Wednesday, 14 May 2008

Stephen King’s ‘The Dark Tower’

The Gunslinger
The Drawing of the Three
The Wastelands
Wizard and Glass
Wolves of the Calla
Song of Susannah
The Dark Tower

Given that I’ve been such a big fan of Stephen King over the years it’s surprising that I never got into his Dark Tower series until a couple of years ago. I don’t know why it happened like this, if anything I think I preferred reading his ‘stand alone’ horror and the thought of waiting years to read the next Dark Tower instalment (he wrote them as the mood took him and I also think he put off writing them as he didn’t want the series to finish) didn’t exactly fill me with enthusiasm! This all changed when I read ‘The Regulators’ and ‘Desperation’, both great books as far as I’m concerned. I read somewhere that these two books had connections to the Dark Tower and all of a sudden I found myself thinking that the series may be worth checking out after all… I picked up ‘The Gunslinger’ to take on holiday and was hooked pretty much right from the start. Despite the ‘piecemeal’ feel of the book (it was originally written as a series of short stories) there was a surreal air to the world and its inhabitants that kept me reading. Our hero Roland of Gilead lives in a world that has ‘moved on’; order has broken down in the aftermath of war but things aren’t as chaotic as you would expect, instead there seems to be a malaise over the land and people are content to just let things wind down. Machines don’t work but no-body can remember how they worked anyway. In our world Roland would be a cowboy, in his world he is a ‘gun-slinger’ which is a cowboy but also a member of a knightly order. His quest is to find the Man in Black and then save the beams which connect the Dark Tower to the whole of existence itself. The world may have moved on but it seems that Roland can stop it ending completely. He cannot do it by himself though and ‘The Drawing of the Three’ and ‘The Wastelands’ see him gather companions to fight by his side. ‘Wizard and Glass’ sheds light on some of Roland’s tragic past and the final three books take us right up to the doors of the Dark Tower itself. It’s here that the reader will find that the success of Roland’s quest doesn’t depend so much on what he has achieved but how he achieved it…
If you haven’t read the Dark Tower series then I think you need to do something about that sooner rather than later. If nothing else, fans of King’s horror fiction will suddenly become aware of a whole load of things that connect almost everything King has written. The Dark Tower series also gives King the chance to showcase writing skills and techniques that don’t fit into his mainstream work as well. There’s something for everyone in this series; terrifying evil, heroism, camaraderie and tragedy. Roland’s tale is ultimately a tragic one so be prepared to say to people, “I wasn’t crying! It’s, er… really dusty and I got some in my eye!” ‘Wizard and Glass’ is particularly sad which makes it heavy going on a first read but it’s a lot easier (and more worthwhile) if you decide on a re-read. All of this is placed against a ‘Western Epic’ backdrop where the gun is law and a man’s quickness on the draw gives him the right to exercise his own justice. It’s this ‘American feel’ that really sets the series apart as something unique.
It’s the characters, and how they get on, that really make this series work for me. Roland’s band (his ‘ka-tet’) explores themes of love, trust, honour and sacrifice in the face of often overwhelming odds which really made me feel for them. It’s not just the heroes that make the story though, King’s villains are also particularly devilish and evil. Funnily enough though it’s the minor villains such as Blaine or the Big Coffin Hunters that come across as the most evil, the Crimson King (supposedly the ‘uber bad guy’) only really makes an appearance right at the end of Book 7 (‘The Dark Tower’) and doesn’t have a lot of time to make an impact.
I love this series and if you haven’t read it already then I reckon you will too. A couple of things though… Stephen King writes himself into the series during ‘Song of Susannah’ which has polarised fans. I’m cool with this, it was his ‘big labour of love’ so it was inevitable that he would find his way in. Personally I don’t think that it damages the story at all. Finally, the end of the series is a shock if you don’t know what’s coming and another one that got fans worked up. I can see why but I think it had to end the way it did. Sometimes it’s not about the destination but the journey itself…


ThRiNiDiR said...

Great review Graeme. @Trin is a big fan of Dark Tower (I think it tops ASoIaF in her eyes, coz' it's more surreal - I think that's how she put it) and has been nagging me to read it even sooner than sooner of later :). I'll give Gunsliner a try ASAP I guess...I've been putting it off for far too long.

Peta said...

I agree - It's a great series and I really enjoyed it. If anyone is thinking of taking the plunge, have Song for Susannah at £1 although it looks like you'll need to cough up £5.99 for the others.