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The Dark Tower by Stephen King

Here I review another true fantasy epic, Stephen King’s Dark Tower series. I have just finished reading the last of the series (#7) The Dark Tower, published in 2004. The first book in the series, The Gunslinger, was released in 1982. So, while it took him a fair while, at least King was able to finish the series *cough, cough, George Martin*. A film adaptation has been in the works for several years, and is being released this year.

Characters

The central character of the series is the Gunslinger himself, Roland of Gilead. Roland Deschain is a descendant of Arthur Eld, or King Arthur, and King’s Gunslingers are in part inspired by the knights of Arthurian legend. His old world destroyed, Roland is on an epic quest, to find the Dark Tower. He is the last of the gunslingers, and his quest seems to have been going on for countless years. Roland’s character is also inspired by ‘The Man With No Name’, the Clint Eastwood character from the Dollars film trilogy. He is, at first, equally enigmatic, but his backstory is filled in as the series progresses. There are a whole host of other characters in this series, but most important are the Ka-tet, the group he recruits to help him on his quest. They are trained to be gunslingers. Jake Chambers, Eddie Dean and Odetta Holmes are each recruited from a different era of ‘real world’ New York (70s, 80s and 60s respectively) by Roland. This ‘world-jumping’ is an important device in the story. King does character extremely well, and the American characters add humanity to the single-minded obsessiveness of Roland.

Worldbuilding

What you don’t get here, is the meticulously detailed, medieval-inspired secondary world, that is the staple of fantasy literature. This is not Lord of the Rings or A Game of Thrones. King lets his imagination run riot, and the series jumps from America, to Roland’s Mid-World, to alternate or parallel worlds, with rapidity. What’s more this isn’t a pure fantasy story, either. There are elements of post-apocalyptic Sci-Fi, Horror, Western, Metaphysical etc. Time and space are in flux in this series, which serves as a useful get out of jail card for King, allowing for a vagueness of location which fits in with the spiritual nature of Roland’s quest. And let’s not forget that King is first and foremost a Horror writer: his stories are supernatural and don’t attempt to obey scientific rules or create a ‘realistic’ world.

Plot

The world has turned, or gone bad in some way. We know that Roland must save it by finding the Dark Tower. But beyond that, much of the story is shrouded in mystery to begin with. As a series, we follow the adventures of Roland and his new Ka-tet on their quest. A range of supernatural enemies await them on the way, from vampires/’low men’, a deranged monorail train to the Crimson King himself. But each book has a very different story to tell. No doubt this is partly because they were written so far apart in time. Wizard and Glass (#4), for example, is effectively a flashback to an episode in Roland’s past. Each book, therefore, has a unique feel to it and readers can react very differently to that. Some may feel that as a series it doesn’t hang together as well as others, and that the quality is patchy. Others appreciate the variety that King has introduced. True fans of King even get to see links to many of his other well known stories in the series.

Style

Stephen King writes mighty fine, do ya ken. Well over 1 million words ooze effortlessly by, with much of the series written at the height of his powers. Roland’s language is ‘High Speech’, and by the end of the series I found I had adopted some of these phrases as my own.

Conclusion

This series is a classic of epic fantasy, a unique tale and a great achievement. Yes, there are problems and weaknesses along the way, though that is to be expected in a piece of work this size. Few of the single volumes of this story are, in my opinion, masterpieces, and I would give most of them 4/5. But taken as a whole body of work, The Dark Tower series undoubtedly deserves a 5/5.

 

On Writing and On Teaching

I did two weeks full time supply cover before the Xmas holidays. All writing projects had to be put on hold. It is very hard to do a full day’s teaching, plus the work you take home, and then have the creative energy to do anything else.

It reminded me of a reference to this by Stephen King in his book On Writing. If you haven’t come across it, this book is a great read on the writing process by one of the modern masters of fiction. There’s a lot of autobiography in there as well. King was an English teacher for two years before he hit the big time with his first bestseller, Carrie. He already had a family by this time as well. In this passage he captures the sense of self-doubt you can get in this situation. It’s certainly something I can relate to:

 

‘The bigger deal was that, for the first time, writing was hard. The problem was the teaching…by most Friday afternoons I felt as if I’d spent the week with jumper cables clamped to my brain. If I ever came close to despairing about my future as a writer, it was then. I could see myself thirty years on, wearing the same shabby tweed coats with patches on the elbows, potbelly rolling over my Gap khakis from too much beer…And of course I’d lie to myself, telling myself there was still time, it wasn’t too late, there were novelists who didn’t get started until they were fifty, hell, even sixty.’

 

In the end, King got his book deal and never looked back. He went on to write The Shining, The Stand, It, The Green Mile, Misery, The Dark Tower series…and more and more. If you want to know how he did it, On Writing is a good place to look.