Sunday, March 17, 2013


Ever since "The Skeleton Men of Jupiter" was published in Amazing Stories in 1943, writers have turned their hands towards continuing the adventures of Edgar Rice Burroughs' John Carter, the ageless Earthman battling his way across the fantastic world of Barsoom -- what its inhabitants called the planet Mars.

Some writers have simply re-worked the stories in their own fashion. Lin Carter moved out a ways from the sun and wrote about Jandar of Callisto, one of Jupiter's moons. Others took the characters and settings of Barsoom and attempted to re-imagine them with their own vision, like Andrew Stanton. Some, like Michael Moorcock's "Kane of Old Mars" trilogy, work well. Some, like Carter's and Stanton's, don't.

Under the Moons of Mars, a collection of short stories set on Barsoom and in some cases using Burroughs' own characters, has the same collection of hits and misses. Some of the writers attempt a straight-up homage to Burroughs; Joe R. Lansdale's "The Metal Men of Mars" does the best job at this, although Chris Claremont's "The Ghost That Haunts the Superstition Mountains" and Jonathan Maberry's "The Death Song of Dwar Guntha" are very close seconds. Others see about telling their own stories on Burroughs' world. Not as many of these succeed, but Robin Wasserman's "Vengeance of Mars" and Tobias Buckell's "A Tinker of Warhoon" stand out as two that do.

And some fail, badly. Peter S. Beagle takes Burroughs' best-known character, Tarzan of the Apes, and transports him to Mars. where he finds a John Carter who is more than a bit of a jerk and a Dejah Thoris who shows she's willing to be just as faithful to her husband Carter as Tarzan is to his wife, Jane Clayton. Overall, the collection, which was given the name used when Burrough's first Barsoom novel was serialized in All-Story magazine in 1912, offers some real gems to which one might wish the Burroughs estate would pay some attention in authorizing some new tales of those who rove the dead sea bottom of dying Mars, in spite of the absolute duds like Beagle's.
In 1984, popular horror writer Stephen King teamed with one of his idols, the somewhat more cerebral horror writer Peter Straub, for the science fictionish The Talisman, a story of how the young Jack Sawyer found an alternate world called The Territories and used his travels there to save his dying mother and her "twinner" in the Territories world, Queen Laura DeLoessian. In 2001, King and Straub catch up with Jack as an adult, a retired Los Angeles homicide detective living in Wisconsin who remembers nothing about his youthful journeys, in Black House.

The Talisman had the attraction of novelty. King and Straub, though working in a similar genre, had much different styles. And when they eschewed their shared genre altogether for the science fiction/fantasy feel of Jack's wandering through the Territories, it made for an intriguing, if not exactly stellar, combination. Black House has none of The Talisman's novelty to leaven its serious flaws, leaving it ultimately nothing much for either author's catalogue.

Bucolic Coulee County, Wisconsin, is anything but these days. Someone is killing its children, and local police have no clue about the killer or anything to offer frightened town residents to reassure them. Retired LAPD homicde detective Jack Sawyer is asked to help but is reluctant. He won't share his reasons, because they mostly have to do with strange and threatening visions. Ultimately, Jack will be drawn into the case almost as much because of those visions as anything else, and the killings themselves will emerge as something even more sinister than child murder -- part of a scheme by the Crimson King to break the Beams that hold the multiverse together and bring chaos to reign over all. Yes, just when you thought you'd gotten out of the tale of Roland and his quest, King pulls you -- and Straub, for that matter -- back in.

It's hard to see why King needed Straub for what is in essence a Dark Tower-related novel that has much more to do with that immense fantasy series than it does the world of the Territories revealed in The Talisman. In fact, it's hard to see why King drew any connection to the Talisman world, since the focus and resolution of Black House are dominated by the Dark Tower world and its narrative. Nothing about Black House requires Jack Sawyer, the Territories or Peter Straub, although I'm certain that all of those helped Random House market the book.

On its own merits, Black House is too long, too bloody and far too prone to spiral in on its own plot or wander around chasing rabbits. The serial killer is at first a particular character, who is possessed in order to help another character's evil goals, but who has his own evil plans and blah blah blah. There's a crooked nursing home director, who's in bed with his hot young assistant, and you know, you're right, tea in China does cost too much these days.

King and Straub decided to pull back the curtain on the omniscient third person narrator, literally telling us what we see like a kind of travelogue.  At first it's amusing, in a wry Our Town-sort of way, but it grows tiresome quickly while the story spins slowly. And that same semi-detached voice jars when we read some seriously disturbing scenes of mayhem, blood and guts.

I've never read much Straub, so I couldn't say where he was in his writing career when Black House was written in 2001. But King was well into his long slide, broken up only here and there by signs of any real effort, and Black House was not one of them. Better to have left Travelin' Jack's further wanderings to the imagination of The Talisman's readers. Many may have asked for more stories of the Territories, but sometimes saying, "No" is the kinder thing.

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