I have been a Stephen King fan(atic) since way back in the days of ‘Salem’s Lot. (Isn’t it odd that most of King’s Constant Readers, and I am most definitely one, started with the second of his books, and only later went back to discover the pleasures of Carrie’s virgin appeal?)
I read most all of those early ones in sequence, at a time in my life where the written word was almost more real than the world around me. The Shining, and The Dead Zone, It, and – reverent pause here- The Stand (and so many more) are all made up of scenes, and more importantly, of characters, that were almost mundane in their familiarity but who were thrust into otherworldly circumstances. King’s characters speak in a patois that only someone who came from US can interpret, can pass on, can present back to us. The result is an understanding and a way of relating, a literal relationship, among and across King, his readers and his characters that I have yet to experience from anyone else to date.
For me that relationship was never as deep and as rich as it was when I first read The Dark Tower.
“The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed.”
I had no idea what lay ahead of me, or of him, upon reading those words. 25+ years later I’m still not 100% sure, but I know that I liked the trip.
Legend has it, and it may very well be apocryphal but I like it so it’s taken up firm residence in whatever part of my brain catalogs Stephen King minutiae, that he wrote the first Gunslinger story and then threw it in a drawer for nearly 20 years, thinking it too strange (…”even for me…”) to complete.
For whatever reason, whether Tabby once again fished it out of obscurity – and who wouldn’t listen to her after her previous saving grace with Carrie? – or he just came back to it, either the idea or the very manuscript itself, Roland of Gilead calling to him, as if saying, “You, Stephen son of Ruth – I see you very well…”
I devoured all of the first Gunslinger stories, which were obviously nailed-together short stories from previous collections; obvious, even when I read them as a teenager.
It wasn’t long, though, before the stories expanded, growing in the same way that Midworld was shrinking, changing, moving on. I distinctly remember running home from the bus stop, homework already done so I could spend a few hours discovering the world that Roland knew so well, and remembered, and lamented.
The Drawing of the Three was a lightning spike, an epiphany, a revelation that – hey, wait! They’re from our world! But… they just went into Roland’s?
This was every dream that every Sci-Fi and fantasy reader had ever had, whether to visit Tolkien’s Middle-earth, Leiber’s Lankhmar, Baum’s Oz or anywhere they’d ever imagined- this was Stephen F-ing King writing about how people not so different from us were drawn into another world. Sign me up.
Blaine the Mono with his perfect riddles, with his Monomaniacal obtuseness. The crossing into worlds, not only from classic fiction, but from King’s own canon? Whoa… pass the dutchy, dude. This was intense.
But then it just stopped.
The faithful among us knew that several (hopefully many) stories were still to come, but a god-awful gap of years followed. King himself said that during this fallow time (at least DT-wise) the questions he most often got from fans was, “When do we get to go back to Gilead?”
Then in 1999 an idiot in a mini-van, of which there is never a short supply, slammed into a man jogging along the side of a road, and threw him into a tree.
And, Bog help me, one of my very first thoughts, after hoping and wishing and all of that, was this:
‘We may not get to find out what happens in the Dark Tower series…’
I’m not proud of that, but it’s the truth.
Later, still in the throes of recovery (how odd- I never associated his recovery from a car accident with mine, and my discovery of his writing when I was in similar straits, until now), he said he may never write again. I, along with the rest of the world, silently screamed.
But for me, it seemed, it was personal. I know I wasn’t the only one thinking this, but it seemed to me like I may never find out what happened to Roland, and Eddie, and Susannah, and Jake. And I needed to know.
So when he recovered and started cranking out the rest of the books in the series it was all I could do to keep up. I loved them all, too- they were perfectly in keeping with the tone of the earlier stories. Not only did they incorporate nearly all of the worlds, stories, and characters from his earlier works, they included him, and even his accident. Forget the dutchy, pass the bong.
When it finally, tragically, hopefully (as in “full of hope”) ended, I was ok with it. It made sense, it came full circle, it seemed done, and I was grateful for having been invited along for the ride.
But like Midworld, I, and King, and the story and all of the characters I’d come to love so strongly, had moved on.
That extremely long intro was written as an attempt to convey the gravitas, the heft that came with discovering that another Dark Tower story was coming.
When I was 90% through The Wind in the Keyhole I wrote this as my Goodreads review:
“When I first heard this was coming out I was very excited, having loved each of the Dark Tower novels – singularly and as a whole story- as much or more than anything else in his entire oeuvre. When I started reading this one, I worried for the first few pages that maybe he was forcing it, going back to a well he knew the Constant Readers among us would happily follow him to, but very shortly after that I knew- I just felt it- that we were right back inside The Story, like we’d never left, and it was just as grand and just as moving and just as tragically, masterfully told as all of the other tales of Roland of Gilead.
“The story-within-a-story trope is done brilliantly, as he did in Song of Susannah and other novels, and I found myself not wanting it to end, just as I have with nearly all of his best books.
“Highly recommended. Sorry to be coming up on the end, but maybe this means there could be more “x.5″ novels out there??”
Which brings me to my next (and final, you hope) point about why Gilead and Roland and this whole world seem so believable.
King’s use of colloquialisms has always made his blue-collar, working man and woman dialog utterly believable.
In each of The Dark Tower stories he takes that believability and stretches it many steps further.
What makes it believable to me, what makes the stories that Roland tells more than just the ravings of a distraught, hopelessly confused soul is when their group, their ka-tet, comes across anyone who remembers Gilead in its heyday.
The three taps of the fingers at the throat, the side of the fist raised to the forehead, the leg extended in the courtly bow, the “thankee-sai”s and the “hile!”s and the “cry your pardon”s. The “clearing at the end of the path,” and perhaps most movingly, “remember the face of your father.” The very concepts of ka and ka-tet (which at the time reminded me a bit of Vonnegut’s concepts of karass and duprass. Beautiful, both of them).
An eldritch combination of the knights from King Arthur’s court and the American Wild West, Gilead holds a place both honored and abhorred. Honored by Roland and his friends, the last gunslingers. Despised by many of the denizens of Midworld, for where was Gilead when everything began moving on?
Those small but oh-so-telling details make it real for me, because it feels real for them.
This most recent story continues in the same vein as its predecessors, weaving tales within tales, shedding more light on events that have made Roland the way he is when we first meet him. We root for Tim in the same way we wanted young Jake to find that goddamned door (because WE wanted to find it) and get back to Roland and his ka-tet, and we are not disappointed.
Tim’s tale is the same as those that have been told since time immemorial, from Hansel and Gretel forward: young child alone, facing the dark and the scary alone, having to come through not for himself, but for someone important to him. (I was reminded more than once of The Talisman, and Jack Sawyer’s quest to save his own mother).
But it’s a strong tale, and one that’s well told. It fits into the Dark Tower canon as snugly as one of Roland’s gunslinger burritos that Eddie Dean makes such fond fun of.
I hope there’s more where this came from, so I do. And if it be King’s will that it be so, I say thankee-sai.