The Dark Tower Book Series
by Stephen King
Reviewed by Galen Strickland
Book 1: The Gunslinger
This epic, sprawling book series, which even King identifies as his magnum opus, has a long and varied publishing history, including for just the first volume, The Gunslinger. It is a novel, since all its parts are a continuing, cohesive story, but it is also what is known as a "fix-up." The five individual stories had been published separately, from October 1978 - November 1981, all in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction. The first book edition came in '82, but had a limited print run which sold out quickly, with a second printing released after overwhelming demand. The copy I have, pictured to the right, is from '88, featuring revised text and illustrations by Michael Whelan. There have been at least two other editions since then, the latest with even more revisions. In the afterword, King says it took him twelve years to complete, from typing the first line, "The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed." in 1970. The idea originally came to him in college, after reading Robert Browning's poem, "Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came," which was reprinted in full at the end of the seventh novel, The Dark Tower.
I first subscribed to F&SF in July '79, and read stories two-five as they were published, then caught the first in a later anthology. I've read the book collection twice since then, but as this is all I've read so far, there will likely be some comments I'll need to edit later, and I have no idea when I will get to even the second book. Lot's of things on my To Be Read pile at the moment, including four upcoming titles from NetGalley, plus many, many others. If I had wanted to finish the whole series before the upcoming film I should have started years ago, even before that project was announced. The saga is up to eight novels so far, totaling more than 4000 pages. It combines elements of science fiction, fantasy, horror, and westerns. The title character is Roland Deschain, supposedly the last gunslinger from his world, which seems to have been a post-apocalyptic, feudal society. There are mentions of things remembered from our world, such as The Beatles' song "Hey Jude" and the children's rhyme "Beans, Beans, the Magical Fruit." The "current" events are set in a desert wasteland, as Roland pursues the mysterious Man in Black, as he has done for at least twelve years. There are occasional flashbacks to his earlier life, his coming of age, becoming a gunslinger, but only vague hints of a revolution, the deaths of his parents, the fall of the kingdom. His world has since "moved on," but from where/what, or to where/what it might be going, is still a mystery. There were times I thought this was an alternate dimension/universe, probably multiple ones converging, at others it seemed it might be an afterlife.
Roland is not a hero, or if so, he's the anti- type. In the first story he tells a man about the time he killed all the inhabitants of a small town, and his reasoning for that is suspect. In the second he comes across a young boy at an abandoned way station. Jake apparently comes from another world, one more closely resembling our own. Roland helps the boy, protecting him from harm on several occasions, even tells himself he loves him, but in reality he is thinking he can use Jake as bait for the Man in Black. There are only a couple of times Roland is presented in a sympathetic way, but those are in the flashbacks as he tells his boyhood story. Many of the incidents described are brutal, bloody and violent, several perpetrated against Roland, others by his own hand. He is obsessed with his need for vengeance, but I'm not sure even he understands why. He apparently doesn't realize he knows, or at least should know, the identity of the man he is chasing. This is the shortest of the novels, and details are sketchy and unreliable, so my understanding of the situation is limited. It's possible the Man in Black wasn't fleeing Roland, but rather wanted their meeting to be in a particular place, and at a particular time. Since subsequent books will have more flashbacks to Roland's early life, as well as the previous twelve years of his quest, I won't venture a guess at this time. The last segment, "The Gunslinger and the Dark Man," is my favorite part, yet is still just an inkling of what the overall story is about. I'm interested in what lies ahead for Roland in his journey to the Dark Tower, but fear there will be too many detours and sidetracks before he gets there. I'll concede the possiblity that I'll come to view Roland in a more positive way, but only time will tell.
Many years ago, before I canceled my membership in the Science Fiction Book Club, I bought books two-seven when there was a sale or special promotion. Not sure why I haven't read any of them yet. For years I thought the seventh novel was the conclusion, but there has been one more since then, but it's events are supposedly set sometime between books four and five. I'm wondering if it's possible King's statement in the first book's afterword, that he might die before it's all done, might be correct. Right now I think I'll be lucky if I can get to the second book, The Drawing of the Three, sometime this year. I do plan to see the long delayed movie next week, or as soon as possible, but I've heard it will be more of a sequel to the last book (maybe a few elements from The Gunslinger), so it might have potential spoilers for the other books. There has also been talk of a TV series, which might feature elements from the fourth book, Wizard and Glass, but of course any further productions hinge on the success of the first. I'll update this page with a link to a film review, and of course, if and when I get to the other books.
And now I've seen the film, and review it here.
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