entirely in this world. It was a goo0d deal shorter than The Talisman, and I thought it was also better, partly for that reason.
I had forgotten quite a lot of the story the second time around, but what I had not forgotten was my reactions to it, the parts I enjoyed and the parts I didn’t. On the whole I enjoyed the parts in this world better than the parts that took place in The Territories. In part that was because The Territories was a rather unconvincing alternative world. There are quite a lot of books in that genre (or is it a subgenre?), but in most of them the other worlds are more internally consistent and coherent than this one.
The Territories seem to have a kind of medieval technology, with animal-drawn vehicles, no real towns and shops, just fairs and markets. Until the end of the story, where there is a very unconvincing train that crosses radioactive blasted lands. C.S. Lewis does a much better job of explaining how a lamp post got into Narnia than King and Straub do of explaining how a train got into The Territories. Lewis doesn’t even try to explain the sewing machine in Narnia, but it seems less out of place there than the train in The Territories.
Jack travels about 2/3 of his journey on the train, from Illinois to California, and allowing for shorter distances in The Territories, that must have been a distance of at least 700 miles, most of it over very loose sand, which would complicate track laying. So how would anyone build such a track, in an extremely unhealthy and hostile environment, while transporting all the materials from this world? The train, we are told is small and light and battery driven, so one pictures a narrow-gauge set up, like the old sugar cane trains in KZN, but then we are told that it was actually a broader gauge than the trolleys that used to run in this world. And even more puzzling than the how is the why? Why build such a track for one light three-car train? It is far too much of a deus ex machina, and towards the end there is a new deus ex machina on virtually every page, so each new danger Jack faces is more yawn-inducing than the last because you stop thinking he is in any real danger from an 11-foot high knight in armour. The most convincing attack on him is a kick in the balls from his best friend’s father, who happens to be the villain of the piece.
The last 150 pages or so were the worst, where the descriptions seemed to be confusing and interminable, or perhaps that was just because they were so dreary that my mind kept wandering and I was not taking in what I was reading.
When reading Black House I wondered which parts had been written by which author, and on rereading this one I began to think I had a clue. I suspect that the parts I enjoyed least were those written by Peter Straub. They were lengthy and over-described. And I’ve had that feeling when reading other books by Peter Straub, and since reading this the first time I had read Stephen King’s book on writing, where he says, of description, that:
Thin description leaves the reader feeling bewildered and nearsighted. Overdescription buries him or her in details and images. The trick is to find a happy medium. It’s also important to know what to describe and what can be left alone while you get on with your main job, which is telling a story.
I wish they had followed that advice in The Talisman!