I enjoy spending time in a Stephen King book. Even when the story isn’t top notch (say, The Tommyknockers, or Insomnia,) I still feel as if I’m in the company of a good friend. That’s part of his success, I’m sure, and I don.t make the mistake of thinking that he and I would necessarily BE friends. The artist isn’t the art. When he’s firing on all cylinders –The Green Mile, Thinner, Dolores Claiborne, The Stand–he is a magician. The only King novel I ever just gave up on was Desperation, though I’ve sometimes felt like I was slogging through mud with others
A guy with a slightly lower opinion over at Ain’t It Cool News refers to King as “The Man Who Likes to Type.” There’s a lot of truth in that. King is in love with the sound of his own voice, and why wouldn’t he be, having sold more books than anybody ever. What editor is going to do anything much more than correct continuity or point out inconsistencies, or an occasional repetition. “Mr. King, this whole section is just too wordy!”
And that brings us to The Dark Tower, vols. 1-7. I’ve had them on my shelf for years, buying each one as they came out, promising to read the whole series once the final book was published, if ever. Most of you probably know the history, but for those that don’t, King has been working on The Dark Tower Saga for over 30 years now. Many years passed between the publication of the first four volumes; the last three all burst forth within a year in 2004, in the aftermath of his car accident. Since that time, he’s added an eighth book and produced or overseen any number of prequels, sequels, in the middle-quels and what not. Not wanting to make this review my life’s work, I’m just sticking with the first seven novels as originally presented.
King has declared The Dark Tower to be his magnum opus, literally, “the great work.” It is indeed the longest, largest and of the grandest scale of his books. But don’t confuse magnum opus with masterpiece. An author can determine the former about his work; the latter is decided by the audience. One’s magnum opus is not directly equivalent to one’s finest, most enduring work.
Before we go on, I will let you know that there are SPOILERS ahead. I can’t review an almost 4,000 page story without getting into some of the salient details.
So, we begin with volume 1, The Gunslinger (Donald Grant, 1982). Even after the 2003 revisions that brought it more into line with the rest of the saga, it is still by far the work of a young man. His imagination is afire, and through the clumsy story progression, King pulls us forward with his vision of an alternate world, one that is decaying, dying, bleak, populated a strange mix of technology and landscape from our own history. Remnants of Amoco refineries exist alongside shabby western towns out of Sergio Leone movies. Roland Deschain, the last Gunslinger, is the Clint Eastwood of this world, and we will learn little more of what he looks like until late in the series when we find he looks like Stephen King. Or not. Me, I’m sticking with the Eastwood model. At any rate, whatever the past of this world, it has now “moved on.”
Roland is traveling through this bleak, arid West, trailing his nemesis, the Man in Black. A stop in a gritty frontier town underscores the resemblance to our west, but adds a few details that set it apart: “Hey Jude” is an ancient ballad in Roland’s world; cattle and other animals are severely mutated from some unnamed exposure to radiation; paper is as rare to this world as gold is to ours; and the Man in Black can reanimate corpses and the folks around the table don’t even blink an eye.
Roland finds a young boy, recently deceased in our world, whom he includes in his travels, but when the time comes that Roland must choose between saving Jake and catching the Man in Black, Roland let’s Jake tumble into a dark void. The Man in Black, also known as Walter O’Dim, is both the key and the obstacle to Roland’s quest to reach the Dark Tower, said tower being Roland’s obsessive goal. In a conversation that lasts ten years, Walter reads Roland’s future with tarot cards.
There’s a lot packed into these few pages, and the basic foundations of this world are established. But what seems mysterious at the beginning of the long march turns out to be merely vague by journey’s end. Why is paper so rare, and why is it important that we, the readers, know this? If it’s just a gimmick to set the worlds apart, then too much is made of it. There’s no real reason that some kind of writing medium couldn’t be produced in Roland’s world, despite the fact that the ancient technology littered about is beyond the comprehension of the world’s inhabitants. They can, after all, make guns and bullets.
Roland has a history with Walter, aka the Man in Black, whom we will also come to know as Marten Broadcloak, Randall Flag, Richard Fannin, and kinda-maybe-sorta John Farson. In all these guises, Walter is Roland’s primary nemesis. Except that in the end, he isn’t. Despite seducing Roland’s mother, inciting the rebellion that ruined the world, and his unexplained desire to constantly thwart Roland, Walter is only a diversion. But we won’t find this out for another 3,000 or so pages.
Vaguest of all is the Dark Tower and the part it plays in Roland’s life. Even now, having completed the series, I am not clear on the why of Roland’s quest. The meaning of the tower is mysterious and menacing in this first book, but though much information will be added, the Dark Tower’s meaning and place seems to shift, and even occupy multiple (vague) purposes at the same time, until it comes to be the center of all things. Or not. But more on that in later volumes.
Five years passed before volume 2, The Drawing of the Three (Grant, 1987.) King’s style and imagination have matured greatly, and the length of the book has doubled. Fulfilling Walter’s prophecy, Roland wanders along a bleak shore, finding doorways into various different whens in our world, and kidnapping (drawing) the people destined by ka to be his partners in his quest. Eddie Dean is a young junkie from 1987 New York; Odetta Holmes, a black double amputee from 1964 who has a split personality, one a rich black Civil Rights Activist, the other a nasty, streetwise piece of hate named Detta Walker. These stories are separate but related, feeling more like two short novellas stitched together. The third story takes Roland to 1977 where much is made about Jack Mort, a psychopath who seeks to maim rather than kill his victims. We find out he is responsible for both the accident that caused Odetta to lose her legs AND the head trauma that brought Detta to the fore; Mort will also be involved in the actions that bring about Jake’s death in the next volume. But once Mort is mort, we’re done with him. The idea of coincidence is is laid on thick, hinting at some kind of connection between all things but never achieving much more thanthat.
That these three personalities clash is obvious. Eddie is going through withdrawal, Odetta is leaping back and forth between personalities, and neither are happy about being kidnapped into a dark, barren world where doorways rise up out of the sand along a vast coastline. Giant lobster creatures rise from the sea each night –lobstrosities!– and prey on the group. In fact, early in the story, the gunslinger himself loses two fingers from his right hand to a lobstorsity, and fights an infection for the rest of the book. Roland survives only when Eddie grabs some keflex and packets of aspirin from 1987. Roland hears it as astin; he also hears tuna fish as tooterfish. He never learns to say them correctly. What is amusing the first time becomes annoyingly cute after awhile.
The Wastelands (Grant, 1991) is volume 3. Jake is having a bit of trouble in his own 1964 because he, uh, died once before and then was dropped into an abyss by Roland. This conflicts him, to say the least. He is drawn to a rose growing in a vacant lot, and to a used book store run by one Calvin Tower. He also has a near run in with a younger (and possibly alternate) Eddie. Most of all, he feels pushed forward towards a door that will lead him….where?
Well, Roland, Eddie and Susannh (the combined Odetta/Detta) have made their way to a circleof stone in the forest. Eddie has been obssesively carving a key. In order to use this, the demon of the clearing needs to be distracted, and Susannah is on deck. Detta comes forward to take on the monster, with enough gusto to trap the monster inside her —that’s in a sexual way, not some silly mysticism, God forbid. This is going to have major consequences later on.
Jake avoids a third death at the hands of Jack Mort (driven, dare I say, by Walter O’Dim), heads to the local haunted house, evades a monster made of the houses timber and tumbles through a door and into the clearing. He becomes part of the group and they head on.
If that’s not enough for a single story, we also have the first indication that some of the super technology created by the Old Ones is still operational. First, in the form of a gigantic cyborg bear, guadrdian on one end of the Beam. I should say of the Bear/Turtle Beam. There are eight beams in all, all of which intersect at the Dark Tower. Some of them have been broken, though what exactly they are remains unclear. Suffice to say, the clouds travel along those paths, and Roland and co. follow the clouds.
The city of Lud is more oe less New York after an atomic attack, though there is at least one WW2 fighter plane on the ground, and a Nazi one at that. Adventures ensue. Conveniently some of the lights and loudspeakers that are thousands of years old still work.
Eventually–and trust me, I am leaving a lot out–the ka-tet, the one out of many, makes their way through the city to a sentient but psychotic monorail who loves riddles. Eddie is the great riddle master here, though riddling is an ancient tradition in Roland’s world. The correct answer gets them on the train in time to escape the destruction of the city (and its still working computer terminals.) But the fun is only beginning.
Blaine has planned a suicide run. He has also planned to take his passengers with him, but his love of riddles moves him to one concession. If they can stump him before he gets to the end of the run, he’ll let them go.
To the anger of many fans, the book ends with the riddle game just begun. Since the next book in the series didn’t come out until 1997, I’d say they were justified.
Wizard and Glass (Grant 1997) takes an abrupt detour, though it does wrap up the riddle game. The ka-tet makes it through, though there is some question as to whether they are still in the world they started in or an alternate one. Fans of The Stand will recognize the slightly altered landscape, and will possibly be amused by it, not realizing what it actually portends. Not long after that, the ka-tet arrives at an Emerald City from another famous alternate world. Be very afraid.
As a break, Roland tells the story of his youth, of his first love, of his two great friends, and of the beginning of the war that would end the world as he knew it. It’s an entertaining but ultimately slight story as far as I’m concerned. Roland still remains an unknowable figure; his friends, Cuthbert and Alain, are more likeable, and his lover, Susan Delgado brings a little light into what has thus far been a pretty dreary world. Several characters are introduced here that will have some impact on later doings, and we see that oil is at the heart of the last great war, but what should be an interlude is distended and bloated into an entire novel. Susan is burned at the stake, more old myths are told, Conoco trucks are blown up.
In the end, a magic glass reveals to Eddie, Susannah and Jake that Roland killed his mother after she had an affair with Marten Broadcloak, aka The Man in Black, aka Walter O’Dim, and so on. Being Roland’s friend, it seems, is rough on your own life.
Although progress toward the Tower has been made, the whys and wherefores are no more clear than when we started. The beams intersect at the tower, but what the tower is beyond some large antenna is scrupulously avoided. Alternate world theories begin to filter in until there is such a flood of them that I never again knew where I was, except in the Key World, which we won’t get to for quite a while yet. (And for those that can’t wait, the Key World is NOT our world, though you’d be hard-pressed to tell them apart.)
So, here I am, well past the half-way point in this epic, and I’m asking myself the same question you are currently asking yourself about this review: does this really need to be this long?
Next week: Part 2