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The Dark Tower: The Gunslinger
Stephen King
Donald M. Grant, 224 pages

The Dark Tower: The Gunslinger
The Dark Tower: The Gunslinger, 2nd edition
Stephen King
Stephen King was born in Portland, Maine, in 1947. He attended the grammar school in Durham, Maine, and then Lisbon Falls High School, graduating in 1966. King graduated from the University of Maine at Orono in 1970, with a B.S. in English and qualified to teach at the high school level. He met his wife, Tabitha, in the stacks of the Fogler Library at the University of Maine of Orono, where they both worked as students. Unable to find a teaching job, the couple lived on his earnings as a labourer at an industrial laundry, and her student loan and savings, with an occasional boost from a short story sale to men's magazines. In the fall of 1971, King began teaching high school English classes at Hampden Academy, the public high school in Hampden, Maine. In the spring of 1973, Doubleday & Co. accepted his novel Carrie for publication. A few months later, its paperback sale provided him with the means to leave teaching and write full-time.

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A review by Matthew Peckham

It has been sixteen years since I first laid hands on the paperback Plume edition of Stephen King's The Dark Tower: The Gunslinger, marveled at the alluring Michael Whelan cover with its brooding trench-sporting Clint Eastwood look-alike. Crouching in a cramped college preparatory school dorm room, slurping mouthfuls of beef-flavored Ramen, I slugged through the cryptic pseudo-philosophical tale of an archetypal anti-hero's crusade to save his world by questing for the linchpin of reality itself.

Since that nascent period, I have read the next three books in the series more than once, or twice (the most recent, Wizard and Glass, was published by Donald M. Grant in October 1997), completed an M.A. in English Creative Writing, and come to prefer Wolfe, Borges, Bradbury, Peake, Ellison, Moorcock, Gaiman and Moore to Tolkien, Brooks, Rice, McKiernan, Jordan and their respectable, but predictable ilk. I've changed degrees, colleges, careers, colleagues, wives, and through it all, this series remained, something I can pick up and admire in defiance of its reliable critics.

Like Johann Wolfgang von Goethe's Faust, The Dark Tower cycle has been in production most of King's writing life, beginning in March 1970 just before he graduated college, to today and just a few months away from the publication of the final three volumes (totaling seven) over the next 16 months. Faust was Goethe's chef d'oeuvre, and King likewise refers to The Dark Tower series as his magnum opus, mining material and characters from several of his earlier works like Salem's Lot and The Stand to create a self-referential smorgasbord of interlocking ideas and symbolic junctions for sleuthing critics (or iconic dissertation writers, depending on whom you talk to). As King himself described in a recent interview, "there also came a time when I realized everybody from all these books, their courses are changed by the pull of the Tower." And so it goes, with King pulling in everything from collaborative epics like The Talisman and Black House, to standalone shorts in Robert Silverberg's Legends and Michael Chabon's Thrilling Tales. All told, there are six supplementary books and three short stories which orbit like satellites -- peripheral glimpses through the past into the literary vortex at the coalescing center of King's creative universe.

The Gunslinger was originally published in serial form in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction between October 1978 and November 1981 alongside short stories and novelettes by luminaries like Larry Niven, Thomas Disch, Algis Budrys, Isaac Asimov, Nancy Kress, John Brunner, and others. Readers of the tale (which clocks in at a mere 224 pages in a large font and wide margins) had to wait three years for the finish line, and it ended unresolved, without the hero reaching his fabled Tower.

In 1982, those five fledgling parts were collected into one book and published in a trade hardcover edition by Donald M. Grant to the tune of 10,000 copies. The whole thing might well have ended there, except for the fans who clamored for a second printing when they discovered it in the 'other works by Stephen King' section of Pet Sematary. A second printing of 10,000 additional copies of the Grant trade hardcover was green-lighted and quietly slipped out, but the dam finally broke in 1988 with the publication of the Plume Trade Paperback edition, complete with the original multi-Hugo-award-winning artist Michael Whelan's full-color illustrations.

The story begins "the man in black fled across the desert and the gunslinger followed," and proceeds to tell us the tale of Roland of Gilead, the world's last gunslinger, and his quest of quests to find the Dark Tower and set whatever is wrong with his world, perhaps all worlds, right.

The desert was the apotheosis of all deserts, huge, standing to the sky for what might have been parsecs in all directions. White; blinding; waterless; without feature save for the faint, cloudy haze of the mountains which sketched themselves on the horizon and the devil-grass which brought sweet dreams, nightmares, death. An occasional tombstone sign pointed the way, for once the drifted track that cut its way through the thick crust of alkali had been a highway and coaches had followed it. The world had moved on since then. The world had emptied.
Roland's world has "moved on," which means somehow more than in a periodic sense, but less than "nearly dead." Civilization exists in a kind of twilight, the final revolutions have scorched the cities and the towns, the poles are shifting, magnetic north is shot to hell -- time itself is breaking down. At the heart of the mystery lies the Tower, at the heart of the Tower -- who knows? Roland's path to the Tower is through the "man in black," a magician whom Roland must catch and confront before passing on.

For a man who admitted in Danse Macabre that "if I find I cannot terrify, I will try to horrify, and if I find that I cannot horrify, I'll go for the gross-out," The Gunslinger is like a wild glimpse into the mind of the better writer, the one who knew how to scribe all along but also realized he could make one hell of a good living churning out "spine-tinglers" like Carrie or Pet Sematary. I don't mean to hack on King's early stuff, or some of the later flops (mostly ghastly concoctions like "The Ten O'Clock People" in Nightmares and Dreamscapes, ironically published alongside one of the better poems I've ever read, "Brooklyn August"), but somehow I doubt King himself would entirely disagree. Even Harlan Ellison and Ernest Hemingway sold some popular stinkers.

The writing itself is still quintessential King, the occasional streaming ticks that turn singsong phrases like "beans, beans the musical fruit" into strange recurring mantras, snippets of popular American rock 'n roll songs whacked out of time and place but nuzzled fondly by Kingian nostalgia, and the tendency for the narrative voice to intrude by batting a character's thoughts around like a shuttlecock. Except here it comes together and functions in a way that's more likely to leave the careful reader awestruck by the bricklayer prose than eyeball rolling at tawdry theatrics and snarled plottng.

Unlike much of King's better known material, The Gunslinger is difficult to categorize. There are elements of science fiction, the speculative projection of some broken-down future time in a multi-dimensional branch universe (though how it directly relates to our own is only loosely revealed in iconic references to restaurant slogans and Beatles songs) and mysterious adumbrations concerning twentieth century American technology that has somehow infected (or been infected by) ancient history in Roland's world. There are elements of dark fantasy, the invocation of spirits (tied to science, the use of drugs to enhance the "speaking" trance), magic, mysticism, and the blasted post-apocalyptic landscape like something out of a frenzied Bosch nightmare. And it wouldn't be King without at least some horror element -- in this case a tango with the undead in a root cellar, or a dark crawl through an ancient cavern by rail on a handcar, replete with scabby mutants.

Mostly, though, it's a western.

Part of it is the hard-boiled narrative voice of the gunslinger himself, the True Grit meets The Wild Bunch golem-obstinate plodding mythology of the stone cold American West and its packs of nomadic noble killers. Make no mistake, though, this is far more McMurty's Lonesome Dove or Eastwood's Unforgiven, than John Ford's Duke, eschewing the romantic nonsensical coping mechanisms of the spaghetti westerns and potboiler dime novels that once cluttered American culture in a vain attempt to blot out a sordid colonial history of madness and massacre.

The other part of it is the one-third fount of inspiration King cites, the 1855 Robert Browning poem "Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came" (which cribs its title from Edgar's song in King Lear, which in turn cribs its title from a Scottish ballad entitled "Childe Roland" as well, perhaps, as the 12th century French epic "Song of Roland") which King recalls being assigned in a sophomore undergrad course. Like the overarching theme of the poem -- the ultimate knight's crusade, innenwelt and umwelt, and if you're in Harold Bloom's camp, a quest for ultimate affirmation and simultaneous annihilation -- King's ascending "knight" is on a spiritual self-quest externalized through a landscape ravaged by projection and memory.

He knew why the rhyme had occurred to him. There had been the recurring dream of his room in the castle and of his mother, who had sung it to him as he lay solemnly in the tiny bed by the window of many colors... now it came back maddeningly, like prickly heat, chasing its own tail in his mind as he walked... out here even the devil-grass had grown stunted and yellow. The hardpan had disintegrated in places to mere rubble.
Like the paradigmatic motif of unwavering Christianized resilience so prevalent in The Stand, Roland's imperative is simply self-actuation, the literal drive to "stand," to matter in the face of adversity by refusing to surrender to that ageless Janus, self-doubt.
He watched his feet move up and down, listened to the nonsense rhyme sing itself into a pitiful garble in his mind, and wondered when he would fall down for the first time. He didn't want to fall, even though there was no one to see him. It was a matter of pride. A gunslinger knows about pride -- that invisible bone that keeps the neck stiff.
But Roland is no mere Schwarzenegger, no synthetic Westworld cliché trussed up in purple prose and fanciful environs. What makes Roland work as a force surpassing prosaism is the way King develops his rendition of an Outlaw Josey Wales into someone romantically fractured at the core by his existential defiance of impossibility. Roland's game is played at the level of deliberation and determinism, a Kantian agent whose environment-as-self-actuation operates within time, yet whose will or noumenon operates outside time -- in the realm of the Tower.

Ellen Datlow has referred to King as sui generis. Read into that whatever you will, Datlow is precisely correct in its most simple interpretation -- King defies categorization. And while I tend to find a lot of his more well-known material dramatically less interesting, I can't think of a cycle that better fits Datlow's classification than The Dark Tower series. Whether it transcends itself, bats average, or flops altogether remains to be seen, but for now readers of speculative fiction owe it to themselves to see another side of the inimitable Mr. King.

Disclaimer: There's an interesting little twist on the tale to which you need to pay attention, if for some crazy reason this review convinces you to go out and pick up a copy of book one -- hold up a minute. It turns out King has recently re-written the entire first book and expanded it by roughly twenty percent. According to the recent King interview, "I always thought that one was different from the other ones in that it was written when I was so young. It always seemed to me like it was trying too hard to be something really, really important. So I tried to simplify it a little bit." By the time you read this, the revised version will already be on store shelves (and the SF Site comparative review forthcoming).

Copyright © 2003 Matthew Peckham

Matthew Peckham is the pen name of Matthew Peckham. He holds a Master's Degree in English Creative Writing and is currently employed by a railroad.

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