What About the Sufis?

what-is-sufism__400x284Liberals and new-agers love the Sufis like they do the gnostics, but it’s misleading to hold up Sufism as a peaceful version of Islam. What distinguishes Sufism is not a supposed rejection of the militant teachings of the Qur’an and hadith; on the contrary, most Sufis are Sunni or Shi’ite. (Sufism is less a sect and more an affiliation of brotherhoods.) Sufism is distinguished by its mystical doctrine — its focus on gaining direct knowledge of God through ecstatic worship.

One of the earliest Sufis, Al-Hallaj (858-922), was killed for such mystical beliefs, and presuming to be one with Allah. But he certainly didn’t oppose jihad warfare. Al-Ghazali (1058-1111) was one of the most influential Sufis, and he took great pains to urge jihad and the humiliation of unbelievers. This is what he said (and note that this is from Islam’s so-called “Golden Age”, the myths about which I dealt here):

“One must go on jihad raids at least once a year. One may use a catapult against the unbelievers when they are in a fortress, even if among them are women and children. One may set fire to them and/or drown them. If a person of the Ahl al-Kitab [People of The Book, meaning Jews and Christians] is enslaved, his marriage is automatically revoked. One may cut down their trees. One must destroy their useless books. Jihadists may take as booty whatever they decide. They may steal as much food as they need.”

“The dhimmi (non-Muslim subject) is obliged not to mention Allah or His Apostle. Jews, Christians, and Majians must pay the jizya (the poll tax). On offering up the jizya, the dhimmi must hang his head while the official takes hold of his beard and hits the dhimmi on the protruberant bone beneath his ear. They are not permitted to ostentatiously display their wine or church bells. Their houses may not be higher than the Muslim’s, no matter how low that is. The dhimmi may not ride an elegant horse or mule; he may ride a donkey only if the saddle-work is of wood. He may not walk on the good part of the road. Dhimmis have to wear an identifying patch on their clothing, even women, and even in the public baths. Dhimmis must hold their tongue.” (From the Wagjiz, 1101)

The point is that Sufism doesn’t oppose the basic tenets of Islam. It adds to them, and in ways that are deemed heretical by many Muslims, but heresy doesn’t encompass all the things we like as modern critics of the orthodox. Liberals tend to view Sufism like they do gnosticism, through fuchsia-colored glasses.

Sufis like Ahmad Sirhindi (1564-1624) said that sharia law should be “fostered through the sword”. Shah Wali-Allah (1703-1762) said that unbelievers “should be reduced to a state of humiliation and treated with utter contempt” and he commanded Muslims to “not be negligent in fighting jihad”, for “by taking up the sword to make Islam supreme and by subordinating your own persona needs to this cause, you will reap vast benefits”.

This has been just as true in the 20th and 21st centuries. The Shi’ite Sufi Tabandeh (1915-1980s) wrote a nasty treatise against the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. As recently as 2009, leaders of the Sufi order Naqshbandiyya met with a leader of Hamas, praised the Hamas jihad, and boasted of their own jihad attacks against Americans in Iraq. The Muslim Brotherhood has ties to Sufism, especially to the Tijaniyya order. Al-Qaeda itself betrays Sufi influence: its members take bayat (an oath of allegiance) to their sheik Bin Laden, which is the Sufi ritual of accepting one’s sheik as the special leader of the brotherhood and coming under the protection of the order’s lineage.

Naturally there are Sufis who have no use for holy war and sharia law. It’s a no-brainer that many Muslims are peaceful. What is not true is that Sufism on whole represents a strain of Islam that is benign and thus tragically overlooked in debates about “Islam as a religion of peace”. There are many Sufi orders, most of which are movements within the Sunni or Shi’ite sects, some of which are not, but all of which acknowledge the clear example of Muhammad and the authority of the Qur’an. There are certainly peaceful Muslims, but no peaceful version of Islam.

Heretic: Ayaan Hirsi Ali

hereticAyaan Hirsi Ali’s Heretic was released yesterday. Here’s a portion of Maureen Callahan’s review in the New York Post.

Ayaan Hirsi Ali is that rare thing: a public intellectual who, despite death threats and charges of bigotry, calls for an end to Islam — not just as the faithful know it, but as we in the West think we know it.

“The assumption is that, in Islam, there are a few rotten apples, not the entire basket,” Ali says. “I’m saying it’s the entire basket.”

In her book, Heretic, Ali argues for a complete reformation of Islam, akin to the Protestant Reformation of the 16th century. Though her own education led her to reject Islam and declare herself an atheist, she believes that for the world’s 1.6 billion Muslims, there must be another way…

Ali says there are three kinds of Muslims. There are the violent, the reformers, and what she believes is the largest group — those who want to practice as they see fit and live peaceably but do not challenge the Qur’an, the Muslim world’s treatment of women and the LGBT community, or terrorist attacks committed in the name of Islam.

Yet she refuses to label this group as moderate. She believes they have done nothing to deserve it. “I’ve never believed in the word,” Ali says. “It’s totally useless. I think we’re in a time now where we demand answers from Muslims and say, ‘Whose side are you on?’ ”

Ali argues for five amendments to the faith. “Only when these five things are recognized as inherently harmful and when they are repudiated and nullified,” she writes, “will a true Muslim reformation have been achieved.”

Those five notions are:

(1) The infallibility of the Prophet Muhammad and the literal interpretation of the Qur’an

(2) The idea that life after death is more important than life on Earth

(3) Sharia law

(4) Allowing any Muslim to enforce ideas of right and wrong on another

(5) Jihad, or holy war

“The biggest obstacle to change within the Muslim world,” Ali writes, “is precisely its suppression of the sort of critical thinking I am attempting here.”

She knows the greatest criticism she faces is that she is Islamophobic, that she is accusing all Muslims of adhering to jihad, to abuse, to the establishment of a caliphate…

President Obama “has acknowledged Islamophobia, which is the worst thing you can do for Muslims who are trying to turn things around,” she says. Whether it’s ISIS or al Qaeda or the Taliban or so-called lone wolves — such as the Boston Marathon bombers or the Charlie Hebdo attackers or the suicide bomber who blew up 15 Christians in Pakistan last week or the ISIS suicide bombing that left 137 fellow Muslims dead — when these people say they are killing in the name of true Islam, Ali says, believe them…

She is gratified by the stance taken by Sam Harris, a prominent American neuroscientist and author of The End of Faith. “Sam realizes that among religions, Islam is unique in its atrocity… He calls Islam ‘the mother lode of bad ideas,’ which is extremely brave,” she says.

With Heretic, Ali is calling on those Muslims who reject jihad, acts of terror, and the subjugation of women and infidels to organize, to challenge, to speak out loudly and often against violence committed in the name of Allah — and she is calling on the West to actively demand it.

Read it all here.

Peter Straub Ranked

straub2To celebrate his 40th anniversary of Julia, I did a marathon of Peter Straub, my second favorite author. It was a heady experience rereading all his novels; not only do they hold up well, some have aged even better. His work falls into three periods:

The early Straub (1975-1984) wrote in the shadow of Stephen King: Julia, If You Could See Me Now, Ghost Story, Shadowland, and Floating Dragon are supernatural horror. Straub capped off this period with The Talisman, a fantasy/horror collaboration with King.

In his mid-career (1988-1996) Straub turned to brutal realism: Koko, Mystery, The Throat, and The Hellfire Club are mysteries, in which traumas of the past impact the present. They show Straub at the height of his skills and doing completely his own thing. All four place in the top half of my list.

The recent years (1999-present) have seen a blending of the above two styles: Mr X, Lost Boy Lost Girl, In the Night Room, and A Dark Matter fuse the Straubian signatures of the middle period while bringing back elements of the horror genre. There is also Black House, the sequel to The Talisman co-authored with King.

Here’s how they line up.

[See also: The Best of Stephen King.]

throat1. The Throat, 1993. 5+ stars. I’ve read this thing six times. It’s the final piece to the Blue Rose Trilogy, Straub’s masterpiece of meta-fiction that deals with murder and secrets and how crimes of the past hold the present in a vise. Koko did this in the context of Vietnam war horrors, and Mystery was about a Sherlock Holmes figure mentoring a gifted boy. Those stories actually have nothing to do with each other aside from the indirect influence of a serial killer called Blue Rose. In The Throat, the Blue Rose killings become the focus: “I really had to solve the Blue Rose Murders,” said Straub, “and that meant I was in for as long, long book. It not only had to do that, but also had to swallow Koko and Mystery, to digest them and exist around them like an onion.” Put simply, The Throat is Straub doing best at what he does best. I resent having to put it down whenever I read it. Tim Underhill is a thoroughly intimate character, his world (both inner and outer) suffused with an organic realism few novels achieve. Heartless people. Bleak childhoods. Religious rites of cannibalism. The specter of Vietnam. It’s a novel about the ugly violence people are capable of, for reasons barely comprehensible, deep scars, and the question of healing. Only Lord of the Rings and Shogun have affected me more deeply.

lost boy lost girl2. Lost Boy, Lost Girl, 2003. 5+ stars. There’s a scene from this book burned in my psyche: It’s evening. Jimbo creeps onto the front porch. From the lawn Mark shines a flashlight into the window. Jimbo is so shocked by what he sees that he leaps backwards and passes out before Mark revives him and they run for their lives. Pages later we find out what he saw: “A guy was hiding way back in the room. He was looking right at me. It was like he stepped forward, like he deliberately moved into the light, and I saw his eyes. Looking at me.” That may fall flat in the retelling, but in context it’s a ripper. It appears that Jimbo has seen the ghost of a serial killer who used to live in the house and customized it to facilitate his murders. (The killer had used secret passageways to spy on his terrified captives, torment them on beds of pain, and do all sorts of hideous stuff.) But it turns out the ghost isn’t the only entity inside the house; there’s something or someone even worse, and this mixture of terrors is handled so brilliantly we’re never sure what’s going on. Soon after, one of the boys disappears, and the question is whether he was abducted by a pedophile or snatched into a spiritual world by the ghost of the serial killer’s daughter. How you answer determines your reaction when you turn the final terrible page. Lost Boy, Lost Girl is that rare novel completely beyond criticism.

shadowland23. Shadowland, 1980. 5 stars. The best of the early period isn’t Ghost Story. It’s Shadowland, and it holds up gorgeously. But I forgot how Straub plagiarized the magic-user spells of Dungeons & Dragons to a tee. Tom and Del are taught to fly and water-breathe. Tom takes a sleigh-ride over an arctic hallucinatory terrain. A school bully is magic jarred and transformed into the hideous Collector. Del’s girlfriend Rose was created stone to flesh from a statue. How could I have forgotten this? On the other hand, I do remember Tom getting a hand-job from Rose, as they fall in love and betray Del. I certainly remember Tom getting crucified. When he finally frees himself of the nails by pushing his hands forward (screaming so the universe can hear, his hands incarnations of pain), I feel the agony in every atom of my being. Shadowland is about a ruthless education on a punishing fairy-ground. The magician takes in the kids on pretext of grooming one of them (whoever can prove the better) to be his successor, but he really wants to kill them both, and needs to make them rebel against him so he can rob their talents with impunity. It’s about jealousy and broken friendship and tragic outcomes. Del is killed, shapechanged into a glass sparrow. Rose leaves Tom for a water-world, to escape her feeling of walking on knives. Tom grows up to become a penniless stage trickster. The final pages are as heartbreaking as the Grey Havens — and I don’t make that comparison lightly.

hellfire4. The Hellfire Club, 1996. 5 stars. Most of Straub’s serial killers work off-stage, but Dick Dart leads theatrically in the spotlight. He regales his captive with obscene wisdom, rapes her repeatedly, but also enables her to break away from her ineffectual husband. This quasi-Stockholm drama is framed around a string of murders from the past that steamroll into the present, and Nora is caught between Hell and Hades — her in-laws and Dart, each who want to suppress the secrets of a stolen manuscript for different reasons. Shorelands is among the most inspired settings I’ve read in a work of fiction, a writer’s colony seething with fascist history and secrets unveiled as lies and half-truths. It becomes Dick Dart’s playground for the final act which is so depraved I always go back and read it twice. But what I also love about The Hellfire Club is the way it inverts the conceit of Ghost Story. The cozy world of Republican elitism is now exposed directly, its corruption laid bare. Where the Chowder Society preserved white-collar illusions, the Hellfire Club shows the real ugliness. And it does so through the eyes of a woman who is resolved to do justice to victims long dead. She’s a heroine nailed just right by a male author, and a woman friend of mine testifies strongly to this. I’m hard pressed to think of a novel that better uses the device of a novel within a novel: the mystery of who wrote or plagiarized “Night Journey” is riveting enough; watching how parts of that fantasy manifest in reality is a supreme bonus.

mystery5. Mystery, 1990. 5 stars. This novel is so well crafted to qualify as lasting literature, the kind that begs Cliff Notes. It comes in the middle of Straub’s obsession with harms of the past eating into the present, and here they are called the Blue Rose killings for the first time. What Koko set the stage for, and The Throat exposed every membrane of, Mystery runs parallel with a coming of age story. It’s set in the ’60s, and introduces the character of Tom Pasmore, a young boy who is almost killed when hit by a car (this happened to Straub in his youth, and the autobiographical fingerprints are evident). In recovery he becomes obsessed with solving mysteries, and is mentored by an elderly Sherlock Holmes figure who is implied to have inspired “The Shadow” of the ’30s radio show. Tom becomes a natural mystery-solver but gets in over his head when he insists on finding a killer close to home. The settings are brilliant: a Caribbean island, where impoverished natives are ruled over by white aristocrats who play by their own rules; and a lakeside residence in Wisconsin, where said aristocrats spend their summers — and where vile deeds play out. Mystery is about a teen learning life’s hard truths. Besides mystery, there’s romance; and loss. And people brimming with ugliness under the facades Straub portrays so well.

the-talisman6. The Talisman, 1984. 4 ½ stars. There’s a special place in my heart for The Talisman, and not just because I’m a sucker for parallel worlds. I first read it in my high school years while visiting Grinnell College, and so Jack Sawyer’s westward trek starting in New Hampshire (my home state) resonated in spades. I expected any moment to flip into a Territories-version of Iowa, and the Grinnell campus to sideslip out of reality like Thayer School or transform into a hellish pit mine run by Sunlight Gardener. I even spotted my Twinner in a classroom. What King and Straub produced is amazing in both story and style. In the ’80s it was hard to find dark fantasy (George Martin being a decade away) and for me this was the next best thing after The Wounded Land. Donaldson gave us the Sunbane, and King & Straub came up with horrors just as vile (see here for the Covenant parallels). There are admittedly some quaint fantasy tropes that stand out today, like the melodramatic obscurity. It’s never clear why Speedy, Farren and others can’t tell Jack things that would help him — this isn’t a world like the Land, where the danger of unearned knowledge is woven into the fabric of reality. But the occasional laziness is forgivable in an otherwise outstanding tale of a 12-year old boy on a dark quest to save his mother and, in the process, the cosmos.

koko7. Koko, 1988. 4 ½ stars. Straub calls this his best novel, and I can understand why. “It was a very difficult book to write, but somewhere in the middle I saw that I had raised my game and felt as though I had reached a new level. I’ve never wanted to feel as though I was working at a lower level than I was in Koko.” It was his breakaway from the horror genre and completely on his own terms. It took me a few years to give it a try, because I’d assumed he was drying up like Stephen King. (After Misery in 1987, King went completely downhill.) But he was getting better — and Koko blew me away. I read it in ’91, a month before joining the Peace Corps, which turned out to be a bit creepy, since in my host country “koko” is what you say when you knock on a door. Koko was fresh in my mind when I learned this, and my head filled with crazy images of Basotho serial killers who announced their intentions by knocking. Straub’s killer did no such courtesy. The story is about four Vietnam vets who believe that a member of their platoon is killing people across southeast Asia. Then they think it’s a different member. Then more surprises unfold. It’s a brilliant novel, and you can taste the sweat and tears that went into it. I completely respect Straub’s reasons for calling it his best, but I think those are mostly writer’s reasons. The fact is that he’s done even better — the top five on this list.

ghost story8. Ghost Story, 1979. 4 ½ stars. Many will object to it placing this low. Stephen King pronounced it the best horror novel of the ’70s that trailed the classics Rosemary’s Baby, The Exorcist, and The Other. He was humble, because that accolade goes to his ‘Salem’s Lot. And it’s not often I compare King and Straub with the former coming out ahead. Straub is usually the better writer. But ‘Salem’s Lot is a mighty work, and Ghost Story stands in its shadow. To be fair, Straub acknowledges this: “I wanted to work on a large canvas. Salem’s Lot showed me how to do this without getting lost among a lot of minor characters.” Both novels deal with small towns under siege from the supernatural. In each town, the arrival of a writer triggers the calamity. The writer in each case becomes closely involved with a young teen and takes on a parental role as the kid’s life ends up ruined. Don’t mistake me, I love Ghost Story and am not dismissing it as derivative. King reinvented vampires, while Straub wrote ghosts who adopt the motives and souls of people who witness them. It’s certainly the most polished novel in the Straub canon (aside from perhaps Mystery), and a classic for good reason. It falls at the bottom of my 4 ½ category for the simple reason that it ultimately feels like Peter Straub beating someone else’s drum.

BlackHouseHC9. Black House, 2001. 4 stars. The sequel to The Talisman is the most difficult to rank. The writing on display is brilliant; the plot an ultimate let-down. The town dynamics of French Landing are as irresistible as ‘Salem’s Lot; the other-worldly dynamics, however, involve not only the Territories, but King’s Dark Tower series which is problematic. Then there is Jack Sawyer, now an adult and ex-homicide detective who is caught up in a string of pedophile killings. But he’s one of many point-of-view characters — unlike in The Talisman, which showed almost everything through his eyes — and this results in a narrative which is all over the map. Ironically, this turns out a strength as much a weakness, because Jack’s point of view is the least compelling; the Dark Tower baggage comes in his chapters. In the shoes of other characters, we’re treated to some of the most engaging sequences you’ll find in any novel. The mystery of “the Fisherman” — who cannibalizes children and leaves their half eaten corpses displayed in hen-houses and abandoned shops — and the discovery of the repulsive Black House concealed in a haunted wood, drive incredibly powerful scenes. Black House is so well written (even better than The Talisman), with a poetic and morbid humor that’s mesmerizing, that even the most trivial characters come vivaciously alive. I love reading this book; I’m deflated by what’s really going on behind the Black House.

in the night room10. In the Night Room, 2004.  4 stars. This one pushes bold ideas. Some might say questionable ideas, and admittedly there are points where Straub’s reach exceeds his grasp. But it works for the most part. We learn that Lost Boy, Lost Girl is a novel Tim Underhill wrote to cope with his nephew’s murder: in the story Mark explores a haunted house and bonds with the ghost of a girl who had been abused, raped and killed by her father. The novel left open the question of Mark’s fate. On one reading, he and the girl-ghost escape to a peaceful otherworld where they heal each others wounds; on another, he was abducted and killed by a real-life psychopath. In the Night Room makes clear that the latter is true. But it’s not realistic revisionism. Things get even more wild. It turns out that the ghost of Joseph Kalendar is enraged at Underhill: he didn’t in fact kill his daughter as his novel suggests. (Though he did abuse her horribly.) Tim must acknowledge the mercy Kalendar showed his daughter by sending her away to a foster home, but also the price she paid for this mercy trying to grow up sane. Meanwhile, Underhill falls in love with a woman fated to die in order to appease demonic powers. In the Night Room reminds me of William Peter Blatty’s Legion, his thoughtful sequel to The Exorcist. Each trails a brilliant horror piece and explores how forces on “the other side” retaliate when pissed off.

julia11. Julia, 1975. 3 ½ stars. This one holds up surprisingly well for a first effort. The narrative is simple and straight-forward, but more engaging than the complexities of Floating Dragon and A Dark Matter — proof that convoluted plots aren’t necessary for a good story. Julia is a clear product of the ’70s, with the kind of subtle scares we don’t see much anymore. It’s about the spirit of a long dead child, who is suddenly able to manifest in the house where she was killed, when another woman moves in. This woman (Julia) killed her own daughter recently, and is married to the same man who sired the other girl. These connections empower the spirit of the dead girl, who strongly resembles the other girl, so it’s unclear which girl is out for revenge until certain things come to light. There’s a dreamy Gothic feel, with the cruel husband and his manipulative sister, but never feeling cliche. The scene where Julia meets the other woman in the mental hospital still unnerves me after all these years. (“Get out of here, Mrs. Shit.”) Julia shouts the potential of a fledgling author and foreshadows the mightier Ghost Story. To think I was in first grade when it was published.

mr x12. Mr. X, 1999. 3 ½ stars. It shows off style at the expense of story, but the ideas are so fun that Straub can at least partly get away with it. The best part is the Lovecraft theme, found in the chapters narrated by Mr. X, who devotes his serial-murders to the Elder Gods and Far-flung Entities. He believes that his son will be the agent of his own destruction, but it turns out he has two sons, which brings in a doppelganger theme. This has been a bone of contention among readers, because while it’s a neat idea it’s handled confusingly throughout the story, as for that matter is the entire nature of Ned’s family. Moreover, when Ned is accused of crimes he didn’t commit, the drama should be more intense than it is, and it probably would have been if the author wasn’t so busy enjoying the sound of his voice. Mr. X is the equivalent of David Lynch’s Inland Empire, forcing reams of creativity into a crazy-8 narrative… but damned if I wasn’t turning pages and admiring the mess. It’s refreshing to see Cthulhu mythology supplanting the tired formula of anti-Christs. It’s safe to say that Mr. X will please hard-core Straub fans like myself for whom the cerebral style and weird ideas compensate significantly for the misassembled story crying for a ruthless editor.

if you could see me now13. If You Could See Me Now, 1977. 3 stars. Into the good-but-nothing-memorable category falls If You Could See Me Now. I enjoyed reading it today as I did long ago, but it’s nothing I’d go out of my way to recommend. Miles Teagarden is a detached character and hard to warm to, but his story proceeds apace. In the prologue his thirteen-year old self is in a Wisconsin town, where he makes a promise to his fourteen-year old cousin with whom he is infatuated: in twenty years time, no matter where they are in life, they will return to this town and meet. After so swearing, they go skinny-dipping in an abandoned quarry. Something happens in that quarry. The novel begins years later, with Miles holding up his end of the vow and expecting Alison to do the same, even though she’s long dead. On the one hand, her death is presented later as a grand reveal; on the other, it’s fairly obvious from the get. These features seem subtly intended, and indeed complement rather than oppose each other, since the narrative is more arresting if the reader “knows” Alison is dead if not entirely sure. Miles must face memories about what happened in the quarry on top of now being a suspect in a new set of murders. If Julia foreshadows Ghost Story, this novel anticipates the Blue Rose Trilogy, with themes of obscured memories and past violence, even if it involves the supernatural.

floating dragon14. Floating Dragon, 1983. 2 stars. Floating Dragon is to It as Ghost Story is to ‘Salem’s Lot. The difference being that King’s novel followed Straub’s in this case, the commonality being that he did it better than Straub as before. The novel’s chief liability is its stale characters. But the It-like formula is a problem too. (It is a pretty good novel but hasn’t aged well.) The pattern seems tired. Sleepy towns torn apart by supernatural forces; cyclical evil which only a small group of locals can defeat; cumbersome back-stories; confused plotting. The “floating dragon” is a gas leaked from the Defense Department, and the supernatural element is never clear. The gas causes people to go insane, hallucinate, and their bodies to liquefy (there are some admittedly memorable dissolving scenes I’ll never forget). Because people are losing their minds, it could be that the supernatural is in fact psychological, but there’s no real interplay between the real and surreal forces, and so the story feels underdeveloped. The final act is trite for an author of Straub’s talents, and the worst conclusion of any of his stories. Floating Dragon does score for the nasty gas effects, but not much else.

dark_matter15. A Dark Matter, 2010. 2 stars. In which nothing matters. It’s a go-nowhere novel that offers scarce intrigue, repetitions of the same event with trivial variations, and characters less impressive than Floating Dragon‘s. Spencer Mallon himself being the worst offender. When your villain is less intimidating than Lassie, that’s a fail. The crying shame is that this could have been a good story. I like the premise of an apocalyptic guru: “Like every other phony sage and prophet wandering through campuses in the mid- to late sixties, Spencer Mallon promised an end to time and a new apocalypse; unlike most of the others, he admitted that the end of time might last only a moment, or take place only in the throwing open of a mental window. I hate the man, but I have to respect this evidence of what feels to me like wisdom. If not wisdom, a conscience.” This fraud gathers a group of students in a field one night for a mysterious rite; one of the students is savaged and killed, and another disappears forever. The other students carry scars into adulthood, and the novel consists solely of these (rather uninteresting) adult student survivors taking turns at recalling the night’s horror. But nothing scary emerges, quite frankly, and in the end there’s just not enough story to warrant 400 pages.

The Talisman and Thomas Covenant

talismanI’m finishing up a marathon of Peter Straub and pleased to say that the dark fantasy he co-wrote with Stephen King, The Talisman, holds up well after 30 years. I’d forgotten how much it owes to the Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, especially the second trilogy, which turned the Land into a toxic nightmare. That trilogy remains the best horror fantasy of all time, was published between 1980 and the spring of 1983, and was clearly on the minds of King and Straub (or at least one of them), whose book was released in late 1984.

The story is about the 12-year old Jack Sawyer who embarks on a quest from New Hampshire to California, legging it, hitchhiking, barely able to feed himself and escape run-ins with those who want him dead. He periodically flips over to a world called the Territories, a parallel version of America with magic and medieval technology. It’s an inherently good place that’s been corrupted and polluted — a lot like the Land of Donaldson’s second trilogy. Let’s compare the two.

First arrival

One of the first things Thomas Covenant does in the Land is eat the treasure berries (aliantha) that grow wild and taste extraordinarily sweet. Their nourishment derives from the vitality of the Land itself, like the berries Jack Sawyer stumbles on when he first appears in the Territories:

“Jack reached in, picked a handful of berries, and tossed them into his mouth. They were amazingly sweet, amazingly good. He had never tasted anything so fine — although, he thought later, it was not just the berries themselves; part of it was the incredible clarity of the air.”

There are other benefits. Covenant’s leprosy is cured. Linden Avery has a “health sense” that puts her in tune with the Land. Jack’s experience in the Territories is reminiscent of this:

“The warm drifting air of the Territories patted his face with the gentlest, most fragrant of touches. He no longer felt ill; he felt, in fact, better than at any time since leaving Los Angeles, not merely healthy but somehow harmonious, mysteriously in tune with his body.”

The Blasted Lands = The Wounded Land

The influence of the Second Chronicles revs up when Jack and Richard come to the Blasted Lands (the Territories’ analog for the eight mountain states). Jack and Richard must travel through the stretch that parallels Wyoming-Utah-Nevada in order to reach the west coast, and they first encounter the figure of Anders who offers them advice. Anders is a babbling hermit who all but worships Jack as a savior (“Jason”) who will put things to right. He is basically Donaldson’s hermit Nassic, who receives Covenant the same way. Anders is depicted thus:

“The old man was on his knees, babbling and weeping. ‘Jason, ye’ve come! Ye’ve come and a’ wi’ be well, aye, a’ wi’ be well, and a’ manner a’ things wi’ be well!’ His white hair obscured Jack’s sandaled feet as be bent over and began to kiss them. He was a single man who had spent his entire life in the Outposts and he was not used to talking much at the best of times. Now he had been commanded to speak by a boy whom he considered to be at least royalty, and perhaps even something of a god.”

woundedJack and Richard then enter the Blasted Lands, which is basically the Land under the Sunbane. Boulder-sized fireballs appear out of nowhere, bringing death and radioactive poison. Warped animals and serpentine humanoids dash about and hide under rocks. Rare water pools are foul and oily. As for trees, their existence is pure agony:

“From this starved dry soil grew the wretched trees, so stunted they seemed to be straining over in an attempt to flee back under their own coiling roots. This was bad enough, but when you saw one of the trees obliquely, out of the side of your eye, you saw a living creature in torment — the straining branches were arms thrown up over an agonized face caught in a frozen scream. The trees were cursing, pleading, howling at Jack — their unheard voices hung in the air like smoke. Like all the Blasted Lands, these trees had been poisoned.”

This imagery is lifted from The Wounded Land, where Thomas Covenant and Linden Avery witness the torture of vegetation under the Sunbane.

“Suddenly, the long grass and curling vines, the thick bushes, the saplings no longer seemed lush. Instead, they looked frenetic, hysterical. They did not spring with spontaneous luxuriance out of the soil; they were forced to grow by the unnatural scourge of the sun. Vegetation squirmed out of the ground like a ghoul-ridden host. Shrubs raised their branches as if they were on fire; trees clawed their way into the air, as frantic as the damned. Linden was floating through a wilderness of voiceless anguish; the torment around her was as loud as shrieks. Tortured out of all Law, the trees and plants had no defense, could do nothing for themselves except grow and grow — and hurl their dumb hurt into the sky.”

White Gold + Staff of Law = Talisman

The Talisman itself calls to mind the Land’s two artifacts, the Staff of Law and White Gold Ring. The Staff for its healing function: the Talisman was made to cure Jack’s mother and her Territories’ analogue the Queen. In the process, the cosmos will be made whole, because the Talisman somehow encompasses all worlds through these women. The rightful wielder of the Talisman (Jack) actually becomes one with the cosmos:

“Jack Sawyer was everywhere; Jack Sawyer was everything. A blade of grass died of thirst on an inconsequential plain somewhere in the center of a continent which roughly corresponded in position to Africa; Jack died with that blade of grass. In another world, dragons were copulating in the center of a cloud high above the planet, and the fiery breath of their ecstasy mixed with the cold air and precipitated rain and floods on the ground below. Jack was the he-dragon; Jack was the she-dragon; Jack was the sperm; Jack was the egg. Far out in the ether a million universes away, three specks of dust floated near on another in interstellar space. Jack was the dust, and Jack was the space between. Jack’s happy teeth bit an orange: Jack’s unhappy flesh screamed as the teeth tore him open. He was a sneeze; he was the germs in the sneeze; he was the atoms in the germs; he was the tachyons in the atoms traveling backward through time toward the big bang at the start of creation.”

Compare this to Linden’s experience of wielding the Staff of Law. She heals the Land by becoming spiritually coterminous with it, and absorbing every ounce of poison and corruption, translating it, and sending it back as Earthpower:

“It was a strange battle, weird and terrible. She had no opponent. Her foe was the rot Lord Foul had inflicted on the Land. She called it to herself, accepted it into her personal flesh. The sheer pain and horror of it excruciated her hideously. But her need drove her to more power. She was a storm upon the mountain, a barrage of determination and fire. From every league and hill and gully and plain of the Land, every slope of Andelain and cliff of the peaks, every southern escarpment and northern rise, she drew ruin into herself and restored it to wholeness, then sent it back like silent rain. The brown of deserts came blistering around her, scorched her skin. She felt in her bones the rhythm of rise and fall, the strict and vital alternation of seasons, summer and winter. The desert fire was cooled to a caress and emitted gently outward again. She restored the Earthpower and released it upon the wracked body of the Land.”

Jack Sawyer is like Linden Avery — a “chosen” healer with godlike awareness and feeling. But he’s also like Thomas Covenant, because the Talisman is as much a weapon as a healing device, and like the white gold depends on the paradox of surrender. As Jack and his nemesis Morgan Sloat battle on the beach, Sloat furiously demands that Jack surrender the Talisman, which Jack finally does to his friend’s shock:

“Richard watched in horror as Jack tilted the palms of his hands and let the Talisman tumble out. ‘Jack, no!’

“Jack didn’t look around at Richard. You don’t own a thing unless you can give it up, his mind hammered at him. The Talisman glowed on the beach, and in that moment Jack knew the staggering cleanliness of giving up the thing which was required.

“‘No more slaughter,’ Jack said to Sloat. ‘Go on and break it if you can. I’m sorry for you.’

“It was this last which surely destroyed Morgan Sloat. If he had retained a shred of rational thought, he would have unearthed a stone and smashed the Talisman. Instead he turned the key on it. Fire sang out. It arrowed out at the Talisman, struck it, spread over it, turned it into a burning sun. Every color was there for a moment… then it was gone. The Talisman swallowed the fire from Morgan’s key. Ate it whole. Then Morgan Sloat was driven backward and enveloped in a field of fire — fire that had been absorbed inside the Talisman and which was returned to him a thousandfold. Jack heard Morgan Sloat’s dying scream as he was driven back through all the worlds that were, into oblivion.”

White-Gold-WielderCompare this to what happens in the final confrontation under Mount Thunder, in White Gold Wielder. Lord Foul demands that Covenant surrender his white gold ring, to which Linden protests but allows Covenant his freedom of choice. Covenant does surrender it, and seals Foul’s doom by way of paradox: Foul gets the white gold ring and unleashes its fire on Covenant, but because Covenant himself is white gold, the fire ultimately backfires on Foul and destroys him. If Foul had simply taken the ring and left Covenant alone, he would have been free to destroy the cosmos.

Morgan Sloat makes a similar blunder in the above citation. If he had simply tried to destroy the Talisman by physically crushing it, he would have succeeded, and could have wreaked havoc across worlds. Instead, like Foul, he attacks Jack with magic fire (from his personal key), which triggers the Talisman to rebound the attack. Sloat dies like Lord Foul, a victim of his hate and rage.

So is The Talisman derivative?

No, it’s its own story, filled with originality and surprises. And I’m not faulting King and Straub. In the early ’80s it would have been difficult for a horror-fantasy to be free of Donaldson’s influence. After Lord of the Rings, the second Covenant trilogy is the best fantasy ever written, proving that sequel trilogies can be not only good but better when authors push themselves. It’s a mean fantasy, with a foe that can’t be defeated by armies and battles, and a plot impossible to predict. Donaldson had stepped outside the Tolkien trappings that constrained his first trilogy and delivered something completely on his own terms.

King and Straub were writing on their own terms too, but in the immediate shadow of the Second Chronicles. The Talisman doesn’t plagiarize — for that, read Straub’s Shadowland, which, though a masterpiece, shamelessly steals the catalog of magic-user spells from Dungeons and Dragons — but it does evoke Land-like themes. It depicts an environmental poison worse than war; omnipresent evil that fills the cosmos; and salvation that comes by risky submission to it.