Saturday, July 6, 2013

Black House by Stephen King and Peter Straub

Photo: The book's cover, from its Wikipedia page

This is probably the last of my unread Stephen King books for awhile, in case you were getting tired of my many Stephen King reviews lately.  At 625 pages, this one took half a week to read, and much of it was pretty intense.  This intensity waned a bit the more it went on; an editor working with two lesser-known names would've done much good here.  The second half, and definitely the last third, are very fat.  Much could have, and should have, been trimmed there.

But it is still a good ride, especially the first third.  It's told in a very third-person omniscient style, and in the present tense, no less.  Lots of the word "we," as in "And now we see Jack Sawyer--."  That takes a little getting used to, but it's not that bad.  It fits, though I can't see why such a different storytelling tactic was necessary.  The last third is so fatuous that even this third-person omniscient, present tense POV does not give the narrative a you-are-there feel.  It's so in need of editing, that such word-bloat takes away from the intensity the reader is supposed to feel by this narrative POV.  You don't get that "Once upon a time..." lean story-telling voice that the authors are clearly going for.  (The book even ends with exactly that phrase.)

Having said that, it's worth reading, especially if you're a fan of the The Talisman and/or The Dark Tower books.  Black House is situated firmly in the Dark Tower universe, much more so than The Talisman, though by the end of it, you get the feel that it's a story from a minor planet of that universe, so to speak.  It is not a major entry in that series; the Dark Tower saga, as it's now complete, can and does exist without this.  It's a side-room behind one of the many doors in the Dark Tower's house.  It's interesting to open that door and peer in, and see what's there, maybe admire the old furniture and to appreciate the character of the room, but when you shut the door, you can move on to the staircase and to the more important rooms.

Black House can't decide which character it wants to follow.  It follows Jack Sawyer more than anyone else, but not like The Talisman did, and when the focused POV of the second half follows a gross old man, a pawn of the Crimson King, it starts getting fat and unfocused.  With that character's demise, it then focuses again as it should, upon Jack Sawyer, and then goes a place or two that the reader wouldn't expect--but shouldn't be completely surprised about, either.  Stephen King has followed the antagonist before--lately in Under the Dome--and you have to wonder about his main character, his protagonist, if even he decides that his antagonist is much more interesting.  The reader had better agree--and this one didn't, in this case.  (I did agree with that tactic for Under the Dome.)

But it doesn't work here because the gross old man is still nothing more than a gross (and murderous) old man.  The power he has is given to him by the Crimson King and his minions, and so he's nothing more than that.  More or less, then, this novel is an examination of the root of evil, of where it comes from.  Where does an evil, murdering, pedophile cannibal like Albert Fish (Mentioned very frequently here, and worth a Wikipedia visit--if you can stomach it.  No sin if you can't.  It's extremely gut-wrenching stuff.) and Charles Burnside (this book's Albert Fish) come from?  Well, apparently from another universe, and its evil incarnate, which uses the (less?) evil and the weak here for its own nefarious purposes.  All well and good, I suppose, except that this book doesn't present a convincing case for that.

Ultimately, the first third of the book is extremely good.  The first half is very good.  By three-quarters it starts to wane, and by the end you're ready for the end to end.  But it still ends well, and so it is still worth reading--if you can tolerate the fat.  I was able to cut it away and dine on the rest.  If you can do that, this book is worth the read.

(The parts written by Straub, in my opinion, stand out from those written by King here.  My guess is that Straub wrote most of the first half, King most of the second.  There are some Straub writing patterns and signatures I recognized, and some from King as well.  For example, Straub does not tend to choose his antagonist as a POV focus as King does, and so I feel much of that is King's.  Since most of the Charles Burnside focus happens in the second half, I feel that's where King's fingerprints are.  The first half, especially, resonates, as all good writing should.  The first half sank into my consciousness enough so that I was compelled to write a previous blog entry, two entries ago.  Ironic, since most of what I wrote about were Stephen King thematic constructs, though it was Straub's treatment of them in the beginning of this book that compelled me to write about them.  But that's art for you.)

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