Art by Michael Whelan
Here there be SPOILERS!!!!
This is about the book series. Part 2 will be my review of the movie.
I recently finished rereading Stephen King's Dark Tower series in preparation for the movie, which opens this weekend (I'll be seeing it this afternoon). I've read the first four books I don't know how many times. This would make it my third time through both Wolves of the Calla (Book V) and Song of Susannah (Book VI) but only my second time reading The Dark Tower (Book VII).
I also finally read the first two of Marvel's comic-book series, which starts with an abbreviated version of Wizard and Glass (Book IV), and then moves into a pretty stunning depiction of the fall of Gilead, from Roland, Cuthbert, and Alain's return from Mejis all the way up through the Battle of Jericho Hill. The second series portrays the beginning of Roland's lonely quest for the Tower, including adaptations of the prequel novella "Little Sisters of Euluria" and The Gunslinger (Book I).
As far as I know, the only things I haven't read yet are the third and last Marvel series (an adaptation of The Drawing of the Three (Book II), and King's own followup The Wind Through the Keyhole (Book IV.5) — which was published in 2012, well after the conclusion of the series proper. As far as I know, I've read all the non-Tower books that are related (such as Insomnia, Rose Madder, and Hearts in Atlantis). Hell, I even bought and read the Charlie the Choo-Choo kid's book. I'm not yet a Dark Tower completist, but I'm getting close.
I hadn't read Book VII since it first came out in 2004, and I was startled to find how much of it had fled my mind. I remember not much liking it at the time — in fact, being actively angry at Mr. King for writing it — but I hadn't quite remembered why. Over the years I had ascribed my animosity to fairly superficial things — King's over-reliance on "ka" (i.e. fate) to plug certain plot holes, his weird choice to write himself into the narrative, and an ending that (at the time) struck me as a cop-out.
But rereading it now, I can see exactly why I was so angry, and why I had pushed so many of the actual plot details from my brain. It was because King gave us the only ending the story could have. And, at the time, it was simply too bitter a pill to swallow.
But I'm getting ahead of myself. Let me back up.
I know I talk about sai King a lot. It seems like one out of every three of my Facebook posts is about him, and if you've spent more than twenty minutes in my company, you've probably heard me quote him obnoxiously and pretentiously. But you've gotta understand where I was at when I discovered his writing; I was an angry, lonely preteen nerd who instinctually knew I wanted to be a writer but had no idea what that meant, who I was, or what I wanted to write about. I pretty much just knew that I liked monsters and that the other kids thought I was weird.
In his books, it all crystalized at once. I found everything I wanted to be.
Even when I was way too young to read him, I was fascinated by Stephen King. He was everywhere. My mom had figured out that the best way to keep me occupied when we went to the mall was to park me in the Waldenbooks and just leave me (this was the 80s, when parents still did that kind of thing). I would look through the kids' or fantasy books for awhile (I was super into Dragonlance at the time), but eventually I would always find myself drawn, as if by a magnet, over to the horror section. All those cheesy 80s book covers just entranced me. I don't remember all the books that were on the shelf back then, but a few stick out in my memory. There were the John Saul books, of course, along with Brian Lumley's Necroscope series, Robert McCammon's Stinger and Swan Song, and — of course — Clive Barker's Books of Blood.
I didn't know what any of these books were about, and I wasn't sure I wanted to. No matter what infernal delights the authors had in store, I suspected even then that they'd never match up to whatever terrors I had already cooked up in my own imagination, just based on the covers alone.
But mostly, there was Stephen King. His books were the ones I gravitated to the most, partly because his was the name I recognized and partly because there were just so goddamned many of them. I had no idea what It was about, but that cover with the scaly hand reaching up through the sewer grate fulfilled me in ways I couldn't wrap my head around. Same with Carrie, with her flowing hair and cold blue eye; 'Salem's Lot, with the embossed black face and single droplet of blood; and Cujo with those snarling big-dog teeth.
It all seemed so evocative. So forbidden. I learned somewhere along the way that Cujo was about a rabid dog and that Christine was about a haunted car, but those book covers seemed to promise mysteries that went far deeper than the simplistic plot synopses might suggest. I couldn't wait to be old enough to read them.
One of the most intriguing, though, was The Gunslinger.
It was in the horror section with all the rest, but instead of some monster on the cover there was this real handsome guy, looked like a cowboy, a big black bird sitting on his shoulder and a castle or something rising out of the mist behind him. What the hell was this? Was it a western, or some weird girly romance book? Did someone shelve it in the wrong section?
It was an illustrated trade paperback, so when I thumbed it open I saw it was full of pictures. Not on every page, but maybe every 50 pages or so. And they were so odd, so incongruous, that my imagination just lit up like a candle. This WAS a western. But it also looked super violent. And it had monsters. Maybe.
Art by Michael Whelan
At the time, I didn't know that The Gunslinger was part of a series. When I finally began reading King I started with Pet Sematary, thinking because of the odd spelling of the title and the relatively monster-free book cover that it was more YA-oriented than the others... like Ray Bradbury's Something Wicked This Way Comes, maybe, or R.L. Stine's Goosebumps books. I didn't make this decision because I didn't want to read the harder stuff, but because I thought I'd be more likely to con my parents into letting me read it if they thought it was for kids. As it turned out, I needn't have bothered with any of that because A) my parents didn't care, and B) Pet Sematary is decidedly NOT a kids' book. In fact, it's long been determined by the fans to be the darkest and scariest book in his entire canon (or maybe just behind The Shining). I tried to wade into the kiddie pool and instead fell head first into the deep end. Whatever. I was thoroughly traumatized, and I loved every minute of it. I was hooked.
I don't remember what was next (maybe The Dark Half, which at the time was his most recent), but The Gunslinger came not long after. I can't recall exactly what I made of it at the time, but I know I was sucked in from that epic opening line: "The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed" — which, to this day, is right up there with "It's the tale, not he who tells it" and "That is not dead which can eternal lie, and with strange aeons even death may die..." for quotes I want to get tattooed on my body someday.
It's such a weird, perfectly simple little book, and even way back then it suggested so many more possibilities than it contained. It isn't horror, exactly, but it's scary. And scary in a way I could never quite define. Roland has never been my favorite King character (he's a pretty hard guy to love, when it comes right down to it), but he's the one I've always found the most intriguing. And the world King created — an apocalyptic landscape where time has grown soft and the points of the compass can no longer be trusted — is just so eerie and so haunting. There's that evocative phrase about the world having "moved on," which just seems to encapsulate so much sadness and futility.
And there's a real heart at the center of the book's quiet nihilism. Roland's relationship with Jake is surprisingly gentle... until it's not. And the hints of Roland's long abandoned life — his dead friends Cuthbert, Alain, and Jamie DeCurry; his lost love Susan Delgado, the girl in the window — are heartbreaking. You feel the absence of these people weighing on his soul. If there's another book that captures the long drought of loneliness better than this one, I just don't know what it is.
And what kind of imagination can dream up a world where the ancient Knights of the Roundtable wear cowboy boots and carry six shooters, and a tribe of degenerate "slow mutants" sit around masturbating in the desert and worshipping a Mobil gas pump?
I dove right into The Drawing of the Three (Book II), and was immediately confounded. The series started with an existential western in an alien landscape, and now we've got all these weird doors on a poisoned beach, time travel, and gunfights with gangsters on the streets of New York. Plus there's that incongruous 80s buddy-movie dynamic between Roland and Eddie, which is so different from the lyrical and tragic father-son relationship between Roland and Jake in The Gunslinger. It works (Eddie is probably my favorite character in the entire series, and in the top five of my favorite King characters ever), but it hardly feels like the same series at all, which just made it even more fascinating. In cinematic terms, we've gone from something that felt like it could have been directed by Antonioni to King's version of a smart-ass Hollywood action movie.
And Odetta/Detta... what did I make of her back then? On this most recent reread, King's attempt to parrot a kind of ostentatiously jive-talking black patois was pretty fucking jarring. It's an unfortunate habit he has fallen into over the course of his career, all the way up through his recent Mr. Mercedes trilogy, and I wish he'd just quit it. It's downright embarrassing.
But Odetta/Detta is still one of the most compelling fictional characters I've ever encountered. The idea of someone being psychologically cleaved in two is singularly horrifying to me... the idea that there could be this other malevolent, chaotic person lurking in the back of your mind, just waiting for you to let down your guard so she can jump forward and wreak all sorts of havoc. Even after Detta/Odetta are reconciled into the person of Susannah, I've always loved how Detta will still occasionally spring forward, sometimes for the good but too often for the bad. There's a looming sense of danger that hangs over Susannah throughout the series that comes from the knowledge that she's only ever a half-step away from losing control. Fake-ass jive talk or no, Detta's a fantastic character, and I particularly love the way King uses her in Books V and VI.
The rest of the series only gets weirder. The Wastelands (Book III) came out not long after I started reading King, and I still remember my excitement upon receiving it for Christmas in 1991. Here, King introduces us to the concept of the Beams and their twelve ancient guardians — including an eighty-foot thousands-year-old cyborg bear named Shardik with maggots in its brain and murder in its rotting mechanical heart. We also get the Doorway Demon and Susannah's rape in the speaking ring (to this day, one of the most horrifying sequences King has ever put to the page), the rose, the ruined city of Lud with its decadent and warring tribes... and, of course, Blaine the Mono.
Blaine is one of the most controversial aspects of the entire Dark Tower universe. Again, you have to marvel at the imagination that can wrap an entire story around a psychotic A.I. monorail with a split personality and an addiction to riddling contests. Where the fuck does that even come from? And, from what I've read, many fair-weather fans believe Blaine is the point where King kind of loses control of his narrative.
I disagree. For my money, Blaine is the single best thing about the entire series, and he typifies how deeply eccentric (and probably unfilmable) the story really is. This is King's peculiar genius — taking a truly batshit notion like Blaine and, through sheer force of will, making it work. Blaine showed me, at a very impressionable age, how important it is to write fearlessly, and with no concern for anyone else's potential misgivings; how crucial it is to never to be afraid of chasing your weirdest idea right up your own ass and trying to catch it by the tail. Even at thirteen, I could imagine King pitching Blaine to his agents and publishers. I could just see the way the color probably drained right out of their faces, and how he probably went "no, no, really, it's gonna be GREAT!" with a big shit-eating grin on his face.
And it was.
Blaine the Mono
Art by Ned Dameron
When I was writing Dead Billy, I suffered countless moments of self doubt where I caught myself thinking "this is way too weird, nobody's going to get it." Then I'd think of Blaine the Mono and I'd be okay. Likewise for the novel I'm currently working on, The Darks, where one of the main characters has been repeatedly eaten and then shat out of a trio of demons' buttholes.
Be weird, Blaine tells me, and own it. So I am. And I do.
The Wastelands is also where the full scope of the King macroverse really starts to reveal itself. Because it's in this book, at the very end, where we finally meet the evil wizard Marten, who comes to the wounded Tick-Tock Man in the guise of Richard Fannin... and who bears an uncanny resemblance to one Randall Flagg. Sure, Flagg pops up in The Eyes of the Dragon, which very likely takes place in the same world as The Dark Tower. But that felt like a one-off, more a gag than anything else. But when King's biggest bad guy jumps into the heart of the main The Dark Tower storyline, that's when I started to realize what King was doing. The Dark Tower is the hub of all his novels, and everything else spokes off of it the way the Beams spoke off of the Tower itself. It's his ur-narrative, and several non-Tower books (Insomnia, Rose Madder, and Hearts in Atlantis) over the next decade confirmed that.
Now you had to go back and re-evaluate everything. Were the monsters in "The Mist" related to the creatures in the Wastelands? Is Pennywise from It another manifestation of the corruption at the heart of the Tower? Even the demon Tak in Desperation and The Regulators seemed to tie in somehow.
Wizard and Glass (Book IV) came out my sophomore year of college, and I devoured it in maybe two nights. When I first read the description of the plot, I was unsure. It was to be a flashback to Roland's early teen years, and it would be where we finally learn about how he got his guns and about his friendship with Cuthbert and Alain. And, most important, we would finally see the story of his doomed relationship with the girl in the window, Susan Delgado.
I was still pretty wet behind the ears, but in my own writing I had begun to learn the concept of "less is more." What we don't know is often so much more powerful than what we do. And I loved how Susan and Roland's dead friends had flitted through the first book like ghosts. I was afraid that getting the full story would ruin it somehow.
Boy was I wrong.
Wizard and Glass is BY FAR the best book in the series. It's fairly contained, especially when compared to The Drawing of the Three and The Wastelands. It takes us back to the sci-fi Western motif that dominated the first book, but King fleshes it out evocatively. The world that was merely hinted at in The Gunslinger comes roaring to life in this one. It's also a fantastic noir and an expertly paced detective story. I fell in love with the near-idyllic little seaside village of Hambry in the southern Barony of Mejis (an obvious analogue to 19th-century Texas), but King lets us know almost from the start that there's something wrong, and when the true nature of the rot at the center of the town is revealed, my heart simply broke. Not just for Roland, but for everyone there. All at once I felt the loss not only of Roland's friends and family, but of the entire life he should have had before the Good Man John Farson (never seen, but still one of the scariest creations in King's universe) burned it all down.
King introduces us to a whole slew of new characters. There's Cuthbert, Alain, and Susan, and there are also the Hambry townsfolk, the Big Coffin Hunters, and the witch Rhea of the Coos. Rhea in particular is a truly vile character, but I just couldn't get enough of her.
The center of the story, though, is the at-first innocent and then fully tragic romance between Roland and Susan. I really didn't expect it to work — thought it would be clunky and would drain the mystery out of Roland's backstory — but you can tell how deeply and for how long King has been thinking about these characters, and how well he knows them. King isn't always great at writing romance, but the Roland/Susan relationship reminded me of the bittersweet melancholy at the center of King's other great tragic coupling, Johnny Smith and Sarah Bracknell in The Dead Zone. Susan is perhaps King's most fully realized female character, and she practically leaps off the page. All the characters do, really. King is often knocked for his occasionally clunky dialogue, but virtually every line rings absolutely true here. Perhaps it's just the fact that he's working in a dialect, but I don't think so. I think he's been hearing these characters in his head for decades.
Wizard and Glass isn't just the best book in The Dark Tower cycle; it's one of the maybe the best three or four books he's written, period. My only quibbles are with the present-day bookends. The hinted-at connection to The Stand is confirmed in the first few chapters, but it doesn't land with quite the power I expected it would when I finished The Wastelands. And the final showdown with Marten/Flagg/Fannin... well, frankly, it's a little lame. King isn't always great with his endings, but he wraps up the Hambry flashback perfectly. What comes after feels like an afterthought.
Wizard and Glass marked the rough halfway point for the series. It came out in 1997 following a six-year gap between it and The Wastelands. I remember the fans beginning to agitate in those six years. What was King, doing? Why was it taking him so long? Why was he wasting his time with all these other books when we still don't know what's going to happen to Roland and his ka-tet?
I think the furor was due in no small part to the fact that he had ended The Wastelands on a cliffhanger, with our ka-tet stuck inside Blaine, hurtling toward either Topeka or certain death at the hands of the homicidal monorail train (who had just murdered all the citizens of Lud). The only thing that could save them would be besting Blaine's supercomputer brain in a Fair Day riddling contest. If they won, Blaine would let them continue on their quest for the Tower. If they lost, he would kill himself and take them with him:
"There was a moment of silence, broken only by the steady hard throb of the slo-trans turbines, bearing them across the wastelands, bearing them on toward Topeka, the place where Mid-World ended and End-World began.
'SO,' cried the voice of Blaine. 'CAST YOUR NETS WANDERERS! TRY ME WITH YOUR QUESTIONS, AND LET THE CONTEST BEGIN.'"
Wizard and Glass didn't end on such a note, but the fans were still worried about how long it would take for King to get back to the series.
And then that worry turned into sheer panic on June 19, 1999.
Big Steve recuperating after the
1999 accident that nearly killed him
That's the day that King, who was out walking near his family's summer lake home, was run over and nearly killed by a guy named Bryan Smith, who was driving into town to pick up some "Marses bars." He happened to turn around to yell at his two rottweilers, who were trying to break into his meat cooler and eat his steaks, when he drifted onto the shoulder and ran King down. As King himself observed later, it was like he had been nearly turned into roadkill by a character in one of his books.
I remember that I was driving up I-25 between Castle Rock, CO (for real) and Denver, listening to the Howard Stern show when I got the news. Robin Quivers broke into whatever bullshit they were talking about that morning and announced the accident. At the time, King's condition was reported as "grave," and it seemed that there was a real question as to whether he would survive.
Stephen King was my idol. It was he who helped me realize that writing was something that I was not only good at, but maybe really good at, and that it was something that was worth pursuing. Before him, I didn't have much in the way of self esteem. He was the person who, more than anyone else, gave me the confidence to continue. I honestly don't know where I would be today if I'd never discovered his books.
So I remember my eyes flooding with tears at the news, and I damn near drove off the road myself. But, as important as he was (and remains) to me, it wasn't his well being that jumped first into my mind.
No, my first thought was: "he's never going to finish The Dark Tower."
But he did, of course. His first book after the accident, Dreamcatcher, is probably the worst book he's ever written, but it's easy to forgive because I was just happy to see that he wasn't giving up. That he was still grinding away at it. He followed that with Black House — co-written by Peter Straub and their sequel to their 1980s classic The Talisman — and From a Buick 8. I hated just about everything about Dreamcatcher, but both Black House and From a Buick 8 are really pretty great. From a Buick 8, in particular, is criminally underrated.
And then the word came out: King was going to finish The Dark Tower. And soon. The next three books would be released back-to-back and in quick succession.
Whenever fans (including myself) complain about how long George R.R. Martin is taking to complete his Song of Ice and Fire series, I flash back on King's decision to just blaze through the rest of The Dark Tower in 2003 and 2004, and it reminds me to take a deep breath and leave GRRM alone. I think the last three Tower books are undeniably flawed, and I think many of those flaws are probably because, on some level, King got sick of all the fans howling and just said "fuck it!" and rushed through them to get everyone off his back.
When I read them back when they first came out, I was not happy. Of the three, Wolves of the Calla (Book V) is the one I've always liked the best. It felt like a mostly worthy successor to Wizard, although King writes himself into a bit of a corner with so much of the story being occupied by a real-estate deal. And, while in theory I like the idea of bringing in 'Salem's Lot's Father Callahan, I never liked how he took the irrational Gothic horror of the original novel and turned it into quasi sci-fi by breaking the vampires down into "type one, type two, and type threes." Imposing any sort of logical structure onto horror almost inevitably kills it; our reaction depends on our reptile selves, and so it rarely survives when you intellectualize it. It's like humor: the best way to destroy a joke is to explain the punchline. That's what King does to his vampires in Wolves, and to no real purpose. The vampires don't really do anything in these books, and King could have easily had Callahan's story just be about him discovering (and being discovered by) the can-toi during his years of wandering, and simply left the vampires out.
Still, like Wizard, it's a fairly contained story and King's vision of small-town life in Calla-Bryn-Sturges is as compelling as that of Hambry. I love the specific eccentricities of the town, from the uniqueness of their dialect to all the "roont" twins and the introduction of the Mani Folk and their peculiar ideology. I also deeply enjoyed the riff on Kurusawa's The Seven Samurai (and, of course, its American cousin The Magnificent Seven). The Wolves themselves are a nicely threatening presence throughout the book, and the ticking time bomb of their impending arrival adds some really great suspense. There are many wonderful sequences throughout, from Jake's discovery of the Dogan across the river to the Sisters of Oriza demonstrating their skills with the plates.
And then there's Andy: Messenger Robot, Many Other Functions. Perhaps my favorite recurring theme throughout the series is King's notion of how technology — once the civilization that created it has gone — doesn't die, but rather goes quite literally insane. Andy isn't as fantastic and weird an example of this as Blaine, but he's close. In some ways he's scarier, because there's nothing more terrifying than the idea that the fool who you laugh at and dismiss is actually laughing at you.
I also love how Wolves of the Calla finally shows the gunslingers being gunslingers. They're not just the wanderers searching for the Tower that we've come to know, but rather the noble knights we've been hearing about for five books. The idea that they're not going to protect the town for payment or for glory, but simply because it's what they do, and that they're going to do it whether the townspeople want them to or not... well, something about that is just incredibly moving to me. This is Roland as he was meant to be — the Roland that died when Susan died and he became lost in Merlin's Rainbow. Seeing him finally have the chance to be that man is nothing short of glorious.
Song and Tower really felt like the shark jumpers to me at the time. I still struggle a bit with them, but after this last reread I feel like I'm finally making peace. They've got their problems, but I think King had a more grip on his story than I originally wanted to give him credit for.
Song of Susannah (Book VI) is one of the shorter books in the series, and it's undeniably the least standalone of all of them, bookended as it is by TWO separate cliffhangers. The first, at the end of Wolves, sees Susannah — pregnant with the speaking-ring demon's baby and possessed by a malevolent (but ultimately tragic) force called Mia — going into the Doorway Cave and being transported to 1999 New York. The rest of the ka-tet splits up. Father Callahan and Jake are supposed to go back to the 1970s to finish the real-estate deal that will protect the rose, while Roland and Eddie mean to go after Susannah. Something goes wrong, of course, and Jake and Callahan end up in 1999, while Roland and Eddie find themselves dumped into the middle of a gun battle with Balazar's gangsters outside a Maine general store.
The rest of the book alternates between these two timelines, and ends with Susannah in a haunted End-World town called Fedic, trapped in another Dogan at the base of Castle Discordia and about to give birth to Mia's baby; and Jake and Callahan in the Dixie Pig ("Best ribs in New York!") about to face off against an army of vampires, low men, and animal-faced Taheen.
There's a lot that annoys me still about Song of Susannah, mostly as it relates to Roland and Eddie's story, where they're conveniently rescued by one of those patented Stephen King "real folk" Mainers named John Cullum, who believes their entire story without question and decides, after just a couple conversations, to devote his entire life to building the Tet Corporation and protecting the rose. He's just way too convenient a character, and King knows it. King wrote himself into a corner with the real-estate subplot, and Cullum is a handy deus ex machina to get Roland and Eddie back on the path of the Beam. Just hand it all over to John Cullum and let him take care of it.
But on this last reread, I discovered there's a lot in Song of Susannah I actually like. Most of the story is occupied by Susannah's relationship with Mia, who we met in Wolves and were led to believe was simply another one of Susannah's fractured personalities. But Mia is real, and as she takes over Susannah's body and forces Susannah to take her to the Dixie Pig so she can be transported to Fedic, we come to realize that she's as much a victim of the Crimson King's machinations as anyone else. Blackmailed into giving up her immortal existence for the chance to be mother to a monstrosity (her "chap," as she calls the baby), she is so blinded by her obsession that she cannot see what is plain to the rest of us: she's disposable. A means to an end. Susannah herself sees it, but can't get through to her.
Susannah's relationship with Mia is oddly touching, as Susannah both tries to help Mia and undermine her at every turn. She's desperate to get back to Eddie and the others, but that desperation never turns into panic. She remains coolly resourceful throughout, leaving breadcrumbs for Callahan and Jake to follow.
Susannah has a lot going for it (the gunfight in the general store parking lot is one of the best action sequences King has ever devised), but it's still probably the weakest of the series. But as a chance to really spend some time in Susannah's head and as a narrative bridge to the final volume, it works fine.
And now we get to the last book, The Dark Tower (Book VII), which I found so upsetting back in 2004 that I mostly blocked it from my mind and refused to read it again until just this year. I'm glad I gave myself that distance, though, because going through it again was sort of like discovering it for the first time. And now I think I see what King is doing.
The problem is, he didn't give me the book I thought I wanted. I'd been living with these characters for about 15 years when it came out (now it's closer to 30, as impossible as that is to believe). I liked Roland, but I loved the ka-tet. I wanted them all to get to the Tower together, and I wanted them all to live happily ever after. I thought they deserved it. Hell, I thought I deserved it.
But that was never what King had in mind, and now it seems so obvious to me that he was right. Because this is Roland's journey. Not Eddie's, or Jake's, or Susannah's, or even Oy's. Roland started it by losing everything and setting out alone. It's only fitting that that's how he had to finish it.
The ka-tet first breaks on the eve of the battle of Algul Siento — another powerfully weird idea from King. Algul Siento (also known as the Devar-Toi) is the prison where the Crimson King's forces have been holding the Breakers, and it's located somewhere past the Callas out in the poisoned land of Thunderclap. I expected it to be a sort of sci-fi/Western answer to Tolkien's Isengard, but King knew that and is one step ahead of me. Algul Siento is a gilded cage, full of all sorts of creature comforts, and resembling the campus of a New England liberal arts college more than it does the Gothic steampunk prison I had been picturing. The low men and Taheen who guard it are basically middle management, not demons or soldiers. It's all a lie, of course, but King upends our expectations so thoroughly that the whole sequence almost plays like black comedy. The strange friendship between human administrator Pimli Prentiss and Taheen security officer Finli O'Tego is genuine, and almost mundane in its particulars. These guys could be office drones at an insurance company in Pittsburgh, getting together on weekends to go fishing or watch the Steelers game — except Pimli is rotting from the inside out because of the "bad air" in Thunderclap, and Finli has the head of a weasel.
When the ka-tet finally raids Algul Siento to free the Breakers (most of whom, we discover, are sociopaths who don't want to be freed), you almost feel bad for Pimli and Finli. They're just two regular guys trying to do their job.
But then Pimli puts a bullet into Eddie's head, and our entire world shatters.
I don't know why I let myself think this way, but I just never believed any of the ka-tet would die. Even when King explicitly tells us that the tet is broken, it was just inconceivable to me that they wouldn't walk up to the gates of the Dark Tower together, arm in arm. They're just too good at what they do ever to be touched; the way the Wolves are so easily dispatched and the gunfight outside of the general store seem to confirm this. But Eddie — our main point of identification throughout most of the series — gets killed, and in the dumbest way possible. Pimli should have never gotten the drop on him. That's when you realize how cocky these newbie gunslingers have become... and how cocky we've become right along with them.
Jake gets it a few chapters later, rescuing "the wordslinger" Stephen King from Bryan Smith's van (more on that in a minute), and the crush of grief at his ugly death is overwhelming. Roland lost everything before, and I don't think I realized how much it meant for him to have formed this new ka-tet so many years later. Jake was the son he should have had with Susan. When he lays the boy's body to rest in the woods near Turtleback lane, my heart bled for him.
And for Oy, too. I haven't mentioned Oy much in this blog post, but let me just take a second to acknowledge how important the little Billy Bumbler is to this series. Sure, the trope of the cute animal sidekick is pretty tired, and Oy seems at first glance to slot right in there. But King makes him such an integral part of this ersatz family that we just don't ever question it. And his and Jake's devotion to each other is something that anyone who ever had a dog growing up will understand.
When Jake dies something breaks in Oy, and we watch the Bumbler grieving right up until his own demise near the end of the book. Oy's grief serves to make Jake's absence through the rest of the book that much more concrete, because Roland has to sit there and watch the little animal's spirit steadily drain away. Oy stops talking, becomes both more stoic and more animal-like as they get ever closer to the Tower. He sticks with Roland (we discover why later), but there's none of the warmth he shared with Jake. And Roland knows it. I kept wanting Oy and Roland to comfort each other, but King is having none of that. Oy stops being a sidekick and instead becomes something of a revenant of doom. The shift in the Bumbler's personality is deeply disturbing; Oy, like Eddie, is often a comic-relief character throughout the books, and King uses that sense of comfort against us here. Seeing the change in the Bumbler makes the deeper tragedy that much more poignant.
I was shocked when Eddie died, and I had a lump in my throat when Jake died. But I was gutted when Susannah abandons Roland to go back to New York (or, at least, a New York) right before they get to the Tower. I understand why she leaves, but seeing Roland drop to his knees and beg her to stay is one of the most painful things I've ever experienced in a work of fiction. Now it's just Roland, a brooding Oy, and the odd mute artist Patrick Danville (who, I must say, is a piss-poor substitute for Roland's shattered ka-tet, and is meant to be).
Looking back on my first read, I think Susannah's betrayal (and, I'm sorry, but there's just no other way for me to think about it) is the moment where I actively turned against this book. It's only a few short chapters later that Oy himself is killed — impaled on a tree branch after defending Roland from Mia's demon spawn, Mordred. I remember wanting to quit reading. No, not just quit reading — I wanted to take the book and burn it in the fireplace of my Boston apartment. It felt like, after everything I had experienced with these characters for so long, King was holding up both middle fingers and screaming "FUCK YOU!" at the top of his lungs.
This time, though, it didn't hit me that way at all. I understood that King felt the loss as much as Roland did, and as much as I did. But he knew what I didn't: ka is not our friend. Ka is like a wind, and your plans will stand before it no more than a barn before a cyclone.
I wasn't angry this time when Susannah left (okay, maybe a little angry, but at her, not at King). And I wasn't angry when Oy is killed. But I cried.
Holy shit did I cry.
I've got to take a second, before I get to the ending, to talk about King's decision to write himself into the narrative. Back in 2004, I thought the whole thing was just impossibly self indulgent. The idea that King himself was one of the Guardians of the Beam, and that Roland and Jake had to save his life to preserve the Tower — I mean, come on. Talk about a God complex.
But the thing is, King is God. Or, at least, he's God of this world. And in our world (or the Keystone World, in Dark Tower parlance) he had very nearly died in the dumbest road accident you can imagine — run down by a guy who shares his middle name (Edwin), a pill popper with two rottweilers named Pistol and Bullet who told King he was just running to town to get "some Marses bars." King must have felt like his fictional universe had just collided head-on with his real life, and that had to have fucked with his head. And he couldn't have escaped the fan reaction, which was — like my own — shockingly proprietary. We weren't concerned about King as a human being, a man with a wife and kids who love him. No. We wanted him to finish The Dark Tower.
I'm still not sure writing himself into the books entirely works in a strictly narrative sense. It's distracting and comes kind of out of nowhere. But this time through, I realized that hardly matters. This has never been a series that's been about clockwork precision in terms of its plotting. There's a raw honesty to King's choice to include himself. Suddenly this multi-volume fantasy epic becomes the weirdest sort of autobiography, and we get to watch King wrestle in real time with the implications of his own mortality, and with what it means to be the most popular writer to have ever worked in the English language (I hear all you Shakespeare fans getting ready to howl at me, but I'm sticking by that statement).
This goes back to the lesson I learned from Blaine when I was a kid. Write fearlessly. Chase those weird ideas up your asshole and grab them by the tail. Apologize to no one. I'm not sure he quite got this one by the tail — but he sure grabbed hold of meaty chunk of it.
Self indulgent? Sure. But absolutely necessary. I wouldn't have it any other way.
And then there's that ending. King fakes us out by giving us a version of the ending we had all wanted. We see Roland finally approaching the Tower, the Crimson King reduced to a pair of glowing eyes on the second-floor balcony. We hear him announce:
"NOW COMES ROLAND TO THE DARK TOWER! I HAVE BEEN TRUE AND I STILL CARRY THE GUN OF MY FATHER AND YOU WILL OPEN TO MY HAND!
I come in the name of Steven Deschain, he of Gilead!
I come in the name of Gabrielle Deschain, she of Gilead!
I come in the name of Cortland Andrus, he of Gilead!
I come in the name of Cuthbert Allgood, he of Gilead!
I come in the name of Alain Johns, he of Gilead!
I come in the name of Jamie DeCurry, he of Gilead!
I come in the name of Vannay the Wise, he of Gilead!
I come in the name of Hax the Cook, he of Gilead!
I come in the name of David the hawk, he of Gilead and the sky!
I come in the name of Susan Delgado, she of Mejis!
I come in the name of Sheemie Ruiz, he of Mejis!
I come in the name of Pere Callahan, he of Jerusalem's Lot, and the roads!
I come in the name of Ted Brautigan, he of America!
I come in the name of Dinky Earnshow, he of America!
I come in the name of Aunt Talitha, she of River Crossing, and I will lay her cross here, as I was bid!
I come in the name of Stephen King, he of Maine!
I come in the name of Oy, the brave, he of Mid-World!
I come in the name of Eddie Dean, he of New York!
I come in the name of Susannah Dean, she of New York!
I come in the name of Jake Chambers, he of New York, whom I call my own true son!
I am Roland of Gilead, and I come as myself; you will open to me."
Then we hear the sound of the horn, and the hollow boom of the doors swinging shut behind him. King then takes us back to some version of New York, where we see Susannah — alone, free finally of Roland's quest — at the Central Park Zoo. And it's there that she meets the brothers Eddie and Jake Toren, twinners (in Talisman-speak) to Eddie Dean and Jake Chambers. So at least one member of the ka-tet gets to live happily ever after.
King dares us to quit reading there, but of course he knows we will not. Like Roland, we need to see the Tower for ourselves, and we need to climb it to its top.
And so, the final horror: Roland ascends of the Tower, as he's dreamt of doing for so long. But ka is like a wind, and as he steps through the door and into the final chamber, he is whisked bruskly back to the Mohane Desert of The Gunslinger, and he's permitted one moment of terrible clarity before his memory is wiped clean — he has been here countless times before, and will be here again. He's stuck in a loop, driven ever forward by his obsession and powerless to make it stop.
The saga ends as it began: "The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed."
When I first read it, as a kid in my mid 20s, it was like somehow King had found a third middle finger to aim my way. It felt like a stunt, a long shaggy dog joke with a terrible punchline. But now I see how perfect it is. Because now that I'm pushing 40, I get it. The Tower isn't a goal to be conquered, and it never was. It's obsession itself; specifically, it's the obsession that any creative person feels every time they try to create. It's the thing I feel every time I sit down to write, and I'm sure it's the thing that any actor feel when they step on stage, or any musician feels when the pick up their instrument, or any painter feels when they take the brush into their hands.
Because the thing is... you'll never make it. You'll never get there, no matter how hard you try. I may finish this story I'm working on, but it'll never be good enough. It'll never be right. Each time I think I'm going to finally finish climbing my own Tower, but I never do. So I go back to the beginning with the next story, and I start all over again.
This is why Roland had to ascend the Tower alone. Because creating something is, at heart, a solitary thing. And I found this final book so disturbing when I first read it because I saw something that I just didn't want to recognize: Roland is me, just as much as he's King. His loneliness is my loneliness, and it's the loneliness every artist feels when they're trying to go up their own assholes and grab those ideas by the tail again... and again... and again. It never stops. And it never should.
If that sounds pretentious, fuck it.
There are so many wonderful details in this series I was barely able to mention. There's the demon baby Mordred and Randall Flagg's final ugly death. There's the beach with its doors and its chattering lobstrosities ("dad-a-chum... did-a-chee?"). There's the horrifying journey through the old train tunnel under the Cyclopean Mountains. There are the harvest stuffy guys and that ominous phrase "charyou tree." There's Shardik. There's Lud, with its endless and petty war between the Grays and the Pubes. There's the strange creature Dandelo, who may be cousin to our favorite dancing clown Pennywise, but who feeds off of laughter instead of fear.
The Dark Tower is a flawed, sprawling masterpiece, and where it maybe suffers in some of its scattershot plotting, it more than makes up for it with the sheer scope of its twisted imagination. It's raw and deeply revealing in a way that so few works in this genre ever are. King's all over the place with this story, and there are times where the buoyancy of the narrative threatens to just float off into the ether and get lost . But King tethers it with Roland's relentless quest for the Tower, and with his grim philosophy.
And that's where I'll end this ridiculously long blog post, with some of that philosophy:
"I do not aim with my hand; he who aims with his hand has forgotten the face of his father. I aim with my eye.
I do not shoot with my hand; he who shoots with his hand has forgotten the face of his father. I shoot with my mind.
I do not kill with my gun; he who kills with his gun has forgotten the face of his father. I kill with my heart."