It’s so rare to find a good horror novel these days. Most of the pulp junk on the shelves isn’t worth the paper it’s printed on. Every time a new King or Straub book hits the shelves, fans of the macabre rejoice. When these two heavyweights team up together, what they produce makes the legions of horror readers writhe in ecstasy. While the newest collaboration between these two isn’t quite good enough to invoke twitching on the floor, it’s still something to keep you up all night. In a good way, that is.
Seventeen years after King and Straub first teamed up; the duo brings us a follow-up novel, Black House. This is the sequel to the Talisman, which tells the story of a young Jack Sawyer journeying through a fantastic world in search of a powerful artifact that will heal his dying mother. In Black House, we revisit Jack, who has taken early retirement from the LAPD and is now living in French Landing, Wisconsin. Jack is forced out of retirement to hunt down a serial killer (dubbed “The Fisherman” by a local tabloid reporter) and races against the clock not only to save the life of an abducted child, but also the fate of existence itself.
Black House, despite its status as a sequel, is a completely different novel than the Talisman. While the first book was a coming-of-age story that spanned a new world called the Territories, Black House is a supernatural crime story set in a small Midwestern town. In addition, while the Talisman was its own self-contained story, Black House is rife with references to other works by both King and Straub, ranging from King’s Hearts in Atlantis to Straub’s Ghost Story.
Central to the novel is the idea of slippage – where an ordinary world slips dangerously into a realm of chaos. This sets the entire mood of the book, creating an atmosphere you can’t help but get lost in. All the characters are enchanting; it becomes too easy to ignore your aching bladder as you watch a serial killer turn from deranged human to supernatural monster with motives higher than dining upon the flesh of stolen children.
The novel fluctuates between the extremes of the two writers. Straub is adept with delicate terror while King goes for the throat. At some points, it’s easy to see where the styles change. However, once the story gets rolling, the different styles coalesce to create some excellent horror. The most intense scene in Black House comes when the blind Henry Leyden faces off with the deranged “Fisherman,” creating an atmosphere that is simultaneously creepy and outright terrifying.
The biggest problem, however, is that the book peaks at this point and levels off from there. The climax is tame; there is a lot of tension building up to the final showdown, which goes out with a whimper. It’s only a moderate casualty, though, in the overall design of the book. One final warning: to get the most out of this story: You need to have some background in King’s Dark Tower series – an epic seven-book tale (four of which have been published) that concerns the fate of all worlds. It’s an extra pleasure to see how this story fits into the greater scheme of things.
Black House is more for the rabid Dark Tower fans since King has announced that the next core book in the series won’t be out for another year or so. For those unversed in the macro-story, not all is lost; Black House is still a good read for Straub and King fans alike. But it really might be better to wait for the paperback version or to borrow it from the library.