Those who are fans not only of a particular pair of modern-day masters of horror, but also of Charles Dickens, he of 19th-century doorstop-sized social commentaries, will find the intentional nod to Bleak House in Stephen King and Peter Straub's Black House a delicious one. Dickens' assault on the British court system and this sequel to the '80s blockbuster The Talisman manifest obvious similarities -- an unnamed narrator who is by turns witty, urbane and familiar in tone; the tales' resistance to easy categorization; and, certainly, an emphasis on the interconnectedness of everything (in Dickens, of levels of society; in Black House, of parallel worlds -- and King's myriad other novels).
Some readers who enjoyed The Talisman will almost certainly be disappointed by Black House, although the stories share the main character and various thematic elements. The books are simply so different in style and focus that (faithful) readers would do well to consider them related entries in King's canon, rather than a great adventure story and its lackluster sequel. For the success of Black House lies in the distance it maintains from its predecessor stylistically. What made The Talisman such an incredible book was its magical sense of discovery. The nimbus of romance firing the original tale (of a singularly special twelve-year-old boy caught between fear for his dying mother and the siren call of a wondrous but endangered object catching up the skeins of infinite worlds) surely would have dimmed had King and Straub tried to duplicate that core of innocence and wonder.
Instead, the authors did the prudent thing: they rejoined Jack Sawyer a couple of decades later in life, making him (by way of an understandable amnesia where the Territories, that clear-aired world-next-door, are concerned) once again almost wholly a creature of this earth. Exhausted by the decadence he's encountered along the way as an exceptionally successful L.A. homicide detective, Jack has retired -- very early -- to the hoped-for peace and obscurity of small town Wisconsin. He's found a dear friend in an older blind man -- an oddly elegant music buff who anonymously channels a handful of divergent personalities to whom radio listeners for miles tune religiously. And he's just beginning to be comfortable in his role as unassuming but well-to-do country gentleman when all Sheol breaks loose.
A serial killer (dubbed "The Fisherman" by the local press, due to the resemblance of his crimes to real-life monster Albert Fish) has begun abducting, murdering and dismembering area children. Jack initially resists involvement in the case, but when a fourth child goes missing, he finds himself compelled by a series of waking dreams and foggy remembrances to pry out the even greater evil he glimpses behind the comparatively prosaic series of murders. Jack's destiny has caught up with him again, only this time it is a different boy standing at the fulcrum of all possible worlds, a boy who has the potential to break the universe. The only route to that lost boy is through a portal to damnation obscured by more than just overgrown woods: the Black House.
Black House works on several levels -- murder mystery, character study, slyly self-referential conceit, horror story -- and its hydra-headed nature both separates it from and cleverly binds it to The Talisman. Think Desperation and The Regulators, only this conjoined pair satisfies much more completely, if readers will but let it. And within its pages, King and Straub have created in blind Henry Leyden a character as endearing and loyal as The Talisman's Wolf as he is different from that transplanted lycanthropic boy. King's penchant for over-many but potentially interesting walk-ons and asides will delight some readers as much as it annoys at least an equal number of critics, as will -- another King trademark -- links to other of his works, notably "The Dark Tower" story arc. Straub's subtler touch makes his scrivening presence more difficult to discern. Black House bears nonetheless a distinguishably dual stamp, like a watermark of quality saying "Here is a work shared in the making" by two authors who are, undeniably, good at their jobs.