by Matthew Peckham
In 1954, Shichinin no samurai (Seven Samurai) was released, a masterpiece of martial arts cinema, hailed still as one of the greatest action epics ever filmed. Its director, Japanese filmmaker Akira Kurosawa, could not have realized then the considerable intercultural influence his film would have, or the legacy it would generate over the course of fifty years. To Kurosawa's list of imitators, add Sam Peckinpah (The Wild Bunch), Sergio Leone (the Man With No Name trilogy), John Sturges (The Magnificent Seven), George Lucas (Star Wars), and countless dozens of "team mission" films such as The Guns of Navarone and The Dirty Dozen, right up to Disney's A Bug's Life. In film critic Roger Ebert's estimation, "it could be argued that this greatest of filmmakers gave employment to action heroes for the next 50 years, just as a fallout from his primary purpose." Novelists too, it seems.
Stephen King's fifth book in The Dark Tower cycle -- the first of the final three he wrote back-to-back -- is as strange, powerfully written and utterly weird as it predecessors, but foremost, it is King's tribute to the great action films and cultural archetypes that descended from Kurosawa's magnum opus (in turn inspired by John Ford's film epics and other great westerns of vintage Hollywood cinema). Like Kurosawa's tale, King's is principally a story about talented killers summoned to aid a beleaguered village, to protect its villagers from banditry. In Kurosawa's tale, the bandits came for rice; in King's, they come for children.
At the end of Wizard and Glass, a band of gunslingers led by Roland Deschain of Gilead passed through a phenomenon known as a "thinny," a wearing away of the fabric of space and time. During an elongated and possibly enchanted evening of palaver (comprising most of the fourth book), Roland revealed the events that set him on the path to the Dark Tower. The Dark Tower is the bolt that holds all realities in place, supported by great beams of magnetic force. These beams are breaking, one-by-one, orchestrated (it is believed) by a creature called the Crimson King (first named in King's novel Insomnia), who has somehow gained access to the Tower. If the tower falls, so will Roland's world, and in fact all worlds.
In Wolves of the Calla, Roland and his companions (Eddie and Susannah Dean and Jake Chambers from New York, and a billy bumbler named Oy from Mid-World) journey to the edge of End-World, the final geographic stage of their road to the Dark Tower; on its borders lies a deceptively tranquil village named Calla Bryn Sturgis (note homage to Yul Brynner in The Magnificent Seven and that film's director, John Sturges). Every twenty years or so, great packs of "wolves" come riding on horses from Thunderclap -- a belt of blackness and lightning along End-World, visible on the distant horizon from Calla Bryn Sturgis -- to raid the village and take its children. The practice, we are told, has been occurring for centuries. The children are eventually returned to the village, but "roont" (village patois for "ruined"), stricken with horrific mental and physical handicaps. At the beginning of the story, the villagers are warned that the wolves are coming to the Calla in one month, and as in Kurosawa's film, this time some of the villagers are ready to fight back. Their fragile bravura is seized upon and galvanized by an enigmatic priest.
It seems a famous character from one of King's earliest novels has been resurrected to dwell in this quiet town at the edge of Thunderclap; the novel in question: 'Salem's Lot, the character: Father Donald Callahan (note similarity to "Calla"), an alcoholic priest whose faith proved transient when confronted by that novel's supernatural antagonist. At the end of 'Salem's Lot, Callahan boards a bus to nowhere, his fate indeterminate. The story of how he ended up in Calla Bryn Sturgis comprises great swathes of the narrative -- some of the most entertaining in fact, as King draws in material from Hearts in Atlantis and "Low Men in Yellow Coats," taking us on another whirlwind tour of New York, pulling us into its soup kitchens and rehab centers, and back to that same empty lot where a certain invaluable rose awaits protection or destruction. There is also a notable extension of King's vampire mythos, a continuation of themes established as early as 1975; nothing on the order of Anne Rice's extravagant erotica, and not much that is particularly inventive either (King essentially divides vampires into three categories, or "types," and links them to the service of the Crimson King). Still, the fun is in the simple, masterful way King tells his tale, its punchy, realistic voice and controlled prose. The escalating revelations that draw increasingly upon King's life, both fictional and subtly autobiographical, reward longtime fans who've been with the series for decades, and give his older works new and richer meaning.
Like the previous four, this one also contains an "r" word in its prefatory pages: resistance, and on the opposing page, the number nineteen now graces the interior of the first six books (the seventh alters this slightly). This is the first one in the series to capitalize on that number (not counting revisions made to the first), adding to the quest a maddening game of numerology. Names, towns, events, and just about anything that fits fall under the spell of nineteen, which at first seems a game of coincidences, until the coincidences accumulate to the point of overwhelming Roland and his ka-tet ("one from many"). It is worth noting here that June 19th, 1999 was the day King himself was nearly killed by a runaway van, though nineteen also factored into Bag of Bones (published September 1998). There is also a growing sense on the part of the characters that something unreal is occurring, as if to suggest the characters have "become aware" of their fictive quality (as characters in a Stephen King book). This tinkering with the "fourth wall" is tantalizing and reveals an author willing, after over forty books, to push his writing in boldly different directions.
There's even a bit of fun poked at critics (add publishers and resellers to this list) who like to divvy up the literary world into easy castes: science fiction, fantasy, horror, western, romance, etc. At one point early on, in a nod to Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn, Roland asks Eddie Dean
Do people in your world always want only one story-flavor at a time? Only one taste in their mouths? ...Does no one eat stew?Of course the double-entendre is that in fact The Dark Tower series -- several of its installments veterans of the New York Times bestseller list -- is, or has become, precisely the sort of stew in question. The fifth book alone is a collage of action, western, romance, science fiction, fantasy, meta-narrative, suspense, and horror. In addition to cinematic homage, King culls from a mix of themes: a coming of age tale with no easy transitions; an examination of village life, its politics, its gossips and cowards, and the rituals of inclusion and exclusion; the slow and vexing process of recovery (its second appearance in the series) from substance addiction. Most of all, the book circles back time and again to a theme Kurosawa first explored in Seven Samurai, the traditionalist notion of caste, fate, and acceptance of station or duty. Kurosawa attempted to take a film anchored in ancient Japanese culture and add "flexible humanism" to traditional thinking. In Kurosawa's film, the villagers hire samurai to protect their village, but resent them; the samurai are willing to be hired to protect the village because they believe it is their duty as samurai. In the same way, Roland and his gunslingers believe, initially, that they must protect the village because it is their duty, their path to the Tower, while the villagers grudgingly (and many distrustfully) invite Roland's band to the task. The two groups will have to transcend these artificial social constructs in order to contend with the coming of the wolves at the end.
Complicating matters are Susannah Dean, pregnant (but not with her husband Eddie's child), and the thirteenth bend o'the wizard's rainbow, Black Thirteen, a magical black orb that has the power to send the group "todash" -- a state allowing temporary inter-dimensional travel. Susannah's mind has once more been split, this time by a personality calling itself Mia ("mother of one, daughter of none") whose sole purpose is to protect and birth her child. The child, it is speculated, is the product of Susannah's violent coupling with a demon oracle in The Waste Lands. In order to feed the child, Mia leads Susan on midnight forays into swamps, disguised in her mind as journeys to a distant castle where a banquet awaits her each night.
What she cared about was the smells. They drifted up to her, thick and wonderful. Chicken and gravy and roasts of pork dressed in suits of crackling fat. Sides of beef breaded with blood, wheels of moist cheese, huge Calla Fundy shrimp like plump orange commas. Split fish with staring black eyes, their bellies brimming with sauce. Great pots of jambalaya and fanata, the vast caldo largo stews of the far south.Veteran King artist and Swamp Thing co-creator Bernie Wrightson, whose work has previously appeared in King's The Stand, Creepshow and The Cycle of the Werewolf, handles the book's twelve color plates. Unfortunately Wrightson seems either to have responded to the book too casually, or failed to effectively get inside King's head, and many of the illustrations have an uncharacteristically (for Wrightson) amateurish quality, shots that look rushed. A few -- in particular the cover illustration and one of Callahan early in the book -- are brilliant, not just in quality but for choice of subject matter. In others, characters appear as caricatures of themselves: too tall, too wide-faced, too long-legged, too exaggerated or just wrong altogether based on the words -- many of them quite specific -- that King uses. The best part about the fifth book is its return to Donald M. Grant publishing format. Chalk it up to my history with these books dating back to the release of the second in 1987, the large strong-indented fonts, thick paper stock, and dust jackets sporting art from the interior (as opposed to Viking's ugly computer-generated work on the reissues) -- this is the way the books were meant to be read, and if you manage to snag one the pricey copies of the older DMG editions using that same font and spacing (off Ebay or at a convention), count yourself lucky.
This fifth tale in the cycle is a meditation on strategy and will, honor and duty, a last place along the borderlands into End-World for Roland and his companions to gather strength and prepare for the journey to Thunderclap and, beyond, the battle for the Dark Tower itself. Its success as both self-contained tale and caesura in a greater narrative is tribute to not only Kurosawa and Kurosawa's progeny, but also to King's skillful manipulation of archetypal reverberations that here refract Kurosawa's material as much as reflect it.
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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