Stephen King & Peter Straub – Black House

Often my reviews contain first time reads, but as an enjoyed book is always worthwhile for later, I do add the occasional re-read. Black House (2001), which I read first almost ten years ago, is the second joint novel of Stephen King and Peter Straub and a somewhat standalone sequel to their previous joint novel The Talisman. In this period of writing, most books Stephen King wrote have elements relating to the Dark Tower series and so does this one. We actually learn some different things of the background of the at the time still ongoing series, although they remain minor in reference. For fans of that series, this is a reason for reading this book as well and as such it feels more like a Stephen King novel than something else.

Black House contains elements of the horror, fantasy and detective genre. At times it is nasty and brutal, while it is also scintillating and tragic, which seems to be something typical for King’s style. I mainly read his Dark Tower (related) novels, so I can’t say how it works out in his other books. I’ve read nothing of Peter Straub’s work, so I can’t say which parts belong to him. There are two things that do stand out.

First is a very strong third person narrative in the form of an actual narrator talking to the reader most of the time, which is something I haven’t seen Stephen King use. To me it was not a likeable narrator as he was telling the story without personal feeling. The emotions were for the sake of the story-telling and not about the characters. The narrator also had a habit of taking too much time shifting from scene to scene, making these parts longwinded and not very interesting.

The second thing, which for me carried the story, was the powerful characterization of the many average American characters. This is one of King’s strong writing skills and at times I was quite blown away with the easy manner of how he brings them to life so distinctly. It has been some years since I read a King novel, so I am better at noticing and comparing these things.

Another King element, I assume, is that the elderly play an important part again, like he did in Insomnia and Hearts In Atlantis. With this I don’t mean a few old people have a role, but that the elderly community is involved and that certain parts of the story revolve about it.

The plot itself is quite engaging, shifting from horror to fantasy or detective with ease. All of this is interwoven with character scenes creating a multitude of strands which form a greater weave for the whole story. At times these strands seem to cross each other too often, especially as the story takes place over a relatively short time. Certain scenes are sometimes retold from different viewpoints to create a more dynamic picture. Now that I think back it is partially because of those many strands and details that are added to the story that you have the feeling that there happens too much while it does not really do so.

The downside effect of all these strands and details, combined with the longwinded narratives when shifting between scenes and the sometimes replaying of scenes from different viewpoints, is that the book is quite long. Too long in my opinion. Perhaps 100 or 200 pages could have been cut, making the story tighter and more powerful. It isn’t bad to have details. It is just that one does not have to spend time on every little character who plays something of a role in the story. Sometimes it just doesn’t matter.

Obviously as I’ve re-read the book it is certainly enjoyable. I’m no fan of horror, so certain nasty scenes I did not enjoy. Luckily they are few so that was bearable enough. The long length of the book and the not-likeable main narrative are reasons why I don’t consider it a great book. Nevertheless it is recommendable for its powerful characterizations and the Dark Tower references.

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