Gaiman, Neil, “Night Crawlers”, Washington Post, 16 September 2001, T02.
BLACK HOUSE, by Stephen King and Peter Straub, Random House. 640 pp. $28.95
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, Wisc., early in the morning, winding up in an abandoned shack where “limp flypaper ribbons hung invisible within the fur of a thousand fly corpses.” It is here that we encounter the mutilated body of 10-year-old Irma Freneau, and watch a dog attempt to eat the child’s 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 revolves around the struggle between two men: the murderous Fisherman and our hero, Jack Sawyer, known locally as “Hollywood,” a retired homicide detective from L.A. Sawyer quit 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. Even so, we know from the outset that this will not be a simple police procedural or even a whodunit (the identity of the Fisherman is given to us early in the text — the “hook of his nose” followed by the “wormy lips” is a dead giveaway, if we’ve missed the hints about his awful deeds and secret pleasures). And we also know that Black House will have its roots in a previous novel.
Those who remember The Talisman, Straub and King’s first collaboration, have already met Jack Sawyer. Then he was a 12-year-old boy who traveled a long way, across the United States and across a distorted, magical version of the country 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, although it also draws upon the mythology that King has been building in his Gunslinger sequence and that surfaced most recently in his 1999 story collection 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 read as though they could have been penned only 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 as uncomfortable in his role as the book’s hero as he is in his retirement. Surrounded by a magnificent supporting cast of colorful characters, Jack comes off as almost too pure, too perfect; he might have wandered into this Upper Midwestern Hell on Earth from a better place. But as I read on, I began to realize 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 — alternating with forces of light: 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 Judy’s son, Ty, who will become the Fisherman’s victim and on whose rescue the fate of the universe, quite literally, depends.
The plot, meanwhile, rollercoasters forward through the Wisconsin July, and 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 down side; on occasion the characters seem like counters being pushed back and forth across a board, and there is a final plot twist that smacks less of inevitability than 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. Indeed, in one sequence, when Irma’s body is found, the authors retread the same half hour from a number of points of view, and their dogged fidelity to the present tense actively becomes a handicap.
Such quibbles aside, Black House allows us to see two master craftsmen, each at the top of his 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.