The Dark Tower – A Master’s Masterpiece

Spoiler alert! The following post is a review of Stephen King’s The Dark Tower series. If you plan on embarking on that series’ incredible journey (by the way, I strongly recommend you read Stephen King’s Insomnia, The Stand and Salem’s Lot before you start The Dark Tower), or if you have already started and not yet finished, I urge you to not read this post due to its many spoilers. If, however, you’ve already been to the Dark Tower, and loved every minute of it, this post is for you.

dark towerIn case you haven’t figured it out by now, I love Stephen King to the point of delirium. I’ve read about two dozen of his books before actually deciding to read The Dark Tower. The main reason was because I didn’t have enough money for the seven-volume long series. I got the first volume, The Gunslinger, back in November, and ordered the rest of the volumes which I received in an annoying order – volumes 3 and 4 in December, and the rest around February.

So for the past few months, I did nothing but reading, eating chips while reading, sitting with my family while reading, celebrating holidays while reading, and spending more time with Stephen King than I do with my boyfriend and wondering if the latter is starting to get jealous.

It didn’t take me long to realize that the Dark Tower series is a work of monumental proportions. All Stephen King fans must read it. From one fan to all others, that’s not a suggestion. It’s an order. YOU MUST READ IT! You don’t know Stephen King until you’ve read The Dark Tower.

What amazes me most about his writing is its versatility. Whenever I found a free moment in the office, I would take out my book and read. The clients who saw me with a different Stephen King book every two or three weeks said “You really love horror, eh?” The truth is Stephen King is not just horror. It’s not just vampires and ghosts and zombies and gore. In fact, he’s got elements of fantasy, drama, romance, comedy, socio-political commentary and other elements which make his works into literary rollercoaster rides. The Dark Tower is no different. One of the clients was surprised when I said that The Dark Tower is actually somewhat of a Western novel. Sure, it’s got its share of vampires, oversized bugs, and gore, but it incorporates a wide range of other  genres which is Stephen King’s unmistakable style and unique talent.

The first volume, The Gunslinger, introduces the hero, Roland Deschain of Gilead, the last gunslinger in a world that “moved on.” It disappointed me that the book was no longer than 300 pages, especially since it would be another four months before I scored the second volume. It was 300 pages worth of half stories and unrelated anecdotes that did nothing but raise a ton of questions. What is the world that moved on? What is the Dark Tower and why is Roland after it? Why is Roland the last gunslinger? What happened to all the others? Who is the Man in Black? Why did King introduced the boy Jake into the story if only to kill him in the end of the first volume? I was basically confused the whole way through, and made no sense of anything and ended up being even more confused by the end of the first book. I needed the rest of the books and fast. That’s another talent of Stephen King. He’ll keep frustrated in order to keep you reading.

The second volume, The Drawing of the Three, starts with Roland waking up on the shore of the sea where horrible sea creatures (he calls lobstrosities) have eaten two of his fingers. This injury would later result in an infection. The volume introduces two other characters who will join Roland on his quest to the Dark Tower. Eddie Dean is a heroin addict from New York in 1987. And Odetta Holmes is a schizophrenic disabled African-American woman from New York of 1964. Through “magic doors” Roland manages to draw these two into his world. He also manages to make Odetta and her other personality, the vicious, foul-mouthed Detta Walker, face each other and merge into a single person, and finally become Suzannah.

This volume raises even more questions but makes Roland’s world a bit easier to understand. When he looks through these magic doors, he sees a parallel world, different from his own, with objects he doesn’t recognize such as planes and cars (air carriages and horse-less carts). He is amazed at how people in New York discard paper like it was garbage, since in Roland’s world, paper has become a rarity. When he uses the magic door to go into a pharmacy to get antibiotics for the infection he suffered following his injury on the beach, he makes a genius observation, which we as a society fail to realize:

“There were thousands of bottles, there were potions, there were philters, but…identified most as quack remedies. Here was a salve that was supposed to restore fallen hair but would not; there was a cream which promised to erase unsightly spots on the hands and arms but lied. Here were cures for things that needed no curing: things to make your bowels run or stop them, to make your teeth white and your hair black… The potions that really worked were kept safely out of sight. One could only obtain these if you had a sorcerer’s fiat. In this world, such sorcerers were called DOCKTORS.”

In the third volume, The Waste Lands, Eddie and Suzannah are married and are trained to be gunslingers. They find the beam of Shardik which they must follow in order to find the Dark Tower. King also answers the question of the boy Jake who died in the first volume. Jake was originally from New York of 1977. He died in this world after being pushed into the streets and being hit by a car. He found himself in Roland’s world after his death, then dies again in Roland’s world. But in the second volume, Roland manages to save Jake of 1977 when the gunslinger goes through a magic door and prevents the pusher from pushing Jake into the street. This creates a duality within Roland (Jake is dead, no he’s not) as well as Jake (I’m dead, no I’m not) which drives both to the point of insanity, until the three gunslingers draw Jake back into Roland’s world.

The fourth volume, Wizard and Glass, is the one that answers most of the questions that have been bugging me ever since the first book. Roland tells his tale from the beginning, including his life in Mejis, the story of Suzan, his first love, the Coffin Hunters, John Farson (who turns out to be the Man in Black as well as a bunch of other characters even from King’s other novels), the witch of the Coos and the wizard’s pink glass ball. I was completely blown away by how easily Stephen King manages to tie the story of his novel The Stand into this tale. The fact that Roland’s world seems to be so deserted was another thing that confused me, but if this world was somehow affected by the plague that spread through the world in The Stand, and the Man in Black was also the Walking Man, Randall Flagg from The Stand, it’s definitely starting to make sense.

In the fifth volume, Wolves of the Calla, the ka-tet arrives to a village that gets attacked by creatures called Wolves every two decades or so. King introduces another character from another book of his, Father Callahan from Salem’s Lot. Again, I was blown away by this overlap, and was even more amazed when the characters come across the actual book Salem’s Lot by some dude called STEPHEN KING!

“No way!” I exclaimed. “He did NOT just made himself a character in his own book!” But indeed he did. Stephen King becomes a key player in protecting the Dark Tower, and Roland and Eddie actually come face to face with him and urge him to finish writing The Dark Tower series and save the world.

But before that, we find out about the wizard’s 12 glass balls corresponding to the 12 points of the six beams holding the Tower (the pink one being one of them) and the 13th glass ball, the most dangerous one, corresponding to the Tower – Black Thirteen. When Father Callahan tells Roland he has one of these glasses hidden in his church, I was sure he was talking about the blue one, or the green one, or any of the other 12. When Roland asks him which one it is, and Callahan answers “It’s Black Thirteen,” I screamed. I actually screamed. Out of fear. I was in the office when I read that part and I was so startled, I thought the clients might think I saw a roach or something.

In any case, by the sixth volume, Song of Suzannah, I was well out of it. Reality became a blur, and the fact that Stephen King was a character in his own book and incorporated his actual real life experiences into it (wife, kids, books, not to mentioned the accident that nearly killed him and does kill him by the end of the sixth volume), made my sense of reality even more surreal. Or unreal for that matter. Even my mom picked up on it.

“Get back to real time,” she snapped.

“What IS real time?” I said. The sense of time in the series itself was also distorted. All the characters felt it. And I did as well. It was freaky.

The sixth volume was also the first book I ever read which made me cry. Back in high school, I read countless books about the Holocaust, including Elie Wiesel’s, and no matter how sad and horrible they were, they never made me shed a tear. So for the first time ever in life that I cry while reading a book, it was Stephen King’s doing. It was the part where Jake has to pass through the unfound door to New York of 1999 and has to leave his pet billy bumbler, Oy, behind with the people of the Calla. When Jake says goodbye to Oy, and Oy starts barking “No! Ake!” that was when the waterworks broke. I put the book down, wiped my tears and hugged my dog Diamond. Then I shook my head and thought, Only King.

The book ends with excerpts from Stephen King’s journals – real or made up, I don’t know. The final “entry” being a fictional article about Stephen King’s death.

“He KILLS himself?” I shrieked. “What?!” I finished the book right as my boyfriend came home from basketball practice. “Stephen King is crazy,” I told him. “PSYCHOTIC!”

In fact, I was the one going crazy because if reading a fictional book by Stephen King, and then encountering the actual author as one of the characters wasn’t enough to fuck me up, the actual author killing his character self did it. I felt my brain splitting, and moved on to the seventh volume.

In the seventh and final volume, The Dark Tower, the ka-tet breaks when Eddie is killed in the battle of Algul Siento. And for the second time, King made me cry. It was a very moving moment when Eddie calls Roland “father” on his dying breath.

I knew one of them would die. It was hinted earlier on. At first I thought it might be Oy, but then I thought that would be slightly trivial. Then I thought it might be Suzannah, but then I thought that she and Eddie should stay together so neither of them would die (wrong). I thought maybe Roland, but only for a second because the Dark Tower is Roland’s quest. Without him, the story would never end (as it turns out, the story never did end). I thought maybe he would die at the very end, but not now. Not until he made it to the Tower. Then I thought Jake might die, but I thought King could not possibly kill him again… and I was wrong again…

Roland and Jake set back to America of 1999 to save Stephen King’s life (apparently, the fictitious article announcing Stephen King’s death at the end of the sixth volume hadn’t yet happened). That night, I found myself thrashing around with anticipation. When I finally fell asleep, I dreamt about being with Roland and Jake, looking for Stephen King and trying to save his life, and failing.

But in the book, King was saved, and lived to finish his tale. Jake died while saving him though. I didn’t cry this time, but felt utterly depressed for the rest of the day. King’s character development is one of his most refined talents, and you get to know the characters as if you’ve known them all your life. The death of a major character like Eddie or Jake, as fictitious as it might be, is one you mourn. Like it or not.

Throughout the series, we find out that the world moved on after it was destroyed by the Old People who created a bunch of machines and robots and gadgets, and who believed that these mechanical creations were more powerful and more sophisticated than any magic the world had to offer. It makes a blunt statement on the state of the world today. I don’t know if that was Stephen King’s intention, but at least that’s how I interpret it. People are so entranced by technology and engage in a frantic and quite pointless race for the better, the faster, the smaller, that they forget there are things way more fascinating out there. They’re all constantly swiping and tapping their fingers on their iPod or their smartphones to notice there is a world around them. They use their Kindles to read everything from novels to prayer books. Technology is getting out of control and people are going crazy trying to keep up with it. Things are becoming too concrete, too mechanical, too tactile, and the magic is lost. Depth, emotional value, divine interaction, spiritual contact between people, all of that is lost, and the universe that depends on this magic for stability and balance is falling apart.

One thing I didn’t like about the series is how sometimes he throws in spoilers for his other books. I’ve yet to read Cujo and Insomnia, but thanks to the seventh volume, I now have some spoilers under my belt. Not cool.

Later on in the seventh and final volume, Oy dies too. Suzannah goes back to America-side and meets Jake and Eddie there too, which leaves Roland alone on the rest of his quest, except for a boy called Patrick who was never part of the gunslinger’s ka-tet.

Just before Roland makes it to the Tower, I suddenly stopped. Suddenly, I didn’t want the book to end. As King says, “Endings are heartless. Ending is just another word for goodbye.” It took Stephen King 34 years to complete the series and took me about six months to read it (would have been less if I had gotten the books in a normal order). And King’s brilliant storytelling was (and is) so compelling that while I was reading, I was also living and breathing the tale. I was part of Roland’s ka-tet. I chased the Man in Black with him through the scorching sun of the desert. I was with Roland when he drew Eddie, Suzannah and Jake. I joined all his battles and mourned all his losses. I also climbed the Tower with Roland only to discover what should have been so obvious, despite the conclusion’s ultimate shock – “Ka is a wheel”, “There will be renewal”, “Death, but not for you, Gunslinger.” As it appears, not ever. If ka is a wheel, Roland will be forever searching for the Dark Tower, will reach it, climb to the top, and start all over again. Rolling along on ka’s wheel. There will be no ending. Say thankya.

And now that I have finished the series, I must struggle to snap back to reality, whatever it may be, and readjust to this world. As much as I (or rather Stephen King) have managed to convince myself that this is but one world of many. Endless worlds with the Dark Tower on the axis, spinning on ka’s eternal wheel.

Once I manage to fix my head again, I may actually go on to read Wind Through the Keyhole, which is another Dark Tower novel, but not part of the series. But not now.

Now, I am still marveling at how amazing Stephen King is. Each one of his books is brilliant in its own way. But the Dark Tower series outshines them all. Almost makes them seem like todash darkness by comparison. A master’s masterpiece, so it is.

Peace, love and long days and pleasant nights.

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