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Black House

Stephen King & Peter Straub

Random House

US Hardcover First

ISBN 0-375-50439-7

625 Pages ; Price $28.95

Date Reviewed: 03-13-02

Reviewed by: Rick Kleffel




03-07-02, 03-18-02, 04-29-02, 07-15-02, 09-20-02, 04-30-03, 06-12-03

Sequels are a dangerous business. When the original is beloved by many, sequels are a very dangerous business. Nearly 18 years ago, the then titans of bestselling horror, Stephen King and Peter Straub, collaborated on 'The Talisman', an unusual novel that demonstrated the strengths and weaknesses of each writer. Anticipation was high for 'Black House', the sequel. It mostly lives up to that anticipation, and makes some important improvements on the original. The pages will turn until they burn; lots of people are going to lose sleep over this one. However, the real burning question is not of pages, but of progress -- is the novel actually more than the sum of its parts? That's a high figure, and 'Black House' does not always exceed it.

'Black House' picks up the story of Jack Sawyer, the 12 year Haley Osment of 'The Talisman' 20 years later, when he's a detective in the LAPD. He leads a rather charmed life in this role, but something calls him to return a small town in Wisconsin. Before you can say serial killer, one is at work in Tamarack and Jack is pegged to track him down. One child is killed, another taken. There's a chance that he might be alive. Prepare for a long night of reading.

But while the page turning aspect takes center stage, another development over the long break will also capture the reader's attention. These writers have really, really learned to collaborate. 'The Talisman' was certainly an enjoyable book, but the reader could fairly easily detect when writer's stepped into the driver's seat. In some cases the results of this were felicitous, as King created one of his most beloved characters. Other times, the changes seemed a bit more abrupt. In 'Black House', the writers meld nearly perfectly creating a camera-like voice that glides through the action. There's some beautiful prose in there that is neither fish nor fowl. Together these writers are capable of poetry, of words that flow off the page and into the brain like fine wine, or good beer. The buzz is inexplicable, unmatchable. The pace is frantic.

There are some great details here as well. The killer in 'Black House' is a wonderful, despicable creation, and the scholar-biker gang that backs up Jack is another winning combination of grit and endearing likability. Jack's hallucinatory flashes and the descriptions of the house itself, the camera swoops and glides, give the novel a very visual feel. Presumably, all of King's works are auto-optioned for the movies, but this one seems to be written almost a an artistic screen treatment. It's a very odd style, but it usually works well.

'Black House' house falters a bit when it goes all the way into King's netherworld from 'The Dark Tower' series. If you haven't read those novels, then you'll be missing out on a lot of background. But the real problem is that the descriptions of the netherworld are not as commanding as the camera glides along the highways and byways of this world. Fraught with action and terror, they seem a bit sketchy when compared to the poetry that has come before. It's a simple result of the 'whole is greater than the sum of the parts' effect that the writers manage early on. When all the stops come out on the action, the poetry goes out the window as well. It's as if the writers hit the wall on their special effects budget.

This is not to say that the novel is ever less than a compelling, pulse-pounding page-turning work of toe-tapping terror. I have often found myself sick when reading works by either of these authors, unable to rise from the couch, trapped under a blanket and able only to read. It's called Stephen King sickness. Anyone who picks up this book is likely to suffer from the same malady. But with the fevered pace, the compelling characters, you really want that final hallucination to be a whopper, to be the nightmare that you don't forget. What you're likely to remember of 'Black House' is not the final monster but the first fade in, the slow swoop into powerful prose, the sound of a voice like no other, because it is two voices speaking as one.