by Matthew Peckham
As an undergraduate at the University of Maine in March 1970, a very young Stephen King wrote the words "The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed." King had been then inspired by Sergio Leone's The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly to create "the longest popular novel in history." Though the first installment wasn't published until 1978 in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, it nonetheless signified in 1970 the opening salvo from one of the most prolific writers of fiction in the history of the world -- presently with over forty bestselling novels under his belt. Many of these are embraced by fans and eschewed by critics, but the notable exceptions are The Dark Tower books, which ironically draw upon most of King's previous novels and short stories as source material. Stephen King's career as a writer is a geography of cultural regurgitation, a collision of pulp and palpability, a collusion between popular and critical sensibilities, a talent that is as comfortable going for "the gross-out" as publishing award-winning stories in The New Yorker. Bracing his career like a metaphoric linchpin is The Dark Tower cycle, described by some as his "magnum opus," a capstone literary piece de resistance. After more than thirty years, the final chapter in the seven-book, nearly 4,000-page saga has arrived, answering with deft narrative skill and breathless prose the questions: Does Roland reach the Dark Tower? And what or who waits for him in its highest room?
A brief synopsis: Beyond End-World, bracing all time and space, is a structure known as the Dark Tower; supporting the Tower, six magnetic beams of force. A malevolent being called the Crimson King (first appearing in King's Insomnia) is employing human psychics called "breakers" to chip away at the beams, intending to bring down the Tower and rule in the ensuing chaos. As the final book opens, there are two beams remaining, of which one is nearly gone. Roland Deschain, the last gunslinger in a decaying world parallel to our own, has quested from the crumbling palisades of royal Gilead in In-World where his father was the last "lord of light," to the black borderlands called Thunderclap at the edge of End-World. On his journey, Roland has drawn companions and fellow gunslingers from our world -- specifically New York circa the late twentieth-century. These are: Eddie Dean, a heroin addict who saves Roland's life; Odetta Holmes, a women afflicted with multiple personalities who becomes Susannah Dean at the end of The Drawing of the Three; Jake Chambers, an eleven-year-old boy killed by Roland in The Gunslinger yet drawn again in The Waste Lands courtesy a temporal paradox; Oy, a raccoon/dog creature known as a "billy-bumbler" and capable of limited speech who befriends Jake; and Father Donald Callahan, the cursed priest from 'Salem's Lot who was last seen on a bus at the close of that book, and who appears in Wolves of the Calla living in a village at the edge of Thunderclap.
The Dark Tower takes up where Song of Susannah ended, as Susannah's demon-child Mordred -- fathered in a bizarre sexual twist by Roland and the Crimson King and mothered by Susannah and her psychic captor Mia -- is born under the administration of the "low men" (minions of the Crimson King who first appeared in the Hearts in Atlantis short story "Low Men in Yellow Coats") at an outpost called Fedic, which is located in Roland's world at the far edge of the sickening blackness known as Thunderclap. As in the Arthurian legend, Mordred's function or fate is to seek out and kill Roland, who is the last of the line of Arthur Eld -- an analogue for the British/Celtic King Arthur. After killing Mia (who has been physically separated from Susannah) and revealing his horrific talent, Mordred begins his hunting of Roland, intent on catching up with and devouring his "white father."
The book is neatly divided into five parts plus closing sections, including a complete version of the Robert Browning poem that partially inspired the cycle: "Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came." Jake and Father Callahan open the story with a showdown at the Dixie Pig in New York circa 1999, as Roland and Eddie in Maine circa 1977 attempt to ensure the safety of a vacant lot that contains a single rose -- our world's manifestation of the Dark Tower. Eventually the broken ka-tet ("one from many") is reunited, and its members resume their journey along the path of the beam to the place the breakers are kept. There, they encounter Ted Brautigan ("Low Men in Yellow Coats") and Dinky Earnshaw ("Everything's Eventual") and the boy Sheemie, last seen near the end of Roland's flashback in Wizard and Glass. In the place known as Devar-Toi, housing hundreds of the psychic breakers, the group must permanently end the plot to break the beams, then shuttle back to Maine in the summer of 1999 for a second encounter with Stephen King, before the final stage of the journey -- a trek through a wintry wasteland stretching for hundreds of miles before ceding at last to the road which leads to the gray-black pylon at the crux of space and time, and the end of Roland's quest.
In the previous books, key characters die but return; in the final book, all bets are off. King takes this last opportunity to once more wrap his narrative in pre-established ideas and stories, drawing from at least fifteen of his related books, as well as countless cultural references and motifs. From the perspective of King's loyal base, the story has a few problems, notably the untimely demise of one of King's most nefarious creations early on and in a way that does not at all seem to justify Stephen King's narrative expenditure on the character in previous and related books. Roland's strange murderous son, Mordred, is introduced with horrific relish and then mostly forgotten about until the end, where he functions as a brief check and balance in the cycle of karmic nips and tucks. The most significant problem, however, is the surprising superficiality of the Crimson King -- a character whose history and motives are never fully explained or fleshed out, and who appears for the first time in the series so briefly and remotely here that the encounter is disappointingly anticlimactic.
Unless, of course, you view these things as deliberate, intentional circumscriptions of traditional Aristotelian narrative (a tradition Mr. King has honored in nearly all his other books), and the endgame of an author whose message is to value the journey over the destination. And what a journey it has been. The triumph of The Dark Tower is the way its narrative connects with the reader at a level that transcends the superficiality of intellectual pomp, the narrative flaccidity of loud apocalyptic battles, and the artificial grandness of god-like characters. In that context, the demise of certain key individuals, the absence of Mordred in the story, and the comedic yet fascinating dynamics of the final encounter with the Crimson King involving Patrick Danville (from Insomnia) are in fact strengths; in lieu of fireworks and other contrivances, the story's core is the oldest yet most obscure of classical engagements, Roland's struggle against his own compulsions -- to sacrifice and murder indiscriminately in order to gain the Tower and what lies at its top -- and the consequences of a life given over entirely to a selfish obsession.
Michael Whelan, who painted the five plates for The Gunslinger, returns to the series over twenty years later to provide twelve stunning meditations on King's story. Like King, Whelan's style has matured notably, and his rendition of King's characters and environs is something to behold. Human forms and faces are interpreted in remarkable detail, and Whelan's palettes literally explode with brilliant colors that seem culled from every possible gradient. The subject material Whelan has chosen isn't quite as poised as it could have been (with a few exceptions), but the moments are memorable enough, and there is one heartbreaking last shot of Roland and his friends sharing a victorious hug that stands out in particular (excepting perhaps his double-fold rendering of Roland and the Dark Tower, which doubles as the book's cover). Whelan also provides at least twice as many black and white sketches, some simple section endings, others taking up a full page and gloriously detailed. Publisher Donald M. Grant has done a sterling job with the series from day one, but the seventh book stands head-and-shoulders above the rest in terms of the dust jacket design and overall quality in the trade hardcover. Whether you find it discounted or pay full jacket price of $35US, this book is worth every cent.
Did the series need to be seven books and nearly 4,000 pages long? I re-read the series in order (just the core books) and have to admit that the story can become emotionally exhausting taken altogether instead of stretched across the years, which is how I initially experienced the earlier books. The Dark Tower cycle is on the one hand a "single novel," to quote King's view on the matter, but it is also a sort of justification for everything else here referred to that King has written. The last book is obvious required reading for long-time fans, but newcomers may find a generously spaced read of the entire cycle is more rewarding than one sequential marathon meal.
What most are probably wondering, however, is whether the primary questions (Does Roland reach the Tower? What's at its top?) are adequately answered. This is difficult to explain without engaging the ending directly. I've added a pop-up subsection which can be viewed through the link below. Engage this only after you've completed the book, as it immediately reveals the prime mysteries of the series and proceeds to discuss them thereafter.
If longevity were truly a benchmark of literary merit, a great many more highly esteemed yet mostly unread works would exist on store shelves or in libraries (or online, for that matter) than are currently in circulation. It seems naïve to prattle on about how such-and-such will eventually get its meritorious due in some utopian-sophisticate society of the future, where complexity and erudition are valued and championed for their own sake over simple, brisk, effective storytelling. The unfortunate, unnecessary gap between popular and literary is still with us -- will probably be with us for as long as humans employ self-exonerating hierarchical systems of merit, but we needn't swallow the university taglines and independent clique-lists. Stephen King has made great strides toward achieving a synthesis of popular and literary with The Dark Tower cycle, approaching the chasm from the side of the storyteller, the narrative shaman who writes (as King aptly puts it) for his audience first, himself second. The dialogue this series will raise ought to be one of inclusion, not exclusions, ways in which the sanctimonious on either side can set aside the cynicism and pretentiousness long enough to consider, for a change, what's actually happening on the pages of works dismissed on name recognition alone.
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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