Review: ‘Black House’ by Stephen King & Peter Straub


King and Straub once again combine literary forces to write a sequel to 1984’s ‘The Talisman’.

In The Talisman, 12 year old Jack Sawyer ventures out from Arcadia Beach, New Hampshire on a quest to find a magical crystal known as The Talisman. It contains the power to save his mother, who is dying of cancer. Taught by a mysterious figure known as Speedy Parker to ‘flip’ between Earth and another world referred to as ‘The Territories’, Jack encounters his mother’s ‘twinner’, Queen Laura DeLoessian.

The ‘twinner’, a person’s identical self in parallel world, is also dying, meaning that Jack’s quest is also important to the future of ‘The Territories’. During his travels and up to the ultimate ending in the multi-dimension Agincourt Hotel, Jack realises there are not just two worlds but many.

This theme carries through to other of King and Straub’s novels and continues with Black House.

Welcome to Coulee County
Crafted before King’s Dark Tower series but tied-in to the mythology behind these novels, Black House revisits the character of Jack Sawyer. Jack is now an older man, a retired ex-detective who has repressed his memories of the past’s abnormal events. More and more often he has ‘hallucinations’. He feels his sanity starting to slip away, so retires to the idyllic country setting of French Landing, Wisconsin to escape the world.

Right Here and Now
His quaint utopia of French Landing is anything but. A sweeping, multi-perspective opening chapter compels the unwilling reader to journey to the heart of the trouble. A sense of something ominous rises with each new location visited.

  • A visit at the police station shows there is a murderer at large.
  • A visit with Chipper Maxton, a corrupt nursing home owner, catches him in the act of skim cash away from funds for the elderly.
  • A stop in on Charlie Burnside, an Alzheimer’s patient who has just defecated in his pants, shows him lying in bed, whispering gibberish: ‘Abbalah! Gorg! Munshun!’
  • Like flies to blood, the reader’s perspective is dragged to what was Ed’s Eats & Dawgs and is now a small, broken-down shack containing a smaller, bloodied-form. Sans foot.

Yes, all is not right. French Landing is a place where little children are being kidnapped and murdered by ‘The Fisherman’, where the everyday world seems less-and-less real (the word slippage is used), and the Black House, unseen and overlooked, exists like a worm burrowing into the city’s core.

Mister Hollywood
Jack Sawyer is asked by current Sheriff Dale Gilbertson to help hunt for the killer but Sawyer declines. After ten-year-old Tyler Marshall disappears while following a crow into a hedge when it calls out his name, his father’s appeal finally sways Jack. This and other events lead up to Jack recovering his memories of the ‘The Territories’, and regaining his ability to ‘flip’. After a warning from ‘The Fisherman’, Jack starts to unravel clues leading to the Black House and then beyond to a final confrontation with the demonic, one-eyed Mr Munshun.

Ensemble Cast
Like most of King and Straub’s books, the detail used to create such believable characters, characters with such hidden depth and meaning, is almost unbelievable. Each person in Black House has their faults but overcomes these at key moments, humanising the drama. We relate to the ensemble cast.

  • Jack is an almost perfect archetypal hero, but his denial of the past and his seclusion indirectly results in the deaths of three children.
  • Beezer St Pierre, leader of local motorcycle gang The Thunder Five, is obnoxious and brutal, but loves French Landing and helps Jack locate ‘The Fisherman’.
  • Blind Henry Leyden, an incredibly well-realised character, has the quasi-supernatural ability to create additional believable personas (3 radio entities, and a DJ). Even his interaction with other characters is flawed, his dry wit grating.

Location, Location, Location
As said previously of the novel’s first few chapters, the bird’s eye view shown establishes mood, introduces characters, but most importantly shows setting. Setting is extremely important in Black House. ‘We want to invoke our capacity for flight… but we cannot, we must bear witness,’ they write of discovering Irma Freneau’s small corpse. This informal third-person perspective is used to full effect, and the narrator seems almost apologetic as we’re pulled from location to increasingly-depressing location.

At the heart of events, the Black House’s inherent evil is apparent immediately, as ‘the house appears to have been painted a uniform black’, even the rain gutters and windows. The shifting perspective brings us ‘uncomfortably close’ and then we discover that its no longer black but leaden grey. ‘Black would be preferable to this utter lifelessness.’ And, of course, to complete the ominous backdrop we have a NO TRESPASSING in front.

Conger Road
King and Straub’s Black House is an entertaining, fantastical and well-written read. It may take you down dark paths—paths you’d usually not dare tread—but is, ultimately, a rewarding journey.