I was 19 when first I read Stephen King’s The Gunslinger, the first book in his (then incomplete) magnum opus, The Dark Tower. It may have been my first King novel; I’m not sure at this point looking back if I read The Stand before or after ripping through all the Tower books that were out at the time, but I want to say Mid-World was where I entered King’s universe and Captain Trips came later. What I do remember clearly is that from the very first line,
which I would call one of the most perfect opening lines in fiction, I was hooked. And seeing as I’ve just made my second trip all the way from that apotheosis of all deserts to Can’-Ka No Rey (my first complete re-read since the final volume was published in 2004), this seems a good time to have a chat about the series.
(Spoilers, gunslinger… but not for you.)
So as I was saying, I’d graduated high school in (the ka-tet of) 1999 and was midway through my first year of college, having recently turned 19, when I first met Roland Deschain. And now that I think about it, I believe I first met him in the novella The Little Sisters of Eluria, part of the “Legends” collection that I had mostly picked up for the Robert Jordan and Tad Williams stories. (Now that I look that anthology up, I’m pretty sure it’s what got me to also read Orson Scott Card’s The Tales of Alvin Maker, George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire… and Terry Goodkind’s Sword of Truth, which… well, they can’t all be winners.) Looking back I’m struck by that odd synchronicity of 19 and 99, though of course it didn’t stick out at the time. The whole 19 and 99 meme doesn’t enter the series until Wolves of the Calla, published in 2003, and when I first visited Mid-World the series was stalled at four books: The Gunslinger, The Drawing of the Three, The Waste Lands, and Wizard and Glass, along with the aforementioned novella that served as a prequel to the first book. It would take a near-death experience for King to finish the series, and if memory serves I read the existing books two or three times before he got around to writing any more. But here I’m getting ahead of things.
Regardless, The Gunslinger was my first real good look at Mid-World–the original edition, mind you, with the younger Jake (aged up a couple years in the later version), Roland flat out murdering Allie (as opposed to her begging him for death after she goes mad), Walter and Marten being written as if they were two different people (when later books decided they were both assumed identities of Randall Flagg), Cort still possibly alive somewhere (instead of dying of poison before the fall of Gilead), and all kinds of other issues that conflicted with the later books in the series. This latest re-read was actually my first time reading the revised edition… and this is one of those occasions where I’m glad the revisions were made. That kind of thing can go either way, and it’s weird what will or won’t bug me when it comes to retcons. I’m the type who likes having “Episode IV: A NEW HOPE” at the beginning of the opening crawl, but goddammit, Han didn’t just shoot first, he was was the only one who shot at all, and that’s fucking canon far as I’m concerned. Likewise, I was too young to have ever read the original version of The Hobbit, and as such Tolkien’s revision of “Riddles in the Dark” to account for plot developments in Lord of the Rings doesn’t bug me a bit. (Hell, how many people nowadays even know the original version of The Hobbit offered a different account of Bilbo finding the Ring of Power?) Retcons can be a force for good, and here I feel they’re on the story’s side; the revised edition of The Gunslinger makes Roland a better and more consistent character, makes this first look at Mid-World feel more in tune with what we see later in more fully-realized stories.
Whatever version of The Gunslinger you read, this is a grim story. When we meet Roland in the desert it’s been far too long since he knew love or even companionship. Roland, descendant of Arthur Eld and last surviving gunslinger of the fallen kingdom of Gilead, marches through the desert, killing, fucking, whatever, with a single-minded focus on his quest, his humanity stripped away. This is a man in need of not just redemption, but softening; the endless years of his quest have sanded away his soft edges, left him not just hard but brittle. Along the way he meets a boy named Jake, who says he died in our world before appearing in Roland’s; in the end, Roland is forced to choose between saving Jake from a deadly fall or finally catching the man in black he’s been pursuing all these years. When he chooses to let Jake drop off a railway to his death so he can pursue the man in black–so he can pursue the Dark Tower–he knows he’s damning himself, but his focus is so narrow that it’s not much of a choice at all in the end. It’s an odd first story because we’re seeing our protagonist at his worst, and there’s not much to argue for his redemption in this first set of pages; we see a character in need of development, but don’t yet get to see that development happen. At the end we only get to see his guilt over what he is, and perhaps the promise of change to come. Looking back from the end of the series, we can see that this is a man who has the determination to find the Dark Tower, but he’s nowhere near worthy. It’s this becoming worthy that may be Roland’s true quest, and so long as he’s alone and single-minded in his journey he’ll never get there, for it’s his willingness to throw away everyone and everything that should matter to him in pursuit of the Tower (such as letting Jake fall, or leaving behind the Horn of Eld after the battle at Jericho Hill) that proves his unworthiness. So enter the Ka-tet of Nineteen and Ninety-Nine.
The next two books in the series are arguably its high point. I’d probably point to The Drawing of the Three as my favorite book in the series, though I know popular opinion tends to settle on The Waste Lands. In a lot of ways they’re just two halves of the same story, the gist of which is, “Roland finds new companions and gradually learns to love again, slowly reawakening his better self that he had thought long-dead.” The climax of the first book features a tarot reading by the man in black (Walter o’ Dim, Marten Broadclock, Randall Flagg, whatever you want to call him) where Roland learns of three people he’ll soon meet: the Prisoner, the Lady of Shadows, and the Pusher. As book two opens, Roland lies exhausted on a beach at the edge of Mid-World… and a “lobstrosity” bites off his index and middle fingers on his right hand while he sleeps, robbing him of the use of his dominant hand and poisoning him. As Roland walks up the beach, slowly succumbing to the infection in his blood, he encounters a series of doors that lead to New York, each at different periods in time. And by passing through each door he finds himself in the mind of a different person–two new allies, and one complete asshole who provides a link to the next book.
Behind the first door is Eddie Dean, the Prisoner, who might be my favorite character in the story. Eddie is a heroin addict living in the late 80’s; when Roland enters his mind he’s flying home as a drug mule, smuggling coke to a New York mafioso so Eddie and his brother Henry can feed their habits. The deal goes sour, Henry dies, Roland helps Eddie kill some druglords, then Eddie winds up in Mid-World with Roland, forced to go cold turkey (cold lobstrosity?) in a world where heroin doesn’t exist. Oh, and Roland learns the magic of “astin” (aspirin), which helps bring down his fever. Down the beach Roland and Eddie find another door, behind which is Odetta Holmes, the Lady of Shadows. A civil rights activist from the 60’s, Odetta has a sadistic, racist alternate personality named Detta Walker, who after coming to Mid-World decides to murder the honky mahfahs whom she blames for drawing her there. Oh yeah, other important detail: Odetta/Detta’s legs are severed below the knees so she has to get around in a wheelchair.
The third door places Roland in the mind of Jack Mort, the Pusher, a sociopath living in the 70’s with a habit of either dropping things on people from above (such as the brick that landed on young Odetta’s head and put her in the coma that birthed Detta Walker) or pushing them into the path of danger. In the latter capacity, Jack is responsible for pushing Odetta/Detta into the path of the subway train that severs her legs and for pushing Jake into traffic, which results in his death and therefore his appearance in Mid-World, after which he meets Roland in the previous book. Roland uses his control of Jack to first bring more medicine into Mid-World, enough to finally cure his infection, then to force Jack into suicide before he can murder Jake in the first place. Meanwhile on the Mid-World side, Detta tries to murder Eddie, but Roland forces Odetta and Detta to acknowledge each other, resulting in a merging of their personalities into a third woman, Susannah.
When The Waste Lands opens, several months have passed. Eddie and Susannah have fallen in love and consider themselves husband and wife, and a bevy of aspirin and antibiotics brought over from New York has cured Roland’s infection, though his right hand will forevermore be useless for shooting. But as fate–or “ka,” the concept introduced in this volume and expounded upon for the rest of the series–would have it, Eddie and Susannah both show innate ability as gunslingers, and Roland has been training them as such as they’ve traveled from the beach through a massive forest eastward (or what would be east, if the world wasn’t “moving on” and compass directions weren’t changing day by day). Unfortunately, the death of Jack Mort has created a paradox that is tearing Roland’s mind apart in Mid-World–there was a boy, there wasn’t a boy–and Jake’s mind apart in New York–I was hit by a car and died, I didn’t die and he never let me fall. In his own world, Jake thinks he’s losing his mind; he blanks out writing a bizarre essay for school alluding to Mid-World (past and future) and finds himself drawn to a book store owned by Calvin Tower, where he purchases a book called “Charlie the Choo-Choo” and a book of riddles. He also finds a vacant lot where grows a solitary rose, and he realizes this rose is somehow the keystone of all existence. Both Roland and Jake are in danger of going mad if the paradox isn’t soon resolved.
This paradox comes to a head in a “speaking ring,” a place where the boundaries between worlds are thin, guarded by a demon. Roland encountered a similar place in the first book, where he received prophecy from a succubus in exchange for a quick fuck. This time it’s Susannah who has to offer her body to a male demon, who has his way with her (somewhat, though Detta turns the tables on him) while Eddie puts the finishing touches on a magic key he’s been carving. The key opens a door between Mid-World and the New York of the 70’s. In that New York, Jake passes through a house that turns out to be a living, malevolent being, within which is the other side of that door–and thanks to Eddie’s key, the door opens into Mid-World. So Roland and Jake are reunited, the paradox is mended, and Roland knows in his heart that no matter what he’ll never let anything, even his quest for the Tower, cause him to sacrifice the boy again, for he loves Jake like his own son (and in time, comes to call him such). …Or so he hopes, at least.
Not much later, the foursome’s camp is visited by a billy-bumbler, a creature somewhere between a dog and a racoon, intelligent enough to mimic human speech, though this particular specimen soon shows a greater depth of intelligence and seems to speak not just via mimicry but from his own rough intelligence. They call the bumbler Oy, and he becomes the fifth member of their ka-tet and a special friend of Jake (“Ake!”). And so we finally have our central protagonists all gathered together, midway through book three. The rest of the volume entails Jake’s early lessons as a gunslinger and the party’s journey to the fallen city of Lud, a post-apocalyptic mirror of New York. There Jake is separated from the party and made a prisoner of a warlord called the Tick Tock Man. Roland and Oy go to rescue him while Eddie and Susannah explore the city and discover a sentient train that runs through the Waste Lands toward the Dark Tower along the path of the Beam, a sort of energy matrix that supports the Tower and so marks a straight line toward it, visible via the effect it has on the clouds in the sky. The ka-tet is reunited and boards the train, which is possessed by a mad AI called Blaine. Blaine intends to commit a murder-suicide by derailing itself while hauling Roland and his friends, but there’s a catch: if the ka-tet can pose a riddle Blaine can’t answer before he reaches the last stop, he’ll let them off alive. As the riddle contest begins, book three comes to an end.
When you get down to it, The Dark Tower as a whole is one uber-book just split into seven (or eight, if you count The Wind Through the Keyhole, but more on that later) parts. I’m pretty sure that’s how Stephen King views it. And like I said, as divisions go, I’d probably call book two my favorite individual bit of the story. But more than any others in the series, I’d consider books two and three one story split across two volumes. In a sense, “the drawing of the three” isn’t complete until Jake is back in Mid-World, and Roland’s evolution as a character–his emotional reawakening, his evolution from “I’ll kill whomever I have to to reach the Tower and fuck the consequences” to feeling, whole, living protagonist–takes center stage across these two books. It’s his kinship with Eddie, Susannah, Jake and even Oy that transforms Roland from an archetype back into a human being, and you can see it happening gradually in these pages. There’s a point in the The Waste Lands where the ka-tet comes to a village and we get to see Roland acting as a gunslinger for the first time–not simply a killing machine as in Tull back in the first book, but as a kind of knight, a symbol of Gilead-that-was, bringing hope to the people who live there. We get a sense that this is who Roland used to be, what he was born to do before the world moved on and his quest for the Tower became all-consuming. This is the promise of the first book fulfilled, the character development that we knew needed to happen, happening.
This is also the point where Mid-World becomes a vibrant, living otherworld on the level of Middle Earth or Westeros. The first book gave us a look at Roland’s past in the fallen kingdom of Gilead, but these two books introduce and reinforce several concepts that will be central to the rest of the series. First is the interconnectedness of Mid-World and our world, certainly hinted at in the first book, but driven home by books two and three through the doors between worlds, Lud’s identity as a future New York, and the way books such as Jake’s copy of “Charlie the Choo-choo” seem to have been written by authors somehow channeling knowledge of events in Mid-World, however imperfectly. We’re also introduced to the rose in the vacant lot, which will be a major plot point in later volumes, and to Calvin Tower and his friend Aaron Deepneau at the used book store, who will also appear again later. But perhaps most importantly, we’re introduced to the concept of the Beams that hold up the Dark Tower–for following the path of the Bear-Turtle Beam will be a major concept for the rest of the series–and to “ka,” the seemingly all-powerful, all-guiding force that shapes our protagonists’ lives. We are told that our heroes are “ka-tet,” a group brought together by ka to pursue the same destiny, and as such they share (among other things) “khef,” a kind of telepathic link that grows over time. We also get a faint hint, more obvious in retrospect, that Susannah didn’t escape her tryst in the speaking ring unscathed, that she’s in the early stages of an unearthly pregnancy. These are all themes that later books will build on. Beyond all that, this is King at his strongest–The Drawing of the Three and The Waste Lands are easily two of his best books. His language and plotting is tight, there’s humor, drama and tension in good supply, and the characters and the worlds they inhabit feel real in a way you don’t get often in epic fiction. The series is worth recommending as a whole if for no other reason than to read these two volumes.
That said, my understanding is there was plenty bitching when book three ended the way it did, especially with a six year wait for book four. Wizard and Glass picks up at the beginning of the riddle contest, with Roland trying (and failing) to stump Blaine. But as Jake’s book foretold, “Don’t ask him silly questions, he won’t play silly games,” and Eddie fries Blaine’s AI with playground humor; dead baby jokes save the day, and after Blaine has a meltdown the party safely disembarks… in Topeka, Kansas. Except this isn’t our Topeka, but rather a version of Topeka seen in King’s novel The Stand, where the superflu has ravaged America and the survivors are drawn to either Mother Abigail or the Walking Dude (another of Randall Flagg’s aliases). As the ka-tet makes their way across this deserted landscape they encounter a “thinny,” a place where the world is breaking apart, which reminds Roland of a story from his youth. Most of the rest of book four is a flashback to the time just after Roland earned his guns, before Gilead fell and the world moved on.
As the first book told us, Roland discovered his mother Gabrielle was having an affair with the sorcerer Marten (Flagg) and so went to his trial of manhood early so he could become a gunslinger and drive the creep off. It was Marten’s intention that Roland fail this trial and be exiled, but his plan backfired; Roland succeeded, becoming the youngest gunslinger in Gilead’s history at 15. But Roland’s father Stephen–who knew all about his wife’s affair, it turns out–sent Roland and his friends Cuthbert and Alain away to protect them, biding his time before confronting Marten due to the complex politics surrounding the civil war going on at the time. So Roland, Cuthbert and Alain, teenagers all, wind up on a covert mission in the barony of Mejis, where Roland falls in love with a local girl named Susan Delgado. Though the boys were sent away to keep them safe apart from the war, it turns out they’ve landed in the thick of conspiracy. Agents of John Farson, the “Good Man” leading the rebellion against Gilead, are taking horses, weapons and fuel from Mejis, and a local witch named Rhea is keeping a pink orb for him, one of the Wizard’s Rainbow. With the aid of Susan and a somewhat retarded young man named Sheemie, the boys put an end to this plot, seizing the glass orb from Rhea and using a thinny in a canyon to kill Farson’s men, but at great personal cost to Roland–while they take their victory as gunslingers, the townspeople burn Susan alive at the stake as part of their autumn ritual, charyou tree: life for the crops, death for you. Afterward the boys escape back to Gilead.
Once Roland has finished his tale the ka-tet continues on their way and come to what Jake, Eddie and Susannah all recognize as the Emerald City of Oz. Within the wizard’s palace, much like in the movie, they encounter Randall Flagg, at last revealed as the man in black and all his other identities. Roland attempts to kill him but his gun misfires, and Flagg leaves behind the same Wizard’s Glass recovered ages ago in Mejis, wherein the rest of Roland’s tale is told. After returning to Gilead, Roland was deceived into murdering his own mother, momentarily believing she was the witch Rhea. The rest of the ka-tet watches this happen through the power of the glass. Afterward they’re transported miles along the Beam outside the Emerald City, where Randall Flagg has left them a note saying he’s ahead in the land of Thunderclap and warning them to turn aside from their quest for the Tower. The ka-tet continues on, closer than ever and undaunted.
The first time I read through what was published at the time, this was my favorite book in the series. Blame it on being 19, I suppose. On re-reads, Wizard and Glass feels like it drags on after a while. For a good part of the narrative Roland is spending most of his time and attention on Susan, she of the blonde hair and hot ass, and as an older reader I begin to side with Cuthbert and Alain in being frustrated with him. Yet I suppose that goes to show King nailed how stupid young love can make us. And the scene where Susan is tied to the cart, being hauled to the stake where she’s to be burned, still puts that pit in my stomach. The helplessness, the inevitability, makes me feel ill. On the whole, I like that this book gives us another look at Mid-World before it moved on, but part of me feels like the narrative drags a bit here. By the time Roland’s telling ends I’m more than ready to get back to the Path of the Beam.
On the other hand, this is the book that cements The Dark Tower as the center of Stephen King’s multiverse. The moment the ka-tet steps into the world of The Stand, you know things are never going to be the same. This was incredibly exciting at the time, and I remember reading books like The Stand and Insomnia searching for clues on what would happen next in the series. There was a hell of a wait after this, of course. This was the last book published when I came to the series, and book five wouldn’t come out for six years. And the series very nearly ended here, unfinished.
So for anyone who doesn’t know, on June 19, 1999, Stephen King was out on a walk when he was run over, and he nearly died. This is important because 1) like I said, it almost meant the end of The Dark Tower, which would have made it another of those infamous unfinished stories like The Canterbury Tales, as King himself mentions in an editorial page in book five, and 2) it had an obviously profound effect on the story going forward. Once King recovered, he made it a point to finish The Dark Tower before anything else could happen to him… but his accident, and the idea that he wouldn’t finish the tale and what a tragedy that would be from his perspective (and certainly the POV of his loyal readers), became a part of the tale itself. And you can definitely draw a line in the series, pre-accident books and post-accident, because there’s a noticeable shift in style and focus between books four and five. I have to say it doesn’t bug me as much as it did when books 5-7 were new–going back and reading them all back to back, the series holds together remarkably well–but the shift is still noticeable, and I suspect the concluding volumes would have been fairly different had King never been hit by that truck. But ’tis what it is–or as Roland might say, “Ka.” The books were already encroaching on King’s other writings, and the theme of authors from our world channeling events in Mid-World existed as far back as the first book, which King based on the Robert Browning poem “Childe Roland To the Dark Tower Came,” and certainly had its presence in the books Jake buys in The Waste Lands. So perhaps this series getting all meta on us, involving not just King’s writings but King himself, is just kind of right, in the end. Certainly the antagonists of the next book set that theme up well enough.
But first a quick word on The Wind Through the Keyhole, a.k.a. book 4.5. King published this book in 2012, eight years after the last book in the cycle was published, but it takes place between Wizard and Glass and Wolves of the Calla. To be brief, while the ka-tet is traveling from Oz toward the Calla, they cross a river and realize that a “starkblast” (a violent storm) is coming. While the group takes shelter from the storm, Roland tells his companions another story from his youth, recounting the time he and his friend Jamie went to Debaria to kill a shapeshifter. There’s a story-within-a-story here, as young Roland tells a boy from Debaria named Bill the legend of a another boy named Tim, who goes on his own quest, meets the wizard Maerlyn, and saves his mother from Tim’s abusive stepfather. At the end of the primary story, Roland kills the shapeshifter and, upon taking the orphaned Bill to a women’s retreat, receives a letter from his deceased mother Gabrielle absolving him of blame for her mother (which Gabrielle apparently had foreseen). Once Roland finishes his story and the storm has subsided, the ka-tet continues on the Path of the Beam.
This one was a big deal when it happened–holy crap, a new Dark Tower book, and eights years after the supposedly final one was published! But frankly, on reading it… meh. The story-within-a-story comprises the bulk of the book, so it’s not like we’re getting much more Roland and crew in this volume, and what we do get isn’t all that interesting, to be honest. I suppose it’s nice to get a glance at Jaime, mentioned as part of Roland’s original ka-tet who was there at the Battle of Jericho Hill but absent in Wizard and Glass where we got to see Cuthbert and Alain in action… but Jaime isn’t all that interesting as a character when we do get to see him, and there’s not a whole lot going on in this story. It’s entirely skippable. Oh well, on to the main books again.
Wolves of the Calla picks up a bit after book four (and 4.5), with the ka-tet set upon by the residents of Calla Bryn Sturgis, who are desperate for the gunslingers’ aid. Every 25 years or so a group called the Wolves ride out of Thunderclap in End-World (just across the river) and descend on the villages of the Calla, kidnapping one child from every (exceptionally common) set of twin children between preschool age and puberty. The children are put through some process that makes them “roont,” turning them into hollowed out shells with giant bodies and soft minds who eventually die terrible, early deaths. The ka-tet agrees to stop in the Calla for the month and help the villagers fight off the Wolves, though they have their own concerns to deal with. For one, Roland has become aware of Susannah’s pregnancy, and she’s developed a new personality, Mia, who sneaks off regularly to feed her growing “chap” a diet of raw meat. For another, the ka-tet is sent “todash” to New York, and realizes they need to gain possession of the vacant lot where the rose grows in the “keystone world” version of New York, for the rose is that world’s version of the Dark Tower. In New York, the Sombra Corporation/North Central Positronics, a front for the mysterious Crimson King who seeks to bring down the Tower, is attempting to strong-arm bookseller Calvin Tower, who inherited the lot from his ancestors, into selling; should they destroy the rose in New York, the Tower will fall in Roland’s world. As book five begins, the links between the worlds become clearer and their danger more obvious.
What’s more, the Calla is home to
Father Pere Callahan, a former priest who once lived in a vampire-infested New England town called ‘Salem’s Lot, as told in the Stephen King novel of the same name. He eventually wound up in Mid-World and in the possession of Black Thirteen, the most nefarious of the Wizard’s Rainbow. The others recognize Callahan is part of their ka-tet, and he tells them his tale of wandering between various alternate versions of America, killing vampires and running from “low men” (hybrid not-quite-human creatures that also appear in King’s Hearts in Atlantis). The ka-tet is also shown a door in a nearby cave that leads back to Earth, and through it they begin to arrange a purchase of the vacant lot so the rose will be safe. Eventually the Wolves arrive–it turns out they’re robotic Doctor Doom clones, wielding lightsabers and explosive sneetches from Harry Potter–and the gunslingers fight them off with help from some of the Calla’s more badass womenfolk. But after the victory the mother personality, Mia, takes over Susannah’s body and flees with Black Thirteen through the door back to New York, ready to bear her child.
Of the last three books in the series (which read like one big story split into three chunks), this one is probably my favorite. Wolves of the Calla borrows plenty from old westerns, with the gunslingers mounting a desperate defense against overwhelming odds, and a lot of the language and imagery is that of old Clint Eastwood and John Wayne movies. In a series of fantasy/sci-fi/western/horror novels, this is certainly the most “western” of the bunch. And yet it’s also where we start seeing a proliferation of robots, where we start hearing more about the Crimson King (the Sauron of the series), and where things get decidedly meta. Not only does a character from ‘Salem’s Lot become a major figure in the plot going forward, it’s also in this volume that the heroes learn Callahan is a character in said book on the keystone Earth, written by one Stephen King, and from here it’s a long drop down the rabbit hole. But before we get too deep into that discussion…
The next book, Song of Susannah, picks up hours later, with Roland, Eddie, Jake, Oy and Callahan still stuck on the Mid-World side of the door while Susannah/Mia wanders 1999 New York, nearing the time of her labor. As Susannah and Mia chat we learn a great deal about what’s going on in Mid-World and the Crimson King’s motivations and endgame. Short version: long ago the world was shapeless and ancient creatures lived in “the Prim.” So long as the Dark Tower exists, the Prim is sealed away by our mortal world(s). The Crimson King is descended from both Arthur Eld and a creature of the Prim; his hope is to destroy the Tower, returning the Prim to prominence so he can rule over it. To that end, his servants have been kidnapping “Breakers,” power psychics and telepaths, whose powers directed properly will chip away at the Beams. The twins of the Callas were being kidnapped so special fluids in their brains–something that gives twins their supernatural psychic link–could be extracted and fed to the Breakers in Thunderclap, thereby enhancing their power and speeding up the process. Even without the twins, at this point the surviving pair of Beams is close to snapping, and when they go so too will the Tower.
Mia’s “chap” is an insurance policy. Again, short version: when Roland fucked the succubus in book one it someone saved his semen; then when the demon fucked Susannah in book three, that semen was passed on to her. But the Crimson King’s seed was also mixed in there, so the child Susannah/Mia now bears is the son of both Roland and the Crimson King, and prophecy says he’ll be the death of the gunslinger. Mia herself is a creature of the Prim given flesh by Randall Flagg so she can bear the child, with her body in a place called Fedic, but they’re magically connected so the pregnancy would work out. After hearing this infodump, Susannah does all she can to slow Mia down, but in the end Mia has control of their shared body and arrives at a place called the Dixie Pig, full of low men, vampires and “taheen,” a beast-faced humanoid species in service to the Crimson King. Through the Dixie Pig is a door to the town of Fedic in Thunderclap, in End-World.
Meanwhile, the rest of the ka-tet crosses through the door to Earth on two missions. Roland and Eddie arrive in Maine, 1977, tracking Calvin Tower and Aaron Deepneau. They learn that “walk-ins,” temporary visitors from Mid-World, have become common in this area. After some difficulty they persuade Calvin Tower to sell them the vacant lot, then on a hunch they travel to meet Stephen King, the author who wrote about Callahan. He acknowledges having written a draft of The Gunslinger, though it’s not yet published, and through hypnosis Roland ascertains that King is somehow channeling their story for the Tower. Eddie and Roland come to believe King has to write their story or their quest will fail. Roland leaves King with a hypnotic suggestion to forget their visit, then he and Eddie continue on their quest. Concurrently, Jake, Oy and Callahan arrive in New York in 1999 on Susannah-Mia’s trail. They discover Black Thirteen in her hotel room and hide it in a locker below the World Trade Center (where it is presumably destroyed on September 11, 2001). Book six ends with the trio about to enter the Dixie Pig, expecting they’re going to their deaths.
For the series as a whole, this was the volume my opinion improved the most on during this re-read. When Song of Susannah was first published I was rather perturbed. It’s fairly short for starters, coming in a little over 400 pages, and a great chunk of the book is Susannah and Mia talking. Very little time passes, and in a sense it feels like a series of side-quests instead of forward plot motion. Except when you consider the topic of conversation, especially once you know where the story is going, this is one of the more crucial books in the series–this is the volume that spells out what the hell’s going on, what the villains are up to, and why it’s so important Roland finishes his quest. Crazy as it is, we always knew Roland was headed to the Dark Tower, but until book six we didn’t have a clear idea as to why, just some vague notion that reality was in trouble if he didn’t get there.
All that said, I still think the book ends too early. King could have included the first hundred or two pages of the final volume in book six and that way 1) book six wouldn’t feel like it ends so abruptly without a climax and 2) book seven wouldn’t feel like it has to wrap up everything that was going on in book six before it can get to the business of its own main plot a couple hundred pages in. They were published in the same year so it wasn’t that long of a wait–nothing like the six-year pause in the riddle game between The Waste Lands and Wizard and Glass–but it’s still one of those things that make you go hmm when you’re reading the books.
The one other thing I love in this book? The turtle. It is another of my favorite King books, and though of course the guardian turtle Maturin had been referenced in previous Dark Tower books (remember, they’re traveling the Bear-Turtle Beam, for starters, and there are other nods, like graffiti rhymes in the vacant lot, scattered through the books), this is definitely the book where that shelled cosmic guardian’s influence is felt for all it’s worth. A scrimshaw turtle with the power to fascinate onlookers plays a pivotal role in several scenes, with Susannah-Mia using it to manipulate the people of New York, often bringing them to religious tears. Jake and Callahan discover this same turtle just before entering the Dixie Pig, and it gives them the edge in the coming battle.
Which leads us to book seven, also titled The Dark Tower. This is really more like three sub-stories contained in one volume, and I’m going to address them separately. The first chunk, which I think just as properly could have been included in book six, begins with Jake, Callahan and Oy’s assault on the Dixie Pig; Callahan dies, ultimately killing himself rather than allowing the vampires to take him alive, but his sacrifice allows Jake and Oy to escape and find the door to Fedic so they can pursue Susannah. Roland and Eddie finish up their business in Maine, ensuring the founding of the Tet Corporation, which will operate as protectors of the rose and build their headquarters on the vacant lot (their headquarters is visible in the New York of 1999, where it appears as a black skyscraper). And Mia gives birth to her chap, Mordred Deschain, who quickly morphs into a human-spider hybrid and sucks her dry. In the chaos, Susannah steals a gun and kills her kidnappers; she also shoots off one of Mordred’s eight legs, permanently maiming him, but he escapes. Soon Jake, Oy, Roland and Eddie all pass through the door to Fedic, and the ka-tet is reunited in End-World. Randall Flagg comes to Fedic, intending to use Mordred to open the path to the Dark Tower and claim it as his own, but Mordred eats him instead. Welp, so it goes, man in black. Don’t see ya coming back from that one.
So… like I said, any reason that couldn’t have been included in book six? If they do these things as movies (Hollywood seems to go back and forth on that matter), I’d certainly suggest they tack that bit on as an ending to this chunk of the story.
The big thing I’d like to address from this chunk is Mordred. His name is a reference to Mordred from the Arthurian legends, of course; one version has Mordred as King Arthur’s illegitimate son. In the legend Arthur kills Mordred, but Mordred gives Arthur a wound that eventually leads to his death anyway. The Dark Tower draws on the Arthurian legend plenty elsewhere–Roland is descended from Arthur Eld, high king of All-World, and his guns are said to be reforged from the steel of the sword Excalibur. To get meta (which the story certainly invites by this point), we could assume the legend of Arthur in our world is a fractured remembering of the history of Roland’s, and Mordred as we know him is a reflection of the prophecy they have about him over there–namely, that he’ll kill Roland and go on to claim the Dark Tower, then rule the reborn Prim as the Crimson King’s heir.
However… after all that build-up, Mordred doesn’t do a whole hell of a lot in the story. After killing Mia, he mostly follows Roland and his ka-tet around for the rest of the book, staying a distance away, eating stragglers who wander close or baddies that our heroes pass on by without killing. He spies on Roland, nursing his hatred, and spends a lot of time feeling alone, cold and hungry. It’s a pitiful existence, but outside of killing off Randall Flagg you could remove him from the story and it wouldn’t make that much of a difference (well, outside Oy possibly surviving). This is one of those subplots where I have to wonder what King had in mind before his car accident, whether or not he would have written it differently if he’d spaced the books out more instead of doing the last three all in one go.
So now we come to the meat of book seven, beginning with the second chunk of the tale. The ka-tet doubles back from Fedic into Thunderclap to Devar-Toi, where the imprisoned (but fairly pampered) Breakers are, um, breaking the Beams. Here they meet Ted Brautigan, the telepath who was running loose back on Earth in Hearts in Atlantis before the low men caught him again and returned him to Thunderclap, and Roland is reunited with his old friend Sheemie from Mejis, who turns out to be a powerful Breaker and teleporter in his own right. Working with their allies on the inside, the ka-tet massacres the humans, low men and taheen running Devar-Toi… but just when they think they’ve won clean, Eddie takes a fatal shot through the head, and he dies soon after. With this the ka-tet is broken, and the shit begins to roll downhill for the rest of the book. Having learned that Stephen King will die on June 19, 1999, Roland, Jake and Oy return to Earth one last time while Susannah prepares to bury her husband. They succeed in saving King’s life, but at the cost of Jake’s–the boy is crushed by the truck that was supposed to have killed the author. Again Roland hypnotizes King so he’ll forget the encounter, making him swear to complete the books (he’s stalled after book four, of course), and soon after Roland visits the headquarters of the Tet Corporation in New York of 1999. With the Breakers defeated, the rose and author safe, his quest is technically over–ka has been met, the Beams will regenerate, the Tower will stand. But this isn’t enough for Roland; saving the Beams, the rose and author were always just tasks to be completed along his way. His real quest has always been to reach the Tower for his own purposes. Roland and Oy return to End-World and reunite with Susannah, who’s heartbroken to learn she’s lost Jake as well. But the three resume their journey together.
I got a good lump in my throat the first time I read that bit where Eddie dies, and I dreaded it on this re-read. You can feel the energy of the whole story change the moment it happens; there’s this mental “Oh fuuuuuuucccckkk…” in your head. Eddie is the heart of the ka-tet, not just because he’s the one who cracks jokes and gives us that modern American sarcastic point of view on what’s going on, but because he’s the first one to really crack Roland’s shell–even moreso than Jake, whom Roland purposefully distances himself from in the first book before dropping him. When Eddie dies it changes Roland and Susannah both; neither character is the same afterward. Some of Roland’s old habits from book one creep back into his character, and you can tell he’s reflexively toughening up because of the loss he feels. And Susannah–hell, she just lost the love of her life, and her attitude toward Roland cools a great deal in the aftermath. We don’t get to see too much of Jake’s grief, seeing as he dies shortly after Eddie goes, but we do get a window into how devastating that death is for Roland… and Oy. Gods, Oy. After Jake dies, Oy becomes quiet and morose, still loyal to Roland but no longer the happy-go-lucky group mascot he’s been since he first appeared. Yeah, you want a series of books that punches you in the gut? Read The Dark Tower. Oddly, yes, that’s still a recommendation.
Also, I’m not saying a whole lot about King’s self-insertion here… Other than that he really hits on his own alcoholism in his first appearance, and the sequence he’s involved in here in book seven makes it clear he hates the guts of the guy that hit him, or at least did at the time. Note to self: if you’re going to run over a world-famous author, you probably better do him in before he makes you infamous.
Finally we come to the last leg of the journey to the Tower. After a few more adventures Roland, Susannah and Oy arrive at the Crimson King’s castle, only to discover their foe went nuts after Devar-Toi was shut down, killed almost everyone serving him, then absconded to the Dark Tower only to become trapped upon a balcony outside. Continuing on, the remains of the ka-tet come to what first appears to be a charming cottage on the road to the Tower; the funny old man who lives there is actually the Dandelo, a creature Roland was warned of several times (either a cousin to Pennywise from It or possibly the same creature, considering Danny lived in Derry in Insomnia), and it’s only due to Susannah’s interference and a literal (and bold-faced) deus ex machina that they kill the creature before it can feast on them. Afterward they find a teenager named Patrick Danville locked in the basement, and he joins their quest after they free him. Though Patrick’s mind has been warped by years of imprisonment and abuse, and the Dandelo ripped out his tongue, he loves to draw and has a supernatural talent for capturing the essences of his subjects even in simple pencil. Soon Susannah realizes Patrick has the ability to manipulate reality through his drawings, and prompted by recent recurring dreams, she has Patrick draw her a magic door leading to an alternate New York. Roland begs her to stay, but she leaves anyway, the only member of the ka-tet to get out alive. Which is to say, it’s not much longer before Mordred, sick and dying after eating the poison remains of the Dandelo, catches up to Roland. Though Roland kills Mordred with his remaining pistol, he’s too late to save Oy, who dies after Mordred snaps his back and impales him on a tree branch. His last word is, “Olan.”
So yeah, like I said, this last book is a real feel-good story. I already mentioned that Mordred winds up something of a non-threat, so this seems as good a place as any to address one of the major issues I feel this story has: the over-reliance on coincidence and deus ex machina. There are plenty of times throughout the books where characters are able to overcome obstacles because some necessary bit of knowledge or intuition just randomly pops into their heads. Or in the case of defeating the Dandelo, the author literally writes a deus ex machina in the story, and calls it such within the text, leaving the solution to the problem in the bathroom where he knows the character will be going. I’m of two minds on this in The Dark Tower, because on one hand this story gets very meta to the point where it’s a story about stories and how this particular story has interwoven with the life of its author, and as far as that goes it’s neat and fun and I’m glad someone took a chance on writing a story like that. On the other hand, sometimes it feels a little cheap, and it makes the consequences of King’s chosen style of writing (What the hell’s an outline? Planning ahead is for suckers!) fairly obvious. You can only get away with writing by the edge of your pants so much in an epic series. There has be an endgame, something you’re building to and can telegraph somewhat in advance so shit doesn’t seem to come from nowhere… which, frankly, a lot of the back half of this series does. As an example, Robert Jordan wrote the final scene of The Wheel of Time back when he was working on the first book–he always knew where the story was headed in the end, and you can tell because the ending is telegraphed fairly well even halfway through the series (personally, I called it after book seven). I’m not saying you have to be that anal about planning things out… but jesus, you shouldn’t be solving a problem with a note from the author on the medicine cabinet in the villain’s bathroom.
As to the good here, though… It’s interesting how Roland somewhat reverts to where his character was in The Gunslinger as his allies fall away, yet at the same time he’s grown and he knows he’s grown, and we can see that in him–for example, how he feels guilt over his treatment of Oy, and the way he falls on his knees crying and begging Susannah to stay. No matter how hard Roland tries to be, he’s no longer the man who dropped Jake in book one, not even if he tries to be. The quest has changed him, made him more introspective and put him back in touch with his heart, even if just to feel it breaking.
So… Finally, Roland and Patrick arrive at Can’-Ka No Rey, the field of roses surrounding the Dark Tower. The Crimson King and Roland have a show down that’s mostly the King tossing explosive sneetches and Roland shooting them out of the air. It ends when Patrick uses his ability to first draw a picture of the Crimson King, then erase it (except the eyes), effectively nullifying his existence. Roland goes to the Tower, announcing the names of his departed comrades and regretting he left behind the Horn of Eld so many years ago–he was supposed to have the Horn when he arrived. Roland enters the Tower. We briefly rejoin Susannah as she arrives at the other side of the door, where she comes to a world where Eddie and Jake are both alive (as brothers), presumably some dog named Oy will wander along into their lives, and her memories of Mid-World begin to fade as she falls into her new life. So that’s nice. But of course the real ending we want is in the Tower. After a bit where King tells us to stop reading now (ha, as if), we follow Roland as he climbs the Tower, seeing reminders of his life’s journey on every floor. Finally he reaches the door at the top, marked with his name… and it opens on the desert from the first book. Too late, Roland realizes this is just the end of the latest cycle, that he’s made this journey a number of times before, will continue making this journey, and he’s thrown back in time, screaming, pleading, back into his younger body, his memories already fading as… “The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed.”
…Oh, except this time he has the Horn of Eld, having remembered to nab it from Cuthbert’s body at the Battle of Jericho Hill. Which is to say, Roland is a step closer to redeeming himself, to earning the right to truly reach the top of the Tower. I remember people getting pissed at the ending when the last book came out. It took me a day to digest, but then in the shower the next morning I realized that wasn’t the ending. There’s a quick sub-chapter after Eddie dies where we see King writing the book, telling himself he didn’t see it working out that way, and he thinks about the poem that inspired these books, Robert Browning’s “Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came.” And he realizes there’s only one appropriate place for the poem to go in the last book. This is a giant blinking clue.
As it happens, the poem is included at the end of the book… and that’s because, in the meta-sense of the story, the poem is the true ending. One of the driving themes of the story is that stories in our world can arise as reflections of Roland’s world, and that doesn’t just go for Stephen King’s works. The gist is that Browning’s poem is a record of the cycle after the cycle recounted in The Dark Tower. The series written by Stephen King explains how Roland finally learns to value others, to care about something besides the Tower and thus earn the right to complete his journey. When he starts again with the Horn of Eld, that’s proof of his development. And how does Browning’s poem end? With Roland blowing his horn before the Dark Tower, as he was ever supposed to do. I have a feeling Roland does finally reach the top of the Tower after that, and not to be returned to the desert yet again. Ka may be a wheel, but it’s not without purpose, and there’s something at the top of the Tower waiting for Roland, that wants him to find it once he’s worthy. He’s being molded and readied, not punished.
That said, the cyclical nature of the story revealed in these final pages raises a few questions. Does Roland draw the same companions every cycle? Is it always Eddie, Susannah, Jake and Oy? That might go a long way toward explaining the seemingly psychic intuition they often have during their quest; perhaps these are simply buried memories of cycles that have come before. Or does he always have a new ka-tet, and this time he was finally lucky enough to have one that burrowed into his heart? In this new cycle, will any of his companions live to see the Tower, as King apparently originally planned they would? And what about the comics and planned movies–do these show the same cycle as the books, or do they portray alternate cycles?
And I haven’t touched much on this, but what’s the significance of 19? Does that come from the date June 19, 1999? Does it come from King being 19 when he started writing these stories? Is this the 19th cycle Roland has been through? The 19 synchronicity begins in Wolves of the Calla and carries through the end of the series, but it’s absent in the four preceding books (well, it’s there a bit in the revised first book, but that’s a retcon). Then again there’s plenty that begins in book five and carries through the remaining volumes, especially the whole “commala” crap (which makes sense in the Callas, I suppose, but when the Crimson King says it too I roll my eyes). I feel these are questions the books fail to answer, may not even have answers. Again, we may just have to chalk it up to Stephen King not being the type of writer who thinks things out ahead of time, preferring to write as the muse comes to him and not get wrapped up in the details. Which again, only gets you so far when you’re writing a multi-volume epic.
Still, I don’t regret taking the trip along with Roland to the Dark Tower, not even this time when I knew what was waiting for him at the end. The journey is too rich, regardless of the nagging loose ends and the seemingly endless cycle that awaits us on the last page. I’d like to think that someday King might decide to write another Dark Tower book–one that portrays the final cycle, gives us a peek in the real room at the top–but I doubt it’s ever going to happen. In some fundamental way the man seems to despise endings. Until and unless it happens, I have a feeling every so many years I’ll be tempted to pull the series back off my bookshelf, and as Frodo every so often makes that trek to Mt. Doom or Ned repeatedly makes that fateful decision to go south to King’s Landing, Childe Roland to the Dark Tower will come… again and again.