Saturday, February 15, 2014

Book Reviews: Black House, Ricochet

Black House
by Stephen King and Peter Straub
This is a sequel to the book, The Talisman, penned all those years ago by the same two authors and good friends. It is not necessary to have read The Talisman in order to enjoy Black House. The Talisman was, briefly, a story of a 12 year old boy who has to travel to an alternate reality in order to obtain the titular object, a source of immense magical power, and also save his dying mother. This reality, which the boy, Jack Sawyer, calls The Territories is similar to our own except that magic works and the world is smaller. Time and distance are also somewhat warped so that travel in The Territories doesn't match up exactly with travel in our world. Most people in our world have an alternate self or "twinner" in The Territories. These alternate selves are not necessarily aware of each other but usually have the same desires and goals. They are also linked. What happens good or bad to one version of a person usually happens, albeit in a different way to the other version. Jack is unique or at least rare in that he doesn't have a twinner. He survived his twinner's murder. He can thus physically flip between the two worlds (most people can't do that). Ultimately Jack is able, after much heartache and loss of life, to save his mother, prevent his murdered father's partner Morgan and Morgan's twinner from obtaining The Talisman or stealing his father's company, and save the life of the Queen of The Territories (his mother's twinner).

But similar to how C.S. Lewis detailed the Narnia series, children grow up and unlearn the wisdom of their youth. A little over two decades after the events in The Talisman, Jack is a thirty something retired LAPD officer who had been on the fast track to Chief of Detectives and likely even Chief of Police. He has no memory of The Territories, the heroic role he played there or friends and enemies made in that realm. The only qualities he's retained from his time there are a very reliable intuition, an ability to quickly read people and an ever so slight foresight. These, along with a rock-solid moral sense and disdain for bullies help his meteoric rise in his chosen profession. But when a case in LA unknowingly reminded Jack of things he had forgotten, he abruptly decided to walk away from his career and retire to French Landing, Wisconsin. He assisted on a case there once and immediately made a friend for life in the decent but overwhelmed Police Chief, Dale Gilbertson. 

But there's no rest for the weary. There is a killer loose in French Landing. The worst kind of killer is roaming free, one who kills children. This man models himself after the serial killer Albert Fish and is thus known as The Fisherman. Dale begs for Jack's help, recognizing that whatever is going on is beyond his ability to prevent or solve. Jack initially refuses. But Jack is having dreams, both when he's asleep and when he's awake. He can't understand them or explain them. Ultimately the man who first summoned Jack to the Territories, Speedy Parker (a blues musician in our world and a relentless gunslinger/marshal in The Territories) is able to break the wall in Jack's mind and restore his memory and ability to flip between the two worlds. And Jack finally learns what King/Straub reveal almost immediately to the reader, that these killings are not the work of a human, or at least not something that is completely human. There has been some slippage between our world and The Territories. Battle is joined.
This is very hardcore horror so if that is not your thing ordinarily I'd advise those not so inclined to pass on this book. But the writing is so sublime that even if you're not into horror it would be a mistake for you to skip this book. Of course I am a fan of horror and King and Straub so take that recommendation with a rock of salt. It is interesting to read this and try to pick out which parts were written by King and which were written by Straub. They usually have pretty distinct voices but here they seem to have melded into one super-writer. There aren't any jarring discontinuities. Straub is from Wisconsin. I think he provided a lot of the descriptions of that area. I would also bet that Straub wrote most of the jazz stuff (much of the action takes place in a senior home where blind DJ Henry Leydeen plays jazz and pop music for the residents) as Straub is known to be a jazz aficionado but other than that it's anybody's guess. The book is seamless and quite rewarding. The story has been retrofitted to include references to King's Dark Tower series. As is usual in most of King's work, the everyday and prosaic is so very well depicted that when the supernatural appears you are so invested in the tale that you have no choice but to believe it.

by Ovid Demaris
Some gangsters like Carlo Gambino, Meyer Lansky, and Sidney Korshak generally stayed in the shadows. These men were either lucky enough or smart enough to avoid imprisonment or murder and die of natural causes as free men. Other gangsters like John Gotti, Albert Anastasia or Bugsy Siegel disdained living quietly and so aroused the ire of law enforcement or their fellow mobsters. These men often died in prison or were removed from the planet in a much more abrupt manner.

Nicky Scarfo, former boss of the Philadelphia Mafia Family, belonged in the second category. He became boss after a period of internal and external strife in and around the Philadelphia organization. Philadelphia mobsters hoped that Scarfo would return the group to its days of quiet profit under the late Angelo Bruno. Well that didn't happen. Scarfo was, like Gotti, a loud brash man who loved killing and public recognition. He even ordered the murder of a judge who had doublecrossed him. Ultimately Scarfo's violent reckless nature -- he enjoyed being present at actual murders ---a no no for a boss, caught up with him. Scarfo's preferred solution to problems was to kill people. People inside the family started worrying they would be next, especially after, (shades of The Red Wedding) Scarfo murdered the Family's putative heir because the man backed out of an arranged wedding with the daughter of a Scarfo ally. Informants proliferated. Scarfo received multiple sentences for murder, extortion and RICO.

Ricochet fictionalized Scarfo as Tony Allio. Tony Allio is a short quick tempered patricidal mob boss who is good with a knife. He's a bully and a thug. He's got his little fingers in prostitution, narcotics, extortion, and everything else that goes on in the Philadelphia/South Jersey area. Tony seeks revenge on the book's protagonist, one Frank Conti. Frank and Tony have known each other since childhood and never liked each other. In high school, Tony already had a dangerous reputation and his own group of budding mafia wannabees. Frank stepped in to protect his girlfriend when Tony's friends attempted to molest her. Tony and company beat him to within an inch of his life. Frank ignored his policeman's father's pleas to either let it go or let the police handle it. Frank recovered and bided his time until he got Tony alone and returned the favor in spades, afterwards fleeing into the Army and the Vietnam War. 

Now Frank is back in South Philly, a decorated vet and former Green Beret who's a rising corporate banker. But Tony Allio didn't mind waiting decades for payback. He has plans for Frank. He intends to hurt Frank and his family thru Frank's wife Nancy. Nancy has a gambling problem. And Tony is all too happy to indulge her. But Tony forgets that pushing the buttons of a Green Beret isn't smart. There is an interesting subplot with Joey Bucci and his girlfriend Joyce. They are mob hangers on who get close to Allio and find themselves getting in too deep. You won't feel sorry for Joey although you might empathize with Joyce. Joey is a walking example of how one bad decision leads to many more until you're at a kill or be killed crossroads. Demaris was a detective novelist and reporter who had written multiple investigative exposes on organized crime. So he knew his stuff. His storytelling skills were not to the level of King or Straub. This book was a little less than 300 pages but was a very quick read. 
blog comments powered by Disqus