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Book Review: Traversing Stephen King’s “Dark Tower” Series

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In 1970, a young college sophomore read Robert Browning’s epic poem “Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came.” Inspired by its chilling images and ominous tones, the student turned to the nearest sheet of paper (bright green, it was) and began to write. The student’s name was Stephen King, and the scribbles on those garish sheets of paper were the roots for what would, decades later, become the writer’s magnum opus.

Thus began the "Dark Tower" series.

For years, readers have been drawn to the seven books of this series, drawn helpless through the story’s door and traveling down the forsaken and forgotten roads of All-World. Beginning with the evocative and mysterious line, “The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed,” the plot ranges from the fantastical to the terrifying to the downright bizarre, incorporating elements of our world and of All-World, and even characters and concepts from some of King’s other works. It is truly a masterpiece.

And yet, despite all this, many readers have yet to venture into this mysterious and epic world. They may not be fans of King’s work, or they may be intimidated by the sheer volume of the story. They may have tried the first novel, but found it impossible and set it aside. Perhaps you’re one of those readers, even. Or perhaps you’ve never heard of the series at all.

It’s time to change that.

Take a deep breath, reader. I would have you travel with me, if you will, to the Mohaine Desert. Close your eyes and relax – it won’t take but a moment.

Now open your eyes.

Traveler, here lies the Way Station.

It is an ugly place, a long-lost graveyard of dry dust and drier wood all fading away to nothing, but I would have you see it, see it very well.

These buildings must have once been sturdy and strong, but time and sand have worn the wooden walls down thin as paper. Huddled against one of these gutted buildings, trying to take shelter in the sad remains of this place, is a young boy, fair-haired and fair-skinned. The boy Jake sleeps in the tiny puddle of shade afforded him by the withered walls. His sleeping mind is filled with images of New York City, of bustling streets, and of his own small hand, covered in blood, sprawled in those bustling streets. That was the last thing Jake’s eyes saw in his world, before he moved on.

Don’t look too closely at him, traveler. Don’t wake him up. Let him cling to these dreams of his former life while he may. All too soon, his memories will fade and move on, too.

Past the small sliver of shade and the sleeping boy Jake is the ruin of a fence which encircles this station. Once it must have been sturdy and substantial, but now it is no more than a joke, for the rotted and ruined rails can no longer hold themselves up, let alone hold anything back. The air is heavy with the arid scent of sand and the punky-sweet smell of food gone bad. Yet underneath these is the smell of water, sweet and clear. Perhaps this station is not so lost yet.

The first time I saw this station myself, I was no more than eight years old. I was too young to understand this place then. The misery of the desert and the despair of the station were too much for me, and I buckled and ended my journey before I could even see the destination. Years later, after having read the events that follow those at the deserted way station and fallen a little in love with the other people on this story’s road, I found myself coming back to this terrible and desolate place. I had to see the journey from beginning to end.

Turn your eyes southeast of us, traveler, see the faint blue blur which marks the mountains that lie beyond this station. There the world is not so far gone. There may be life and growth in those crags and peaks, yet there also are the slow mutants. Even in this place of fleeting life, there is corruption and destruction. So it goes.

Turn your eyes northwest, traveler, and see the desert.

It is more Desert than desert, for it is the very deification of a desert. The white sands stretch to the faint ripple of the horizon, stretch out flat and heartless and endless, and cutting through this starkness is a single thin blade of hard-packed earth. There is no sign of life or civilization; the world here has moved on. There is no rattle of coaches, although the wheel ruts carved into the hardpan track suggest there once were. There is no squall of birds, for the landscape is too barren for even the most determined of scavengers.

No, there is no sound to be heard here save for the unending complaint of the wind as it sobs and sighs across the broken land. There is nothing to be seen here to lend life to this long-dead purgatory. The cruel white dunes are punctuated by the occasional tuft of devil-grass or bleached bone, but besides these there is nothing.

There is nothing alive, nothing alert, and nothing of interest at all.

But let me rescind that last statement, for even now a small speck has appeared on the horizon. It moves hard and fast toward the Way Station, toward the place the boy Jake sleeps. It is the man in black, the sorcerer Marten, the demon Walter o’Dim, and so it is a very terrible thing to see moving our way.

Though he must be exhausted from his months spent traversing this desolate place, the man in black moves quickly towards the Station. With the smell of his own sour sweat drying in his nostrils, the man in black races across the unbroken plane of the desert. He tells himself that he hurries out of eagerness to find shelter, to perhaps find food and untainted water, and not out of fear of what pursues him. For this man lies, traveler; even to himself, he lies.

And he runs, traveler, he runs. For he is being pursued by a man of the line of Eld, a man who has lost everything due to the man in black’s machinations and the only man who can stop him from achieving his final goal.

The man in black flees across the desert, and the gunslinger follows.

It will be nightfall before the man in black reaches the Station, and perhaps a day before the gunslinger himself comes here, comes to find his ruin and his salvation in the boy Jake.

But no more talk of that, traveler, not now. The story is begun, and we have stepped unwittingly into its midst. Let us step back a few short months from this long-sought moment, leave the gunslinger and the man in black in sight of each other as they race across the sifting sands, leave Jake slumbering out of the heat of the noon sun.

Let us go back to the edge of this forsaken desert, to a run-down town called Tull. Let us witness the first steps of the gunslinger after his black-clad quarry, and the events that follow forever after.

Come back with me, traveler, and travel the road of this story true. Follow it from its roots, from the prosaic first book, The Gunslinger, all the way through to the final book, to The Dark Tower. The quest for the Tower is long, and the road hard, but the story of the gunslinger is one of the most powerful and resonant stories to be told. And the most worthwhile journeys have always been the hard ones, have they not?

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