The Dark Tower 1
by Stephen King
“The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed.”
I have, regrettably, only had the pleasure of reading one Stephen King novel – 11.22.63. Before reading that particular book, I’d always avoided King because I grew up in the early ’90’s when the miniseries IT was popular and like many other 10 year old children, I was scared out of my skin. I figured Stephen King only did horror, and I wanted no part of it. (I do however highly recommend 11.22.63 – it was fantastic.)
Two years ago I went back on my promise to never read books of a horror persuasion, and I read Ann Rice’s Mayfair Witches trilogy – and while I found the third book to be completely gratuitous, I was spellbound by the first and second in the series…bewitched and fascinated with the story of a family of witches living in New Orleans . I decided to give Stephen King another chance while I was on the horror kick, and picked up 11.21.63, not knowing that it was not in fact a horror book, but in fact a wonderfully intricate mystery centered around the JFK assassination. I hadn’t had a chance to continue down the road Stephen King has paved with strange and twisting characters, until now.
There was an article I recently read that stated The Dark Tower series was considered King’s magnum opus. This intrigued me beyond belief. Of all the famous and quite frankly infamous novels King has written (IT, The Green Mile, The Stand, Misery, just to name a few) this was considered his greatest achievement? I began to comb the used bookstores in search of the first volume in The Dark Tower series, The Gunslinger, but couldn’t find it. I’m almost glad I didn’t because when I went onto Amazon to Prime-order it, I noticed that this particular book had been given a facelift in 2003. King decided to go back and add a few scenes to tie all 7 of the books together in a more cohesive manner.
I had extremely high hopes as I began The Gunslinger, a relatively short book with only 250 pages in it’s entirety. The Dark Tower was originally written as a series of short stories that were published in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s and the book is set up in the same style, containing the first five of such stories.
Where 11.22.63 flowed and ebbed through a tale that was incredibly easy to read and refreshingly relatable, The Gunslinger proved to be as mysterious and cantankerous as the title character, Roland Deschain – the gunslinger himself. I read the book in about three days and still had as much of an idea as to what was going on when I read the last page as when I read the first. The loose premise of the story is that Roland is on a steady, slow chase after The Man In Black, whom I believe to be a purveyor of death or an agent of the devil – it was never made completely clear. I believe that is King’s intent, however, as there are so many other books in the series. The back and forth the reader receives as Roland reminisces and tells tales gives us some insight into the gunslinger’s world, but not much. I found myself yearning for so much more and was frustrated to no end as the story progressed without satisfying my hunger.
The reader is introduced to several characters along Roland’s journey, all of whom he gains something from. One in particular, a young boy of about 10 years old, is the most poignant of the group. The gunslinger grows to love little Jake in the short amount of time they spend together, and he learns of Jake’s violent death in New York City (in a time and world that is not where they currently inhabit) through a hypnosis exercise. They become traveling companions and continue the search for The Man In Black across a ruthless and uncaring desert.
“”Look,” Jake said, pointing upward.
The gunslinger looked up and felt a twinge in his right hip. He winced. They had been in the foothills two days now, and although the waterskins were almost empty again, it didn’t matter now. There would soon be all the water they could drink. He followed the vector of Jake’s finger upward, past the rise of the green plain to the naked and flashing cliffs and gorges above it . . . on up toward the snowcap itself. Faint and far, nothing but a tiny dot (it might have been one of those motes that dance perpetually in front of the eyes, except for its constancy), the gunslinger beheld the man in black, moving up the slopes with deadly progress, a minuscule fly on a huge granite wall.
“Is that him?” Jake asked.
The gunslinger looked at the depersonalized mote doing its faraway acrobatics, feeling nothing but a premonition of sorrow.
“That’s him, Jake.””
The gunslinger was trained in his occupation from near birth, growing up in an Arthurian atmosphere among other boys his age who were also learning the delicate art of war. His father was a gunslinger, and his father before him, but I could never truly figure out what that actually meant. I believe gunslingers are protectors from evil, an angel of some sort, and they protect The Dark Tower. Or maybe I got it all wrong – something that would be easy to do considering how the story bounces back and forth so much while seeming to give nothing away. But again, I think this is the author’s intention. He really wants you to work for the meaning of this story; interestingly enough he mentions something to that effect in the newly added foreward. In any event, Roland has been chasing The Man In Black (not of the Will Smith variety) for roughly 12 years and they are on their way to The Dark Tower.
“Roland felt his face flush with heat in the dark, but when he spoke his voice was even. “That was the last part, I guess. Of my growing-up, I mean. I never knew any of the parts when they happened. Only later did I know that.”
He realized with some unease that he was avoiding what the boy wanted to hear.
“I suppose the coming of age was part of it, at that,” he said, almost grudgingly. “It was formal. Almost stylized; it was a dance.” He laughed unpleasantly.
The boy said nothing.
“It was necessary to prove one’s self in battle,” the gunslinger began.”
The setting of the gunslinger’s world is one of enigmatic magic; a world that holds clues to what it used to be but is now a world that has “moved on”. There are snippets of the past world; a pianist playing “Hey Jude” in a saloon, a man who is the owner of a gas pump that is viewed to be a sacred idol. But the world Roland lives in is not normal. Ravens are able to enjoy conversations, men argue over eating meat carved from a mutated animal, and even the grass will turn one mad. I’m interested enough to read the next book, but I think I need some time for reflection before I dive back in. I was left feeling very curious about The Dark Tower, it’s meaning, and Roland’s quest…and much like many other frustrating books, the story didn’t begin to get interesting until the near end.
“Very well,” the man in black said. “To begin then: You must understand the Tower has always been, and there have always been boys who know if it and lust for it, more than powers or riches or women. . . boys who look for the doors that lead to it. . .”
I do recommend this book, giving it 3.5 out of 5 stars – but I only recommend reading it if you plan on reading the series in its entirety. I cannot see the purpose in reading this one book, as it leaves all of your questions unanswered. Really. Not one thing is revealed in this book.
Read it in preparation for the movie coming out this summer staring Idris Elba as Roland Deschain and Matthew McConaughey as The Man In Black, as well as a proposed television series due for 2018. I’m sure anyone would agree while reading it that the casting is spot on.