The Dark Tower Book 1: The Gunslinger

Overview

This year I made a commitment to pick a fantasy series and read my way through to the end. I would like to do this every year in my attempt to fill the hole left by the currently unfinished Song of Ice and Fire. The only criterion for this goal is that 1) the series must be finished (the main series, not peripheral stories), and 2) it must be a series I have never finished reading. There are quite a few fantasy series that I have started but not finished, for one reason or another (lack of time, apathy, the series was on-going). So, I decided that the inaugural series would be Stephen King’s The Dark Tower.

I have read the first three books in this series (The Gunslinger, The Drawing of the Three, and The Waste Lands) before. In fact, the first time I read them, book four (The Wizard and Glass) had just come out. I tried again a few years later, and stalled out after book three once again. I have always enjoyed The Dark Tower in concept, but not always in execution. But these previous readings had occurred at very different times in my life when I have had very different tastes. The major difference between then and now is that I have come to have great respect for Stephen King as a writer. I do hope to complete my King Reads King goal to read (if not read AND write about) every Stephen King book. In my time working through his bibliography, I have loved Salem’s Lot and The Shining; I have immensely enjoyed 11/22/63 and much of The Stand. And there are a few books that I thought were middling or in the fine-but-not-for-me category. Admittedly, I haven’t read very far in his oeuvre yet. But, it seemed time for The Dark Tower, and I looked forward to seeing how I felt about the book this time. The Gunslinger is a collection of short stories about Roland Deschain’s pursuit of The Man in Black. Roland is a gunslinger, a type of knight in this world that has moved on and may very well be dying. The Man in Black is an evil wizard, and Roland pursues him much as Harmonica Man pursued Frank in Once Upon a Time in the West. But, when this inevitable meeting finally happens, Roland discovers a bigger, deeper mystery that will shape his destiny. In the past, I haven’t enjoyed every story in this collection. They seemed to decrease as they went along, for my younger self. But again, I have grown to appreciate King more, and I eagerly anticipated my reaction as I once more entered Mid-World and Roland’s dying world.

Personal Enjoyment: 4

I can’t tell you how many times I almost gave up reading this book. Interestingly, “The Slow Mutants” and “The Gunslinger and the Man in Black” were my favorite chapters in this read through. In the past, they were my last on my ranking of the chapters. My interest in the stories seemed strongly connected to how much The Man in Black appeared. I found him far more interesting than Roland or Jake. His control and manipulation of Roland was far more interesting than Roland’s need for revenge. My wife challenged me to at the very least get through book four this time. But I wasn’t sure I could get through this one. I did, however, and I enjoyed the final story so much that I was looking forward to The Drawing of the Three, so kudos to King for turning things around in the end. But the stories in this book would, I think, look great on film (if done well), so maybe the upcoming movie will work better for me. Oddly, in the past I would have said this was my favorite of the Dark Tower books. I’m not sure that bodes well for the rest of this journey, but we shall see. For the time being, I am staying with this journey.

Characters:  7

I’m not going high on this one because there are few characters, and they aren’t quite up to King’s standards. None of the characters in this story are typical for him, though. He’s taking a risk and stretching himself, which I can’t fault him for. But, as stated before, I didn’t connect to any of the leads outside of the Man in Black. He was the most interesting to me. But, as I recall, Roland will get more character to play off of in the next book, and all of them fit more firmly into King’s wheelhouse. I’m holding out hope that I just started in a lull or in the wrong mood.

Story:  7

I’m giving this a seven because, while it isn’t bad, it doesn’t currently do much. As stated before, this is a typical Western revenge story with some setting twists thrown in. And these twists are interesting. But King walks a precarious line here between Western and fantasy. The first story falls firmly in Western, but starting with “The Way Station” it starts to meander into fantasy. This meandering wasn’t quite what I was going for, despite knowing it was coming. I think the cowboy-confronting-his-nemesis trope broke apart because of that meandering, and the genre mixing loses a bit of focus. Roland becomes less a gunslinger than just a man from an elite order than uses guns. The story moves from Western to post-apocalyptic, even though it is the apocalypse of a world similar to, but not quite, ours. It doesn’t quite work for me in this read through.

Setting: 8

I’m almost surprised by the higher score here, but despite the unfocused genre bending, King builds his world well. It is intriguing, especially as Roland wanders through the remains of what was. The flashbacks don’t quite work for me, because I imagine European-based high fantasy with gunslingers, but I totally buy the image of a gunslinger walking through an apocalyptic wasteland. It fits because of the desolation of both the West and the apocalypse. Fantasy is often less desolate (though, as with G. R. R. Martin, it can be bleak). But empty landscapes where, after days of seeing no one, you see a stranger on the horizon, and you don’t know if this person is friendly or not, naturally falls into both Western and apocalypse. It is the breakdown of social order; it is the rule of the gun in a world of limited resources. It is heat and sand and mirage. As I recall from previous readings, The Waste Lands leans heavily on this, and I think it could potentially work better for me. But the places where we moved from Western to Fantasy just didn’t work for me this time. But the ground work is set, and I think King can (and does) build upon what he set up here.

Vision: 7

What was it trying to do?

I think The Gunslinger was trying to pay homage to Westerns (specifically those by Leone) while delving into fantasy and horror to put a new twist on the genre.

Was it successful in doing it?

Not for me, no. Again, Western + apocalypse works for me. Western + high fantasy, not so much.

Was this worth doing?

Absolutely, yes.

To Sum Up

The Gunslinger was an ambitious start. I’m not sure I think the younger Stephen King was up to the challenge quite yet, nor do I think the ideas had solidly manifested by this point. I think this story took greater form as time went on, and I would argue this point because he was compelled to lightly update the book to match where the series eventually went. There are certainly good ideas here, and there are some very good passages. But each time I visit this book, I like it less and less. But I look forward to The Drawing of the Three, oddly, because I think King stuck the landing with The Gunslinger. He ended the book on a high note that made me want to read more, and in the end, that is a type of success.

Final Rating: 6.6/10

King Reads King Book 8: The Long Walk

Signet cover for The Long Walk

Where to Find It

Bookfinder.com

Blurb

In an ultraconservative America of the not-too-distant future when America has become a police state, the annual marathon is the ultimate sports competition. One hundred boys are selected each year to enter a grueling 450-mile marathon walk. The game is simple: maintain a steady walking pace of four miles per hour without stopping. Three warnings and your out—permanently. The winner will be awarded whatever he wants for the rest of his life; but a single misstep could be the last.

First Line

An old blue Ford pulled into the guarded parking lot that morning, looking like a small, tired dog after a hard run.

I’m not sure when I realized that this story wouldn’t have a happy ending, but I figured it out pretty quick. It was probably when I learned that the book could be interpreted as an allegory for the Vietnam War. I figured King wouldn’t have happy things to say about the war. Truly, this is a good lens to read this book through. It isn’t really trying to say something about the future and where we are going in America; it is trying to look at where we are (or were, in this case, but is it really so different) and how we sell war.

And that does seem to be the core idea in this book: how we sell war. It is young men who Walk. They apply, but they may be turned down. They are offered anything they want in the service of this good event. The Crowd watches them, cheers them on, disrespects them, lusts after them, but ultimately stands apart from them, offering judgment and waiting to see who lives and who dies. The Walkers love the Crowd; the Walkers loathe the Crowd.

Despite being a Bachman book, The Long Walk follows a basic Stephen King formula: fleshed-out characters in a horrific situation, watch and see how they handle things. Similar to the Vietnam metaphor, the novel could also be read meta-textually: the reader is the Crowd, the characters are the Walkers, the Major is the author. The reader, then, holds the lives of the characters in his or her hand, being propelled onward to see who lives and who dies, refusing to close the book and thus freeing the Walkers from their horrible ordeal. But we just have to know.

The grim joke, regardless of the metaphor, is that no one wins. The Major is a lying murderer, the Crowd is complicit in death because they love the entertainment, the Walkers all die, not by “getting their ticket punched,” but because the trauma of the event ultimately destroys the psyche of the winner. The Major promises anything you want, but the one thing you truly want you can’t have: The Walk cannot be undone. What the Walker goes through cannot be wiped away as if it never happened. Life does not just go on.

Again, I think The Long Walk is best read as a metaphor for war. I wanted to know more of the future America. I wanted to know more about why the Walk started. But these wants are left unaddressed, and indeed are unnecessary for the metaphor. We are meant to read our society into these pages, not some future society for escape. The Long Walk is not escape. It is not a happy ending, which is where it breaks some of the Stephen King formula. He drags you through horrors but usually has a few characters achieve some sort of happy resolution. Happiness is not offered here. In this vision of America, it is in short supply.

Verdict

The Long Walk asks questions that are worth asking about war, soldiers, and society. But it is emotionally wrenching and very bleak. You should give that some consideration if that is not your thing.

The Long Walk as Allegory

Line of soldiers walking.
(Source: AP)

“It was nine o’clock. they had been on the road twelve hours. It didn’t mean anything. The only thing that mattered was the cool breeze blowing over the top of the hill. And the sound of a bird. And the feel of his damp shirt against his skin. And the memories in his head. those things mattered, and Garraty clung to them with desperate awareness. They were his things and he still had them.”

Frank Darabont has a fascinating interpretation of The Long Walk.

According to a 2007 interview with the writer/director whose best-known Stephen King adaptation is The Shawshank Redemption (1994), The Long Walk is a war allegory:

“To me, it’s an existential metaphor for our mindless obsession with war — kids being sent off to die for no reason other than ‘just because.’ I don’t think it’s a coincidence that King wrote it in the shadow of Vietnam, though we’ve never really discussed that part of it, that’s just my interpretation.”

I’m inclined to agree with his interpretation. The Long Walk involves young men being promised the glory of The Prize, essentially a better life and all their dreams come true, if they survive The Walk. Very few of the boys have any real indication of what they have agreed to do, and the horrors of The Walk become apparent as time drags on. The conversations the boys have are similar to what you would see in war movies as soldiers contemplate the meaning of war, life, and love. All the while, the Major urges them on and the spectators cheer for them, protected by their barrier of comfort. Many spectators wave flags or are dressed in patriotic colors. One farming couple is directly compared to the “American Gothic” painting. As he starts out, Garraty passionately kisses a female spectator (taking a warning for doing so), which conjured images of the V-J Day in Times Square photograph by Alfred Eisenstaedt, the photograph of the sailor kissing a nurse.

But in the midst of The Walk, strength isn’t found in The Prize; strength is found in life and memories and camaraderie. Unfortunately, since only one person can win The Prize, even camaraderie is suspect. You don’t want to get too close to your fellow Walkers if they are soon going to die.

The Long Walk, Introduction

Cover for The Long Walk

With The Long Walk I return to the writings of Richard Bachman, which at this point in Stephen King’s career means I am reading works written prior to Carrie. Basically, these are pre-Stephen-King novels. You know, Stephen King before he was STEPHEN KING.

The Long Walk was first published in paperback in 1979. According to his afterward in Full Dark, No Stars, The Long Walk was the first novel he wrote. It is a dystopian science fiction novel, although from where I am four chapters in the science fiction elements are minimal. The dystopian aspects are highlighted by the central concept, which is an endurance test undertaken each year by 100 teenage boys. This test, called The Long Walk, is pretty much what it says on the tin—a walk to see who is the last boy standing. Or walking, in this case. They have to maintain a four-mile-per-hour pace. Three strikes and they “get their ticket,” a King-esque euphemism for execution. The entire event is a national past-time. People take pride in rooting for boys from their state. Not every leg of the Walk is broadcast, but parts are. Presumably, places where boys are likely to get their ticket are less likely to have spectators.

Even though it was written much later, think of this as The Hunger Games but with walking.

The protagonist, Raymond Garraty (#47). I don’t know why he is Walking. I get the impression that Walking is a type of choice. Most of the first four chapters consist of build-up, so apart from being introduced to the basic concept and a few additional characters, I don’t have much more to report on the plot or world building so far.

The book is short by King standards: under 400 pages. In truth, I’m wondering how he maintains the pace for what may be a limited time scale for the novel. I expect at some point the boys may turn on each other, unless there are specific rules against this. Even if it is against the rules, I’m sure the pressure will build.