Quite what possessed me to dive headlong into an eight-novel series in the middle of the busiest year of my life, I’m not sure. I’d been considering the Dark Tower since the last volume came out in 2004, because I’d read a lot of King’s fiction and had heard that the Dark Tower tied into a lot of it. Plus, I have a love of oddness, and the idea of King writing a massive fantasy Western based on a Robert Browning poem seemed too deliciously odd to refuse. I toyed with the idea of reading A la Recherche du Temps Perdue for a bit, but it seemed too much like hard work. King, on the other hand, is an easy read, and I was really just having a look out of curiosity. But it hooked me.
I read the novels in King’s recommended order, which is numbered sequence, I to VII, with 2012’s Wind Through the Keyhole coming between IV and V. The version of The Gunnslinger was the revised version which King published as he was completing the series. The idea was to read the latest and most complete version of the story, all 4,250 pages of it. My thoughts on each part follow – SPOILERS ABOUND! READER BEWARE!
We are introduced to Roland Deschain as he pursues the Man in Black across the desert. He is a “gunslinger” – something between a Knight, a cowboy and Aragorn out of Lord of the Rings. We learn something of his world, Mid-World, where time has become tricky, and magic mixes with remnants of some lost technological society. Roland meets a boy called Jake Chambers who seems to have died in our world before coming to Mid-World, who joins him on his quest. They pursue the man in black through the mountains, and Roland is forced to choose between saving Jake or catching the Man in Black. He chooses the latter.
The tone is more dreamlike than the rest of the series, and it seems like King didn’t really know where the story was going at this point. All the same, the world is vividly sketched, with more than enough hints at a bigger picture to bring you back for the second book.
Things get far odder in the second volume. Roland washes up on a beach where he is attacked by large predatory crustations, losing two fingers and becoming fevered. He then discovers strange doors floating in the air, through which he can pass into the mind of people from our world. First is Eddie Dean, a junkie who is about to land at JFK airport with a large package of heroin in 1976 or so, and get arrested. Roland helps him escape, and to save the brother who, although Eddie idolises him, is largely responsible for Eddie’s predicament. The second door opens into the mind of Odetta Holmes, a wheelchair-bound, well-to-do black woman from New York in the 1950s. Odetta doesn’t realise that she has a second personality, a vicious, predatory thief called Detta Walker. Roland realises, however, and by pulling her through to his world, is able to combine the best parts of both personalities into a new woman called Susanna. Whilst I largely enjoyed the strangeness of the narrative of TDot3, a lot of the writing was sub-par. Eddie and Odetta/Detta’s sections felt like sections cut from unpublished work and given a polish, and were over-long and frequently clichéd. I also had real problems with his portrayal of Detta Walker, with her bad muthafu’ cussin’ coming off like Tarantino directing Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Seriously; you’re a white male writing a black woman, and this is how you write her?
The first part of The Wastelands concerns the drawing of a third person for Roland’s Ka-tet – Jake, the boy who Roland had dropped into the abyss in the Gunslinger. These scenes are effective and exciting, recalling his best work in books like It and The Dark Half. However, the whole device of Susanna/Detta having sex with the demon to top it attacking Jake or Eddie is just icky, no matter how important it becomes later. This having been done, their journey begins in earnest. Jake soon meets a Billy-Bumbler, a sort of dog with a long neck, short legs, a spiral tail and rudimentary speech, and the two bond firmly, and Oy joins the quest for the Dark Tower. They have to cross the Wastelands – apparently the site of some kind on nuclear Armageddon – but to do that, they first have to get through the city of Lud, which is overrun by insane mutants. Jake is kidnapped, but Roland and Oy are able to rescue him, and return to Eddie and Susanna – now lovers – who have discovered the train station. But Blaine the Mono is as insane as the residents of Lud…
For my money, the books which stick to Mid-World are the most compelling, and that goes for the next three books. WaG picks up where TW left off, with Eddie tricking the train with illogical riddles. Then the metatextuality begins – and prospective reader, be warned; this is a very metatextual work, especially in the later books. Having escaped the train and made it across the wastelands, they find themselves in the world of King’s 1978 fan-favourite, The Stand, and soon after, they approach a castle which has been modelled on the Emerald City from The Wizard of Oz. Thankfully, even the characters start wondering what’s going on. The best part of the (lengthy) novel, however, is the story of the young Roland and his first Ka-Tet, his ill-fated dalliance with Susan Delgado and their conflicts with a witch called Rhea of the Coos. It is tragic and richly described, and goes a long way to letting the reader understand the world and Roland’s motivations.
WTtK is, in it’s own right, a pretty good read. It has an interesting story-within-a-story-within-a-story structure, and each enriches the Mid-World and it’s history, although they don’t add significantly to the plot. The problem, however, is that in coming after W&G, which similarly largely concerns the young Roland and doesn’t feature the usual characters much, is that the reader is simply away from the main narrative for far too long. Admittedly, there probably wasn’t another place King could have fitted this book – written after the main series was finished – in, but the pacing of the whole series suffers as a result. Nonetheless, the prose is more controlled than in some of the series, and it encapsulates the series’ theme about the importance of stories.
WotC is one of those stories that slowly build towards an inevitable battle climax – think The Two Towers or Zulu. Perhaps this simple, forward-driving structure was the reason I enjoyed this one so much. In the farming community of Calla Bryn Sturgess, all children are born twins, and once every generation the Wolves – actually robots dressed like Dr Doom and riding horses – come and take one of each pair. When the children return, they are roont – shambling idiot giants who die young and in agony. And Andy the robot says they’re coming again soon. Roland’s Ka-Tet have eight days to prepare to defend the village, and at the same time, travel to New York to save the book dealer Calvin Tower and secure the vacant lot where the rose grows. And the metatextuality continues: one of the central characters is Father Callahan from King’s ‘Salem’s Lot.
A demon called Mia has taken control of Susanna in order to give birth to the demonic offspring of Roland and Susanna. She flees to New York to give birth, pursued by Jake, Oy and Callahan. Meanwhile, Eddie and Roland have been sent to Maine in 1977. Having succeeded in setting up the Tet Foundation to secure the fate of the vacant lot in NY, they travel to meet Steven King, one of whose books they had found and seen Callahan’s name in. King has yet to publish any of the Dark Tower books, and is surprised to see his creation arriving. Roland hypnotises him and discovers that he is to be a conduit for the story to come through – although the Crimson King may be trying to prevent it’s completion. In an epilogue, we learn about King’s developing career as he writes the first five books of the series – before being killed in 1999 after being hit by a car.
Compared to SoS, the plot of DT moves fast. A good chunk of the first part of this book is centered on some staff of Devar-Toi, where psychic “breakers” are attempting to sever the beams which hold the worlds together from the Dark Tower. The most significant of these is Ted Brautigan, a character from King’s book, Everything’s Eventual. So that’s one problem with DT; characters the reader knows nothing about and doesn’t really care about.
Roland and Jake save King, who can now complete the story. Susanna eventually escapes as Mia is consumed by the demonic child Mordred, and the Ka-Tet are reunited. But not for long. A second problem; death, death, death. I can see that King meant for the Ka-Tet to come together exactly so Roland could gain the tower, but even so, it’s a bit much. Especially as Oy dies just so Roland can shoot Mordred, whose entire narrative purpose seems to have been to kill Oy. The only character, other than Roland, who doesn’t die is Patrick Danville, a psychic artist from King’s novel Insomnia, which I had never read. Talk about deus ex machina.
One thing I won’t gripe about, however, is the ending. I can’t see how else it could have been, although I know many felt short changed. The overarching theme of the series is about stories, and their creation. The tale threatens to collapse, especially towards the end, but Roland saves the beams which hold it together. He reaches the tower; the tale is completed, and begins again, to be re-told as all good tales are.
I’ll conclude by saying that the Dark Tower series is a masterpiece of pure storytelling, as much about the journey as the destination. It’s definitely uneven, both in pace and quality, but always with a narrative drive that meant I read all eight back to back without more than a few days between each. I’m seriously considering reading some of the related novels like Insomnia and Everything’s Eventual too. If you’re a fan of King’s work, you simply have to read the Dark Tower.