“The man in black fled across the desert,
and the gunslinger followed.”
Thus begins the epic journey of one Roland Deschain, the Clint Eastwood-esque hero of Stephen King’s fantasy series The Dark Tower.
A couple of years ago, being fed up with how little I was reading but knowing that much of my reading consisted of sometimes slow-going theological works, I just wanted to relax and escape into a good novel. Per recommendations from two of my best friends, I dove into the works of Stephen King for the first time since sixth grade when, having gotten successfully freaked out by Pet Sematary, I gave ol’ Stevie a rest for over a decade.
After getting my feet wet with a few of King’s more recent works, namely Dreamcatcher, Cell and his non-fiction memoir/writing guide On Writing, I decided it was time to wade into the deeper waters of his catalogue.
In early May I began volume 1 of the seven volume Dark Tower series. For the uninitiated the first book in the series is simply titled The Gunslinger and follows the story of Roland’s pursuit of the aforementioned Man in Black (not to be confused with Johnny Cash).
And it is not very good.
Far be it for me to criticize one of the best selling modern American novelists. But even King himself in the preface to Gunslinger seems to apologize a bit for its inaccessibility. It seems he was exercising a new style with the first Dark Tower book that, for whatever reason, just didn’t take. But as impenetrable as the style is, there are still glimpses of the greatness that would reveal itself over the course of the series: from the dystopian world the gunslinger Roland inhabits to the gripping shootout in the town of Tull to the introduction of the boy Jake, The Gunslinger proves itself to be, though faulty, an ambitious tale merely scratching the surface of the ways the entire series would ultimately entwine itself with the entirety of King’s ouvre.
The Dark Tower is a physical place within Roland’s world. An obsidian spire shooting up from the ground, surrounded by a field of roses. A place Roland Deschain, son of Steven, of the line of Arthur Eld – King Arthur himself – has been seeking his entire life, a life already a hundred years long. You see, in Roland’s world, a world running alongside our own yet wholly different is a place where time, as a character named Eddie introduced in Book 2 would say, “is a face on the water.” Imagine a twisted version of Narnia, where characters from ‘the real world’ can enter at various locations in our world, but time on that side runs differently – much slower actually – than time in our world.
It’s a fascinating tale woven over the course of 7 books. The series has a few holes here and there and I’d love to ask Mr King about his decision to vanquish The Crimson King, the series’ villain, the way he did. But on the whole it’s a masterful piece of fiction, with nods and winks throughout to dozens of other books by King. For instance in one book the Ka-Tet of The Dark Tower (Ka-Tet is King’s ‘fellowship’, if you will…the group of characters bound together by fate with a common goal) enter a portal and end up, for a chapter or so, in the apocalyptic landscape of King’s other masterwork, The Stand.
While I wasn’t 100% satisfied with the resolution of Roland’s quest for the Dark Tower I was completely enamored of the very end, which anyone who has read the series will be aware was quite controversial an ending. But I thoroughly dug it.
Also, despite my good friend and Stephen King afficianado Reed Lackey’s personal claim to the contrary, my favorite volume in the series is the fourth book titled Wizard and Glass. It’s 90% a flashback tale, telling a story of Roland’s youth. Reed’s initial complaint was that it slowed down the present story. While this is true, I found the story it chose to tell massively compelling. It’s a twisted version of the Western motif with the tumbleweeds and crooked lawmen, but thrown in with the conventions of fantasy like witches, magic and orbs of great power. And it’s heartbreaking conclusion informs as much of the present story, or at least Roland’s personality within it, than any of the other events that play out with he and his companions.
In addition to King’s Dark Tower I also decided to check two of his other works, one his very first and another one of his most acclaimed: Carrie and Misery. Carrie is a heartwrenching coming-of-age story wrapped in telepathy-gone-wrong tale. It’s also, despite being familiar with the end, incredibly suspenseful. Misery is one ‘cockadoodie’ yarn about one writer and one crazed fan and the incendiary relationship the two strike up.
Between the nine books and 4000 or so pages of Stephen King I put away in 2008, I ultimately decided one thing: I’m a fan.
P.S. Just this month, with a little more breathing room to the breadth of books I read, I began King’s magnum opus, the 1200 page apocalyptic tale The Stand. 450 pages down …. I think I can knock it out by month’s end.