The Dark Tower series, by Stephen King
by Robert A. Parker
This is the revised edition. The separate copyright dates reflect the original version of the first four volumes and then its edited version. When King, as a more mature writer, went back to edit the original versions, he basically tightened the writing and cleaned up the language (fewer adverbs), and then added or expanded key dramatic scenes. He then continued the series he had started twenty years earlier, apparently prompted by the plea of fans, his own vulnerability after a serious accident, and his guilt at never having finished the story of Roland and his unique quest.
I begin here with comments about the first four volumes in the series.
The Gunslinger (1982, 2003)
The first sentence is: “The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed.” And that sums up this volume. We are with the gunslinger, a man named Roland, as he crosses deserts, flees a town, climbs mountains, and follows a railway into darkness. For the latter portion he is accompanied by a boy, Jake, whose presence helps to humanize our hero and whose fate will later become significant.
From the beginning, we do not know who the man in black is, why the gunslinger is following him, what land we are in, or what past or future time zone we are in. But because this is Stephen King, this barren desert and the hazardous mountains are physically tangible; the intensity of the pursuing gunslinger is convincing, especially as we learn fragments of his past; and danger lurks in the shadows, the danger of the harsh environment and the implied threat of the man in black.
Only in the last chapter does this novel of adventure take on the characteristics of a quest novel, when it introduces a mystical element and a spiritual element. The focus of Roland’s quest is the Dark Tower, which contains the universe, or the secrets of the universe, or perhaps even God himself. King calls it “the nexus of Time, the nexus of Size.” Nothing is clear, however, about why Roland is seeking that tower. We do know, however, that the man in black being pursued is only an emissary; and that to reach the Tower, this man says, Roland must first kill the Ageless Stranger, whose name is “Legion.” His further message is that, on approaching the Tower, Roland will “do some unimaginable final battle.” One does not expect this to be a religious novel, despite the references to “let there be light,” but one can well detect the influence of such fantasy novels as Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings.
Nothing in the first four chapters, each focusing on a stage in Roland’s pursuit (and each, note, published as a short work in a fantasy publication), none of these adventures drew me into this series. But the final chapter did. Because I am intrigued by novels which explore the meaning of both the gift of life and the presence of evil, as well as by the persistence of a man in the face of overwhelming odds. And, like Roland, the reader wants to know why this shadowy man in black or his colleagues have earlier appeared in different guises and destroyed Roland’s family, and now appear to want to draw him toward that Dark Tower.
All in all, this work offers an unusual adventure in a strange land, but other than being an effective thriller, it did not break through and suggest a classic tale until that final chapter. And while the journey raised provocative issues, the destination, the Tower, did not truly intrigue me, not least because Roland himself does not really know what the Tower means, or what he is to do when he arrives at it. The interest began for me when the man in black figuratively snaps his fingers and mysterious events and dreamlike states raise provocative questions about how the universe is constructed, about its time and size, and about mankind’s role in that universe. (April, 2016)
The Drawing of the Three (1990, 2003)
This second volume immediately drew me into the magic world of Stephen King. It opens with Roland, the gunslinger, alone on a beach, where lobsterlike monsters appear and gnaw at his hand and his foot. Desperate, hungry, with infected fingers and toes, Roland encounters a door on the beach. He opens it, and is immediately on an airplane in flight and then inside the mind and body of one of its passengers, a drug-smuggler. Wow!
Three Tarot cards dealt by the man in black in Volume I determine the structure of this novel, and the title. They are represented by three doors that appear consecutively on the beach where Volume I ended. Each appears to be a door to the reality of the reader’s world, and each applies to a different person that Roland encounters. They are Eddie, a drug smuggler; Odetta, an crippled girl; and Jack Mort, who has injured her. And the three involve Roland in their own stories, a gangster melodrama, an early civil rights saga, and a psychopathic killing spree. Each adventure also involves Roland inserting himself into the body of these three individuals, and each is a fascinating thriller in itself.
Moreover, Roland’s ability to enter another person’s body and mind is foreshadowed here when two women, one good and one evil, exist in the same body during the civil rights section. Also, note that these three adventures that shift to another time frame offer an early instance of the time travel that King created with perfection in his later novel about JFK.
The only aspect that flummoxed me was the geography of the seashore. Based on the ocean’s location and the setting sun, I kept seeing these characters heading south, whereas King keeps saying they are heading north. He calls the ocean the Western Sea, and the south works when I picture them on the Pacific coast, but it does not work when I switch the setting to the Atlantic coast and try to head them north. Because the sun still sets over the ocean. Ah, well, either I am confused, or some explanation will come to me later.
To balance this, however, King pays a lot of attention to creating rich subsidiary characters: a stewardess, for example, a paramedic, or a drug store owner. These characters often have a credible past, as well as a function in the present, in the story at hand.
This volume appeared eight years after the first. One wonders why it took so long. And then King states that he began Volume I in the early 1970s, although it was published only in 1982. Obviously, he was working on other works at the same time, and he does grant this. He also labels himself “a young writer” when he wrote the first volume, which he explains is why he edited these early works and removed what he saw as an original pretentiousness. And he is also correct when he says he was not in full stride until he wrote this second volume.
For the first volume merely sets up Roland’s adventure. In this second volume, the adventures truly begin. Which makes this volume far more interesting. Not just because of the adventures themselves, but because of the imagination that goes into those adventures: the doorways to other times, the hero’s insertion into other minds and bodies, the lobsterlike monsters that crawl out of the sea.
So one looks forward to Volume III. For more adventures. For new and interesting characters. For still more imaginative developments. And for a better understanding of Roland and his mission on reaching the Dark Tower. (May, 2016)
The Waste Lands (1991, 2003)
This work begins more prosaically. A monster robotic bear is killed, yes, but then the trio of Roland, Eddie, and Susannah trek through the forest in search of the Dark Tower. While doing so, they discuss the anomalies of time travel, especially the fate of Jake, whether or not he did die in Manhattan, much less in the mountain chasm.
Whereupon, we switch back to the same Jake, younger and in school in Manhattan. He sees visions of the immediate future, and wants to escape them. In the book’s first brilliant section, Eddie draws a door in the ground in a Stonehenge type location the trio encounters in their travels, while Jake, back home, seeks to open a door in a deserted, haunted mansion. The connection between these two worlds, these two doors, and its climactic horror, is King at his finest. It also creates interesting questions: what actually is the relationship between Roland’s Mid-World, where most of this series is set, and our own world? And why is there such a connection? And, finally, what is the purpose of these characters moving back and forth between the two worlds?
King then moves into his narrative mode, where he is always strong, keeping the multiple time frames in the background. The adventures on the road to the Dark Tower moves from the almost deserted (except for old survivors) satellite city of River Crossing; to the crossing by foot of a fragile George Washington type bridge to Lud—a former metropolis, from where they are to catch a train to the Dark Tower—and then to the kidnapping of Jake and the pursuit to find him in the ruins of Lud.
To increase the narrative pace, King has split up his four people. The kidnapped Jake is taken to the villains’ hidden cave. Roland tracks him with the help of a bumbler, a small animal. And Eddie and Susannah seek out the train station where Blaine, a computerized evil train, can take them to the Dark Tower. King has forgotten the complexity of his time frames and gone, successfully, for a straight narrative drive. And this is further strengthened when he keeps each of his characters in jeopardy.
And yet, at the climax, as the characters come back together, King goes overboard in goosing the action. It becomes exaggerated, with Blaine, the computerized train, raining death down on the remaining citizens of Lud, and with Blaine also becoming a demanding, unreasonable, threatening character who is fascinated by riddles and speaks in all caps. And then, suddenly, after a magic ride through space, over craggy desolate land, and a further exchange of riddles, the action stops. The characters’ fate, and the continuation of this tale, now depends on an unknown riddle.
Except, we know the tale will continue, of course, for we are at the end of volume three of seven volumes. The potential of the fourth volume, however, is not that promising. In an Afterward, King says we will learn more of Roland’s past, of his youth. And the brief references to that past have certainly been puzzling. How significant to these adventures has been his family story and his gunslinger adventures? And how will this return to his past contribute to the forward movement of this series? We shall see. (May, 2016)
Wizard and Glass (1997, 2003)
We begin with 60 pages of talk and riddles that are short on action, and disappointing in the resolution of our heroes’ previous life or death situation. But we then turn to a story of Roland’s youth, and we are in a new and interesting novel. It is not Roland telling this story; it is King. And it is a love story. About Roland and Susan.
But it is also a western. An interesting western. With a convincing Western atmosphere. Roland is a teenager with two friends, Cuthbert and Alain. They are exiled by their fathers, for disciplinary reasons, to Mid-World. And there, in a town of fishermen and cattlemen, they discover a band of villains plotting a rebellion. Except, Roland also discovers Susan, and their love affair diverts his attention from the villains, which prompts increasing suspense. Still more is added when the villains are on to him. We know the end of the love affair, but not of the rebellion, and we read on to learn just how they interact.
Indeed, I apologize to King, for this tale truly stands on its own. I do wonder why he positioned it in volume four, but probably it is because it represents background, and is not part of his time travel story or the meaning of the Dark Tower. But it certainly reflects King’s strong narrative drive and his imaginative skills. Indeed, it offers the outstanding narrative of the series to date, at more than 500 pages of a 700-page book.
This narrative is a tale within a tale, and as Roland finishes telling the adventure of his youth to his audience of Eddie, Susannah, and Jake, King returns to his framing story and has some fun. He does a riff on The Wizard of Oz. And why not? They are in Kansas, after all. I also think it is appropriate. Because that book, the Oz book, is about two realities, the reality of the twister and the reality of Oz, where the twister deposits Dorothy. And this volume, too, is about two realities, the framing world of Kansas, where the mature Roland is telling is story, and the Mid-World of his youth, where as a teenager he fights his cowboy war and discovers his true love. And, of course, the entire series counterpoints the reader’s world, the America where Eddie, Susannah, and Jake come from, and how it interacts with the magic and weird world of the Dark Tower.
Far from a disappointment, this is the most exciting volume thus far. Because of its western action and because of its tale of young love. And while one anticipates more to come about the meaning behind the Dark Tower, there will still be still a sense of adventure. For the crystal ball, the witch Rhea, the monstrous Flagg, and the Path of the Beam are still out there. Indeed, toward the end, King suggests there will be a coming together of evil forces from his other fiction, starting with Flagg from The Stand. King fans can hardly wait. (May, 2016)
Here are my comments for the last three volumes in the series.
Wolves of the Calla (2003)
This work introduces a new group of people called the Calla and their enemy, the violent Wolves of the title. Each generation, these wolves steal away one youth in different sets of young twins, and then return the youths nearly brain dead. Now, representatives of these people ask our gunslingers, Roland, Eddie, Susannah, and Jake to protect them from these wolves.
As a new society, the Calla are not that interesting, nor are the early adventures of the gunslingers, even as they negotiate with the Calla people. Of possible interest is Mia, a confident young woman who appears inside Susannah, and whose presence neither Roland nor the reader initially understands. What is far more interesting are drugged mushrooms that carry some of the gunslingers, in a kind of hypnotic state called todash, back to New York City of the 20th century, where they have interesting adventures—first in a bookstore restaurant owned by a man named Tower and then in a vacant lot where grows a mysterious, transfiguring rose. Why are these todash trips happening, and what do they mean?
It gradually is apparent that this is another stand-alone novel, for this volume presents a detour to our friends’ quest to reach the Dark Tower. To go into more detail, as our friends leave the green castle of the previous volume, they are tracked by a half dozen Calla people led by an ex-priest named Callahan from Maine. These people belong to the town of Calla Bryn Sturgis, and, on recognizing our friends as gunslingers, ask for their help in defending their community against the Calla Wolves. Our friends agree to do so, and the bulk of the volume relates how they get to know the people, train them, establish a plan, and then fight the rapacious wolves. However, there are detours.
The first details the lengthy travels of this interesting ex-priest and how he reached Mid-World. The second is the revelation that Mia is carrying a baby inside Susannah—a baby which our friends are convinced is evil—an impregnation which occurred when Susannah initially distracted the devil’s minions, back in The Waste Lands, in order to help Jake enter Mid-World. And apparently Mia will protect this baby, whereas Susannah will not. But the larger detour is to New York, for there is a rose there on land owned by bookstore owner Tower; and because it has some unclear connection to our heroes reaching the Dark Tower, it has to be protected.
The finale is built around preparing for and fighting the Wolves of the title, as they seek to abscond with more twins. Both aspects are very well told, as Roland and his three friends first uncover the traitors in town who have enabled the wolves to triumph in the past. Then follows finding out who the wolves are, and the strategy to defeat them. And finally there is the battle itself, with successes on one level and losses on another. As if to show the reality of warfare includes the reality of sacrifice.
But King knows enough to leave us with cliffhangers, in order to draw us on to the next volume. Thus, Mia takes over Susannah’s body in order to have her baby, leaving the fate of Eddie’s Susannah up in the air. And there is also the bookseller Tower who has fled to Maine to escape the gangsters of Eddie’s New York. For Roland says Tower holds a key to their reaching the Dark Tower. And, finally, King introduces a bit of metafiction here, as his ex-priest Callahan appears in a previous novel by King set in Maine, and the ex-priest keeps insisting that he himself is not a fictional character.
I would also note here that after he finished the seven volumes in the Dark Tower series, King wrote an eighth novel, which he said takes place between volumes four and five. I can only conclude that it is another stand-alone volume, like volumes four and five; and that while it may include the same characters, it is, like volumes four and five, not truly a part of Roland’s quest to reach the Dark Tower and save the world. Or is it to save the universe? Rather. I suspect that that eighth volume owes more to the American Western, much as do, which King himself acknowledges, volumes four and five. (June, 2016)
Song of Susannah (2004)
This volume gets us back on track, on our heroes’ quest to reach the Dark Tower. But the route is circuitous. After the battle with the Wolves, our team is determined leave the Calla world and pass through another door so they can reach the Tower’s world. But there are still problems. Susannah is in that world with Mia and Mia is about to have her evil baby. And when our remaining three heroes, plus the priest, with local help, rediscover the door, they are separated as they are swept thorough, but not separated as planned, because Roland and Eddie are together in 1977 and Jake and the ex-priest together in 1999.
So we now face three adventures. First we follow Susannah and Mia in New York in 1999, as the time to give birth approaches. Then we have Roland and Eddie in Maine in 1977, tracking down the bookseller Tower who owns the vacant lot with the mysterious rose. There, they will encounter an immediate ambush set by gangsters hired by the man who wants to buy that same lot. And later we will follow Jake and the ex-priest into 1999.
Meanwhile, King begins to explain through these characters the world he has created here. In effect, it is multiple worlds, all existing at the same time, each with minor differences. One of these worlds is the core world, and it alone apparently leads to the Dark Tower. Moreover, events in that world, such as a death, can never be reversed, nor, once there, can one go back into the past of that world. This gives both the reader and the characters the need to focus on the true reality. Because only there can the Dark Tower be reached, and the universe saved from extinction.
And finally, between pages 200 and 300 of a 400-page book, King outdoes himself. He writes himself as a character into his own book. And sends his characters Roland and Eddie to interview himself. They want answers from this apparent god who has created them and their world—or their worlds. Roland wants King to continue the story so he can reach the Dark Tower to save human existence, while Eddie wants to know how to save his beloved Susannah.
But the confounding element is that they confront King in 1977, when he has drafted the first volume of the Dark Tower series but not yet published it. Indeed, he has bogged down, and is not sure how to move the story ahead. And so he is dumfounded when he is confronted by the very characters he has created. But, of course, Roland and Eddie know he later became unstuck, and did move the story ahead. So both time frames exist for the reader at the same time. But is it too convenient that, through hypnotism, Roland inspires/motivates King to move ahead with the story? And King himself gives his visitors a clue on how to rescue Susannah?
This visit has to be the imaginative high point of these seven volumes.
But this volume is mainly about Susannah and her baby. And so we continue as Jake and Callahan vault into 1999 New York, and are intent on saving Susannah. And just as they enter the Dixie Pig, a club where the bad guys are gathered, King backtracks us to Susannah herself, as she and Mia duel internally for control while Mia is also heading to the Dixie Pig, where she expects to be rewarded for giving birth. King, meanwhile, is foreshadowing the death of a number of characters. Now, I won’t put this past him but I think this is primarily to build suspense. Because he again leaves us with a cliffhanger of an ending, much like his riddle ending to volume three earlier.
And then King comes up with a fascinating and frustrating coda. For he presents a diary that he, King, has supposedly written over the years—between 1977, when the first move toward publishing the Dark Tower series comes to him (which coincides with the visit of Roland and Eddie, please note)—and his accident on June 19, 1999, a date which, of course, reflects the numbers 19 and 99, which play a major role in this volume. Thus, King is both having fun and making a point, that of re-enforcing the link between his own life and the fictional world of this novel. For he suggests that the visit to him by Roland and Eddie is what laid the seeds for the initiation and then the continuation of this series.
One senses this series finally approaching its climax, but there are few clues to what that climax will be. One expects the world will be saved, but no idea how. And one fears that death will be a byproduct of that success. (June, 2016)
The Dark Tower (2004)
This is the longest novel of the series, as if King wants to wrap up this tale but realizes his heroes still have a complicated journey to take before Roland reaches the Dark Tower. It will also be a tale populated by death—specific deaths attributed to ka, or fate, but also manipulated in part by King, who after all is the God of this universe.
This volume begins with angry beings who bring typical King horror to the forefront, a horror that has never appealed to me. The first moment of horror involves Jake and the ex-priest attempting to rescue Susannah, as she and Mia prepare for the birth. The second involves the baby itself, which can turn itself into a spider at will. This is followed by a long section underground, where the four gunslingers are rejoined, seemed trapped there, and then escape. It is a long section that is well done, but it seems to be a complicated way to get our travelers united and on their way to the Dark Tower.
But first King sets up another long, complicated, side-rip. Which, of course, is also interesting. The Tower is being compromised (broken) back at Thunderclap by the spellbound Breakers, and those Breakers must be stopped by being freed from where they are confined—which is also where the twins once had their brains hollowed out. This long section is complicated, moreover, by shifts to the baby/spider’s viewpoint, as well as to that of enemy officials at Fedic who are defending that fortress. An inevitable battle follows, as well as a confusing reappearance of certain characters, confusing at least unless you have a good memory of the earlier volumes. This is also where death intervenes, although more as a byproduct than as an inherent result.
Then King returns to his metafiction concept. After freeing the Breakers who were fomenting the collapse of the Tower, and so the universe, his characters must now save King himself. For they have learned he will be killed in 1999 near his home in Maine, and therefore will be unable to save the universe from destruction at the conclusion of his Dark Tower saga. The concept here of the writer of this saga saving himself from a death he didn’t endure but almost did—this is a second highlight of the series, and King builds to that real-life accident dramatically. But because the concept of King as a character has already been introduced, the implications are not as powerful here, and do not reach the previous imaginative heights—perhaps because writer King, in fact, was not killed. But King is pulling out all stops now, and, as another death intervenes, it is as if King wishes to emphasize the cost of saving the universe. Or is it simply that popular fiction demands such costs?
Meanwhile, author King has introduced Mrs. Tassenbaum, one of his interesting portraits of a minor character. She drives Roland from his home in Maine to New York, where he visits the lot with the rose, the rose now being preserved inside a giant building, 2 Hammarskjöld Plaza. There, he meets characters from past books. He then goes to the Dixie Pig with his team to find a long underground tunnel that will take them back to Mid-World, the world of the Dark Tower, a journey complicated by the presence of another monster. Once free, they trek across barren landscape, hoping to confront baby-spider Mordred on the way and finally reach the Dark Tower.
That final journey is an interesting one, for King knows how to make it so, but it is not exceptional. Our group is challenged by the landscape. One character departs and another arrives. They are also tricked by a vampire in disguise. Finally, Roland finds an innovative method to combat the arch villain, the Crimson King, who is housed in the Tower.
But at that point, King’s imagination truly bursts forth. First, he gives us a conventional ending at the Tower. Which is inconclusive. Then he offers the sidebar of a happy ending. Finally, he addresses the reader, as he has done throughout the series, this time with a challenge. Read on, if you must, he dares the reader, but I am not sure you will like what you find. And, indeed, he comes up with a dilly of an ending, his own version, one might say, of A Handful of Dust. But its power is a fitting climax to our long trek through these seven volumes.
As for the details of Roland’s final climb of the Tower in King’s second ending, I found it highly evocative, as he encounters details from his long journey. As a summing up of both his life and the series, I found it quite moving. But I was also confused at the very end, for King writes that Roland’s awareness of an heirloom horn is meant to suggest that he may well find resolution and redemption. I did not sense this at all in my initial reading. Yes, the horn blows at the end of the conventional ending, and Roland is aware of it in the second ending, but I still do not grasp the significance King attributes to it. Presumably it requires one to recall its significance from the first volume, which I am unable to do without returning to that volume. Which, I think, is beyond what any author should require.
How do I sum up this series? It is a major effort by a popular writer to write something better than a popular story, but using popular fiction techniques. It is also an attempt to write a literary work of the imagination. Its references to western fiction, to the Kansas of Oz, to Alice in Wonderland, much less to multiple worlds, support this. Indeed, there are many references throughout the series to historical events and literary works, as if to underline King’s attempt here to write serious fiction. In fact, his inspiration, he says, was Robert Browning’s “Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came,” which certainly captures this volume’s confrontation with a deceitful man and then a long trek across a desert land to the Dark Tower—and where at the end, note, “the slug-horn to my lips I set, and blew.”
Whether this series will ever be recognized as literature is doubtful. There is too much complicated coincidence. But it is the closest we have to Harry Potter. Well, an adult version of Harry Potter, because of its mild sexual references. There is also too much fate here for a true comparison to The Fellowship of the Ring. That is, the characters are too destined for their fates rather than responsible for it themselves, and this is also too often foreshadowed by the author.
It is also interesting that King in his Note states that “I wasn’t exactly crazy about the ending, if you want to know the truth, but it’s the right ending The only ending, in fact. You have to remember that I don’t make these things up, not exactly; I only write down what I see.”
Is this a cop-out? A further blending of reality and fiction? Or is King admitting that he couldn’t come up with anything better? One critic has said that King has a problem with endings. But, of course, many authors also do. I’m sure the double ending appealed to him. And I give him credit for it. I only wish I understood the horn. Is that a third ending?
As for King inserting himself into his own book, he makes an interesting case in his Note. Which is that when he realized, consciously and unconsciously, that much of his fiction reverberates back to Roland’s adventures, he saw this series “as a kind of summation, a way of unifying as many of my previous stories as possible…as a way of showing how life influences art (and vice-versa).” This is as good a rationale as any, but I can easily imagine the smile on King’s face as he inserted himself into his tale.
I sense that King was trying to break new ground here, new fictional ground, new American fictional ground. With his quest theme. With his multiple worlds. With writing himself in as a character. With multiple characters within one character. With a black character who is never presented as such after her initial introduction—and with a handicap that is taken for granted. And, finally, with a mix of monsters, robots, and time travel amid natural settings, Western settings, and yet with also a clear Manhattan presence and a Maine presence.
To conclude on a positive note, one should not overlook the fact that love plays a prominent role in this series. Both romantic love and love among friends. First, among the four main characters, but also for the allies they encounter, some of whom sacrifice for them as well as for their own communities. Nor should the reader overlook the lead characters’ sound emotional responses to the events they face and to their interaction with each other in response to those events. Indeed, he even suggests moments of sympathy, if only briefly, for his monsters. Making them almost human, too. Throughout this series, King reveals his heart, whether dealing with heroes or villains, as well as his far-ranging imagination. He is an author we should treasure. His heart reveals itself in nearly every character, and his imagination finds the unusually interesting in the commonplace. (July, 2016)