So, there I was, in my reading chair, with Wolves of the Calla, vol. 5 of Stephen King’s The Dark Tower epic, and all I can do is think, “What the heck happened to Berni Wrightson?”
All books in The Dark Tower series are illustrated, the first and last by Michael Whelan, and one volume each by Phil Hale, Dave McKean, Bernie Wrightson, Ned Dameron and Darell Anderson. Frankly, none of them besides McKean’s do much for me, but then I had no expectations for them either. But when I was a teen, Berni Wrightson was a god! His pen and ink work brought the Graham Ingels E.C. Comics style into the modern world. Swamp Thing. The Frankenstein Portfolio. Killer stuf. But while the other illustrators did solid work even if it didn’t interest me, Wrightson’s illustrations look…I can’t believe I’m going to say this..amateurish. The anatomy is bad, the painting technique is bad, the compositions are bad. If his name wasn’t on the book and the book wasn’t being sold in retail outlets, you’d never convince me that they were his work.
Though this is blowing my mind, it shouldn’t really be enough to keep from starting reading. But I’m feeling a great resistance. That’s not good.
Fortunately, Wolves of the Calla turns out to be the most entertaining of the books so far, even though (or perhaps because) it is King’s admitted rehashing of Seven Samurai/The Magnificent Seven. Roland that the others come to the aid of a town that suffers from raider s known as the Wolves who, once a generation, steal half of the children in the village. The children are gone for awhile, and then sent back “roont,” that is, brain fried. For reasons that may not matter but which are still never explained, all the offspring in Calla Byn Sturgis are twins. The raiders don’t seem to differentiate between boys and girls, they take one or the other. All that is known is that the children are for the Breakers, whoever they may be. The townspeople have never fought back, though there are always a few that want to. Roland, being a gunslinger and all, is the equivalent of a knight. Once the town agrees to ask him for help, he cannot refuse (only fair since he largely manipulates the proceedings so that they will ask.)
The plot follows the general outline of Kurosawa’s classic, with variations for the new characters involved. But the critical aspect of this volume, the one that has the most impact on the rest of the story, and on my final opinion of it all, is the introduction of Father Donald Callahan, a long-time resident of the Calla..and a major character in King’s novel, Salem’s Lot. And it is that character, not someone with the same name. Late in the book he tells his story, and it’s the story of his confrontation with Barlow, and his loss of faith and the years he traveled afterwards before finding himself in Calla Byn Sturgis. He informs us that vampires are part of this world–which I’m thinking is NOT the one from which Roland originally came, but I’m losing track of all that by this time. There are also a group of people abroad in the multiverse known as the low men who work for the Crimson King.
And did I mention the sneetches? They are little hand grenades that follow whomever they are thrown at. There’s no outrunning them. If they sound a bit familiar, think Harry Potter.
At the end of the battle we know that the Wolves are actually robots. More, they look a lot like Dr. Doom…..seriously.
And as the novel climaxes (well after the big battle,) we are left with Donald Callahan dealing with the paperback copy of Salem’s Lot by Stephen King that has been brought over from Jake’s particular when and where. The sickening feeling that this story has just officially jumped the shark is overwhelming.
Frankly, I don’t want to read vol.6, Song of Susannah, but then I feel I’ve come this far, I might as well finish. It’s a struggle, but I finally decide I need to do this, to review the series if nothing else. And King might just turn this around.
But Song of Susannah is sheer drudgery to get through. Earlier in the series, Susannah, as Detta, had sex with a demon while Eddie was working to bring Jake into Roland’s world. Well, she got preggers, and that constituted one of the main subplots of Wolves of the Calla. This time around, her pregnancy is the entire book, and, of course, it’s not a simple thing. We learned back in vol. 5 that yet another personality had arisen in Susannah, named Mia, who is the “mother” of the child she calls”her chap.” Mia fantasizes eating gourmet banquets to provide sustenance for the chap but as Roland sees when he follows Susannah one night, Susannah is eating live frogs and anything else she can find.
The subplots by this time are whizzing about like the Santa Monica Freeway just before rush hour. It is more effort than I am willing to put out to track them. But all of Song of Susannah takes place in various alternate worlds. Susannah and Mia are struggling for control as the time for birth approaches; Roland and Eddie are looking for the “real” Stephen King, whom they think might just be the creator of all worlds; and Father Callahan and Jake are working to find Susannah and save her.
I struggle, I push forward. I fight to maintain interest as we meet Stephen King and he is given the great job of finsihing his Dark Tower series, which is boxed up in the cellar. I swallow my groans as new elements and characters are added that seem to have no purpose (and ultimately, I’ll be proven right.) Although I no doubt missed a lot of the references, the tying in of many (all?) of King’s other fiction feels like I’ve been sold a ticket to see a bad roadside attraction out in the Arizona Desert. I strive NOT to skim, find myself doing it and force myself to go back and re-read the passage. When Stephen King gets killed by a drunk driver while out on an afternoon walk, I shake my head. I know the accident in our world was a life-changing event. I hate that it happened. I don’t want to read anymore about it, anymore than Stephen King would want to re-read a story of a tragedy from my life for the umpteenth time.
I start vol. 7, The Dark Tower, knowing that I really don’t care. I could walk away right at that moment and never once think about what I might have missed. This feeling will grow: I will feel it even more strongly 100 pages from the end of the book.
By this time the rambling, self-indulgent threads are so spread out, the pop culture references so prominent, and the reason behind it all so mind-numbingly vague that I look forward not to finishing the book, but to having been long finished with it, to be six or eight months down the road. I find myself wanting to mow the lawn instead of reading. I find myself starting other books, then forcing myself to put them down. I am so close. I’ve put in all this time. I must go on.
More characters are added, more new lands to journey through appear. If they are from other King novels, I don’t know or care enough to find out. I kind of resent having to have a concordance at hand to read even an acknowledged classic. The Crumson King is now apparently awaiting Roland at the tower.Mia and Susannah’s child, a were spider, is following the ka-tet as they prepare for one last battle, the one to take down the Breakers, who are mentally breaking the beams that hold together all realities. And how could I forget to mention that, due to a convoluted seriesof events, the child’s father turns out to be the Crimson King AND Roland! Jake is killed saving Stephen King. Eddie dies at the end of the battle with the Breakers. Susannah continues with Roland until she is finally sent home. Roland defeats the Crimsn King and prepares to enter the Tower.
And here”s where things get really confusing. Susannah ends up in yet another alternate New York (the Beams have been saved, you see.) There she is befriended by an Eddie that doesn’t know her but feels that he does. His younger brother, Jake, is also there. All one big happy family.
King (author King, not the one in the book) tries to dissuade us from following Roland into the Tower After 3900 pages, after all the tedium and bullshit that I’ve been through to get here, I’m going all the way.
Roland climbs the steps of the Tower. Each level is a chapter of his lie and he has some time to reflect on the things that have happened to him the things he has done. At the top, he finds a door, which he opens. At that moment he realizes that he has found the tower and climbed it and opened it countless times before. Fight though he might, he is pulled forward to begin his journey all over again. The difference this time is an object from that long-ago last battle of Gilead. There is just the slightest chance that this go ’round will lead him to redemption.
And you know what I liked the ending. In his afterword, King doesn’t seem to think readers are going to be happy with it, even expresses his own dissatisfaction with where it all ended up. But I agree with his insistence that it is the right ending. It’s the story leading up to the ending that fails here.
As the first sentence of the first book repeats, the ending is marred somewhat by the questions that spring to mind. Have Eddie, Susannah/Detta/Odetta and Jake always been the companions in Roland’s previous trips? Are they likewise mired in the wheel of ka? If so that happy ending in New York is meaningless, and the universe is suddenly far crueler than ever before. But if they aren’t perennially Roland’s companions, then each turn through fate is different, which I suppose supports the chance of redemption but kind of emasculates the power of the ending. And all those poor people along his way, the various incidental characters, almost all of whom lead wretched lives at best, what about them? If this recurrent journey is of Roland’s making, if it is somehow his punishment or penance, are all those others inextricably bound to him?
And then there’s those pesky Beams. If the quest for the Tower was to save the Beams, are they broken again when Roland starts over again? Does time not progress at all, meaning that the world ends and begins again when Roland enters the tower no matter what else happens? Or is a new alternate reality created, an alternate reality of all the alternate realities, but one whose Beams are still broken? I know this is fiction, but these kinds of questions should come up, if at all, a long time after you finish reading, not as you are perusing the final pages.
Throughout the book we’ve been told that time runs differently “over there.” Roland has been searching for the Tower for a thousand years. The ruins of the cities are said to be thousands of years old, despite the fact it’s not all that hard to find a working lamp or loudspeaker. Does time reset as Roland re-starts his journey? Or does time continue to pass? During his first round-trip, was the world younger?
I’m glad it’s done. I’m not glad I didn’t enjoy the trip. Did this journey really need seven (and now eight!) books to tell? The Harry Potter series the nearest equivalent, had more story in any one of its last four volumes than the last four volumes of The Dark Tower combined. Other serial novels, like The Lord of the Rings feel complete and finished, and if they drag here and there, that can be said of all stories if one reads closely enough. But I haven’t read any that overstay their welcome like The Dark Tower. In fact, I wouldn’t have finished them in the first place.
I don’t say this is true, but the appearance is of someone, whether it be King or an editor, unwilling to lop off large chunks from the work of the world’s bestselling author.
Roland Deschain is an intersting character as is the world he lives in, at least as it is originally sketched in the first three books. But the final outcome doesn’t motivate to read the eighth book, or to read the various comic book series, or to have any interest in a film version. I’ll probably even sell my set of The Dark Tower. I can assure you, I won’t be reading it again.