Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Dark Tower Update

It’s been two weeks since I last blogged about my progress on the journey to the Dark Tower. At that point in time I was about seventy five pages or so into the fourth installment of King’s Saga, Wizard and Glass. By now, I’ve completed the fifth chapter in the quest of Roland and his fellow Gunslingers, Wolves of the Calla. After I posted my first blog, I received a fair amount of comments from folk, and the general consensus was that after the fourth book in the series, the quality of the books starts to dwindle down. Now after having completed the fourth AND the fifth books, I am sorry to say I agree with this sentiment.

First off, I found Wizard and Glass to be remarkable, perhaps my favorite of the lot. It was the meatiest installment thus far, clocking in at about 670 pages, almost double the size of some of its slimmer predecessors. Wizard and Glass does in fact, take a large sidestep from the path that Roland, Eddie, Susannah, Jake and Oy are on, but it was a sidestep that was not regrettable in the least. Within the crust of the main plot, lay a wonderful fairy-tale like yarn with textures both hard and soft; one which so compelling it could have stood on its own if necessary. The fact that the story of Roland’s adventures in Mejis was woven so craftily, into a pre-exisiting mythology and set of characters, made it all the more impressive. I was completely enchanted while reading about the vibrant community of characters, the peculiar geography, and unique dialect and customs that King had created within the pages. There were a million little revelations for me from chapter to chapter as I saw how each little tendril of the story, sneakily found its way back to its origin, forming a complex and detailed tapestry that was breath taking to behold. At times, my mind would beg to wander, and I might begin to wonder why King was spending so much time developing a seemingly tertiary character –yet everytime, I was met pages down the line, with a satisfying answer.

It was fascinating to peer in through the glass and watch Roland, with his compatriots, Cuthburt and Alain (of whom he had always spoken of), when they were nothing more than children. To see Roland, when he could feel and express sheepishness, boyisheness, giddiness, in both his love affair with Susan and his handling of his mission, added a whole new dimension to his characters. The first three books gave him depth, purpose, mannerisms, and even heart, but by the end of the fourth it seems we had seen Roland’s very soul. The only thing that I found to be slightly over the top was the fact that, shortly after returning to Gilead, Roland mistakenly shoots and kills his mother. While it made sense logistically that Rhea of Coos has yet to exact her final revenge, and that this act broke the last strands of Roland’s heart, it teetered a wee bit on the side of the melodrama. I think particularly because it happened so close in tandem to Susan’s death made it seem a bit over the top.

The story as it takes place in Mejis is captivating, and though simple in its concepts and themes, was remarkably intricate in its execution. I myself, could never imagine thinking up all that “story”, -not just the major plot elements, but the little staples that pulled all the pages together. Equally compelling was the bizarro Kansas and Oz that the Gunslingers stumble upon as they try to find their way back to the “beam”. I liked all the little allusions to the Wizard of Oz, including the ruby red shoes, the Emerald City-like Palace, and the throne they find inside it, operated by the elusive “man behind the curtain”. Somehow it made sense that there should be a confluence between the fantasy world of Oz, and the fantastical world of Roland’s Mid-World.

But tactics that felt clever and organic in Wizard and Glass, became unnatural and obnoxious in Wolves of the Calla. In this fifth book King decided to cross from the territory of literary references, into the post-modern modern world of the self-reflexive pop culture flourishes. In “Calla”, King brings back Father Callahan, a main character from one of his first novels, ‘Salem’s Lot, which I have yet to read. From what I gather from the information in “Calla”, the book deals with a small New England town which becomes inundated by the undead/vampires. Father Callahan is actually quite a compelling character --of the tortured soul variety, and ‘Salem’s Lot seems like a scary and interesting book, but I am reading the Dark Tower series, and I’ll be damned, but it feels like a heck of a cheap trick to me. Now again, since I’ve never read the book, I don’t know how much of the material regarding Father Callahan was previously dealt with in ‘Salem’s Lot. Granted much of the stories we learn about him have to do with his life after he left said small New England town. But still, recycling one’s characters, when they are not already part of a given series just seems like a bit of a cop out to me. Particularly since, try as he might, King, who so artfully constructed and meshed together the story elements in Wizard and Glass, struggled to marry the mythology of vampires with the mythos that he’s already created within the world of the Dark Tower. As intriguing as Callahan’s wanderings into the world of the vampiric might have been, the “payoff” of his stories within the grand plot of the Wolves of Calla was meager at best. The fact that Roland told the town folk of the Calla that the Wovles that came after their children were actually vampires, in order to fool certain people listening, was ridiculous. It was fairly obvious from the beginning that the Wovles were robots at any rate. This and other secrets held within the pages of Wolves of the Calla were not nearly as well hidden as some of the other mysteries which had been revealed in earlier volumes of the series.

I was particularly shocked, when in the final pages of “Calla” – the book ‘Salem’s Lot actually appears in the story, as written by an author named Stephen King. I know King isn’t the first writer to reference himself in a his own work of fiction, but in the world of the Dark Tower it just doesn’t seem to fit. Not to mention the fact that I nearly fell out of my chair and onto the ground, when I read that some of the weapons used by the wolves were “sneetches –Harry Potter Model.” Nor did I care for King’s last ditch effort to draw uncanny similarities between the wolves and Dr. Doom from Spiderman comics. These items felt slapdash and ill-suited to the rest of the story.

Now, criticims aside, let it be known that I devoured this fifth volume, which was even bigger than the last (714 pages), in a matter of days. I have not given up hope on Roland and his team, and I am still as committed as ever to the see this story to the finish. In terms of the general plot structure that founded the fifth novel, I thought it was well conceived. I like the idea that King took a simple fairy tale conceit ---bad wolves who come to steal away the children, and turned it into a rich piece of folk lore. I liked how King developed the Calla of Bryn Sturgis, and how it mirrored various aspects of Mejis, and the mission that Roland completed in that similar outpost so many years ago. Though similar, the Calla also had its own unique nuances. I thought the idea of Andy the messenger Robot was brillant and wonderfully sinister, and I liked the rest of the supporting characters in the town. The details involving the twins, and how half of each pair inevitibaly became “Roont” by the wolves was original and creepy, though by the end I felt King stopped short of giving it the full explanation and resolution it deserved. Even creepier than the twin-nabbing, was the development of Mia, --yet another alter ego for Susannah, and the reveal that she was pregnant. Even more unnerving, was the plot twist that it was not Eddie’s child she was carrying, but the child of the demon she had battled in the third book “The Wastelands.” The scenes that King wrote about Susannah/Mia in the Castle Dining Hall, where she fed her and her “chap” were completely gripping and utterly terrifying. Equally unsettling was the surfacing of “Black Thirteen”, the wizard’s glass that embodied ultimate evil, in the semblance of a singular and unblinking eye. King has a knack for writing about evil; he turns is from a disembodied concept into a hovering, palpable presence. King creates visceral descriptions and striking analogies that solidify into frightning images in our minds eye. I finally had my first Dark Tower related nightmare while in the midst of reading “Calla.”

So all in all have I noticed a decline? Yes. Am I resolute as ever to make it to the end of this journey. Yes. Wizard and Glass was amazing, Wolves of Calla was still a page turner, but not as artfully done. Song of Susannah awaits me on a shelf at home. The cliffhanger at the end of “Calla” with Susannah’s disappearance is a nail biter… so I may not be getting much sleep tonight, do ya ken it?


Anonymous crazymonk said...

Thanks, Kaliinda, I'm looking forward to your thoughts on Books 6 and 7 (which are virtually one large volume). It's interesting to read a take on the series from someone who is reading the whole thing straight, rather than over 15-20 years like myself and many others.

As for Father Callahan, 'Salem's Lot was the first Stephen King book I read (at the age of 10 methinks), so it sort of completed the circle for me (as well as for King). Especially since I don't intend to read any other King books any time soon. True, his insertion is a bit contrived, but you have to keep in mind that over 20 Stephen King novels have involved the Dark Tower in some way or the other. Regular readers of King are used to Dark Tower characters popping up in random places. There's a great diagram of the connectedness of all DT-related books, but I won't link to it until you have finished the series, since it reveals spoilers.

10:53 AM  
Blogger jeremybgg said...

i had no idea you were doing this and your comments are far too sprawling to address. but i take issue with folks who think the "quality" declines with volumes 5-7. it helps to consider the series in two parts -- the first being the epic mysteries of the world of 1-4 and the second being the climactic final endgame of 5-7. obviously, this has a lot to do with the fact that 5-7 were written as an imperative clump, as opposed to the leisurely pace of the first 4.

but come on. you thought the appearance of our-worldish items (e.g. dr. doom, harry potter) was out of place in a series that included a nazi warplane, "hey jude," and 3 citizens of new york?

anyway. greatest work of epic fiction ever created. welcome aboard.

12:36 PM  
Blogger The New Yorker said...

Yeah, I've read in his new introductions about the fact that many of his books are ultimately linked up in the Dark Tower, and while I've read a few King books in my day as well, connections between them aren't popping up readily in my mind.

As for the consistency with the inclusion of pop culture references, some how those were explained or cushioned a bit more within the context of the Dark Tower world, the latter too felt a bit clunky.

2:11 PM  
Blogger jeremybgg said...

you'll see. gan will show you.

2:44 PM  
Blogger Elliot said...

Sneetches are a Dr Suess thing...

9:15 PM  
Blogger The New Yorker said...

Are they?

But sneetches are also used in Quidditch are they not?

10:13 AM  
Anonymous crazymonk said...

I think you doth defend too much, jeremy. "Climactic final endgame" or no, it seems like common consensus that the last three books are a massive drop in quality (or at least it does on Amazon).

KV: the big book that ties into the Dark Tower series is Insomnia, which luckily I had read. The Crimson King and his various permutations has been mentioned in several books, as has Walter (i.e., man in black, randall flagg, etc.). E.g., The Stand.

11:00 AM  
Blogger The New Yorker said...

Aha! I see I am yet another disadvantage because I have not read Inomia either, it seems of the several books of his I have read, not that many intersect with the DT mythos. I am about 200 pages into book seven, I swallowed the sixth book in an entire day, but am pacing myself with the last one. I want to make it last...

11:05 AM  
Blogger Elliot said...

That's a snitch.

9:43 PM  

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