by Matthew Peckham
When Viking cinched the deal to republish the first four books in The Dark Tower series, the publisher brought in British artist Steve Stone to do new dust jackets. They are unfortunately the least attractive aspects of the new editions; dark, gothic, and highly digital, they seem almost lurid and rigidly surreal, like Dali paintings without any subtext. Such is notably the case with The Waste Lands, with its gleaming black skull slapped on the face of a monstrous steam train belching smoke and backlit by a hellish red glare; all atmosphere, but little imagination. Stone's a fine artist in his own right, but his work seems out of place here (a problem with nearly all of the post-Grant editions incidentally; no one seems to have known how to market these books), especially considering the previous editions ran with the "crazy" train theme as well. The train in question appears for just a few dozen pages near the end, and there's so much else worth considering in this epic third book, the point at which the windows are flung open and the world comes rushing in.
If the first book is the Sergio Leone western and the second a kind of action-packed interlude, the third is King's tribute to Tolkien, sans the -- as Mr. King puts it -- "sturdy peasant characters" and "bosky Scandanavian settings." In their place come enormous forests populated by positronic tributes to Richard Adams, illimitable magnetic "beams" bracing the world, a monstrous decaying city at the edge of an atrophied expanse, and a hypersonic monorail haunted by a demented artificial intelligence plotting its final lunatic run.
A brief summary: Roland Deschain (the last name combines the French des, "of" and "chain," ergo Roland of/in chains), the world's last gunslinger, is questing for the Dark Tower, a trans-dimensional bolt purportedly holding the universe together. The tower is infected, possibly falling, and the effect is a poisoning of reality, a perversion of the universe itself. After catching the man in black, Roland is told he must draw three: the prisoner, the lady of shadows, and death. By the end of the second book, he is joined by Eddie and Susannah Dean (the former from 1980s New York, the latter from a 60s version of the same city); the three are just leaving the Western Sea and traveling into hill and tree country.
The Waste Lands opens somewhere north of the Western Sea some months later, in an enormous forest known as the Great West Woods. Roland has been training Eddie and Susannah to become gunslingers, knights of the ancient ways (a sort of Arthurian chivalric code grafted onto the American West mythos), whose talents with projectile weapons are only exceeded by their mental discipline. This relatively quiet period also provides King the opportunity you get the sense he's been craving for fourteen years, to finally roll up his sleeves and draw back the curtain on the particulars of Roland's quest and the meaning of that oblique purple blade of grass -- the "answer" at the limits of creation witnessed in a vision sent to Roland by the man in black at the end of The Gunslinger.
Scribbling diagrams in the dirt (also doubled on the pages, in a welcome nod to Madeleine L'Engle's A Wrinkle in Time), Roland explains to Eddie and Susannah that the fabric of time and space is stabilized by six intersecting beams arranged in a circle; at their center point, the Dark Tower, a metaphysical rivet sustaining the order and anatomy of the universe. Follow any beam to its intercross, and you come to the Tower itself.
"Beams?" Susannah asked. "What Beams?"At either end of the beams are the guardians of the portals, a zodiac of animal totems that stand watch over the outlying points. Early on, Roland and his companions confront one of the guardians, a gigantic bear named Shardik that, it turns out, was created by an ancient corporation called North Central Positronics (nod to Asimov). Thus the grim "fantasticated" landscape is partially stripped of its magical mystique and, like Gene Wolfe's New Sun series, subjected by degrees to the bracing aspects of science, an echo of our own world projected into some far-flung post-apocalyptic future with a familiar Faustian theme: tamper with the secrets of the universe, and you invite chaos.
While the story remains vitally tethered to the Robert Browning poem "Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came," the title of the third book is intended to envoke T. S. Eliot's 1922 poem The Waste Land. King quotes the poem in the opening pages of the book, 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, in which the landscape is both an object and a presence, with the grotesqueries of Eliot's gelded cyclicality. Like the land and its Fisher King in The Waste Land, Roland's world has suffered a fundamental breach, a mythical cleaving of lord from land (a sickened king and the blight upon his body), culminating in the pollution of the earth itself. We learn in Robin Furth's The Dark Tower: A Concordance that Roland is thirtieth in a side bloodline descended from Arthur Eld of the White. Arthur Eld is an analogue for the legendary British 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"). Taken with Eliot, the intimation is that Roland -- his world's Fisher King -- will remain unable to heal his world until he at last somehow manages to heal himself. Given his trail of murder and sacrifice, his plodding and tenacious acceptance of ka, "fate," the prognosis is not encouraging.
In The Gunslinger, a boy named Jake is pushed by a serial killer in front of a car in our world, dies, and wakes in Roland's world miraculously healed. Found by Roland at a way station in the middle of the Mohaine desert, Jake accompanies Roland in his pursuit of Walter, the man in black. Near the end, Roland sacrifices Jake, who falls from an underground rail trestle ("Go then... there are other worlds than these"), to secure palaver with Walter. In The Drawing of the Three, Roland kills Jake's killer in our world at a temporal moment chronologically occurring before the killer would have pushed Jake, resulting in a time paradox: both Roland in his world, and Jake in ours, remember two simultaneous pasts, one in which Jake lived and one in which he died; it is slowly driving each of them mad.
"All right," Eddie said at last. "I understand the basic paradox. Your memory is divided-"As Jake is part of Eddie and Susannah's ka-tet (a word meaning "one from many"), the solution is to bring Jake into Roland's world, to draw him (in this sense, Jake is the true "third") and nullify the temporal paradox. The many trials in this first half of the book include a second encounter with a speaking demon in a ring of ancient stones and a tense struggle through a haunted dwelling (nod to Poe's "The Fall of the House of Usher") which anticipates some of the same thematic material ("slippage") that appears later in King and Straub' collaborative Black House (also related to The Dark Tower cycle). Much of this first section of The Waste Lands occurs in our world, in 1970s New York, where Jake must contend with his gathering madness. It is also here that King provides our first look at the object Roland glimpsed in The Gunslinger.
As Jake neared this clump of alien grass, the rose began to open before his eyes. It disclosed a dark scarlet furnace, petal upon secret petal, each burning with its own secret fury.The rose, somehow also a manifestation of the Dark Tower in our world, is growing in a derelict construction site. This rose is infected, sickening, and, we are told, in great danger. There's even a polite (thankfully not gratuitous) nod to William Blake's "The Sick Rose," though it's worth noting all these literary references tend to occur less frequently than the veritable full-scale library of popular culture references. Paralleling Jake's tale, this first section also explores Eddie and Susannah's deepening romance and, like the best of stories, places the "swashbuckling" material second to the character exposition.
The second section propels Roland's party along the beam, into Mid-World toward a gargantuan, crumbling city called Lud, a name ironically derived from a word that means opposition to technological change. Along the way more questions are answered, and symbolic dreams had (King uses dream sequences frequently in the series to foreshadow, working in some of the extra-sensory motifs that graced his earlier books). The journey is punctuated by encounters with weird technology (strange variations on dipolar and unipolar circuits) and relics from our world like a crashed World War II Focke-Wulf bearing the Nazi swastika. As the group approaches the city, Eddie recognizes the drumbeat from ZZ Top's "Velcro Fly" blasted intermittently through the streets of Lud. At one point we discover that one of King's most notorious characters from other novels has found his way into the central story here; the encounter is brief but tantalizing, and this is probably the book (first published in 1991 by Donald M. Grant) that got King thinking The Dark Tower would also be his narrative linchpin, drawing together at least fifteen of his books formally. The final confrontation between a deranged sentient monorail culminates in, of all things, a riddling contest, and is among one of the finest sequences in the series. The ending is the sort of cliffhanger one loves for its thrills and tolerates in spite of its audacity (recall there was a six year lapse between The Waste Lands and Wizard and Glass).
The new Viking edition collects all of the original interior illustrations by artist Ned Dameron, who brings a kind of rugged, painted realism to the series that makes his depictions of the creatures in the waste lands twice as fearsome. There are roughly double the paintings here versus the previous two books, many of them brilliant two-page spreads that open up the landscape and flesh out Roland's strange world. The only problem is that the pictures are spaced so far out of alignment with the story that you're occasionally given an image from some important scene literally hundreds of pages in advance. No doubt this was done to accommodate a font change that drops the page count from the original's 509 to just 422 (the new font is also a bit disappointing, probably owing more to my fondness for the Donald M. Grant original than a legitimate criticism).
Matt Peckham lives in Nebraska and Iowa. His first book, a guide to Mike's Carey's Lucifer, will be published by Wildside Press. For more about Matt, check out mattpeckham.com
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