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Sunday, 17 October 2010


I found Stephen King's Dark Tower saga so enjoyable I didn't want it to end. So I stopped reading it. I put the seventh (and supposedly final) book down when I was only half-way through it, and have never picked it up again. One of the things that so gripped and fascinated me about the Dark Tower story is that it is absolutely huge, and quite mind-boggling in its intricacies. With it, King had woven threads between and through pretty much every single thing he'd ever written, tying apparently unrelated threads together to form the world's biggest and craziest jumper.

BLACK HOUSE links directly into the Dark Tower saga, but not until quite a way into the hefty 600+ pages. To start with it feels like a mystery/thriller, before mutating into a sort of horrific fantasy, which took me by surprise let me tell you.

A serial killer dubbed 'The Fisherman' is targeting the children in and around the Wisconsin town of French Landing. But he doesn't just kill them - he eats parts of their bodies, in an echo of notorious murderer Albert Fish's M.O.

A few years before The Fisherman appeared, former homicide detective Jack "Hollywood" Sawyer retired to French Landing after helping the chief of police, Dale Gilberston, apprehend another killer who lived in the town. As a favour to his old friend, and his best friend Henry (Dale's blind uncle), Jack agrees to help the FLPD hunt for The Fisherman.

But what caused Jack to retire at the ridiculously early age of 31? And what is it about his past that links him to The Fisherman?

BLACK HOUSE is a sequel to King and Straub's first collaboration THE TALISMAN, but I haven't read that and I don't think it's necessary too either, as BLACK HOUSE is largely self-contained, and the references to the previous book are explained well enough so you're not sat scratching your head.

In that book, Jack Sawyer was a young boy who was involved in a quest to help his dying mother. His journey took him to the Territories, a sort-of alternate/parallel reality that's a bit like a fantastical Wild West. BLACK HOUSE sees him journeying there again, in a bid to help protect the Dark Tower itself.

BLACK HOUSE is a frustrating book. The characters are all excellent, with the main trio of Dale, Jack and Henry being the stand-outs (as you'd expect). King and Straub pepper the story with an insane amount of other characters, some of whom appear briefly, but almost all play an important part in the grand scheme of things. There's also some decidedly affecting emotional tugs along the way, particularly once Jack and his friends start to close in on The Fisherman.

What is less excellent is the overall style of the book. King/Straub choose to use a third-person omniscient narrative form that allows us, the reader, to see and experience things the characters themselves aren't aware of. On the one hand, it helps to build tension and suspense as we're told of someone stalking another person, for instance, but on the flipside it ruins the fictive dream the moment the narrator (which is actually the joint voice of both authors) makes a point of following someone else, and thereby reminding you you're reading a book.

Thankfully, it doesn't ruin the overall experience - generally speaking, the story and execution is top-notch - but it does serve to keep breaking the flow and pulling you out of the action...sometimes literally. However, I will mention the cheeky author intrusion at the end of the book that invites you to stop reading, unless you want to see what the last few pages have in store. I did think that was actually pretty cool.

It's also difficult to tell quite how much of this story is down to Straub. The Dark Tower, and it's related environs, is a resolutely King-created proposition. I've only read one collection of Straub's stories, and remember they were generally quite strange, so maybe he created the book's monstrous villain Mr Munshun? Or suggested The Fisherman's M.O.? Admittedly, the point of a collaboration is that it's, well, a collaboration, so it shouldn't sound too much like one author over another, and trying to separate the voices and ideas is a fairless pointless endeavour. But it's difficult not to wonder...

BLACK HOUSE has well-developed characters, and even shines the spotlight on ones you wouldn't normally pay much attention to. It's core story is sinister and gruesome, and its plot is interesting and involving. It weaves literary references through it smartly and smoothly, and adds another exciting dimension to King's Dark Tower saga. Is it a fine example of the talents of Peter Straub? It's difficult to tell, but it certainly lacks a lot of the needless description that occasionally plagues King's work. The best of both worlds? That would have to be up to you to decide, dear reader.

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