King, Stephen: The Dark Tower series

The problem with talking about Stephen King’s Dark Tower series is the ending. Personally, I hate it, so much so that I’ve finally acknowledged to myself that I can’t bear to re-read the series (I finished it nearly two years ago, and for several months was planning a re-read so I could write it up properly). This opinion is not universal, however, so I can’t just say “it sucks, stay away”; but I also can’t just broadcast indiscriminate spoilers to help people decide whether they want to read it. (If you want my spoilery takes on things, see these LiveJournal posts (reverse-chronological order).) Nevertheless, I should say something about the series, so I will do my best here.

The series is made up of seven books [*] written over more than thirty years. In very brief, the Dark Tower is the nexus of all universes—and it is failing. Roland of Gilead is the last of his world’s gunslingers; he is on a quest to save the Tower, traveling through a world that has moved on.

[*] There is also a prequel novella called “The Little Sisters of Eluria,” first published in the anthology Legends and reprinted in King’s collection Everything’s Eventual. To the best of my recollection, it is entirely skippable.

Roland and his quest are introduced in The Gunslinger, which was originally a fixup of five stories published in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. (King substantially re-wrote the book to bring it into line with later books. I haven’t read the revised version, because I regard it as a (melodrama alert #1!) betrayal of the reader.) Its fairly famous opening sentence, “The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed,” gives a sense of the book as a whole: strange, spare, dark, compelling but not precisely welcoming—much like its title character, in other words. Though it has elements of Westerns, horror, and epic fantasy, this book feels most like a Western to me—or, to be precise, least like a horror novel or an epic fantasy novel. (I don’t read Westerns.)

The next two books, The Drawing of the Three and The Waste Lands, describe the formation of a new ka-tet, or group bound together by destiny. As such, these three books form a natural unit—despite the fact that The Waste Lands ends on an appalling cliffhanger. The books get longer and more like King’s usual style, opening up from their tight focus on Roland as he, himself, opens up.

(These three books are also a unit because I read them together, more or less—I don’t remember when I started, but it wasn’t very long before I bought the third new when I was fourteen. As a result, I first fell in love with the series during my “indiscriminate” phase—while I’ve re-read them since, and they’ve held up for me, I can’t claim to be objective.)

The fourth book, Wizard and Glass, was published five years later. The bulk of it is a flashback to Roland’s original ka-tet, his first love, and the roots of his quest. There’s much good about this story, but it has always felt over-long to me; and the present-day framing material is unfortunately slight. Structurally speaking, it is a pause between the first and last three books, clearing away the old now that the new has been established.

The last three books were released at intervals of six months in 2003 and 2004, after King’s serious accident in 1999. I mention the accident here because I found myself wondering whether some of the issues I had were attributable to King’s having rushed to finish. This is mostly in reference to the last book, which I will come to in turn.

The fifth book, The Wolves of the Calla, is faster and tighter than the fourth, though it still spends a fair bit of time on backstory, this time of a newly-introduced character. There’s nothing wrong with this thread, but it didn’t particularly grab me. Perhaps it was just the character, or perhaps there isn’t room in my heart given how thoroughly it’s filled by the ka-tet as established in The Waste Lands. The other threads are a variation on Seven Samurai and a return to our world (or something very close to it) as significant in the larger picture—because, after all, what’s the point of having a multiverse if you can’t play with it?

Song of Susannah, the sixth book, is noticeably shorter than its predecessor in both length and time: I believe it covers just a single day. It also ends on a cliffhanger, and the level of metafictionality rises rather a lot. I don’t have a problem with how the metafiction works in the series, but if you are allergic to the concept, you should very definitely give the series a miss. (Ditto if you hate authors tying all their books together into one big universe.) By the end of the book, I was filled with fierce love for the ka-tet and was pretty well dreading the next one: I’d run headlong into unmarked spoilers for the last book, you see, as part of a conversation in a general forum, and I just couldn’t see how that would work.

(I believe Song of Susannah is the book with an allusion to the fall of the World Trade Center, which I found in jarringly bad taste and kind of a cheat, to boot.)

And now to try and figure out what to say about the last volume, The Dark Tower. I think my issues with the book fall into two categories: everything before the Coda at the very end, and the Coda itself.

The Dark Tower series is almost defiantly cross-genre: the underlying quest is high fantasy, while the characters and plots are from Westerns, horror, and fantasy (in roughly that order of frequency, I would guess). This works surprisingly well until the last volume. The genres of problems and their solutions are mismatched; there are unnecessary single-genre bits; and the overall effect is lumpy, puzzling, and frequently anti-climactic. It’s still affecting and effective in points, but much more towards the beginning, as I recall.

And then there’s the Coda. It’s the very last thing in the book, and it opens with the author telling the reader that, no, really, you probably don’t want to read this. And indeed, I wish I hadn’t, but I’d been spoiled—though the warning is itself annoying, as the general effect (melodrama alert #2!) was of the Coda tearing out my heart and stomping on it, while telling me smugly that it was all my fault. But melodrama aside, I think there are genuine logistical problems with the Coda, that the book makes no attempt to resolve or even acknowledge. So the Coda ran afoul of two of my major reading characteristics: fervent partisanship on behalf of beloved characters, and a perpetual desire for plot elements to make sense. Conversely, at least some people who like the Coda seem to do so for its thematic and symbolic elements. That’s about all the guidance I can give as to whether someone might like it; I realize it’s not much, but even as it is I worry that I’ve come too close to spoiling things.

I genuinely thought I would never see this series finished, even before King’s accident; and I’ve been reading it for so long, and have such an emotional reaction to it, it’s hard for me to assess the series overall. There’s certainly much that’s good in it: outstanding characters; careful use of its central themes of addiction and division; successfully pulling off a very tricky type of metafictionality; and a kind of fundamental conviction or passion behind it all that makes a lot of objectively-corny things work (though YMMV as always). The cross-genre stuff is really interesting as well, at least until it breaks down in the last volume. But as I’ve suggested above, the pacing is often problematic, and I don’t think I’ve talked to anyone who found all of the resolutions in the last volume satisfactory (not counting the Coda). Given all that, and what I suspect are highly personal reactions to the Coda, I can’t really recommend it or not recommend it. It’s a great big ambitious piece of work, possibly King’s life work, and I expect it to be the subject of debate and analysis for years to come.

(Need I say it? No unprotected spoilers in comments, please. If you must, either ROT-13 them or put them between <span style=”color: #000; background-color: #000;”> and </span>.)

2 Comments

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  1. This is an interesting post to read. I read the first of these waaaay back in the day, in fact back when it was all by its lonesome, and it wasn’t clear when follow-on volumes would be coming. I don’t have much impression of it–I was raised on a steady King diet of ‘Salems Lot, Pet Semetary, Christine, etc., etc., and maybe I wasn’t in tune to the change in tone (?) in this one. I also read it, I seem to recall, just as I was hitting the waning tail end of my “obsessively read all things King” phase–around the time I graduated high school–and well, long story short, I never bothered to get back into following the epic.
    I know you can’t answer this any better than you already did in this post, but I’m wondering if it’s worth the time to tackle the kit-n-caboodle afresh…

  2. Trent: they do get more King-ish, but if you’re not longer into that style, this may not be a good thing.
    You could always just re-read _Eyes of the Dragon_ (which isn’t entirely consistent with the DT series as it was completed, but that’s okay, because it’s a great book on its own).

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