It feels weird to recommend The Talisman—a book definitely written for adults—as the perfect choice to introduce younger readers to Stephen King. From a distance, the book King actually wrote for young readers—the epic fantasy The Eyes of the Dragon—would certainly seem more appropriate.
Though The Talisman indeed stars a young protagonist—a preteen boy named Jack Sawyer—its horror is not restrained by his age, which is hardly surprising, considering the novel was penned by King in collaboration with Peter Straub at a time when both were at the height of their influences as defining voices in the 1980s horror fiction boom. (Also worth noting: what we think of today as the “young adult book” didn’t really exist.) Throughout the novel, characters curse like angry dockworkers, children suffer horrific violence, and Jack guards himself against sexual assault (a fact that may merit a content warning of sorts: in political terms, at least when it comes to queer representation, it’s very much a book of its time).
But if the brutality of the subject matter is proof enough that the book is not aimed at young adults, the authentic ways the authors tackle mature themes from a younger perspective; the care and consideration they pay Jack’s developing sense of personal identity as he emerges from the shadow of his parents; and its mix of horror themes and a straightforward quest-fantasy structure make it a natural first step into the realms of adult fantasy, not to mention an strong entry point into the wider universe of Stephen King’s fiction.
The novel finds Jack alone and rambling around a sleepy New England seaside town where his ailing mother has gone to convalesce. Left to his own devices, Jack wanders into an abandoned amusement park, where is given an important quest by the park’s old caretaker. To heal his terminally mother, he must travel across the United States and through an otherworld known as the Territories—a place soaked in odd magic and immense danger, a dark mirror of our own—to locate a magical artifact known as the Talisman, an object of unimaginable power that is key to saving both Jack’s mother and the whole of the Territories.
Dogging Jack at every step of his journey—in both our world and the Territories—are a dastardly assortment of villains, from a sadistic, orange-eyed cowboy boogeyman, to the staff of a horrifyingly Dickensian boys’ work home, to Jack’s sinister Uncle Morgan. Worse still, the barriers between the worlds are blurring and breaking down. If Jack fails, it could mean the end not just for his mother or himself, but for two entire worlds.
Countless children’s stories begin by sending a child off on a quest through multiple worlds to save a loved one, and The Talisman benefits from the solidity of the structure; it never really seems unlikely that Jack will fail in his mission, which lends the novel a comforting air of familiarity, despite the horrors he experiences along the way. But kids generally don’t care about tropes being reinforced or subverted—what makes it a particularly great book for younger readers is the way it approaches a fantastical plot in a highly believable way, while foregrounding the emotional journey of its still maturing young protagonist. Many of the dangers Jack faces are grounded in real-world darkness that will feel terrifyingly plausible to the YA crowd, whether it’s the looming death of a family, the disillusion of a close friendship due to stress and distance, or even the struggle to cope with the realization that your parents are not the benevolent titans of your youth, but simply flawed and fallible humans.
Assuming they were talking to mature readers, King and Straub engage with these themes without talking down to their audience, and they certainly don’t pull their punches when it comes to the darkness and violence of Jack’s journey. There is hope and light in the story, introduced via magical and fantastical means, but it never strays too far from the truth—the terrors of growing up may be a bit more literal for Jack, but the roiling emotions he struggles with will be familiar enough to anyone who has ever felt angry, and alone, and eleven years old.
That truth and the relatively straightforward plot offer a strong foundation for the book to build its flights of weird fantasy, and “weird” is definitely not an understatement. Though it was released well before King had started tying together his massive Dark Tower saga, it is very much of a piece with the other novels set within that multiverse. It is a relatively self-contained work of dark epic fantasy (never mind the sequel), but retains all the signature touches that define King at his most fantastical—numerous nods to gothic horror, a cast of gun-toting knight errants, echoes of the tense horror of The Shining, and a massive battle soundtracked to classic rock. Its closing chapters are downright triumphant, and a lot less ominous or cynical than almost anything else either of its authors has written, which certainly makes them more palatable for the mature young tween crowd.
If The Talisman is a bit dated in some respects—it’s very much the product of two white guys in the ’80s with a limited frame of reference with, and attitudes toward, the LGBTQ community—its unflinching look at growing up, paired with its breakneck pacing, engaging epic fantasy worldbuilding, and injections of strangeness that could only come from the combined talents of King and Straub are timeless. Almost every kid goes through a Stephen King phase (many on them never leave it), and they should start here.