My love for Stephen King’s books began in high school. At least, that’s when my passion was at its highest peak, a time when I sought out every copy of his work I could find through book stories, libraries, and garage sales and read book after brick-thick book full of nightmares and horrors. Over the years I’ve read over 25 books by King, mostly the novels now considered classics published in the ’70s and ’80s along with several short story collections. I even dedicated a video poem to his work a few years ago to show my appreciation.
Of all the numerous King classics I’ve read, the book I held with most love in my memory was The Gunslinger, the first book in The Dark Tower series. I remember being hooked immediately by the opening sentence, “The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed.” It seemed at the time the perfect opening sentence, setting the main characters into place upon the stage and presenting an immediate mystery as the reader wonders, Why? In fact, I loved that opening sentence so much, I memorized it and the line has often come to mind at random moments over the years.
I remember being blown away by the story, with the plodding gunslinger dragging himself through the desert, the man in black, the boy torn from another world. It leveled me and, although purely in a fantastical way, opened up new ways of perceiving the universe (or universes, as the case maybe). It became one of those books I clung to after reading, not wanting it to be over yet.
Fortunately, there was more of the gunslinger and more of that world to discover. After finishing The Gunslinger, I read the next three books in The Dark Tower series — The Drawing of the Three, The Wastelands, and Wizard and Glass — all of which I loved.
Then came the Big Wait. The full series was meant to be seven books long, but King was slow on finishing — much to Dark Tower fans’ torment. I remember reading a forward or afterward or essay somewhere (wish I remembered where) in which King discussed the frustrations of his readers. He described amusement at one fan who sent a letter with a picture of a teddy bear tied up in knots, with a note that read something like, “Finish The Dark Tower, or the bear gets it.”
Ultimately, it took King six years to publish the fifth book in series, from when Wizard and Glass was released in 1997 to Wolves of Calla in 2003. In those six years, my reading interests changed and my need to read everything King had waned. Although, I became aware that the final three books were being published, I didn’t feel the same urgency to get to them as I would have if they had been published closer to when I read the fourth book.
Time slide by — as it does.
But I’ve always wanted to return to The Dark Tower series and finish the journey, and now I am. The plan is to reread the four books I’ve already read and then continue on with the three final novels and two short stories that have been written in the Dark Tower universe. If all goes well, I’ll share that journey here on my blog. There will be spoilers ahead, for anyone not wanting to have it spoiled.
The Gunslinger is the only book in The Dark Tower series that I still own. It’s the original copy I read in the ’90s. So, even picking the physical book up again, with its black and purple cover, brought a feeling of nostalgia as I flipped through and rediscovered pencil underlines and pages folded over to marking certain places in the story.
I opened the book. “The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed” — and I followed with him. The gunslinger Roland Deschain is tenacious in his plodding through the desert, facing the cruel traps the man in black leaves behind. In the lonely hours, he memories comes back to him of his youth and the bodies he has left in his own wake. He almost no one in the desert, just a near-crazy man and Jake, a lost young boy from another world who joins Roland in his pursuit.
Roland is described as not having much imagination, not being particularly clever, but he is graceful in the wielding of his guns, skilled in the art of killing. It is the steady, unwavering way in which he pursues his goal — even when he doesn’t fully understand his goal or what it will mean, even when that pursuit damages himself or the people around him — that enables him to succeed. As a mixture of knight errant and western cowboy, Roland is a character that still appeals to me after all these years. He’s is flawed and determined, holding true to his oaths and willing to sacrifice the things and people he loves to achieve his goals. And we learn how he came to be this person in the flashback to his youth, which are no less filled with violence and blood.
King has created an interesting world for Roland to have grown up in, a world winding down, falling apart bit by bit. As with the character Roland himself, the society feels like a mix of camelot and the dusty western frontier and apocalypse. It feels like an olden days world, with magic and archaic technology, and yet, Roland refers to an even older society that had once been more technically advanced — a world very much like ours, perhaps, a world that left behind its memory in the form of classical music, like “Hey Jude.” The reader is left wondering if Roland actually exists in our own future, that is, until they learn that his world is just one of many.
It was in this world building that made the act of reading The Gunslinger again feel as though I were looking back onto a younger self. I had loved this world that King created. Although I still like the concept of this world with the way it merges cultural references, reading it again, I see how the pieces don’t fit as neatly together as I remembered, the seams showing. The mentions of pop culture were probably the most jarring for me, shoving me out of the story momentarily while I absorbed the information. It took many pages for me to get used to it, even on a reread.
My memory of The Gunslinger was of a novel of just three characters — Roland, the man in black, and Jake. I had forgotten entirely that the novel flashes back to Roland’s life growing up and being trained as a gunslinger in the castle, and that he stayed in a small town at the edge of the desert for a time. As such, I had forgotten entirely that this story has any women in it at all.
There are several that are notable — Allie, the woman with scars on her face at the border town, Sylvia Pittston, a preacher woman at the border town, Roland’s mother who is an adulteress, and Jake’s mother who is neglectful, as well as a demon that takes on female form. None of them fit into a mold of being particularly beautiful or likable in the traditional sense — and after thinking about it, I find that’s okay with me.
Allie, in particular, I find interesting. She runs the saloon in the town bordering the desert, a good woman with a hard life. She is scarred and hard, but not so hard that she can’t weep. When Roland rides into town looking for a room for the night, her price is that he sleep with her. Roland appraises her scarred face, perceiving her as ugly just as other people do, and Allie covers her face with her hands, saying, “Don’t look! You don’t have to look at me so mean!” This bothered me at first, until I realized she’s a woman who has internalized the perceptions of the people around her. They see her as ugly because of her scars, so she believes herself to be ugly. During her time with Roland, she holds hope that he will linger, but never asks him outright. The more I think about it, I like her as a character for her combination of strength and vulnerability.
And here’s where we get to the really spoilery bit of the discussion — It was interesting reading the book a second time, already knowing what is going to happen to Jake. On my first reading I was utterly shocked when Jake ultimately died. On the second reading, I realized I shouldn’t have been. The book tells you from the first moment that Jake is introduced that something bad is going to happen. In fact, the book tells you flat out that, if Roland continues on his present path Jake will be sacrificed. We know Roland, we know his tenacious, plodding way that he is capable of destroying the things he cares about in order to keep moving forward — and yet, as a reader, we want to believe that the hero is going to save the day in the end, that the good guys (especially children) will be saved. Even on the second read through, I felt myself thinking, Surely, there is something you can do, Roland. Anything. So, that even though I wasn’t surprised when Jake died, I still felt it.
Alrighty, wrapping up this ridiculously long post. I’m going to continue reading The Dark Tower series — not only the novels, but also the two shorter pieces (shorter for King) that he’s published — and I’ll share the journey here. If anyone wants to read along with me let me know (I’ll be fitting the books in beside my other reading). I’d love to have some discussion along the way.
A final quick note about the movie, which I have not yet seen. I was super excited when I saw that Idris Elba was cast in the role of the gunslinger. He’s an amazing actor, who I felt would bring the right kind of gravity to the role. I mean:
However, what I’ve heard from people who have actually seen the movie is that it didn’t turn out, as it seems that the filmmakers tried to pack too much from The Dark Tower series in. So, although I’m still stoked on the Elba casting I’m a bit less eager to see the film. I’ll reserve final judgement until I’ve seen it though, and that may be a while.