Stephen King, go home!

The master of horror should forget hideous other worlds and stick to refrigerator magnets.

Published October 18, 2001 7:00PM (EDT)

One of the disadvantages to having the literary world suddenly decide that you are a better writer than they once thought -- a change in fortune enjoyed in recent years by Stephen King -- is that eventually one of its perennial malcontents will start demanding that you live up to your new reputation. For, while fans of commercial fiction have uncomplicated feelings about its authors -- they admire their favorites and always hope that the new book is really good -- the literati's tortuous relationship to success demands that idols and darlings (or, more precisely, other people's idols and darlings) must regularly be pulled down and dragged through the muck. Only when an author is generally despised and dismissed can there be any true pleasure in stalwartly riding to his or her defense.

This review, of course, doesn't partake of any such nonsense. When I write that "Black House" -- the sequel to "The Talisman" and, like that 1984 novel, a collaboration between King and Peter Straub -- is disappointing, I mean that it doesn't succeed at what Stephen King does best. When he is at the peak of his powers, in books such as "Pet Sematary," "'Salem's Lot" and "IT," King stakes out a modest plot of contemporary life and drills way, way down to find an almost limitless magma of dread. But when he's just phoning it in -- and that happens often enough -- there's a dreary thinness to his fiction, like that of a cheap, ugly, ill-fitting blouse that falls apart the first time you wear it. What's really grim about, say, "Riding the Bullet," a throwaway novella that King e-published to much hoopla in 2000, is not so much its claustrophobic ghostly hitchhiker plot as its shoddiness, the idea that someone who seems as decent as King would want people to spend their time reading it.

The doorstop science fiction novel King published in March, "Dreamcatcher," had a bit of that flimsiness to it, and so does "Black House." As with any collaboration, it's hard to say which parts of the book came from Straub, but the more self-consciously "literary" passages, like the cinematic opening cruise through the Wisconsin town of French Landing -- dime-store DeLillo -- seem like a good bet, as do the novel's occasional forays into overweening third-person narration. Nevertheless, the bulk of "Black House" feels like King: the preoccupations, the devices and even many of the motifs (which partake of the mythos he created for his "Dark Tower" series) are all his.

Like "The Talisman," a book fervently beloved by many readers for reasons I can't quite fathom, "Black House" can be slotted into the genre of "dark fantasy." It involves an alternate universe, a place dubbed "the Territories" by a boy named Jack Sawyer (his name is the kind of heavy-handed allusion King too often indulges in), who can visit this other world at will. In "The Talisman" Jack makes a grueling cross-country journey, flipping back and forth between the roughly contiguous Territories and America, in search of a wondrous bauble with the power to cure his mother's cancer. In "Black House," the grown-up Jack, a prematurely retired cop in his late 30s, has blocked out all memory of his magical abilities but must finally revive them in order to save French Landing from a ghoulish child killer. In both books, the smaller personal quest has cosmic implications -- the fate of universes turns on both the Talisman and the murderer.

"Black House" cants more in the direction of horror (as opposed to fantasy) than "The Talisman" did, perhaps an indication that King and Straub realized that good fantasy calls on talents that they just don't have, at least not in abundance. While that shift ought to make the sequel the stronger of the two books, strangely it doesn't; instead it just emphasizes how incompatible the two genres can be. Both fantasy and horror tap into our dreams of a vast additional dimension to the reality we think we know too well, but while fantasy regards that other world with longing, horror recoils from it in revulsion. Readers pine for the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry or for Middle Earth (at least those parts not under the direct control of Sauron); no one wants to visit H.P. Lovecraft's hideous plateau of Leng, where, in a remote and prehistoric monastery, the unthinkable High Priest covers his face with a yellow silk mask. And we sure don't want any of Lovecraft's creations to pay a call on us, either.

The truth is that even when King is writing fantasy, it still works like horror. Throughout "The Talisman," and occasionally in "Black House," the authors explain that the Territories are beautiful, that the air in that preindustrial world is filled with "richer, deeper smells" and tastes than any we encounter here. The emotions that Jack feels toward the Territories are the same as those that characters in other books feel toward Oz or Narnia. But most of what King and Straub actually depict of the place is pretty creepy -- the Bosch-like Blasted Lands and the evil castle in "The Talisman" and a "hospital" operated by vampires in "Black House." The climax of "Black House" unfolds in an unconvincingly trippy, nightmare landscape of satanic mills and enslaved children. The few, brief, idyllic and vaguely Arthurian glimpses we get of the good parts of the Territories aren't very convincing; it's like stumbling into a cheesy shindig thrown by the Society for Creative Anachronism.

While fantasy speaks to a desire for escape and exploration, horror capitalizes on our fear of invasion. King excells at horror precisely because he's a regular guy who knows and loves our ordinary world so well, this place of wall-to-wall carpeting, brightly colored alphabetical refrigerator magnets, bicyling boys, McDonald's and green suburban lawns. He makes us shudder and thrill by introducing menacing forces that are really perverted versions of the stuff of everyday life: a father's grief for his dead child, a teenage girl's craving to belong. Evil, when it tiptoes in, comes wearing a footed flannel sleeper like the child vampires of "Salem's Lot."

Because "Black House" isn't so firmly grounded in this world, because it keeps having to refer back to a fantasyland that never feels as dense and as believed in as, say, Middle Earth, the novel has to strain for its chills. The most believable, and therefore the most genuinely scary and unsettling, passages in "Black House" involve a nursing home (a nice parallel to the Dickensian reform school in "The Talisman"), where one of the most unpleasant residents harbors an even more unpleasant secret. He's vile, but the institution features an entirely mundane array of horrors that's much more memorable. Old age -- now that's scary. By contrast, the grisly crimes of the book's chief villain feel like they're calculatingly and ineffectively turned up to 11: He's not just a child killer, he's a sadist, and he's not just a sadist, he's a cannibal! And he's working for a diabolical demiurge from another dimension!

Of course, if you don't like the new Stephen King novel, you can always wait six months 'til the next one comes out. It's hard to begrudge King his expansive urge to try his hand at a wide variety of beloved genres when (except for a hiatus following a near-fatal auto accident in 1999), he's been so prolific. But until he starts hitting his sweet spot again, we'll all have to rely on the newspapers to give us a good scare.

By Laura Miller

Laura Miller is the author of "The Magician's Book: A Skeptic's Adventures in Narnia."

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