Traveler, here lies the town of Tull.
It is passing small, built around one main road which is bisected by three smaller ones. There is a tavern, and a tailor’s shop, and a mercantile that has gone under of late. Hard to keep business up with no one passing through. All the travel is one-way these days, with people riding hard for the north, where the world is not so far-gone as this.
Surrounding this gloomy blip of a town is eerily empty prairie dotted with abandoned homes, once full of light and life but now host only to whatever phantoms and demons have slipped into their walls.
A trifle depressing, isn’t it? How sad to think that this town has become the rule and not the exception in this bygone time. The world has moved on for this part of the world, understand. This is all there is now.
It is late in the evening, so the streets are emptying out. There are a few pallid, listless women walking the boards outside the boarded-up storefronts, and from the tavern comes the familiar strains of the Beatles’ “Hey Jude" rapped out on a honky-tonk piano.
Isn’t it strange, traveler? Such a well-known tune ringing drunkenly through the streets of this alien town.
But here comes something new, approaching this rundown ruin of a town as the sun sinks to the horizon. He is a stranger and walks with his head down, leading a mule behind him. He smiles slightly at the singing of the tavern’s patrons, but there is no humor in it. Hasn’t been any humor in him for a long time, it would seem.
On his hips are holstered two guns with sandalwood grips, marking him for what he is – a gunslinger, both killer and diplomat. Anachronistic in both our world and his own, this man has not moved on yet. He still has a purpose.
The gunslinger, on the first steps of a journey still too large for him to truly understand, rolls into town.
So begins the journey of Roland Deschain, as written in Stephen King’s The Gunslinger. So begins the “Dark Tower” series.
Whether you’re a fan of Stephen King’s writing style or not, there’s no denying that the man knows how to build worlds. He blends familiar elements of our world with the apocalyptic, alien world that is Roland’s home. In this book in particular, this blend creates a nightmarish and surreal landscape, comprised of haunting memories and an devastating feeling of foreboding. Reading it is like trying to walk through a Dali painting.
King also tends to build language to match his world. While much of the story’s vernacular will be familiar to the everyday reader, King peppers this simple vocabulary with words of his own devising. Words such as “ka” and “cully” and “thankee-sai” mixed into the writing create an archaically sweet language that is infectious in its simplicity. If they are drawn deep enough, readers may catch themselves thinking in this lilting patois as they read.
The writing in this book is rather simplistic. Understand that the first draft of this book was written in 1970, while King was still a college student. More than a decade would pass before he would revisit this place and again ply his pen to Roland’s tale, and it is reflected in the difference between the writing style in the first book and that of those to follow. There is a crude yet simple charm to the style, and it is interesting to see King playing with the traits which would later make his books so powerful.
In all honesty, it can be hard for readers to commit themselves to The Gunslinger at first blush. The pervasive feeling of loss and ruin can be overwhelming, and the poetic style of the writing can be off-putting to some readers. In addition, King references events and people that have already taken place in the timeline of the story, yet have not been explained to the reader yet. It is easy to become frustrated with this first book and to abandon the series altogether.
However, if the reader pushes on and follows the tale to the end, this first book suddenly becomes wildly exciting to re-read. To see the roots of it all, to see Roland’s memories and the foreshadowing of events to come, will leave the reader chilled with the design of it. It is all so perfectly synced, so wonderfully conceived, and yet there is no way to see the genius beneath it all until the reader has reached the end and turned back to the beginning with a new eye.
There is nothing lost in bypassing this first book, at least the first time around. I would encourage any reader daunted by The Gunslinger to skip ahead to the second book, The Drawing of the Three, and read the recap of the first book that is its introduction. I had to do the same myself on my first trip through Roland’s world.
Yet once they’ve finished the journey, once they’ve read the story true to its end, I would recommend that they go back and see it begin, now. For no journey’s end is complete without an understanding of how it began.