Lisey’s Choice is What Makes Lisey’s Story

SPOILER ALERT – If you haven’t yet read this novel, and you don’t want to know how it ends or what “Lisey’s choice” means, then you will want to skip this post.

Cover of Lisey's StoryI’ve been on a Stephen King kick this summer, and after I re-read The Talisman I went on to re-read Lisey’s Story. This book had been on my mind for a while. Maybe it had to do with the character who is dealing with the end of her marriage, due to the death of her husband, and struggling to figure out how to move on to the next part of her life. This was a theme that has similarities to some of the life changes I have faced in the past few years, as well as those of some of my friends. Or, it could have been the magical aspect of being able to remove yourself to another world simply by thinking hard enough about it. An escape into something that is at least different, if not necessarily better or safer. Or, it could have had something to do with the idea of magical objects, like an honorary shovel or an afghan (“african”) that had been lovingly crocheted by a family member. Maybe it was just the memory of Scott’s office, up on the second floor of that old barn, so echoingly empty even as it was full of books and incunabula, and Lisey’s slow response to sorting and catagorizing — to just facing the deciding of what to do with everything that was left after he had gone.

I think maybe it was a little bit of all of these things that drew me back to this book. These were all the things that I remembered about it when I picked it up to read it again. What was interesting, though, were the things that I had forgotten about it. I had almost forgotten that pool in Boo’ya Moon, the pool where everyone goes to heal, but also the pool where story crafters go to fish out their ideas. The images of those people stuck staring at that pool struck me deeply this time, and I could feel their paralysis and unwillingness to move either forward or back. I could feel the danger and how easy it would be to eventually just curl up there on those rocks beside the pool, to pull that thin shroud over yourself, and to stare into that pool until … well, until forever.

Cover art showing Boo'ya Moon

I had also forgotten about Scott and Paul, and Paul’s transformation, and the variations of violence that shaped that character long before Lisey ever met him. Madness and abuse run throughout this book, and it’s always by someone who is supposed to love you, either your parent, or sibling, or the biggest fan of your deceased husband’s books. The depth that this strikes internally is actually staggering when you think about it. Have you ever wanted someone you loved to forgive you so badly that you would have cut into yourself, made a blood offering, moved world’s? Once again, King has delved into something that is frightening because even if we haven’t quite been out quite that far, we’ve seen the distant border of that land and it’s something we would rather not think about too carefully. Nothing inspires more pain and madness than love.

So, Lisey’s choice, then, in this book has to do with how she is going to defend herself. Physically she has to defend herself from the King of the Incunks, but she also has to figure out how she is going to defend herself psychologically and emotionally from the memories of a love so strong that it literally moved her to another place. She spends much of the book fighting against those memories, thinking that to remember them will make her crazy like her sister Manda. But, I think that another level of this fight is that recognizing the reality of what was, what really happened, is her first step into moving through it and onward, and moving onward means that it is really and truly over. The King of the Incunks forces her hand only to an extent – she could have killed him and buried him anywhere and no one would have ever been the wiser. Instead, she takes him to Boo’ya Moon, battles with him there, and lets the Long Boy have him. She chooses for him a fate worse than death. She punishes him for more than just physically harming her, or for emotionally scarring her. She punishes him for forcing her to face the end before she was truly ready.

After reading the book this time, I have an even greater respect for it. This time, the images that will stick with me are of Lisey sitting under the Sweetheart Tree and reading Scott’s final manuscript — her story — and finally learning the truth about the man she had loved for so many years. I will remember her finding that hypodermic needle by Paul’s grave, the loss of that bell from the pizza place, and the possible danger of eating fruit after dark. I will remember her rattling around in that house all alone and thinking about The Last Picture Show and Old Hank. Lisey alone. But most of all, I will remember her audaciousness, her decision to deal out to the King of the Incunks something far beyond what he thought she was capable of. Part of the real horror of this book, I think, is being so firmly in agreement with Lisey’s choice.

The Talisman: A Fantasy/Horror Jewel

The Talisman, first edition cover

from Wikipedia

On September 15th, 1981, a boy named Jack Sawyer stood where the water and land come together, hands in the pockets of his jeans, looking out at the steady Atlantic. He was twelve years old and tall for his age. The sea-breeze swept back his brown hair, probably too long, from a fine clear brow. He stood there, filled with the confused and painful emotions he had lived with for the last three months…

I think I first read The Talisman, by Stephen King and Peter Straub, about twenty years ago. Ever since then, it has been one of my favorite dark fantasy/horror classics, and since that first time I have read it again at least twice. Recently, I took the time to re-read it yet again, savor it, and really think about why this story in particular has withstood the test of time for me.

The hero, Jack Sawyer, appears to be a fairly average twelve-year-old boy on the surface, but there is nothing average about Jack. His mother, Lily, is an aging B-movie star who is living out her last days at a remote, seaside hotel. She is also ducking “uncle” Morgan Sloat, the ne’er do well business partner of Jack’s deceased father, who is using Lily’s illness to try to screw Jack out of his rightful inheritance. But the story really starts, and Jack’s life changes forever, when he meets Lester Speedy Parker, an elderly black man who is the handyman at the seaside amusement park located down the beach from the hotel.  Speedy calls the boy “ole Travellin Jack” on their first meeting, the same nickname that Jack’s father used to use, and one which aptly describes an ability that Jack has — he can flip between two different worlds, the one familiar to all of us, and another one, the Territories, which is similar to our world, but somehow smaller and bigger, older and younger, all at the same time. The world is a distorted mirror of ours with many individuals in our world having sort of fraternal twins, “twinners”, over there. Jack, though, is only Jack in both worlds, and Speedy gives Jack his mission: to find the Talisman and bring it back so that it can save his mother and her “twinner” — the queen of the Territories.

The heart of this story, then, is about a boy who is asked to do too much while too young. Jack has to figure out how to get across the entire United States without being caught by Sloat or any of his minions (from both worlds). He can travel in both worlds, but there are different risks inherent in both, so he is constantly having to negotiate a series of challenges, everything from worrying about hitchhiking to avoiding half-men half-lizard monstrosities. During his journey he meets Wolf, the somewhat friendly werewolf, and the friendship between Jack and this unlikely creature is one of the things that made the most lasting impression on me. Wolf was not made for our world, and there are problems with bringing him over that seriously hamper Jack’s mission. It is the humanness with which Jack faces all of these challenges that makes him a true hero. It is possibly his innocence that allows him to do the unthinkable, a mission that adults would have likely given up on.

The Talisman picture of title page

My copy of The Talisman has seen better days.

What makes this book stick for me, then, is the story of the struggle and refusal to give up in the face of unbelievable and unrelenting adversity. The bravery to trudge on when the mission seems hopeless, to continue to listen to the small, good voice inside even when not doing so would seem to make things easier. All of the memories of Jack dealing with the horrors and the beauties he encounters along his journey, and his continuing ability to shine in spite of them — these are what make the book worth reading not just once, but over and over again.

The most memorable scene for me: the Wolf waiting with the long black car, chauffeuring Jack through the night with “Run Through the Jungle” blaring from the radio. That one image is always crystal clear in my mind, and I look out the huge back window of the car with Jack and see the moon resting large in the sky. That’s the stuff great stories are made of, “right here and now”.