I’m going to jump over The Hunchback of Notre Dame for now (pardonne moi, Victor), because really, there’s nothing I could possibly add to the phenomenal Disney movie coverage (I’m just kidding), and head to Stephen King’s The Gunslinger.Where my Dark Tower series fans at? As of this writing I’ve finished The Gunslinger and The Drawing of the Three, with book three, The Waste Lands, on request at the library. These books are so easy to read, and sort of ridiculously addictive; I tore through each one in a day or so.
The Dark Tower series is unlike any other Stephen King work that I’ve read, but I have to say it intrigued me from the start. It’s been a long time since I’ve read any sci-fi/fantasy. Those genres used to be my bread and butter, once upon a time long ago, and then for many years I felt that I had to become a more mature and self-actualized person by and in order to read more high-brow literature. Now that I’m older, and actually know a little bit about who I am and what matters, I realize that I can read whatever the hell I want. Not to mention that the distance between good sci-fi and high-brow lit is not so very far, which I’ll get into in a minute.
So how exactly is the Dark Tower a break from King’s signature horror? From King’s website:
The Dark Tower series tells the story of Roland Deschain, Mid-World’s last gunslinger, who is traveling southeast across Mid-World’s post-apocalyptic landscape, searching for the powerful but elusive magical edifice known as The Dark Tower. Located in the fey region of End-World, amid a sea of singing red roses, the Dark Tower is the nexus point of the time-space continuum. It is the heart of all worlds, but it is also under threat. Someone, or something, is using the evil technology of the Great Old Ones to destroy it.
In Roland’s where and when, the world has already begun to move on. Time and direction are in drift, and the fabric of reality is fraying. However, things are about to get much worse. The six invisible magnetic Beams, which maintain the alignment of time, space, size, and dimension, are weakening. Because of this, the Tower itself is foundering. Unless Roland can find a way to save the Beams and stabilize the Tower, all of reality will blink out of existence.
Inspired in equal parts by Robert Browning’s poem, “Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came,” J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, and Sergio Leone’s spaghetti Western classics, The Dark Tower series is an epic of Arthurian proportions. It is Stephen King’s magnum opus, and is the center of his amazing creative universe.
Full disclosure: I’ve not read the entirety of the Browning poem, as it’s difficult to follow (apparently it came to Browning in a dream, so, you know, that’s neat), but I linked to it above, so give it a go! The poem concerns the protagonist of the medieval French epic “The Song of Roland,” who died serving as rearguard for Charlemagne against the Muslims during a battle in the Crusades. The title of Browning’s poem doesn’t appear until the final line, and it, in turn, is taken from Shakepeare’s King Lear. Holy crap. Literature is amazing.
The Lord of the Rings similarity was the first that came to my mind when I began reflecting on the unusual style of these novels. Roland’s quest is the driving force behind the narrative; though it kill him, and it nearly does many times, he will push on. The diction of the characters in Roland’s world is also very formal and archaic-sounding, much like that of the characters in Tolkien’s world. Hilarity ensues, though, when Roland encounters people from our world and hears “tuna fish sandwich” as “tooter fish sandwich,” “Aspirin” as “astin,” and so on.
One thing I appreciate about King’s writing is how much trust he places in his readers. (I remember he goes into some detail about this in On Writing, which is another book I highly recommend.) This quality and confidence shows in the Dark Tower books. There’s nothing more annoying than an author awkwardly giving us context or backstory through dialog or long expository interjections. Just tell your story and let us figure it out, or give us a whole scene of flashback if you need to, but whatever you do don’t interrupt!
Basically, you don’t have a mother-loving clue what’s going on when you start your journey in Gunslinger. But instead of being frustrated and turned off by it, you’re intrigued by King’s masterful storytelling about who Roland is, who he’s following across the desert, where they’re both going and what they are going to do when they get there — if they even survive. (Stay tuned to find out!)
The concept behind the Dark Tower books, about the disintegration of the space-time continuum, and the ways King plays with the connection between universes (the doors in The Drawing of the Three, Roland’s ability to jump into people’s minds, the manner in which Jake disappears from his world and appears in Roland’s) are fascinating. It’s where Neverending Story intersects with Lord of the Rings.
The one sour note for me was Detta’s voice in Drawing. I could not stand that shrill racist nonsense. Which of course is the point. But it doesn’t make it any easier to read.
Interestingly, an unfinished work attributed to CS Lewis is also named The Dark Tower, after the Browning poem. It was supposedly meant to be a sequel to his sci-fi novel Out of the Silent Planet. This story also deals with an early version of interdimensional travel.
And book three, The Waste Lands, is indeed named for and alludes to the TS Eliot poem, so I can’t wait to get my hands on it. I’ll keep y’all updated.
NOTE: If you pick up book 1 of the Dark Tower series, make sure you grab the revised version that King released in 2003, not the original 1982 version. After finishing the series some twenty years after the first book was published, King went back and made a few updates and edits to The Gunslinger to make it more unified with the rest of the story. You’re welcome. Don’t say I never gave ya nothing.