Note: There are spoilers from The Dark Tower in this review. Don’t continue unless you’ve read the whole series.
Recently I’ve been getting this urge to go through stuff I wrote a while back, archived files in obscure directories buried deep. To dust them off, read them through, see if they can be salvaged. There’s almost a mystical sensation, as though some external force triggered a memory of the work in my brain. It’s an itch you can’t scratch, these words you made at some time, and they’re rotting somewhere in the dark, and you have to bring them to light.
There’s a scene in the Dark Tower when Stephen King encounters the characters from a novel he’s shelved. Roland Deschain and Eddie Dean, perfect doppelgangers for Clint Eastwood and John Cusack, standing real as day, decked out in gunslinger gear. They confront him on his laziness, his inability to focus and complete the tale. They threaten and hypnotize him. He promises to write, but fails. Years later, in the book’s 1999, he pays the price for neglecting the urge – getting struck by an inebriated driver, potentially letting the thread of the universe crumble.
This is a continuation of the biggest twist from Song of Susannah – King writing himself in as a character.
For those who approach fantasy from the Tolkien worldview, where the world must be self-consistent, this feels like blasphemy. But blending the worlds – joining the reader with the world on the other side of the door – has a pretty strong tradition in fantasy writing. CS Lewis, The Neverending Story, Harry Potter, even Peter Pan, exhorting the audience to clap Tinkerbell back to life.
But wasn’t it narcissistic to make himself a central pillar of the book’s universe? To write in a fictionalization of his own accident, which brought him close to death, rendering him nearly crippled and unable to write for years?
It comes back to the fact that the Dark Tower story took him thirty years to write. In the book, he can only explain the delay from his usual prolific pace as some flavor of fear. Some part of him knew this tale had a deeper thread than the other pulp airplane novels of killer dogs and haunted hotels. There was something more than just cheap thrills and horror. There was a deeper existential meaning, beneath the assembled geek-culture detritus (Star Wars droids, Wild West gunmen, New York gangsters, etc). And yet he was stuck, fearful of committing those dreams and visions to paper. Then a van struck him on a rural road in Maine, and he looked his own death in the face. It felt fated, Roland and Jake come from another world. Ka.
King himself admits the tale gets off track, and it isn’t perfect. There are weak moments, when the dramatic tension isn’t finely honed, and the tale staggers, or lacks any impression of symmetry. The fifth and sixth books are the biggest sinners in this regard. Wolves of the Calla a regurgitation of the Seven Samurai motif from Wizard and Glass, re-imagined with Eddie and Jake and Susannah. Song of Susannah simply moving pawns into place, time traveling to different spots in New York and Maine and engaging in minor gunfights with little at stake.
But The Dark tower, the final book, redeems the whole enterprise, and solidifies the series as one of the best fantasy heptalogies of all time.
The copy I got was a beautiful paperback from the shelves of a used book store, and entire case dedicated to King’s work, his name in that same bold white font all down the spines, the titles of the tomes in their blood red or poison green script evoking all the yummy genre horror on which he sits the throne. And my book was a true door stopper, the size and heft of a brick, with a dozen full color illustrations scattered through the chapters, the key scenes of novel brought to an epic vision. That was always one of the pleasures of reading fantasy pulp novels – the beautiful hyperrealist fantasy art on the cover, oil paintings in the vein of the Dutch masters, all bold colors and strong brush strokes. The color of the earth, the texture of old stone, the horrific visages of Lovecraftian monsters once only imagined brought into some form.
And those set pieces in the Dark Tower are some of the best I’ve read in King’s work. The showdown in the New York Dixie Pig, the birth of Mordred, the raid on Algul Siento, the trek across the frozen wastes, the final showdown at the Dark Tower – moments that cry out for a movie (or HBO TV series adaptation). And the writing itself is honed and streamlined, with just enough of the mid-world colloquialisms (do ya fine) and literary flourishes to keep a picky reader turning pages.
Near the end of the novel, there’s an artist character who can sketch intricate and detailed renderings of the world around him, and in doing so, bring them to life. One can’t help but feel King sees himself such an artist, and this work possesses a similar sort of magic, at least for his own reality.
And he gets a little fancy with all his inter-textual references to his own writing and his inspirations. There’s even a conversation Roland has with Susannah regarding King’s work (which they hypothesize is the root of their own reality), and King’s inspirations (the Robert Browning poem). Which is the source? How far down the rabbit hole do you want to go, or can you go?
King’s addiction is another deep allusion in the work. Roland seeks the Dark Tower with an unyielding and often inhumane drive, destroying the lives of friends and innocents. And his fate is something out of a Greek tragedy, forced to re-run the race, push the stone back up the hill, ouroboros. Ka’s a wheel. The only character with a truly happy ending is Susannah, who turns away from the Dark Tower, the potential for true knowledge of the universe, to live a sort of ignorant bliss in a pocket universe. But she can see her friends, and drink hot cocoa mit schlag on a winter’s day in New York.
I started reading the Dark Tower series seven years ago. I read roughly a book a year. At first I was skeptical and dismissive, thinking the half hazard way King threw together a mishmash of genre elements was laziness, that he was scamming his readers. But at the end of it all, with a long view, the whole thing has such a unique flavor that it stands alone, and stands strong. In a way, I’ll miss the fact that the adventures of Roland, Jake, Eddie, Susannah and Oy are done. But in King’s reckoning, they’ll continue on for another recursive pass, possibly in another imagining (Film? Video games?)
Or maybe years from now, a young writer, driven by the recollection of a pulp novel he picked up from the shelf of a garage sale, maybe a swig of cold beer, will lean over his keyboard and hack away, another quest for Roland.
The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed.
coma coma commala come
for now our tale is done