The Dark Tower books are Stephen King’s magnum opus, seven books (not including The Wind Through the Keyhole, a novel set inbetween books 3 and 4) which he began writing in 1978, and finished only in 2004. Ten years after he finished the series, I was given the whole series for my birthday. I hadn’t read them before – big long series of books can be a bit daunting for me – so I decided that, for a challenge, I would try and get them all read by the end of the year.
I started in April with The Gunslinger, and I finished them last week. I have thoughts on them. Kind of broken thoughts, and lots of little ones at that.
Stephen King’s shared universe has always been something I quite like. The Dark Tower is his Crisis on Infinite Earth’s – all of his books work their way into the story in one form or another, although The Regulators, Desperation, Insomnia, The Stand and ‘Salem’s Lot turn out to be the most important. In fact, ‘Salem’s Lot could be considered a prequel to the entire saga. The Dark Tower does manage to unify his world, even if it is a bit messy in its unifying.
On Vans and accidents
There is using personal tragedy to inform your fiction, and then there is writing your own personal tragedy into your fictional world. Stephen King appears in books 6 and 7 of The Dark Tower, as a slightly asshole version of himself, but the most interesting thing he does is have a huge portion of the finale centre around the real life accident that almost killed him in 1999. In The Dark Tower though, the van was intended to kill King, and it’s only thanks to the intervention of the main characters that he survives. Fiction saves him.
On Opening Lines
‘The Man in Black fled across the desert, and The Gunslinger followed’ is about as good an opening line as you could ever hope to write. King knows that. That’s why it’s also the last line.
Speaking of the ending, the circular nature of the narrative is a strong idea. I agree with King’s assertation early on in the final chapter that we didn’t need to know what happened when Roland entered the tower. I would have been happy had the final book ended with the doors closing on him, but the ending we get – the endless floors detailing Roland’s misdeeds, and finally the door, leading him back to the start of The Gunslinger again, is very good.
On First Drafts
King has said several times that he considers The Dark Tower to be a first draft of a series. Maybe we’ll see an author’s preferred edition in a few years, with continuity errors ironed out and the whole thing a little tidier. It’s pretty clear reading them in such quick succession (I averaged one a month) that he had no idea where he was going when he started, and that he was making the story up as he went along. The final two books do a pretty good job tying it all together and making it all just about make sense, but there are a few narrative stretches he has to do to make it work.
See what I did there?
On King’s Prose
He’s got some annoying tics that really become apparent when you’ve read over 2000 pages of his work in less than a year. The way his characters misappropriate phrases, or mispronounce words, and the way that King gets hooked on a single phrase like that (‘bumhug’ in place of humbug for example) is a real annoyance. His character descriptions rarely rise above the likes of, ‘He looked like Jim Carey from out of the movies, maybe Google him or something if you don’t know what I’m on about’, and some of his minority characters are a little bit on the racist side. But he does manage some really great passages, and like all of King’s work, the storytelling is the big sell.
Mid-World, End-World, The Calla; they’re all great locations. The world itself? I’m not so sure. Time is slippery, but the timeline and the way the world works is never quite explained. The likelihood is that King didn’t really know himself. It makes it seem sometimes as though you’re a blind man feeling your way around a world. Little bits make sense, but the big picture is often missing.
King loves making you care for characters, and here he has over 2000 pages to make you really give a shit. Roland and Eddie work best, Eddie especially. Jake and Susannah less so, but even still, I shed several tears when the kid died under the wheels of the van meant for King.
On The Constant Reader
I don’t think I am the Constant Reader. I came to this series after it had finished and read it all in a tiny space of time. It took 2% of the time it took King to write the books, for me to read them. There are fans out there who had a completely different experience, reading each one every few years, or once a decade when it came out.
I wonder what they thought of it.