The Dark Tower

Crimson velvet / Terciopelo carmesíI’ve just finished Stephen King’s Dark Tower series. The seven books took about 18 months, though not at a straight run, and it’s probably the longest I’ve ever had an unfinished story in my head. It’s curious how those neurons have had nothing to do for the past few days – every evening I keep expecting to continue the story, and have to remind myself it’s done. And then I spend a couple of moments marvelling that he actually pulled it off. Stephen King’s 30-year project somehow works as a coherent story, which is a hell of a thing.

The Dark Tower series is based on the Robert Browning poem “Childe Roland To The Dark Tower Came”, and follows the eponymous Roland in his quest for the Dark Tower – the universal linchpin of life, light and time. The world has moved on – the sun no longer consistently rises in the east, the landscape is littered with the remnants of long forgotten civilisations, their incomprehensible atomic technologies slowly degrading into rusty death, and the last hope, the Dark Tower, is tottering, tottering under the forces of darkness. And into the desert steps Roland, the last gunslinger – a man lacking imagination, friends, and any kind of sense of humour, but stubborn as shit and battle-hardened after hundreds of years in pursuit of his one, simple goal: reaching the Tower, and climbing to the room at the top. The series defies standard categorisation, and the best description I’ve heard came from @backoffman, who called it a scifi fantasy western. There are more than a few touches of horror, too, and it all swirls into something quite different from anything I’ve read before. And I enjoyed it greatly.

I can’t recommend it to everyone. Stephen King’s writing style is to make up the story as he goes along – he says as such in the introductions – which means his plots often turn upon dreams, intuition and psychic powers, and so the Dark Tower series, like many of his books, are straight stories rather than mysteries for the reader to solve. Some people don’t like that, and I can sympathise. That said, he only weaves tales in which dreams, intuition and psychic powers are allowable plot devices, so it kinda works itself out. I am one of those people who generally rolls his eyes when magic makes a book unpredictable, but I’ve read enough King to know awesomeness will follow, and I’m happy to set aside the occasional happy coincidence. It’s worth it. The story is excellent, but here, as ever, his major strength is his characterisation.  He somehow manages to take flawed, not-always-likeable people and slowly, darkly, have them befriend me – and then one of them will die horribly and it’s bloody awful. I hate him.

Stephen King calls the series as the overarching story of his career, to the extent that many of his non-Dark-Tower books actually link in in some way – some overtly, some just subtly, and some I undoubtedly didn’t pick up on – so it’s a feast of nostalgia for King fans. There’s a moment towards…well, I won’t say where…but I expect many people have reached it, realised what’s about to be revealed, and said something along the lines of “Not that bastard again.” With properly vitriolic emphasis on bastard. The series took three decades to write, and finishing was it King’s first duty after recovering from a near fatal car accident in 1999 – he didn’t want the series to be his Edwin Drood, he says, so he got the final three books written. Such was his relief at finishing that for a while he spoke of retiring, believing his biggest, most important tale was done. Happily he seems to have gotten over that.

I think the final three Dark Tower books are a tour de force, but reaching them obviously requires getting through the first. Which, unfortunately, I didn’t find easy. It drops you in at the deep end, and you have to spend 240 pages in a baffling world with an obsessed cowboy who doesn’t actually seem very nice. But if you force your way through – and thanks to @grimsb and @backoffman for keeping me going at this point – the second is far more readable, and everything’s fine from then on. But that is a barrier, and I suspect it’s why the series isn’t as widely read as the rest of his catalogue. But but but: read The Gunslinger again at the end of the series and it’s a completely different, much more enjoyable book – knowing the characters as you do, you see their actions in a completely different light. Quite an odd experience.

I deliberately haven’t said much about the plot, as I think it’s best to go in blind. I’d say don’t even read the blurbs – they’re always a bit spoilerful. If the above tempts you, try to get through the first even if you’re not enjoying it, then see what you think of the second. I’m happy to lend them out.