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Onyx reviews: Black House by Stephen King and Peter Straub

When he was twelve, Jack Sawyer crossed America on a quest to retrieve a talisman to save his mother's life. Part of the way, Jack traveled in another world, the Territories, where time and distance are different. Unlike most people in this world who have a counterpart in the Territories—a "twinner" - Jack is single-natured, able to flip back and forth between universes at will.

Now in his mid-thirties, Jack has forgotten that great adventure. His life since then has not been idle—until recently he was a very successful homicide detective with the LAPD. A mysterious incident caused him to retire to quiet French Landing, Wisconsin, a place he once visited while on the trail of a murderer. Something about this quiet village calls to him.

French Landing is no longer serene. A killer is slaughtering children and devoured parts of their bodies. Victims' families have received graphic letters describing "The Fisherman's" violations in exquisite detail. Chief of Police Dale Gilbertson knows he is out of his depth. Having worked with Jack on the earlier murder case, Dale tries repeatedly to enlist his friend's help. Jack is adamant—he has retired from police work.

Forces beyond this realm are at work in French Landing. We are shown much that the main characters do not get to see. Throughout the novel, we are taken on a guided tour by the narrator, who whisks us through open windows and keyholes, under closed doors and high aloft on windy breezes to discretely observe the citizens going about their lives.

We see The Fisherman snatch young Tyler Marshall and soon discover that the villain has access to the Territories, using this to facilitate his escapes. Tyler is special—he is wanted on the other side by the Crimson King, a figure known to readers of King's Insomnia and Hearts in Atlantis. The world of The Talisman and Black House merges into the Dark Tower mythos that is the core of King's universe.

Black House is a much darker older brother to The Talisman, which was essentially an epic fantasy. The original collaboration was about a young boy with a child's cares and concerns. This sequel is an adult tale, one that does not flinch from the evils of this world and others.

Vivid, evocative characters populate the novel. Slimy Wendell Green, the local news hawk (news vulture, some call him) hopes to land the story of his career with The Fisherman. He keeps French Landing stirred up with tabloid-like headlines sensationalizing each grizzly discovery. The Thunder Five, a college-educated motorcycle gang who brew fine craft beer constantly demolish any preconceptions we might have about these men.

Dale's uncle, the mysterious Henry Leyden, a blind man who is the voice of several vastly disparate radio personalities, is Jack's muse. At night, Jack reads Dickens' Bleak House to Henry—the similarity of that title to the name of the foreboding edifice that will become central to this story is not a coincidence. The authors use numerous literary devices and references from Bleak House.

Roused from somnolence by the plight of Ty's mother, Judy, who was descending into madness even before The Fisherman took her son, Jack becomes fully engaged as the memories of his youthful adventure flood back. He becomes reacquainted with Speedy/Parkus, the twinners who guided him through his previous quest, and meets Judy's twinner, the lovely Sophie, Queen of the World.

Jack's rag-tag gang must solve the puzzle that is Black House, an eerie building that defies logic, as they risk their lives and sanity to rescue Ty Marshall from The Fisherman and the Crimson King. Along the way, we will learn much more about "breakers" and the nature of the Dark Tower, enough to hold us over until the next book in King's series appears. Peter Straub has hinted that a third collaboration is quite likely, and the third novel would form a sort of purgatory-inferno-paradise trilogy.

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