Neil's Reviews > Black House

Black House by Stephen King
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May 22, 11


(This review was originally published in the Washington Post in 2001.)


Black House is a novel of slippage. We learn about slippage (a secondary definition of which, we are told, helpfully, in the text, is the feeling that things in general have just gotten, or will shortly get, worse) at the beginning of the book as we travel, invisibly through the town of French Landing, Wisconsin, early in the morning, winding up in an abandoned shack where “limp flypaper ribbons hung invisible within the fur of a thousand fly corpses” and it is here that we encounter the mutilated body of ten-year-old Irma Freneau, and watch a dog attempt to eat her severed foot out from its running shoe.

Irma is the latest victim of a serial killer whom the local paper has taken to calling the Fisherman, after Albert Fish, a real-life child-killer and cannibal. Not far from the shack, down a road, behind a no entry sign, is a house all painted black; and that house is a gateway to somewhere else.

Slippage is what happens on the borders of things and places, and the town of French Landing is on many borders, one of which is the border between Stephen King country, and Peter Straub country.

The plot itself will revolve around the struggle between two men: the murderous Fisherman, and our hero, Jack Sawyer, known locally as “Hollywood”, a retired homicide detective from LA. Jack Sawyer retired young and came out to Wisconsin in search of peace and quiet. It is a truism and a genre obligation that retired cops in novels, even novels with slippage, must come out of retirement for their last case, and Jack does, although, as we know from the off, this will not be a simple police procedural or even a whodunnit (the identity of the Fisherman is given to us early in the text -- the “hook of his nose” followed by the “wormy lips” are a dead giveaway, if we’ve missed the hints about his awful deeds and secret pleasures); and it will have its roots in a previous novel.

Those who remember The Talisman, Straub and King’s first collaboration, have already met Jack Sawyer as a 12 year old boy who travelled a long way, across the US and across a distorted, magical version of America called the Territories, to find the Talisman that would save his dying mother’s life. The Talisman was a fantasy with dark elements: a fat book that could comfortably have been even fatter, with a winning young hero named after Tom Sawyer.

Black House is a sequel of sorts to The Talisman, although it also draws upon the mythology that King has been building in his Gunslinger sequence, and which surfaced most recently in his Hearts in Atlantis. It is a book that exists on the borders of genre – it’s not a serial killer romance, although the Fisherman is unquestionably a superhuman serial killer possessed of (and by) strange powers. It is too dark to be a fantasy but too light, too deeply sunny, to be, at its heart, a horror novel. Here also we experience slippage.

It can be a mistake to play hunt-the-author in any collaborative text. Collaborations work when two authors find a single voice for a story, and fail when they do not, and King and Straub create a mutual style that is clean and effective. It is knowing without being arch, and it does not read like either King or Straub. That there are dead giveaways in the text – the obscure jazz references that Straub delights in, for example, or some splattery scenes with a hedgeclipper that could only have been penned by King – is no help in the who-wrote-what game. (In fact I’d be willing to bet that most of the jazz references come from King, out to amuse his co-author and confuse reviewers, and that Straub took his turn at wielding the clipper.)

Initially, I found Jack Sawyer uncomfortable in his role as the book’s hero as he is in his retirement: surrounded by a magnificent supporting cast of colourful characters, Jack comes off as almost too pure, too perfect; he might have wandered into this July Wisconsin-Hell-on Earth from a better place. But as I read on, I began to realise that in many ways Black House (only one vowel away from Bleak House, the foggy opening of which is quoted in the text) is a Victorian novel. The authors cited, quoted from, glossed, in the book are popular writers who once were read and are now both read and respected, particularly Dickens, Twain, and Poe. The characters, too, have a Dickensian quality to them. They are the forces of darkness – The Fisherman, Wendell Green the grasping newspaperman, Lord Malshun (Sauron as used-car salesman); forces of light – Jack Sawyer himself; Henry Leyden, the blind man with the many voices; the magnificently filthy brewer biker gang who call themselves the Hegelian Scum; brave Judy Marshall, who is being driven mad by her visions of the truth, and her son, Ty, who will become the Fisherman’s victim, and on whose rescue the fate of the universe, quite literally, depends. And the plot, which roller-coasters forward through the Wisconsin July, has the easy comfortable quality of something built by two authors who are perfectly well aware of how good they are, even to the point of referring to themselves as a couple of “scribbling fellows” in the text. (“Always scribble, scribble, eh Mr. King?”)

Sometimes the collaborative process has its downside; on occasion the characters feel like counters being pushed back and forth across a board, and there is a final plot twist which smacks less of inevitability than it does of the authors checking off the last item on their to-do list. The use of the present tense, which could too easily get wearing over 600 pages, for the most part keeps the narrative voice supple, informal, and fresh, although it can, on occasion, make one feel as if one is reading a film script – and there is a sequence when Irma’s body is found, and the authors retread the same half hour from a number of points of view, in which it actively becomes a handicap.

Such quibbles aside, in Black House one is watching two master-craftsmen, both at the top of their game, collaborating, with every evidence of enormous enjoyment, on a summery heartland gothic. The book is hugely pleasurable, and repays a reader in search of horror, adventure, or of any of the other joys, both light and dark, one can get from the best work of either of these two “scribbling fellows”.

Whether King and Straub will reconvene for a final installment in another fifteen years, or whether Jack Sawyer’s tale has been subsumed into King’s Gunslinger series only time will tell. Either way, it is hard not to look forward to the eventual outcome.
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Comments (showing 1-8 of 8) (8 new)

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message 1: by Dennis (new) - added it

Dennis Sharpe Well, now I've added that to me "To-read" list. Thanks.


Becky I love The Talisman and Black House, but I've never seen them in quite this way. Now I think it's time for a re-read. Again! :)


message 3: by Shawn (new) - added it

Shawn This is one of those books that I need to get to but keep putting it off. I want to re-read THE TALISMAN before I start BLACK HOUSE. Thanks for posting your review Neil.


message 4: by Edward (new)

Edward Thanks for the "reprint" review. If you have more, please post them. It's a great way to recapture a story. I'd forgotten about the brewer bikers. Both books were enthralling.


message 5: by Aayushi (new)

Aayushi kool


message 6: by Joe (new) - rated it 5 stars

Joe They do have plans to write a third and final Jack Sawyer novel. Can't wait.


Roland Loved reading your thoughts on slippage. As Dale ponder's the artwork Jack is hanging in his father's old house, "Why shouldn't adjoining worlds mingle now and then?"


Unabridged Bibliomaniac Awesome! Now I'll have to buy The Talisman too :/


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