After more than five years, with more interruptions than I care to mention, I have finally followed Roland Deschaine of Gilead into the room at the top of the Dark Tower. I have to admit that I was surprised at how moved I was when he paused at the entrance and recited the names of all of his friends and ka-mates. It’s odd. Stephen King was never a favorite author of mine. Of all the many books he’s written, the only other one I’ve ever read was 11-22-63, his romance about the man who went back in time to stop the assassination of President Kennedy. I didn’t care for it. The only other book of his I want to read is The Stand. People who have read a lot of Mr. King’s books say it is his best, but after slogging through 4250 pages in eight volumes (I read Wind Through The Keyhole chronologically, between Wizard And Glass and Wolves Of The Calla), I am a bit reluctant to give Mr. King another 1100 pages of my attention. Interestingly, the reviewer who listed The Stand as King’s best book rated the seven canonical Dark Tower volumes roughly as I would have ranked them, so I have reason to trust his judgement.
Roland’s story is a compelling one. Like The Lord Of The Rings, which is just about the only other work I have read to which I can compare it, The Dark Tower series is both interminable and strangely, over far too soon. Both of these works create a desire to explore more fully the world the author has created; to know more about its inhabitants, its history, and its geography. Mr. King includes no maps. There are no sprawling appendices such as Prof. Tolkien included in The Lord Of The Rings to give you the backstory of Mid-World. Another characteristic that Mid-World shares with Middle-Earth is that it seems strangely depopulated. Either that, or the protagonists of both works spent the majority of their time in the parts of their imaginary worlds where the people didn’t live. This seems to be a common flaw with fantasy. Narnia was claustrophobic as well, having only three “countries” that really counted. Earthsea was a collection of islands with, I assume, nothing much larger than fishing villages to house its inhabitants.
The Dark Tower series took Stephen King almost 35 years to write, and it shows. The biggest divide is between Wizard And Glass, which was published in 1997, and The Wolves Of The Calla, which was published in 2003. In the intervening years, Stephen King was almost killed in a near-fatal auto accident, and it shows up in the writing. King himself seems to have felt some pressure to complete the series after his accident. The last three books, despite their more than 2000 pages, have a rushed feeling that is missing from the parts of the series that he wrote prior to the accident. By the time he published his Mid-World “inter-quel”, Mr. King had found his rhythm again. Certainly, even though there are weak parts in the first four books and excellent parts in the last three, I found I preferred the first four to the latter three.
My favorite five scenes from the Dark Tower series were;
1) Roland and his companions in Meijis – I haven’t read enough King to know how much material he recycled from other his other books in order to tell the tragic tale of young Roland Deschaine and the tragic Susan Delgado, but I suspect it was a lot. I detected some of The Children Of The Corn, at least. Nevertheless, as far as raw storytelling is measured, King never approached this level again for the whole 4,000-plus pages of the series. Even the characters seemed fully-fleshed, and I warmed to Alain Johns and Cuthbert Allgood in a way that I never did to wisecracking Eddie Dean. The bad guys Eldred Jonas and Roy Depape are more richly drawn than either the Crimson King or Mordred, and even minor characters like Cordelia Delgado and Hart Thorin are alive with life. Rhea of the Cöos is beyond creepy, and one of the better villains I’ve encountered in any fiction. Other reviewers gush about the love affair between Susan Delgado and Roland Deschaine, but I found it kind of off-putting. I know Roland is supposed to be knowing beyond his years, but a 14 year old boy in love with a 16 year old girl does not act the way Roland acts here.
2. The Drawing Of Eddie Dean – I don’t know if I’m the only one, but I kinda liked Eddie better as a junkie than as the wise-cracking comic-relief he became by the end of the series. The story of how Roland ended up behind his eyes and managed to extricate him from his tangled web of obligation and addiction in 1980s New York was absorbing. It was a shame that Eddie very seldom was allowed to rise to the nobility of character he displayed during the gunfight in Balazar’s gin joint. His “trail marriage” to Susannah was often distracting as well, but in his coming and going, I have to admit that I came to love Eddie Dean.
3. The Massacre At Tull – It has been a long time since I read The Gunslinger, the first volume of the Dark Tower series, Roland’s methodical massacre of all the inhabitants of Tull, including the idiot child Soobie and his paramour Allie, opened my eyes to just how hard-bitten the series could get at a moment’s notice. It also presaged just who Roland would sacrifice in order to attain the Tower. There was a high body count in the Dark Tower series , but this action set the stage for all of the rest.
4. The Manni In the Cave Of The Winds – I enjoyed Wolves Of The Calla far more than I thought I would. After having Roland and the gang meander around blank open country for more than four volumes, actually, since River Crossing, or maybe even Tull, it was good to get back to settled lands and farmsteads. Pere Callahan’s negligent Catholic mission made a good counterpoint to the Manni, who i thought were one of King’s better inventions in the series. It seems kind of a shame that he used them basically as a key to open the door between worlds. They would have benefited from greater exposition.
5. Jake and Pere Callahan in the Dixie Pig – I really warmed to Pere Callahan and was sorry to see him depart so early in the seventh book, but boy! did he go out with a flair. I hadn’t read Salem’s Lot, so I only knew as much of the Pere’s backstory as King revealed in Wolves Of the Calla and Susannah’s Song. There were a lot of nice touches in the Dixie Pig segment; the Mid-World kitchen boy serving under the taheen cook, Jake switching bodies with Oy to get past the guardians in the passage to Fedic. There were also some typical King gross-outs as well, but hey, I could almost smell the meat roasting on the spit behind the curtain. I don’t know if that’s a good thing or a bad thing, though.
My five least favorite parts were 1) the lobstrosities – i was so glad when the story moved passed them. 2) the Emerald City sequence with Martin Broadcloak/Randall Flagg. 3) the demon sex that brought Jake into Mid-World, although the bifurcation of Jake and Roland was handled very well. 4) Susannah/Mia “dining” in the swamp. I nearly lost lunch. 5) basically everything that took place from the Castle of the Crimson King until Roland reached the Tower. The Dandelo/Patrick Danville episode was pretty anticlimactic after the chiaroscuro of Algul Siento, and the removal of the Crimson King was very cheesy. I suspect King just wanted to finish by this time.
Something has to be said about how American the Dark Tower series is. Any American mythopoesis is going to have a lot of the Western in it, because the Western, with the free man remaking himself on the Frontier, is our great myth. Stephen King took it and ran it out farther than I would have thought possible. Maybe this isn;t, yet, the Great American Novel, but it is without any doubt the Great American Fantasy series. I’m glad I went on this journey. Thou hast spoken well, may it do ya, gunslinger. Long days and pleasant nights to you.
Thankee sai, Mr. King