Jack Sawyer, twelve years old, sets out from Arcadia Beach, New Hampshire in a bid to save his mother, who is dying from cancer, by finding a crystal called "the Talisman." Jack's journey takes him simultaneously through the American heartland and "the Territories," a strange fantasy land which is set in a universe parallel to that of Jack's America. Individuals in the Territories have "twinners," or parallel individuals, in our world. Twinners' births, deaths, and (it is intimated) other major life events are usually paralleled. Twinners can also "flip" or migrate to the other world, but only share the body of their alternate universe's analogue. When flipped, the Twinner, or the actual person, will automatically start speaking and thinking the language of where they are flipping into subconsciously.
In rare instances (such as Jack's), a person may die in one world but not the other, making the survivor "single-natured" with the ability to switch back and forth, body and mind, between the two worlds. Jack is taught how to flip by a mysterious figure known as Speedy Parker, who is the twinner of a gunslinger named Parkus in the Territories. In the Territories, the beloved Queen Laura DeLoessian, the twinner of Jack's mother (a movie actress known as the "Queen of the B Movies") is dying as well.
Various people help or hinder Jack in his quest. Of particular importance are the werewolves, known simply as Wolfs, who inhabit the Territories. These are not the savage killers of tradition: they serve as royal herdsmen or bodyguards, and can sometimes under stress voluntarily change to wolf form, in addition to facing an involuntary transformation that lasts about three days at the time of the full moon. A sixteen-year-old Wolf, simply named Wolf, is pulled into America by Jack Sawyer and adopts Jack as his pack, serving as his companion. Wolf is extremely likeable, kind, loyal and friendly, much like a dog, though his wolf nature shows through on occasion. On the other hand, some Wolfs have joined the malevolent faction which is trying to stop Jack.
As the story goes back and forth between the Territories and the familiar United States, or "American Territories" as Jack comes to call them, Jack escapes from one life-threatening situation after another. Accompanied by Wolf and later by his childhood friend Richard, Jack must retrieve the Talisman before it falls into the hands of evil schemer Morgan Sloat, Richard's father, who, we later learn, was Jack's father's business partner before arranging to have the latter murdered. He wants to seize their business from Jack's mother. Morgan Sloat's twinner, Morgan of Orris, also plans to seize the Territories in the event of Queen Laura's death.
The idea of writing The Talisman first took form when Stephen King moved with his family to London in early 1977. It was there he met Peter and Susan Straub, and their children. The two writers became friends, both being fans of each other's work. King and his family left London three months later to return to the United States.
Straub and King had talked multiple times before about collaborating to write a book, but nothing ever surfaced until years after King returned stateside, when the Straubs also moved to the United States. According to King, after Straub moved, "the talk got serious," and they began collaborating. Their literary friendship continued after The Talisman was published; in 1999 they began working on the sequel, Black House (2001), which deals with Jack Sawyer as an adult.
A third and final book in the Jack Sawyer series is planned.
When Jack "flips," he finds himself in a parallel world, which is physically smaller than the world from which he comes. Throughout the course of the novel, Jack uses the size differential as a method to travel quickly across the country. The eastern region, corresponding to the Eastern Seaboard, is the most densely populated and is governed under a feudal system headed by the Queen. The central regions, roughly corresponding to the American plains, are a grain growing area known as "the Outposts." Beyond them the western region of the Territories is a destroyed area known as "the Blasted Lands" (analogous to the American Southwest - primarily New Mexico, where the atomic bomb was tested). It apparently was wrecked by radioactivity and has dangerous mutants and occasional fireballs.
Where Jack begins his quest and meets Speedy Parker. It is a decaying building on the New Hampshire coast, at the end of the novel deserted except for Jack's mother. Its parallel in the Territories is the summer palace of the dying queen.
The Alhambra was also a notable location in "The Tommyknockers."
A bar in the fictional western New York town of the same name. The owner, Smokey, holds Jack as a virtual slave. Jack despises him for this mistreatment.
When Jack and Wolf are accused of mischievous "hitchhiking" and "trouble-making" by a highway police officer, they are sent by the court to a camp/school for troubled youths run by evangelist Robert "Sunlight" Gardner/Osmond. It is located in eastern Indiana and parallels a terrible open pit mine in the Territories where slaves are used to gather radioactive ore for Morgan. Jack and Wolf are held as wards of the state in Sunlight Gardener's School for one month, escaping after Wolf transforms and brutally kills a number of students in the school. Sunlight Gardener escapes during the attack and Wolf is shot four times by Sonny Singer (a prefect at the school) and dies of his injuries.
A boarding school for wealthy boys in Springfield, Illinois. Jack meets up with his friend Richard here. The school is shifted into another plane by Morgan, wolves and gargoyle-like creatures try to seize Jack.
In the ruined town of Point Venuti on the northern California coast. It is a mysterious abandoned black structure similar to the Alhambra. It holds the Talisman and has many different incarnations depending on the alternate universe. In The Territories it appears as a black castle. It is through this building's shifting forms as Jack nears the Talisman that the reader learns of a multitude of other worlds of which the Territories and America are only two.
Because Straub and King were both immensely successful and popular horror and suspense writers in their own rights, anticipation of this book was extremely strong. The publisher financed a USD$550,000 promotion budget and several articles ran which hailed the collaboration of the two writers and speculated what would be “the greatest horror novel ever written.”
Actual popular and critical reception, however, were mixed and ran the spectrum from "worst" (People: "Worst of Pages" list) and "best" (Twilight Zone: Year's Best Novel). However, with the exception of People, no critics recommended against it.
According to Publishers Weekly, the final sales figure for The Talisman in 1984 was 880,287 copies. The original hardbound edition spent 12 weeks as #1 on New York Times Best Seller List with a total of 23 weeks in total on the list. Publishers Weekly listed it as #1 for 11 weeks, with a total of 26 weeks on the list.
The subsequent Berkley paperback edition spent 2 weeks as #1 on the New York Times best paperback list with a total of 14 weeks on the list. Publishers Weekly listed it as #1 for 3 weeks, with 13 weeks in total on the list.
The book's sequel Black House presents a "soft" retcon that the Territories are a parallel to All-World. This is made most clear by King's introduction to The Little Sisters of Eluria where he states the pavilion where Jack Sawyer meets Sophie is the same one in The Little Sisters.
The Talisman is being adapted into a graphic novel much like The Stand and The Dark Tower. Del Rey has planned to run "at least 24 issues." The first issue was published in October 2009.