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The Dark Tower: Reflections on a Series

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Years ago, I picked up The Gunslinger and was enthralled. I sped through the first three books of Stephen King’s Dark Tower series, only stopping because the fourth had yet to be published. It was a year after that when Wizard and Glass came out, and I found that I no longer had the burning desire to read any more. The flashback structure put me off, and I went no further than “Rhea of the Coos.”

Then, back in November, I decided to go back to it again for two reasons. One, all seven books were now in print, so there would be no waiting after I finished one to get to the next. And two, all seven were available in audio form, which I thought would be a great way to enjoy the entire series. So now, after approximately 140 hours of audio CD, I’ve come to the end. Some thoughts (and there are necessary spoilers here, so Dark Tower virgins be warned!):

For years after I initially read the first three books, I’d occasionally have an impulse to tap my throat three times with two fingers and say “Thankee-sai”. Aside from this being a real geeky thing to do, the more extraordinary part of this is I had absolutely no memory of where I picked this up. It’s an illustration of what I most admire from the books: the unique expressions of language used to create this world. Not only unique but also natural. The speech patterns are therefore quite credible as everyday language. “Do you ken it?”, “Do you say so? Then let it be so”, and “Long days and pleasant nights” are just some of the turns of phrase that I’ll carry with me long after I have finished these books.

My first impression those years ago when I stopped at the fourth book has carried over to now; Wizard and Glass is the weakest link. Primarily, this is due to the flashback that makes up the bulk of the novel. It’s too drawn out for its own damn good. You could argue this was on purpose as Roland and his friends bided their time in Mejis, but I think it goes beyond that. I think King fell too much in love with Susan and Cordelia and Eldred and Thorin and so on, so that it just got too unwieldy for its own good. I think King forgot his big piece of advice from his On Writing text: Kill your darlings, Kill your darlings, Kill your darlings.

And one other note on Wizard and Glass: It also has the least satisfying ending. The Wizard of Oz thing was a little too much for me, more so than any of the other literary and cultural allusions used throughout. And it was also disappointing that a vicious, interesting villain (i.e. The Tick Tock Man) was brought back into the picture at such great effort, only to be shot dead within the first few pages of seeing him again. Gee, thanks for the cameo, Andrew Quick.

As if to make up for all this, the first section of The Wolves of Calla was the most satisfying beginning of the series. This whole portion does a wonderful job of introducing Tian Jaffords, Andy the Robot and the story as a whole. The exposition never feels forced, and I am left eager to know the further details of this little community full of farmers and ranchers eeking out a living and the horrible fate of their children. Also, of all the fantastical and strange names that King comes up with for this world, my favorite was given to a barren tract of land mentioned in this intro, “Son-of-a-bitch”

I remain undecided on the whole Meta turn the books took in The Wolves of Calla. It did make me glad that I had read (twice, in fact) the aforementioned On Writing, as his views of the writing process and details of his accident were great supplementary material to the later books. It seems clear that the Dark Tower series is more personal to him than any of his other works, so it must have seemed natural for him to insert himself into the proceedings. As a result, we get a portrait of the man himself to go along with Roland’s inner demons.

In terms of the format I used to experience this epic, the voice work was top notch. Aside from a recording of King himself doing Drawing of the Three (more on this in a moment), Frank Muller did the first four books. Stephen King actually inserts a note about Muller in the fifth book recording and expresses his sadness at Muller’s death, and how he would not be able to complete the series. George Guidall picks up where Muller left off for the last three books. Both did very well with the characters and had sufficient range to paint distinct portraits of all the myriad characters of New York, Midworld and everywhere else.

When I was ready to read the second book, the only audio copy available at the library was the King-read version, recorded back in 1991. These days, King is well practiced in reading for audiobooks (for the third time, let me invoke his On Writing, whose audio version is read by King and is excellent), but this was apparently not the case back in 1991. It could also just be chalked up to poor production values, but the bottom line is that it’s a rough listen with a lot of audible breathing and such. Still, these are King’s characters, and who better to bring across their manners of speech? The only drawback is King’s Eddie, which sounds so much like vintage 1970 George Carlin recordings as to be distracting.

And then there’s the ending to the series as a whole. As those of you who have read it know, there are actually two endings. The first shows the fate of Susannah after she enters the door to Central Park. This ending was fine with me, and was a nice way to wrap up the story of the other Ka-tet members. The second ending, that for Roland, is preceded by a commentary from King on the nature of journeys and the persistence of fandom. He further states that his revealing of Roland’s fate might be upsetting to his readers. To this I say, if he really didn’t want us to see what happened when Roland entered the tower, he need not print it. He yields to the psychic arm-twisting of his fans and concludes the story of Roland for us.

To Mr. King I have to say, he need not have worried about our reactions. Anyone who has the patience and persistence (not unlike Roland’s dogged determination&#8212what does that say about us?) to get through almost 4,000 pages of text must have a feeling for the themes and characters that have been laid out. With that in mind, Roland’s ending inside the Tower was just as fulfilling as Susannah’s, if not more so. After all, Ka is like a wheel.

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About Alonzo Mosley (FBI)

  • http://paperfrigate.blogspot.com Pat Cummings

    Alonzo, I have added the spoiler warning to the excerpt, so that no “Dark Tower virgins” will innocently walk into your review…

  • http://dumpsterbust.blogspot.com/ Eric Berlin

    Excellent thoughts, Alonzo.

    I found Wizard & Glass to be frustrating at the time I read it, largely because it is a step-back from the up-front narrative of the story. I was also jarred — at first — by the invoking of other stories/characters from King’s universe. Now, however, I see W&G as a wonderful standalone story, and I am really in awe with the way the Tower was used to tie together much of King’s fiction.

    I had the unfortunate task of waiting desperately — often for years — for the next book to come out. Therefore, I agree with your assessment regarding the Calla: it was a wonderful re-framing of the “actual” story. We had it made it from Blaine the Mono to the Calla, and we were ready to roll forward once again. I wouldn’t be surprised if King saw it in much the same way.

    I thought the conclusion of the story was satisfying, an amazing feat to pull off after such a long journey. It was really nifty that the Susannah storyline got to end on a cheery note while Roland’s was dark and mysterious. Roland and the Tower stayed with me for weeks after I read the last lines.

    Luckily, I had the revised version of Book I (The Gunslinger) to go back to and I really did feel like I was continuing the journey like that old wheel of ka.

    Have you read the revised Gunslinger, Alonzo? If you haven’t, I highly recommend it. To me, it read in parts like an appendix to Book VII — the revision sets a lot in motion and offers clues that will only make sense after you’ve completed the entire series.

  • http://acrentropy.blogspot.com Alonzo Mosley (FBI)

    To Eric:

    I just checked the list of revisions to The Gunslinger and am pretty sure I listened to the revised version this second time around. I am tempted to read it again, though, to tie the ending back to the beginning (and on and on and on…)

  • http://dumpsterbust.blogspot.com/ Eric Berlin

    That’s a nifty little guide — I had to pull myself away from it before I got sucked in too far!

  • Bennett

    Well done Alonzo. I was toying with doing something in recognition of the final book in this series. I too was happy with the ending, as much that he pulled it off (I was afraid for him, failing, after such a lengthy journey) as with the greatness of of the final concept. I feel that The drawing Of The Three was by far the strongest book in the series, followed by The Waste Lands. The story of Susan from Wizards of Glass gets better with every reading, and is a masterpiece of storytelling. The final conflict, the riding down of the cavalry headed for the oil tanker “To Me Gunslingers! Hile! Take No Prisoners!” sends goosebumps up my arms.

    Like Eric, I waited out the series a book at a time, and we were damn near denied the final two by King’s unfortunate run in with an asswipe driving a van.

    Also, at the end of The Wolves Of Calla, where he prints his diary, about his drinking, and about his death… Oh Discordia! Brilliant, fantastic vision.

    Great stuff. He’s the real deal, and my life is far richer from reading his work.

  • SFC SKI

    I missed out on #5 and #6, skipping directly to the finale when it came out and I happened to be in the library the day it hit the shelves. This was definitely King’s Magnum Opus, and a labor of love, I thoroughly enjoyed the book I did read in the series, and I am sure to revisit it again. I loved that King droppd in referncs to so many of his other works, and revisited whole characters as well.

  • http://acrentropy.blogspot.com Alonzo Mosley (FBI)

    I have a correction: My report of Frank Muller’s death is greatly exagerated.

    Muller actually sustained a serious brain injury in a motorcycle accident in 2001 and it is uncertain whether he will ever do audiobook narration again because of it. Info here. Just wanted to clear that up.

  • http://dumpsterbust.blogspot.com/ Eric Berlin

    Yes, good catch, Alonzo. Hopefully Muller will one day be able to be back at it.

  • http://www.bevvincent.com Bev Vincent

    It’s highly unlikely Mr. Muller will ever work again, unfortunately.

    Thanks for posting links to my book on your blog, by the way!

  • http://acrentropy.blogspot.com Alonzo Mosley (FBI)

    My pleasure, Bev. I started reading it after I finished volume seven over the weekend. Great stuff.

  • http://www.shortstrangetrip.org Joe

    Nice wrap-up, I really liked the series and thought it was fascinating to see the changes in King’s perspective that came out after the accident. I had hoped to see a stronger tie in of the links established in The Talisman and Black House (If you haven’t read those, you might consider taking a look to round out your Dark Tower experience). There’s another series of books I enjoyed that I found very similar to the Dark Tower series called the Otherland series by Tad Williams. It’s more in a cyberpunk vein but is similarly epic and also provides an interesting view of storytelling and archetypes.

  • dee

    I loved the Black House and Plan on re reading the Talisman some day. I read it when it first came out years ago but it is one I may re read again. I read the first three of the Black Tower series and may go back to the third one and read it. I will get the whole series as i have a daughter that I know will love it.

  • http://dumpsterbust.blogspot.com/ Eric Berlin

    Talisman is among King’s best while Black House was merely good, in my opinion. That said, the Dark Tower tie-in in the latter is very cool.

  • Bennett

    Don’t forget Hearts In Atlantis, a great book in its own right, and it gives you the history of several of the characters in the final dark Tower book. The story “Hearts In Atlantis” is one of his finest novelets imo, and will get you playing MS Hearts for a while.

  • http://dumpsterbust.blogspot.com/ Eric Berlin

    The novella Hearts in Atlantis is fantastic — you’re right, Bennett. It’s almost required reading for any Dark Tower fan. I was disappointed that any DT talk was avoided in the film version, though I can understand how it would be difficult.

    And it put me onto “96 Tears,” by ? and the New Mysterians. I listened to it non-stop for a week after first hearing it.

  • Bennett

    I didn’t see the movie, didn’t think it was just the story Hearts In Atlantis, set in the Maine college during the Vietnam war.

    Not sure why I’ve held off watching it. Probably not wanting the greatness and the images from King’s novella :-] corrupted in any way.

    Should I fear this?

  • http://dumpsterbust.blogspot.com/ Eric Berlin

    Oh, I should have mentioned: the film version of Hearts in Atlantis is based upon the novella, Low Men in Yellow Coats. So it’s not about the card playing days but about Ted Brautigan and his young friend.

    The movie is good and has much more of a Stand By Me feeling than anything DT, sci fi, or fantasy-related.

  • http://copygodd.blogspot.com copygodd

    While The Stand remains my singular favorite work of King’s, the combined DT series (and all the various tie-ins to his other works) holds a very special place in my heart.

    Randall Flagg (aka the Walking Dude, the Man in Black, Walter O’Dim, John Farson, Marten Broadcloak, etal) is without a doubt my favorite character of all.

    Remember, all things serve the beam.

  • http://dumpsterbust.blogspot.com Eric Berlin

    I’m with you on The Stand and DT, copygold.

    And RF — it’s difficult to come up with a weirder, funnier, or more sinister bad guy… especially in his Stand incarnation.

    That illustration of RF, resurrected, at the end of The Stand… it was the revised, expanded paperback edition, at any rate… was haunting and magnificent. I still remember it, all these years after first seeing it.

  • Tanya

    My unsolicited two cents is this, the DT series are true works of greatness. That being said my only gripe was that Susannah seemed to have a sort of hatred for Roland in the last book (without giving away too much) her behavior as she goes along with him pisses me off. I was ready for her to bugger off by the time she went.

  • Tanya

    I’m sorry, I seemed to have mistyped my true intention on the last post.

    This is what I typed:
    That being said my only gripe was that Susannah seemed to have a sort of hatred for Roland in the last book (without giving away too much) her behavior as she goes along with him pisses me off.
    This is what I meant:
    She seemed to harbor a hatred for Roland and she was extremely unkind to him when she left the story. It was as if she was holding him responsible for Ka. Maybe it’s just me, but I felt awful for him by then and it was hard to hear him beg….maybe it was for her too.

    Any way, sorry about that.