by Matthew Peckham
Stephen King finished scribing his epic seven-book The Dark Tower series in 2003, producing an estimated 2,500 manuscript pages for the final three books in less than two years (the first four total around 2,000). But instead of resting on his laurels, he turned a fastidious revisionist's 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. The result is a greatly improved book that retains the original's post-apocalyptic-western flavor, while leaving no word, phrase, or punctuation mark unturned.
Like Goethe's Faust, The Dark Tower cycle has been in production most of King's writing life, from March 1970 just before he graduated from college, to the final book's publication September 21, 2004 (King's 57th birthday). Faust was Goethe's chef d'oeuvre, and many critics are already referring to The Dark Tower cycle as King's magnum opus. Indeed, it has even become something of a meta-fictive exercise, gradually assimilating characters and themes from nearly all of King's earlier works such as Salem's Lot and The Stand and Insomnia. King has himself stated, "there... came a time when I realized everybody from all these books, their courses are changed by the pull of the Tower." In the story, the Dark Tower is the linchpin of time and space, and in a case of life imitating art, The Dark Tower series has become, literally, the linchpin of King's entire body of work.
The Gunslinger was first published in serial form in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction between October 1978 and November 1981. In 1982 the five parts were collected into a single book and published by Donald M. Grant in both a deluxe and limited trade hardcover edition to the tune of 10,500 copies. That might have been the end of Roland the obdurate gunslinger, except that fans clamored for another printing when they discovered the Grant edition listed in the "Also by Stephen King" section of Pet Sematary, sandwiched inconspicuously between Cujo (1981) and Christine (1983). In 1984, a second printing of 10,000 additional copies of the Grant trade hardcover slipped quietly out, but The Gunslinger didn't go mass-market until 1988 with the publication of the Plume trade paperback edition, complete with the original Michael Whelan full-color illustration plates. Even then, the series was something of an acquired taste. It wasn't until 2003 that the revised edition finally rolled onto bestseller charts, spurred by news that King had completed the series.
The tale concerns a world paralleling our own (and perhaps infinite others) in which Roland Deschain ("in chains") of Gilead, perhaps the last gunslinger, is hunting the enigmatic "man in black" through a fantastically bleak geographic nightmare of dying towns, sweltering deserts, and arid mountainscapes.
The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed... the desert was the apotheosis of all deserts, huge, standing to the sky for what looked like eternity in all directions. It was white and blind and waterless and without feature save for the faint, cloudy haze of the mountains which sketched themselves on the horizon and the devil-grass which brought sweet dreams, nightmares, death. An occasional tombstone sign pointed the way, for once the drifted track that cut its way through the thick crust of alkali had been a highway. Coaches and buckas had followed it. The world had moved on since then. The world had emptied.A gunslinger is a sort of flintlock samurai, a mystical Arthurian knight with preternatural gun-fighting skills and Epictetian mental discipline whose purpose is to "uphold love and light." Roland's world has soured, beginning perhaps when he was very young, perhaps earlier. The world, we're told and reminded throughout, "has moved on," which means that physics have begun to break down. Time has become twisted or warped ("When one quests for the Dark Tower, time is a matter of no concern at all," says King), the magnetic poles are drifting, civilization exists in a twilight state, and reality is in an advanced phase of decay.
Roland is pursuing the man in black because he believes that at the center of time and space exists a tower, a great black pylon that is somehow also the linchpin of reality, a bolt connecting all possible realities and times. 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 here a matter of vague legends and myth. What we're told in The Gunslinger, is that Roland's path to the tower is through the man in black, a cassocked sorcerer Roland has been pursuing for years. Along the road, he must face traps set by the man in black: a resurrected drug-addict, a thunderous bible-thumping woman and a town turned against him, a boy who has somehow been transported from our late twentieth century to Roland's Mohaine Desert, a libidinous demon oracle, an army of subterranean mutants, and finally the man in black himself.
Unlike much of King's popular material, The Gunslinger is difficult to categorize. There are elements of science fiction, an apocalyptic future-time in a multi-dimensional creation mysteriously bound to our own by references to gasoline pumps and Beatles songs and other adumbrations concerning twentieth century American technology. There are elements of dark fantasy, the invocation of spirits (blended with science -- Roland uses mescaline to enhance a "speaking" trance), the magical resurrection of the dead, and the blasted apocalyptic landscape itself, like something out of a Bosch nightmare. And it wouldn't be King without at least a dash of dread -- in this case a tango with a speaking-demon in a root cellar and a sightless crawl through an ancient underground tunnel by railcar, replete with scabby, slobbering monsters.
Mostly, though, it's a western, culled from an experience King had back in 1970 with Sergio Leone's The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, which King was lucky enough to experience in a theater with, as he puts it, "the correct Panavision lenses."
Clint Eastwood appears roughly eighteen feet tall, with each wiry jut of stubble on his cheeks looking roughly the size of a young redwood tree…the desert settings appear to stretch at least out as far as the orbit of the planet Neptune. And the barrel of each gun looks to be roughly as large as the Holland Tunnel.King's desire to capture the movie's romantic, epic size, as well as its "magnificent dislocation" (according to one of the characters in the film, Chicago is somewhere near Phoenix, Arizona) inspired King to launch what he thought at the time might be the beginning of "the longest popular novel in history."
The other more obvious source of inspiration comes from Robert Browning's poem "Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came" (1855) (which cribs its title from Edgar's song in King Lear, which in turn cribs from a Scottish ballad entitled "Childe Roland" as well, perhaps, as the 12th century French epic "Song of Roland") which King studied in an undergraduate English course. Like the predominant motif of Browning's poem -- the knight's crusade, the quest for affirmation (or transcendence) perhaps fatalistically through self-annihilation -- King's "knight" Roland is on a spiritual self-quest, his psyche externalized in the ravaged landscape, his fate to waver between salvation and damnation.
He watched his feet move up and down like the heddles of a loom, listened to the nonsense rhyme sing itself into a pitiful garble in his mind, and wondered when he would fall down for the first time. He didn't want to fall, even through there was no one to see him. It was a matter of pride. A gunslinger knows pride, that invisible bone that keeps the neck stiff.It is this sense of bullheadedness that simultaneously empowers and damns Roland, moves him forward against impossible odds, but also allows him to murder innocents when it suits his purpose. His only hope for salvation may be his romantic, fractious core, his potential to achieve spontaneous change in the face of deterministic mendacity. Roland is a Kantian agent, duty-bound, whose physical body is locked within tortured landscapes, possibly of his own creation, yet whose will or ka (an ancient Egyptian term meaning "life force") operates outside time -- in the realm of the Tower.
The revised edition of The Gunslinger smoothes stilted sentences and punctuation, though the framework of the tale remains the same. King notes about the original printing, "I always thought that one was different from the other ones in that it was written when I was so young... it always seemed... like it was trying too hard to be something really, really important... so I tried to simplify it a little bit." For instance, King added a prefatory quote from Thomas Wolfe's Look Homeward, Angel that invokes alienation with the line "o lost, and by the wind grieved, ghost, come back again." It also foreshadows something new 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."And Roland's mud-headed response:
"What do you mean, resume? I never left off."This added bit of palaver parallels the book's new opening subtitle, "Resumption," opposite another new and mysterious prefatory page: the number nineteen, centered and alone. In addition to its place in the new introduction ("On Being Nineteen") the number is also a secret the man in black uses to bait one of Roland's lovers early on. Beyond these things, it's meaning here -- evidently significant as it appears in all of the remaining books -- is a mystery.
The most sweeping changes occur at the level of basic grammar. 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" (a parsec is roughly three light years long, after all). Nearly every adverb has been hunted down with zeal and purged. There were several spots in the original where King would flip adverb with subject and verb, e.g. "onward, he plodded." These have all been changed so they read instead, e.g. "he plodded onward." The liberal use of semi-colons has also been throttled back, so that "white; blinding; waterless;" becomes "it was white and blinding and waterless." The narrative voice is smoother, so that sentences seem longer, the monologues 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 following books now appear here as well. Not counting the grammatical changes, the added material amounts to roughly thirty-five pages, or about nine thousand words, resulting in a slightly longer, more balanced story. Forget the original -- it is now a relic for the curious, scholars, or collectors only.
SCIFICTION editor Ellen Datlow has referred to King as sui generis. Interpret as you will, Datlow's definition is impeccable in its simplest sense: King defies categorization. Or at least The Dark Tower books do. My mark on these is about as high as marks go. In the context of all the great writers and books and literature, unburdened by a sense of promotional duty to the less popular or small press material that do admittedly and unfortunately get steamrolled by whatever publishers are pushing, The Gunslinger rates right up there with our best, most honest and poignant literature. If you're not a fan of horror, or bloated fantasy, or populist epics, meandering plots, familiar tropes, dull characters, and boring narratives, this book is, without further qualification, for you.
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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