I came to Stephen King’s seven-book DARK TOWER cycle late. It certainly had lots of fans, including one of my closest childhood friends, who gobbled up each new entry the moment it appeared. But not until King completed the cycle in summer 2003 did I decide to give it a try. That fall, on our annual Jamaica trip, I read the first volume, which is actually five loosely connected novellas first printed in Fantasy & Science Fiction magazine in the late Seventies and early Eighties, and I was underimpressed. But in 2005, after the final book was published in paperback, I read volumes Two and Three and started to understand what all the fuss was about. I read one more volume per year after that, my attention ever more rapt, and finished the whole thing last fall. I’m not sure whether you would call it a masterpiece, but this long tale is one of the damndest things I’ve ever read, and that anybody has ever written.
What little I did know about THE DARK TOWER was enough to put me off. That’s how hard it is to encapsulate: any attempt comes out sounding like gibberish. I’ll demonstrate with my own pitiful try. It was loosely – there’s that word again — inspired by Robert Browning’s “Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came,” and has existed within King’s subconscious ever since he wrote the first line in summer 1970, in his early twenties. It is set in a fantasy world that has “moved on”; it looks very much like our own in many respects, but is completely alien in others. The central character, Roland, is a gunslinger – yes, in the Western sense — and his mission is to approach the Dark Tower, home of a malevolent demigod who wants to sunder the universe, and to prevent this existential disaster. Along the way – in space and in time, for doorways can connect disparate settings – he picks up a band of similarly inspired comrades, and they head toward their destinies. There is adventure, horror, fantasy, tragedy, courage, humor, and most anything else that resonant fiction can invoke. If this were a movie, it would be directed by Sergio Leone from a script by George A. Romero, itself based on an absinthe nightmare of Hieronymous Bosch.
The first book, as I’ve said, didn’t do much for me. Those F&SF novellas introduce you to Roland of Gilead, and to the notion that you will have no earthly idea what’s coming, because King’s imagination races far ahead of yours. But by Book Two, which finds Roland on a desolate beach where a disgusting “lobstrosity” lops off two of his fingers and one toe – definitely counterindicated for a gunslinger – the narrative starts to take off and never again relents. Roland finds three doors that can take him to New York City in 1964, 1977 and 1987, and brings back a compadre from each time. Before long, they’ll all be riding a macabre computerized monorail that has gone insane, following the Beam that will take them to the Tower – but I’m starting to blabber again. You really have to be there.
King squeezed out DARK TOWER material at a langorous pace while he built his magnificent career on other works. Five years (in our world) passed between Books One and Two, another four until Book Three, and DARK TOWER fans waited six more years for Book Four’s publication in 1997. Two things were making them ever more rabid, as became obvious while checking in on my annual schedule. First, the story was widening almost impossibly; not only did different characters have different backgrounds, they had different memories of historical events, depending on what they’d witnessed in their “real” worlds. King even makes fun of this at certain points. Someone talks about an embarrassing situation as being “like Carrie at the prom,” and the character from 1964 says, “Who?” The second come-hither feature of THE DARK TOWER is that characters from King’s other fictions also find themselves in the world that has moved on. It’s been decades since I read his early work, so I missed Father Callahan from ‘SALEM’S LOT, but it’s hard to forget the Walkin Dude, Randall Flagg, from THE STAND, and King’s detail-oriented fans have no doubt discovered many more. To make it a tad easier, some of them are even spelled out for you by the single most fascinating character of all, who appears in Book Six and has major effects on the events in that penultimate story and its titanic followup. This man is a New England author named Stephen King.
King winks at his readers frequently. A character in his just-published novel, UNDER THE DOME, theorizes that the invisible, impenetrable barrier that’s suddenly encased an entire small town must be the result of a secret experiment gone wrong, “Exactly like in that movie The Mist.” The joke here is twofold: “that movie The Mist” is based on a novella by our selfsame Stephen King; and the character, like most people, has pointedly seen a movie adaptation instead of reading King’s original prose. That takes humility – most authors would have placed their own work in the fictional guy’s raised hand like QUOTATIONS FROM CHAIRMAN MAO – plus self-knowledge and a little bit of Halloween-night humor.
But “Stephen King” in THE DARK TOWER is not just a bit of cuteness. He’s a meta-character whose own fate is intrinsically tied to the outcome of the epic quest we have been following for years, both fictionally and literally.
King (sorry, but I have to re-emphasize: the one in the real world, the one you and I inhabit) might have continued writing DARK TOWER novels on his every-once-in-a-while schedule but for a horrible accident in Lovell, Maine, on June 19, 1999. King was walking by the side of Route 5 when he was struck by a minivan. His recovery was long and painful, but of course the accident could easily have been fatal. He recounts that at book signings after his recovery, readers would tell him how much they needed to know the end of the DARK TOWER saga. At first it was clenched-teeth amusing – I almost died, and they’re wanting me to hurry up and finish? – but as King thought about his mortality, he realized that one final burst of energy and concentration was truly necessary, that there was no more time to “get around to it.” The last three epic-length books appeared within two years of each other, and in the meantime King had come up with a whale of a personal catharsis for the tale.
Now hold on tight. The DARK TOWER travelers meet King twice: in Bridgton, Maine in 1977, before he’s even written Book Two, and then again on the fateful day in Lovell. For the ka-tet (that’s their bond and their identity) has determined that King was killed by that minivan (the cliffhanger which ends Book Six), and was never able to finish their story, preventing them from reaching the Dark Tower and thus willing their world to annihilation. So they’re going to have to save him.
In a wrenching passage that ranks with the best prose he’s ever written, King describes his own accident – probably the greatest trauma of his life – in exacting, squirm-inducing detail. But wait a minute. How could he possibly remember all these tiny bits of color if the minivan socked him so hard? You have to remind yourself – because King’s no help at this point – oh, yeah, hey, this is a novel.
Much like that other great quest, THE LORD OF THE RINGS, THE DARK TOWER rises to a thunderous crescendo; the tremendously affecting minivan collision and its subsequent effect on King, who is jostled away from the book for a moment in 2002, is just the start. There’s way more to come: they have to fight more monsters and madmen to get to the Dark Tower, after all, or else 34 years of writing under that name has been all for naught. Some of the loose-end-tying is very satisfying, some of it will probably disappoint others who are no longer able to lie back and guess what might be coming the next time King turns to the Tower. You’re even invited to quit reading at one point if this is the ending you crave. There’s an epilogue. Then a coda. But unlike the end of THE RETURN OF THE KING, which felt much too drawn out, this one works impressively well in its last few pages. While I was reading, it all sounded to me like the final moments of a mighty symphony, the orchestra slamming on major chords and falling into silence. Dum. Da da dum. Dum! Ta-daaaa!
Then, for one last bit of verisimilitude, the real King follows the intention stated by his fictional self three hundred pages earlier. There’s only one place for it, “King” had said. Here’s what he meant. Here, now, is Browning’s complete poem in all its glory. Never have I been so unduly dismissive as when I finished Book One, but then again, if King had never come to the end, the one place where he could attach Browning’s masterwork with his own head held high, I might never have started. And I’m so glad I did.