by Matthew Peckham
In the late afternoon haze of a summer Saturday, Stephen King was struck by an out-of-control minivan while walking along Route 5 near his home in North Lovell, Maine. The impact broke four of his ribs, his right hip, one leg in nine places, chipped his spine, and inflicted several other injuries severe enough to nearly kill him. The driver of the minivan -- one Bryan Smith -- thought he'd hit a "small deer" until he discovered King's bloody spectacles on the front seat beside him. Catalyzed by his near-death experience, a recovering King turned to the completion of his greatest tale (started in the spring of 1970) plunging through some 2,000 additional pages and building the numbers 19 and 99 into an enigma as significant on the road to the Dark Tower as the Tower itself.
Wolves of the Calla ends as Susannah Dean, pregnant with a demon-child and possessed by a Delphian entity named Mia, flees End-World through an inter-dimensional door to birth her "chap." Her destination: New York City, summer 1999, where servants of the Crimson King have promised Mia safe harbor and care of the child after its birth. Courtesy the mystical power of the manni (a holy sect, probably a nod to the third-century Persian prophet Mani) and mere hours after their victory over the wolves, Susannah's companions (Roland Deschain, Eddie Dean, Jake Chambers, Fr. Donald Callahan, and a dog-raccoon hybrid named Oy) attempt to follow through the same dimensional door. Thwarting their intentions, the door splits them into two groups and flips their destinations: Roland and Eddie are sent to 1977 where they must locate a bookseller who owns a vacant lot sheltering an all-powerful rose, while Jake and Callahan are sent to 1999 to prevent Susannah's capture by minions of the Crimson King.
Song of Susannah is a surprisingly short read in a series that has seen each successive tale balloon, a trend owing to King's increasingly complex co-mingling of popular and aesthetic traditions. The narrative shuttles between these groups in an escalating fugue that is set primarily in our world and inhabits the space of a single day. It seems that in the billions of universes, there are two "key" worlds -- Roland of Gilead's and ours (though perhaps not precisely the one in which the readers of this essay exist). In the key worlds, time is constant, vectoring in one direction; as one of the characters intuits, you only have one chance to get things right -- no "do-overs."
With the end of the saga in sight, the stakes are properly raised, and the beamquake that marks the collapse of one of the last few magnetic lines stabilizing the Dark Tower propels Roland's band and the narrative into a nail-biting turn of thirteen "stanzas" that gallop to dueling cliffhangers. As Susannah struggles to understand the nature of the personality (Mia) that has taken possession of her body for the singular purpose of birthing a child, Roland and Eddie make a startling discovery in a Bridgton, Maine, where resides a certain writer of popular horror stories who has recently published a bestselling novel called 'Salem's Lot.
Susannah's journey is a nightmare introspective that plunges toward a confrontation with the "low men" -- sinister creatures in the service of the Crimson King who first appeared in Hearts in Atlantis pursuing a fugitive telepath named Ted Brautigan. Others like Brautigan are being rounded up by the "low men" to be used as "breakers" -- psychics whose task is the erosion of the great forces of magnetism, the "beams" that support the Dark Tower. When the last one falls, so will the Tower, destroying all "when" and "where." Unfamiliar with the customs and language of New York, Mia strikes a pact with Susannah: help Mia navigate the city in exchange for information about the child and its father. Much of this sequence takes place in Susannah/Mia's head, and with the end nearly in sight, the revelations arrive ferociously up-tempo.
The title of the sixth book (inspired by the Stephen Foster song) signifies the final rallying cry of Susannah Dean, whose pivotal trial on the road to the Tower has arrived. Since The Gunslinger King has maintained a loose connection to the British-Celtic tradition of King Arthur, Merlin, and the quest for the Holy Grail (as descendant of Arthur Eld, Roland's "grail" is the Dark Tower), and final homage is paid to that myth in the matter of Susannah's child. Susannah's mental plight, a sort of psychogenic fugue, is particularly well established and escalated. King has toyed with literalistic variations on Jungian notions of the unconscious in his previous works, but plays an idea he toyed with in Dreamcatcher to full and measured effect here, juggling virtualized environs and metaphoric realities to represent the dialogue between Susannah and her mental captor.
After battling with characters first encountered in The Drawing of the Three, Roland and Eddie must put aside their concern for Susannah and secure the purchase of a vacant lot in New York. The lot contains a single infinitely powerful rose, a kind of analogue in our world for the Dark Tower in Roland's (and though King never directly invokes the poem, a symbolic nod to William Blake's "The Sick Rose"). The lot is in danger of being subsumed by North Central Positronics and Sombra, the corporations responsible for much of the waste laid to Roland's world. The number of coincidences that structure the events leading Roland and Eddie through this process is staggering, almost ridiculous, until the two decide to visit a writer living in Bridgton, Maine for the oddest turn of the series yet -- King's appearance as a character in his own narrative.
In 1977, Stephen King was already a notable success with two major novels under his belt (Carrie and 'Salem's Lot). He was also descending into a substance-abuse haze, a tango with drugs and alcohol that culminated in memory gaps and marital difficulties. Strange as it may seem for an author who disdains the term meta-fiction, it now seems naïve to think King wouldn't show up as a character in his own sprawling epic at some point. The Stephen King who appears in Song of Susannah is a somewhat dazed, beer-guzzling and potbellied young writer who has not yet published the first book in The Dark Tower series (The Gunslinger). King's great task -- you might even say appointment -- is to write this story above all others. Whether King has created his characters, or they have created him (thus somehow justifying his existence) is irrelevant. King is simultaneously writing his characters to life and intervening as narrative shaman to embolden and preserve their struggle as a "transcriber" of cosmic patterns, where words are deadly as bullets. King's portrayal of himself carries an uncanny sense of realism and unflattering humility that makes it easy to accept, even embrace the notion of the most popular fiction writer in the world becoming a character in his own magnum opus. Is it indulgent? On some level all meta-narrative is, but in this case it seems warranted. King is one of our most prolific and thus important prisms of popular culture, and at the same time a core component of that culture, thus propriety is nullified; to not draw himself through the cultural prism at some point would have seemed the falser act.
Darrel Anderson, the book's artist, contributes ten full color plates, a fascinating collection of images created using digital software and printed using a special ink jet device. The results are surprisingly warm and multi-hued, not at all the sort of colder thing one tends to imagine when pairing the word "digital" to the phrase "visual art." The most striking aspect of Anderson's plates is their obsessive attention to minute detail in the grain of various textures and the startling precision with which boundaries between objects are blurred or defined. Anderson's dark vision of the Dark Tower in blackening storm clouds beyond Thunderclap is officially tied in my mind with Michael Whelan's epic and oft quoted vision at the end of The Gunslinger (Roland sitting on the western beach as the Dark Tower arrows hazily into the dusky stratosphere).
The most curious section of the book comes at the end in the form of a coda, a writer's journal containing several dozen entries by King that highlight signature events in King's life after 1977 and up to 1999. Who knows how accurate the entries are, how much is real or fiction (and would it matter anyway?). Writing is hard enough; writing oneself into a story without collapsing into self-indulgent drapery harder still. King has succeeded beyond my expectations, and while there will always be that contingent of fans wishing the series had instead turned up the action, hauled in the monsters, cranked out the supernatural evil forces of doom (etcetera, etcetera), there is something fitting about this non-linear denouement, building to some fantastic conclusion even as it deconstructs its raison d'être, distilling the cultural reflections of a lifetime.
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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