Wednesday, January 11, 2006

The King and the Dark Tower

About a month and a half ago I embarked on the long and distant journey to the Dark Tower. In other words I started reading Stephen King’s fantasy-horror epic: The Dark Tower series. The Dark Tower, is part vintage western, part Tolkeinian, and part ghost story, and follows the tale of Roland of Gilead as he searches for the Dark Tower, the answer to saving the world that crumbles around him. It is King’s self-proclaimed masterpiece, and many fans agree. Though getting through all seven volumes, as a grand total of 3,770 pages, is in my opinion, no small feat. It seems to be the consensus that the first book, titled The Gunslinger, (though the shortest in length at around 230 pages in the paperback edition) is the most difficult to get through because of its slow pace and unweildy prose. It is fairly atypical for Stephen King book; a piece more dedicated to it’s protagonist than to a rip-roarin’ adventure. But the first book is not to be skipped; once you move onto the second and third books, you realize you could never enjoy them as much if it hadn’t been for the first, which is instrumental in setting up the story’s hero, Roland of Gilead, as well as the world he travels in and through.

First published in 1982, The Gunslinger was the first of the seven novel saga, the last installment was appropriately named, simply, The Dark Tower, and was finally published in the fall of 2004. What I find neat about reading the series now that it’s been completed is:

a) I don’t have to worry about waiting around for the next book to be written and published. (which I guess is cheating a little bit but I also don’t have the detriment of forgetting things from previous books when I pick up the next one)

c) King has revised and expanded certain pieces of the original four novels, and has included a pretty nifty introduction to the series, which talks about his inspiration for starting the dark tower books, and the journey that he took as a writer over the two plus decades it took him to complete Roland’s story.

King completed the first four books of the series, Gunslinger, The Drawing of Three, The Wastelands, and Wizard and Glass in about a decade’s time. But after Wizard and Glass, he put down the gauntlet of the Dark Tower for a while, and it wasn’t until several years later that he was inspired to pick it back up again. In the summer of 1999, King was in a near fatal car accident, which left him severely injured. After his recovery, shaken by a newfound sense of his own mortality, he decided it was time to wrap up Roland’s journey, and in only four years completed volumes V Wolves of the Calla, VI Song of Sussanah, and VII The Dark Tower.

I am currently about seventy five pages into the fourth book, Wizard and Glass, and considering the cliffhanger that the third one had, I was excited to be able to pick up the next book immediately. Despite the slow going first installment, I have to say I’m quite enjoying the whole journey. I am constantly impressed, within this set of novels, at his ability to weave together a great deal of elements into a cohesive whole while shrouding them all the while in a hovering atmosphere of mystery and magic. In the Dark Tower, King has created an imaginary world which is both palpable and ethereal, and he tirelessly creates a bountiful amount of new monsters (my favorites are the lobstrosities and Blaine), scenarios(LUD is a page-turner), and mythologies (ka, ka-tet, and kehf can get burdensome after a while, but are all interesting concepts). Roland and his merry band of GIT (gunslingers in training) are eclectic in their chemistry and each is endearing in their own unique way. Yet Roland is the most magnetic of the characters perhaps because of all the dichotomies that reside within him. He does whatever needs to be done for his quest, and internally advertises his own solitary qualities, yet the reader knows he would never have survived through his various trials if not for the trusty friends he hand picked from the “real” world. There is Eddie, the former heroin addict, smart aleck, Susannah, the formerly schizo phrenic African-American who lived her prime in the era of the civil rights movement, and Jake, a young boy who up until his “drawing” was a regular NYC prep school kid. These characters are lively in and of themselves, but they are also particularly instrumental in bringing out Roland’s humanity. Roland invokes such tenderness in the reader because of the juxtopisiton of his strength and resolve next to vulnerability and kindness that he unknowingly exhibits.

King is often crtiqued among the erudite for being a cheap populist writer who has no style, and churns out newstand rubbish. In 2003, when Stephen King was awarded the National Book Award for lifetime achievement, many balked at the National Book Foundations’ choice. Harold Bloom, a stodgy Yale professor and scholar, wrote a scathing op-ed piece that was published in the Boston Globe, with the title "Dumbing Down American Readers". This article, and the mentality that it represents really irks me. According to the ideas espoused in this article, in order to be distinguished in the world of literature, one must either be dead or difficult to understand; at the very least inaccessible to those who aren’t literary scholars. In the same breath, Bloom goes on to lambast J.K. Rowling and her “dreadful” Harry Potter. This idea that anything which is “catered to the masses” is tripe, is both foolish and inflammatory. I’ve hummed this tune many a time before, but I hate the way genre items are so casually discarded as pedestrian; I think there is equal value in all sorts of literature. Some books are impressive because of their language and style, for the way that they are written. Others may be revolutionary in their narrative and the way that they are structured. Still others may be deliberately moving character studies with little to no plot, that are fascinating because of the person/people that they center on. But in my opinion, nothing beats a good “yarn” or story, and this is the very sort of crafting at which King thrives; he is a master storyteller. Yes, it’s true that his writing style can get a wee bit sloppy from time to time, (for example, he’ll use the phrase “mint green jelly” several times in a relatively short span of text to describe the appearance of a character’s crushed eyeball), though I think he has his more poetic moments as well. But beyond that King is astonishingly adept at creating a story, filled with a charismatic cast of characters, and a landscape of imagery for them to inhabit. King takes us to places we never dreamed (or wanted to dream) existed

What Stephen King has done for our cultural lexicon is nearly unfathomable. King has published a total of fifty four books (most of them novels, though some short story collections and non-fiction) in the past thirty sem-odd years. Over twenty of his works have been adapted into feature films, and television movies or mini-series. The man is a behemoth. His imagination is an unstoppable freight train. Behold his influence and power on the minds of countless readers, movie goers and pop culture consumers around the globe; do we not avoid hotels named Overlook? Cringe at the thought of pig’s blood pranks on prom night? Shudder at the thought of clowns?

I have read only about a third of King’s works, but what I’ve read I’ve always enjoyed. Some stories I found more compelling than others, but all of them consistently delivered as stories of intrigue, horror and macabre. Despite what people may say about him these days, I have a feeling his books are going to be kicking around for a long time to come. As for the Dark Tower? Wish me luck as I continue to delve for its answers.


Blogger The New Yorker said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

6:37 PM  
Blogger The New Yorker said...

I tried to include a link for the original Boston Globe editorial, but for some reason it didn't work. If you google "Stephen King Boston Globe Op-ed" it is the first article that comes up.

6:45 PM  
Blogger Brooks said...

I found Wizard and Glass to be the hardest to get through, mostly because it breaks out of the storyline and is mostly a very long flashback.

I'd love to hear your thoughts on the end of book seven. I thought it was perfect. So good I wanted to cry.

7:35 AM  
Anonymous crazymonk said...

" In the summer of 1999, King was in a near fatal car accident, which left him severely injured. After his recovery, shaken by a newfound sense of his own mortality, he decided it was time to wrap up Roland’s journey, and in only four years completed volumes V Wolves of the Calla, VI Song of Sussanah, and VII The Dark Tower."

Unfortunately, it kind of shows. I started reading the Dark Tower series I'd say around 1992-3, so obviously I had to read the rest when they finally came out. I finished Book 7 a few months ago, and I sadly report that books 5-7 are not on the same caliber as books 1-4. I completely understand *why* 5-7 came out as they did, but that understanding didn't making them better reads. But I do agree with the other commenter that the series ends well at the end of book 7.

10:18 AM  
Blogger Mike said...

If you haven't read it, but are interested in even more Stephen King, I can't recommend "The Long Walk" enough. You can get through it in about two days and it's one of the finest pieces of nerve-jarring storytelling you'll read for a while.

Also, when I can expect a review of Match Point, the 2nd best movie of the year?

4:48 PM  
Blogger The New Yorker said...

Bummer about books 5-7, though its nice people seem to all concede it ended well.

I have heard tell of "The Long Walk" and will have to investigate further.

6:05 PM  
Anonymous crazymonk said...

The Long Walk is a novella that King originally published as Richard Bachman. It was probably my favorite King story when I was a young lad living in Maine.

6:45 PM  
Blogger Daddy Background said...

I was going to mention only that my feelings toward the complete series were "mixed", but since other opinions have been included as well, I will add that I agree with crazymonk in that I thought it started much better than it finished. I thought "The Gunslinger" had a quality of style and sense of nobility that were diminished in subsequent installments. I enjoyed the series (I did. I did, Donna. I really did.) At the end, I felt not the elation of having finished the marathon, but a gasping, worn-out, thank-god-its-over.

Perhaps that overly harsh. I'm a big Stephen King fan, but I thought that even he sounded defensive in the Dark Tower's Afterward concerning some


creative choices in the latter stages of the saga.

Still, to this day I'm a great admirer of Roland and I regularly say "tooter-fish" instead of tuna fish.

Especially when it comes in a popkin.

7:56 AM  
Blogger The New Yorker said...

And Astin. How could we forget Astin.

4:16 PM  
Blogger Daddy Background said...

Just read the referenced op ed piece. Yow. I can't think of a better word than "scathing".

(I finished reading it and felt compelled to get up and stretch my legs.)

12:39 PM  

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