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The Dark Tower: The Gunslinger (2003)
Stephen King
Viking, 231 pages

The Dark Tower: The Gunslinger (2003)
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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SF Site Review: The Dark Tower: The Gunslinger
SF Site Review: LT's Theory of Pets
SF Site Review: Dreamcatcher
SF Site Review: On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft
SF Site Review: Hearts in Atlantis
SF Site Review: The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon
SF Site Review: Bag of Bones
SF Site Review: Storm of the Century
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A review by Matthew Peckham

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Endings, it seems, sometimes lead us back to beginnings, or in writerly terms -- to revisions. Stephen King recently completed scribing his epic seven-book The Dark Tower series, churning out an estimated 2,500 manuscript pages for the final three books in under two years (the first four total somewhere around 2,000). But instead of resting on his laurels, he has turned a fastidious revisionary eye back to the first tale, the one that started it all in the October 1978 issue of Ed Ferman's The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. If you're a squeamish nostalgic, brace yourself: he has literally left no word unturned.

With the exception of a growing writer's fondness for the occasional adverb, the writing in the original version of The Gunslinger was strong, the voice clear and poignant, the tale gripping and mature. So why revise? Simple. Because, to quote Mark Twain, "The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and the lightning bug." Though the protagonist's quest stands uncompleted at the end of the first book, the tale nevertheless had the distant almost detached mythic feel of a standalone fable in a way that none of the subsequent books do. The emphasis in this first version of The Gunslinger is on the journey -- not the quest's end, and Roland the gunslinger's journey is nearer in the first version to an inexplicable Sisyphean labor that embraces itself for its own romantic sake, than something which demands an archetypal fireworks finale. King may have sketched out much of the road in book one, but he didn't find its pace until book two. Thus, in King's retrospective words, "the beginning was out of sync with the ending."

The tale concerns a world perhaps parallel to our own (we are never told outright), in which Roland Deschain of Gilead, perhaps the last gunslinger, is hunting the "man in black" through a fantastically bleak geographic nightmare of dying towns, sweltering deserts, and arid mountainscapes. A gunslinger is a sort of flintlock samurai, a mystical knight with superhuman gunfighting skills and Epictetian mental discipline. We are told enough of Roland's adolescence to suppose that, vamping off the Round Table motif of Arthurian legend (King makes reference to King Arthur at one point), a gunslinger's purpose is to "uphold love and light." Roland's world has soured, starting as far as we know when he was very young. The world, we're told and reminded of throughout, "has moved on," which means that the laws of physics have begun to deteriorate. Time has been deformed or warped, the poles appear to be shifting due to unstable magnetic forces, and everything is in an advanced state of decay. Along the way, Roland encounters a resurrected drug addict, a thunderous bible-thumping woman pregnant with a demon, a boy who has somehow been transported to Roland's world from our own earth in the late 20th century and who becomes Roland's companion, a sexually libidinous demon oracle, and an army of subterranean mutants.

Roland is pursuing the man in black because he believes that at the center of time and space exists a tower, a black pylon that is somehow the linchpin of reality. Something has corrupted the tower, and Roland intends to fix it, though how or the nature of what such a confrontation entails (literal, figurative) is not revealed. All we're sure of is that Roland's path to the tower is through the man in black.

The revised edition is a radically different experience, though the framework of the tale is the same. King has added a prefatory quote from Thomas Wolfe's Look Homeward, Angel that is appropriate in its recollection of alienation with the line "o lost, and by the wind grieved, ghost, come back again." It also may act as a bookend to something new that the man in black tells Roland near the end.

"You are the world's last adventurer. The last crusader. How that must please you, Roland! Yet you have no idea how close you stand to the Tower now, as you resume your quest. World's turn about your head."

"What do you mean, resume? I never left off."

This added dialogue parallels the book's new opening subtitle, Resumption, which resides opposite another new and mysterious prefatory page that contains nothing but the number 19, centered. In addition to the introduction by King entitled "On Being Nineteen," the number also shows up in the town of Tull early on. Here, it's a number the man in black reveals to a bartender named Allie, explaining to her that if spoken to someone the man in black has resurrected, will compel that person to spill the secrets of the grave (and presumably drive Allie insane). This number is now also in the beginning of the latter three books, though unlike The Gunslinger, their texts are unchanged. What it means, or whether King intends to pull numerology in remains to be seen.

The most sweeping changes occur at the level of basic sentence construction. King takes a phrase like "standing to the sky for what might have been parsecs in all directions" and improves it to "standing to the sky for what looked like eternity in all directions." Nearly every adverb has been hunted down with merciless zeal and purged. There were several spots in the original where King would flip adverbs with subject and verb, e.g. "onward, he plodded." These have all been changed so they read straight, e.g. "he plodded onward." The literal use of semi-colons has also been toned down, so that "white; blinding; waterless;" becomes "it was white and blinding and waterless." The narrative voice has been smoothed over so that sentences seem longer, the inner monologue jumps less skittish, and a great deal of exposition has been added identifying specific places, like In-World, Mid-World, and Out-World (none of which were in the original text). Names of people and events that occur in the latter books now appear here as well.

Plot seeds that were planted in the original have been modified, bits that King refers to in the foreword as "a great many errors and false starts, particularly in light of the volumes that followed." For example, in the original, Farson was the name of a town -- in the later books, it becomes the name of a man who engineers the fall of Gilead, Roland's childhood home (this has been corrected by renaming the town). Roland's relationships to his father, mother, and his father's court adviser are clarified, as is the relationship of the man in black to Roland. There are even a few additional scenes which tie directly to plot ideas King introduced in the latter books, and which now make sense for Roland to be thinking about or referencing here. Not counting the grammatical changes, the added material amounts to roughly thirty-five pages, or about nine-thousand words, resulting in a slightly longer and more balanced story. While it no longer sits as comfortably on its own, it now fits snugly with the successive books, which was King's intention all along.

If you've never read The Gunslinger, this is the edition you should get. Is it better than the original? Without question, though as noted above, primarily because the story integrates better with the latter volumes. If on the other hand you've already read the original, you will still find the revised edition indispensable for its new revelations which affect the continuity of the latter books. Purists who elect to read both will find it fascinating to note how an author like King went about revising something he wrote some three decades earlier, not so much the new details as the sentences he changes, the scenes he lengthens or shortens, and so on.

Whatever category you fit into, give this book a look -- it will be the series he's remembered for, and the final three volumes are just around the corner.

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. For more about Matthew, check out mattpeckham.com


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