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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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