Wolves of the Calla – Reading The Dark Tower, Part V

Here are Part I, Part II, Part III, and Part IV of my journey through Stephen King’s The Dark Tower series.

Wolves of the Calla by Stephen KingPart IV is focused on book five, Wolves of the Calla, and as with all of these posts, there will be so many spoilers.

When I first started reading this series as a teenager, I tore through each of the books, eager to get to the end, only to come to an abrupt halt when I discovered the fifth book had not been written yet. It took Stephen King six years after finishing Wizard and Glass to finish and publish The Wolves of the Calla. During that time, I had lost the thread of the narrative. I always intended to finish reading the series, but it settled comfortably into the back burner and stayed there — until now.

Wolves of the Calla is the first book in the series that’s new to me, and that newness might be why it took me ten months to get around to reading it. Lately, I’ve been having a hard time coming back to stories (TV shows especially), finding myself simultaneously caught between wanting to know the ending to the story and at the same time not wanting to know what happened to the characters. Reading books one to four was comfortable, stepping into the fifth book was a risk, the witness of terrible things, or worse, disappointment in the story or characters.

I shouldn’t have been so worried.

The Story

Wolves of the Calla by Stephen KingThe story begins with a 41 page prologue (how many authors other than King can get away with that), which introduces the town of Calla Bryn Sturgis. This farming community is lucky in children, with twins being more common than singletons (as they’re called). But the town is also marked, because every 25-30 years or so, the Wolves come riding out of the west, taking one child from each set of twins and returning them years later roont (mentally stunted but grown monstrously large and with a shorter lifespan).

When warning that the Wolves are coming, one farmer decides he’s not willing to risk his children and urges the people to fight. Many are hesitant to do so, believing such a fight impossible to win — until word comes that a party of gunslingers are traveling nearby, gunslingers who may be able to turn the tide of such a fight.

Still on the path of the beam in pursuit of the Dark Tower, Roland and his companions are ask to aid by some members of the  Calla Bryn Sturgis community and asked to leave things be by others. It’s an interesting game of politics that follows, in which Roland and his friends bound to the obligations of being a gunslinger, required to help whether or not the community fully wants that help.

This is the first time Eddie, Susannah, and Jake (and simultaneously, the reader) are introduced to a healthy community within Mid-World. As such, they are presented with a clearer understanding of their roles as gunslingers — with obligations greater then just the skill of killing. There  have been hints of this before, when the group encountered the old people in book three and when Roland told his story in book four. But the subtitles and rituals are given new light here, with Roland often correcting the locals in their misunderstanding regarding the gunslingers’ purpose in the Calla.

The Calla reveals secrets vital to the gunslingers purpose, as well with the introduction of Per Callahan and the dangerous Black Thirteen, which sends the characters todash (a kind of travel that is a blend between an out of body experience and actual physical teleportation). While todash, they arrive in 1977 New York, where they learn that the Rose (companion to the Tower and vital to all existence) is being threat of destruction.

Wolves of the Calla by Stephen KingMuch of the book is spent in information gathering, story telling, and planning for what’s to come — with the climactic action really only taking place in the last portion of the book. But this is far from dull. The tales themselves are fascinating and vital, and all the build up feels like a lull before the oncoming storm. The book keeps it’s tension through a number of ticking clocks — the countdown to the arrival of the Wolves and the impending destruction of the Rose, as well as another that I’ll talk about later in regards to Susannah.

Roland summarizes the experience of this well: “The shooting will happen so fast and be over so quick that you’ll wonder what all the planning and palaver was for, when in the end it always comes down to the same five minutes’ worth of blood, pain, and stupidity.”

The result is complex and deeply satisfying, even though the story leaves some rather important ends open to be explored in the next book.

The Gunslingers

A lot of development happens with our four main characters during the course of Wolves of the Calla, which adds to a lot of the rich layers of the book.

Eddie we see for the first time as fully confident in his role as a gunslinger, able to play the public figure with the townsfolk and to enact cold hard violence when necessary.

Jake — on the threshold between childhood and manhood — is given a bit of reprieve when he makes a friend with a slightly older local boy, Benny Slightman. He gets to have youthful moments of pure joy, swimming in rivers, camping on hillsides, and jumping into haystacks. But at the same time, Jake is gifted with the touch and a gunslinger, so he is able to dig into the truth, face danger, and unleash gunfire as it’s called for, which makes him far older in spirit than his friend.

Susannah carries one of the biggest burdens in this story, although she is not fully conscious of it at first. An event from an earlier book (The Waste Lands) — in which Susannah helps the group pull Jake through from New York by using sex to hold and trap it — is now shown to have serious repercussions. She’s pregnant with . . . something, and to deal with this, her mind splits off a new personality dubbed Mia (which means “mother”) bent on feeding and protecting the chap growing inside her. This is the third ticking clock, because as the other gunslingers and eventually Susannah herself become fully aware of the situation, the question is when will this demon child decide to come forth into the world, bringing all kinds of havoc and violence with it. Mia and her actions make for some truly unsettling moments in the story. The situation offers an interesting perspective on motherhood, especially when Mia is contrasted with the other women of the Calla, who also wish to protect their children.

Wolves of the Calla by Stephen KingRoland continues to reveal new layers of himself with each subsequent book in the series. He has a somewhat complicated relationship with being dinh (leader) of the group as well as his love for them as humans. For example, he chooses to keep his knowledge of Susannah’s pregnancy a secret from the group, believing it’s best to trust to ka (fate) to work it out. But when Jake calls him on it, Roland is chastised and confesses that trusting to ka is what he does when he doesn’t know what to do about a situation.

There are other signs of Roland’s fallibility and humanity. He is developing arthritis of a kind that will likely twist up his bones and cripple him, which he is keeping secret, holding in the pain, though he fears he won’t be able for much longer. At another point, as the group is discussing the fight to come, Roland says, “I always feel sick afterward. Like I did when Bert and I went to see the hanged man.” It’s an interesting admission, considering the outward perception of Roland is a man who is hardened and unshakable.

But one of the most interesting moments is the conversation Roland has with Ben Slightman (father of Benny), who has been revealed to have been working for the Wolves. Although Roland has agreed not to kill Slightman for Jake’s sake, he doesn’t hold back in showing his disdain for the man — even as he addresses his own capacity for betrayal (referring to leaving Jake to die in the first book). Slightman’s replies that he did what he did for his boy, to which Roland points to man’s fancy spectacles and says, “This is how they mark you, Slightman. This is your brand. You tell yourself you did it for your boy because it gets you to sleep at night. I tell myself that what I did to Jake I did so as not to loose my chance at the Tower. . .  and that gets me to sleep at night. The difference between us, the only difference, is that I never took a pair of spectacles.” I find this incredibly compelling — not only is Roland fully aware of the full scope of his betrayal, but also his excuses for that betrayal are empty.

Per Callahan

With The Dark Tower being the center point for King’s larger multiverse, the series has intersected with his other books before — but for the first time a major character from one book has crossed over entirely to become a major character in this series (not counting Flagg, who has played the villain in multiple different storylines).

Father Callahan first appeared in Salem’s Lot (which I read ages ago), in which he presided over a small Catholic Church in the town of Jerusalem’s Lot and helps fight against the vampire that begins to take over. Dubbed Per Callahan in Wolves of the Calla, he relates the account of how he fled after being tainted by the vampire in Jerusalem’s Lot, followed by his years on the road through multiple versions of America, soaked in alcoholism and fear of the undead, who he both fears and hunts. Eventually, he arrived in Mid-World, where he guards the Black Thirteen and serves as priest of some of the folk in the Calla. From the first Roland recognizes the ka in their meeting Callahan, understanding that he will become someone vital to their quest ahead.

Callahan is an interesting character, one I can’t quite get a handle on. On the one hand, he’s works hard to help and support the people of the Calla in protecting their children. On the other, I’m not entirely sure I trust him, something about his character making me think he’s going to betray the group in the future.

There’s also the way Callahan addresses Susannah’s pregnancy. Even knowing that the child she carries is a demon and it will likely kill the mother after birth, he adamantly tells Roland that he will not tolerate either of them seeking out an abortion because of the sin. Shocked and confused by this stance, Roland realizes, “Now that this subject had arisen — had pounced on them, like Jilly out of her box — Susannah was no longer Susannah to this man. She had become the woman.” In the context of everything that’s happened so far in the book, Callahan’s concept on abortion feels abruptly archaic and wrong. It’s going to be interesting to see how Callahan develops as a character, since it’s clear that he will continue to appear in future volumes of the series.

As a footnote, if bringing as character over from Salem’s Lot wasn’t meta enough, the group of gunslingers find a copy of Steven King’s Salem’s Lot toward the end to the utter surprise of Callahan (not so much the gunslingers since their used to this weirdness by now). “I can’t be in a book,” Callahan was saying. “I am not a fiction . . . am I?”

The idea of a character in a book by Stephen King discovering he has been portrayed as a character in a book by same author just . . .  delights me in the best mind twisty of ways.

The Sisters of Oriza

Wolves of the Calla by Stephen King
Love that this cover shows Susannah throwing the plates.

One of my favorite aspects of this book is how the Sisters of Oriza — a group of women who perform community service — become vital fighters in the final battle. The Sisters cook for funerals and festivals, hold sewing circles and quilting bees to help those who may have lost their belongings to a fire or flood, tend the pavilion, and perform other aid in the community. They also gather to gossip and “throw the plates” — the plates being deadly sharp metal disks.

What delights me about this is that the concept of using plates is that the tradition comes out of a Mid-World folktale, in which Lady Oriza outwits the outlaw prince Gray Dick by holding an elaborate meal to lower his guard. As the dinner nears it’s end Lady Oriza lifts a sharpened metal plate from the table and throws it, killing the thief where he sits.

The activity of throwing the plates has been dismissed by most of the community — it’s a women’s activity, after all. As one of the women, Margaret Eisenhart, says, “ye must understand we only do it for the fun of the thing. Hunting’s men’s work, and they do it fine with the bah.”

But the idea of it being “for fun” makes Roland smile, because unlike the people of Calla Bryn Sturgis he sees the activity for what it is — a highly developed and lethal skill. When he asks to inspect one of the plates, he treats it with the same reverent respect as he would for his own sandalwood pistols. There is no question in his mind that these women are warriors capable of helping him to fight of the coming Wolves.

Final Thoughts

I loved this series when I read it in college years ago and I’m starting to love it more and more as I continue to read it now. I can’t wait to dig into the next volume, say thankya.

If you’ve read Wolves of the Calla (or any of the other books in The Dark Tower series), let me know what you thought of it in the comments below.

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