Stephen King and Peter Straub, Black House (Random House, 2001)
[originally posted 28Sep2001]
The first thing you notice about Black House is the cinematographic nature of the third-person omniscient narrator. Everything is described as if the reader were a cameraman making a movie of the book. In the same way as Cormac McCarthy, it’s a style that takes a little getting used to. Once you’ve settled into the narrator’s rhythm, however, the book moves right along. Unfortunately, also as with McCarthy, there are going to be a lot of people who never settle into that rhythm, and the book’s readership will probably suffer for it.
The second thing you notice is that, while this book is a sequel to The Talisman, there wasn’t much reason for it to be. Most of the Talisman references therein are gratuitous, and seem to be there for the sole purpose of tying the events in this book to King’s reigning obsession, the Dark Tower. (No, it’s not a spoiler. King’s been saying this novel will tie in for quite a while now.) The novel suffers for it, though it does raise the intriguing question of whether Mr. Straub’s next novel will also be set in Mid-World.
Third, if you’re a closer reader than average, you’ll probably note that the interplay between King and Straub is somewhat looser here than it was in The Talisman. Both of them were quite fond of challenging readers to figure out where King’s bits left off and Straub’s began, and vice versa, in the first novel. In this one, it becomes obvious pretty early on that the two had no bones about drawing the lines in places, though it’s still tough sometimes to figure out who wrote what; but when chapter 25 begins with “But enough of that.”, you know one of them is taking a friendly shot at the other.
All that aside, the subject matter the two of them are working with is good enough, and heads right up the alleys of both. A Wisconsin serial killer (despite what you’re probably thinking, no, Ed Gein has nothing to do with this) who models his murders on the career of Albert Fish is at work, and The Talisman’s hero, the now 31-year-old Jack Sawyer, lives in the same town. Jack, a retired homicide detective, is asked repeatedly by friends and intimates to look into the case, and after a while it becomes obvious that Jack will have to get involved, as the case will take him back to The Territories (which are, of course, part of the Dark Tower’s world). Straub returns to the mystery-style subject matter that graced his most successful books, and King gets to deliver the nasty crime scene descriptions that have made him successful. (These crime scenes go way beyond Straub’s threshold of taste; even the most extreme bits of The Hellfire Club pale in comparison here.)
Still, as I mentioned in my review of Dreamcatcher, we’re still in the middle of a transitional King phase, and the quality herein is along the same lines as that in Dreamcatcher—better than the early-eighties stuff, but a cut below his best work. Straub could go nowhere but up after Mr. X, and he certainly did so here. Oddly, though, Black House compares to the string of novels starting with Koko and ending with The Hellfire Club in the same way it compares with the great King releases—it’s not as powerful as, say, Mystery, but it’s a worthy addition to the Straub oeuvre anyway.
A must-read for King and Straub completists and Dark Tower followers. Oh, yeah, and did I mention there’s a Hearts in Atlantis tie-in, too? For everyone else, it’s optional; go by your feelings regarding Dreamcatcher and act accordingly. ***