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The Dark Tower: The Waste Lands
Stephen King
Viking, 422 pages

The Dark Tower: The Waste Lands
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.

Stephen King Website
ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Review: The Dark Tower: The Drawing of the Three
SF Site Review: The Dark Tower: The Gunslinger (2003)
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
The Green Mile Website
Stephen King Tribute Site
Stephen King Tribute Site

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Matthew Peckham

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At last, we're going to get some real answers. The kind that make a book (or series) matter, stumble, or tank. Not that we minded waiting the first 688 pages (it's those fourteen years between that were really irritating). The third book in Stephen King's unfolding Dark Tower series puts one foot on the clutch, upshifts, then pins the accelerator to the floor. Let there be light, King seems to say, and suddenly the series switches from dark fantasy to science fiction and injects nuclear power cells, positronic tributes to Richard Adams, Mach One monorails, a warped AI to rival Arthur C. Clarke's HAL, Robert A. Heinlein's "Mike," and Harlan Ellison's AM, and you guessed it: weapons of mass destruction.

In books one and two, we get the pitch for an epic hero quest to rival Edmund Spenser, E.R. Eddison, Kenneth Morris, and yes, even Robert Jordan's porky über-oeuvre. It won't dethrone Jordan, who is, at this point, way past 6,000 pages into, it seems, a bid to secure the fattest fantasy in history. (Note to self: call Guinness and report the lunatic.) But we're still talking a Tolkien-and-Tolstoy-drop-kicking 4,500 page chipped, cooked, and pulped lumber freight train. What worked so well in the first two books was but the appetizer, the pre-show lobby repartee, where motives and characters and plots are watered and fed before the horses saddle-up and finally saunter off into the dusk.

Not that King has taken too long to get us here. The first book still stands as a nearly self-contained narrative (the revised edition integrates much better with the rest of the books now), and the second book is an action-packed interlude that develops characters simmered in Jungian archetypes and baked in Campbellian mysticism. A brief summary: Roland Deschain of Gilead (French des meaning "of" and chain meaning "chain," ergo "Roland of chains"), the world's last gunslinger, is questing for the Dark Tower, a reality linchpin that -- infected by sickness or wrongness -- is slowly shutting down the universe, described by Roland as the world "moving on." The story was inspired in part by Robert Browning's poem "Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came" but picks up literary and pop-culture allusions like a corybantic tumbleweed. By the end of the second book, Roland has "drawn" two additional companions from New York in the late 20th century (think "inter-dimensional tarot") and recovered from blood poisoning. The final pages leave the ka-tet (a word meaning "one from many") along the Western Sea, traveling into unfamiliar hill and tree country.

The Waste Lands opens somewhere north of the beach in the Great West Woods. (Directions and distances change frequently, deliberately, due to the breaking down of reality.) Roland has been training his two new companions to become gunslingers in a relatively sheltered pine forest, giving King the opportunity to roll up his sleeves and reveal a few secrets. After teasing readers for fourteen years, the first third of the book is suddenly brimming with explanations. It's as if King suddenly realized the story was too mystically oblique and needed some time on straight rails. We spent the first book simply trying to figure out what was going on, and much of the second marooned on a western beach to bring in more protagonists; the third delivers us to Mid-World and sets us on track, literally -- as Roland refers to it, the "path of the beam."

Scribbling diagrams in the dirt, Roland explains to his companions that the fabric of time and space are held together by six intersecting beams; at their center point is the Dark Tower, a kind of metaphysical bolt sustaining the order and anatomy of the universe -- follow a beam to its intercross and you will come to the Tower itself.

"Beams?" Susannah asked. "What Beams?"

"The Great Old Ones didn't make the world, but they did re-make it. Some tale-tellers say the Beams saved it; others say they are the seeds of the world's destruction. The Great Old Ones created the Beams. They are lines of some sort . . . lines which bind . . . and hold . . ."

In accordance with the first book's dialectic of size and time, think of the beams and the Tower as an answer to Stephen Hawking's quest for a grand Unified Theory uniting Heisenberg and Einstein. At either end of the beams are the guardians of the portals, a zodiac of animal totems ranging from bear to turtle to rat and so on. After the party confronts one of the guardians early in the story, a gigantic bear named Shardik, we discover it was created by a now ancient and presumably defunct company called North Central Positronics (nod to Asimov), and suddenly the grim fantasy landscape shifts to far-flung speculative science, an echo of our own world bearing a familiar Faustian theme -- tamper with the secrets of the universe and you invite chaos.

While the story is still vitally indebted to the Robert Browning poem, the title of the third book is unsubtly intended to invoke T.S. Eliot's 1922, "The Waste Land." The quote from the poem at the front of the book is the infamous stanza that ends "I will show you fear in a handful of dust." And so King does, linking the bleakness of Browning's poem's middle sections in which the landscape is both an object and a presence, with the grotesqueries of Eliot's gelded cyclicality. Like the Fisher King of Eliot's poem, Roland's world has suffered a fundamental breach, a mythical cleaving of lord from land, the sickness of the king and the blight upon his body -- the earth itself. We learn in Robin Furth's The Dark Tower: A Concordance that Roland is the thirtieth in a side bloodline descended from Arthur Eld of the White. You guessed it -- Arthur Eld is King Arthur (or someone much like him -- he is depicted in King's mythology as "riding a white stallion and brandishing his great sword Excalibur"). Coupled with Eliot, the intimation is that part of how Roland will heal his world, as the present incarnation of the Fisher King, is by somehow fundamentally healing himself.

More evidence that King is grafting the rules and regulations of science fiction onto the story appears with follow-up on a time paradox created in the previous books.

"All right," Eddie said at last. "I understand the basic paradox. Your memory is dividedó"

"Not divided. Doubled."

In The Gunslinger, a boy named Jake is pushed by a serial killer in front of a car in our world, dies, wakes up in Roland's world miraculously healed, and accompanies Roland in his pursuit of Walter, the Man in Black. Near the end, Roland sacrifices Jake to secure palaver with Walter. In The Drawing of the Three, Roland kills Jake's killer in our world before he pushes Jake, resulting in the third book in the paradox in which both Roland in his world, and Jake in ours, remember two simultaneous pasts -- and it is slowly driving both of them mad. Since Jake is part of Roland ka-tet, the solution is to bring Jake across the dimensions to Roland's world, which thus comprises the plot of the first half of The Waste Lands. Much of this sequence takes place in our world, in New York, where Jake must contend with his gathering madness while at the same time giving us our first glimpse at a peculiar rose in a derelict construction site. It is this rose that is somehow at the crux of the series, a kind of manifestation of the Tower in our world and whose demise suggests the imminent annihilation of the principles which govern all worlds. Paralleling Jake's story we learn more about Eddie and Susannah, whose love relationship is developed and strengthened. The first half in general serves as character exposition which cleverly intertwines with the symbols and precepts introduced already in the first book.

The second half propels Roland's party along the beam through Mid-World toward a distant and massive city called Lud. Along the way more questions are answered, and symbolic dreams had (King uses dream sequences frequently in the series to foreshadow), and the journey is punctuated by bizarre encounters with surreal technology and relics from our world like a crashed World War II Focke-Wulf, and some insanely powerful speakers that blast ZZ Top's "Velcro Fly" intermittently through the streets of Lud. At one point, we discover that one of King's most notorious characters from his other novels has found his way into the central story here. The final confrontation between a deranged sentient monorail called "Blaine the Mono" culminates in, of all things, a riddling contest. The ending is the sort of cliffhanger one loves for its poignancy, despises for its audacity (recall there was a six year lapse between The Waste Lands and Wizard and Glass), then accepts because it's all such satisfying, thought-provoking entertainment.

The new Viking edition collects all of the original illustrations by artist Ned Dameron, who brings a kind of rugged realism to the series that makes his depictions of the creatures in the waste lands itself doubly frightful. There are roughly twice as many paintings here as in the previous two books, and we also get a lot of two-page spreads that open up the landscape to the mind's eye, and one in particular that seems to translate Roland as a Clint Eastwood / Marlon Brando lovechild. The one complaint I have about the Viking editions (available in both paperback and hardcover) is that the pictures appear spaced so out of whack with the story that you're often given an image from an important scene dozens of pages before it happens. No doubt this was done to accommodate a font change that drops the page count from the original's 509 to just 422.

With the release of the fifth book, Wolves of the Calla and the latter two coming in July 2004 and November 2004 respectively, there's never been a better time to jump into this series. Drawing from some of his richest books like Insomnia and The Stand, The Dark Tower series continues to prove itself out as an epic worth the attention of readers and critics alike. There's no telling whether he'll pull it all off (King often has problems with endings), but if he does, one hopes he'll receive the critical acclaim he deserves.

Copyright © 2003 Matthew Peckham

Matt Peckham, a Nebraska native who received his M.A. in Creative Writing from Creighton University in 2001, is a fiction writer, freelance journalist and contributing editor to the world's best-selling PC Games magazine, PC Gamer. Matt is currently working on his first book, a scholarly guide to Mike Carey's Eisner-nominated Lucifer series. For more about Matthew, check out mattpeckham.com


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