|THE SEA ON FIRE
Kim is a man in his mid-thirties who has spent the vast majority of the latter half of his life travelling the world and diving some of its most beautiful spots. Nowadays he is living in Brixton with his wife and three daughters, the call of the sea a constant background noise. When his friend and long-time diving partner Garland Rain turns up and offers him a three-week job as a dive guide in the Red Sea, Kim jumps at the chance and, despite his wife’s disapproval, heads to Egypt and the freedom of the sea. Their boat, the Shang-Tu, belongs to a man named Teddy King, a small-time crook who thrives on cruelty, violence and drugs. It doesn’t take long for the party to start, and Kim quickly finds himself drawn in, much to the disgust of his friend. As the trip progresses, it soon becomes clear that the people on the boat have no intention of following rules and procedures, so it’s no great surprise when one of the divers disappears.
Told from the first-person perspective of Kim, The Sea on Fire starts slow and, with only a handful of exceptions, remains slow throughout. For perhaps the first third of the novel, it’s difficult to treat these characters as fictional, as Cunnell introduces us to Kim and Garland and the lifestyle they have chosen for themselves. For this first section, it’s a book about diving written by a man with a deep love of the subject and it reads like an autobiographical account of a young man in love with life, with the sea and with the art and science of diving. The reader only really becomes aware that this is a piece of fiction when the boat journey starts and partying commences. From that point onwards it is clear to everyone, except our narrator, that things can only go horribly wrong, and from around the halfway mark, The Sea on Fire is as suspenseful as any thriller, despite the slow pace.
For the most part, the novel is an examination of the end of freedom that usually comes with the responsibility of parenthood, the forced settling down and, for most, the end of many things young people take for granted – the freedom to travel, to have dangerous hobbies, to not need to work simply to pay bills. It’s clear from the outset that Kim feels this deeply, and his life in Brixton with a wife and three children leaves him feeling claustrophobic, pining for the open sea where he feels he belongs, and the sense of freedom he feels while submerged in the water. It’s no real surprise, then, that he falls for the party atmosphere on the boat, the abundance of alcohol and drugs, and the presence of the young and willing woman with whom he spends his nights; it’s a return to his natural state, to the person he believes he has never quite stopped being. There are, of course, consequences – the disappearing diver and the stain it is likely to leave on his and his partner’s reputations is the least of these; there are greater consequences on his return to England, and his internal struggle makes this a compelling read. At first, Kim seems a strange character to tell the story, but he has, without doubt, the most interesting story to tell, and the only story likely to appeal to non-divers.
Cunnell has managed to squeeze plenty into a book barely three-hundred pages in length: Kim’s internal struggle and his rapid descent into chaos; the disappearance of the diver and the aftermath which, despite my original statement that The Sea on Fire is a slow book, still manages to pack a considerable punch and forms the central plot around which the rest of the novel is built; there is also a message about the conservation of the world’s reefs, the damage that is done every day by careless divers and the consequences this will have for the reefs, the wildlife that relies on them, right up the food chain to the people causing the damage in the first place. It’s a unique and very interesting novel (and I should probably mention the fact that I am coming at this as someone who has had no prior interest in diving) and it is clear that, in some ways, parts of it are autobiographical, in that Kim and the the author share the same passion for the sea and the ecosystem it supports.
The Sea on Fire is a bit of a departure from my normal reading preferences. It’s a slow novel that builds towards a suspenseful climax. It is probably best described as a “literary thriller”, but that does serious injustice to the vast bulk of the book, which is a story about divers and their craft. Cunnell manages to keep it interesting throughout and, despite the slow pace of the story, it is a quick and entertaining read, even with the sometimes over-technical discussions. Cunnell has done an excellent job of bringing his characters and the Red Sea to life and leaving the reader with an almost cinematic view of this beautiful part of the world. It’s a surprising little gem, and won’t disappoint.
Mark Allen Smith (www.markallensmith.com)
Simon & Schuster (www.simonandschuster.co.uk)
Geiger is a man without a past; his life started with his arrival, several years before, in New York. Before that, a black hole. After chance leads him to the local Mafia boss, he decides to go into Information Retrieval – torturing subjects to extract information required by paying clients – and discovers that he is very good at it. Geiger rarely draws blood, but he has a knack for knowing truth from lies, and for understanding exactly how to get the information he needs. When a client presents a twelve-year-old boy as the subject instead of the expected adult, Geiger acts quickly without considering the consequences for himself or his partner, Harry: he grabs the boy and runs. But the client has the resources to track them down, and the motivation for getting the boy back and finding out what he knows; everyone else is expendable.
I will freely admit that when I read the blurb for The Inquisitor and learned that the author started out life as a screenwriter, I set my expectations for a very specific type of thriller. You know the type – two-dimensional characters and a very cinematic experience; a Jason Statham movie in book form. So I was pleasantly surprised by what I found. The central characters spring from the page fully-formed and with complete backstories, and the book reads like a well-structured novel, rather than the dialogue- and action-heavy converted screenplay we might have expected.
Geiger is a man of few words, and something of an enigma, even to himself. As events progress, we begin to see glimpses into his past, and the events that formed him. Throw in the fact that he has been seeing a psychiatrist since his “rebirth” and Geiger suddenly seems more human than he pretends to be. Given his line of work, he is clearly a man of few scruples, but he does have a strict moral code for which he is willing to sacrifice everything. It is in his relationship with his business partner, Harry, and, ultimately, his fast friendship with the boy, that we see the humanity behind the stone facade and find someone worth rooting for. His choice of name shows us something of the man’s personality:
At first he’d used the name Gray, then Black. One day, passing a Barnes & Noble bookstore, he spotted a book about the artwork of H. R. Giger. The byzantine images appealed to him, as did the name with its twin g’s. For visual symmetry, he added an e and so became Geiger.
Smith offers a taut thriller with dark undertones. The events take place over the course of 24 hours and this compact time-scale allows the author to ratchet up the tension very quickly once the introductions are out of the way. It’s a fast-paced and, most importantly, believable piece of fiction. Smith manages to keep things down-to-earth and on a tight rein: Geiger is no superman, and as the story progresses he becomes more ragged, to the point where we wonder how he keeps moving. The author manages to tell his story without levelling half of New York and, with the exception of one or two little surprises, presents a straightforward tale that is engrossing, entertaining and uncomplicated. Which is not to say that it’s predictable; far from it, but you won’t find any convoluted twists or high-concept macguffins designed purely to confuse the reader. At its heart, The Inquisitor is a tale of evil versus evil – let’s not forget what Geiger does for a living. It’s a daring concept for a first-time author, but it succeeds due to careful plotting and characters who are immediately engaging and intriguing.
The Inquisitor is Mark Allen Smith’s first novel. Well-written and well- (if simply-) plotted, it serves to introduce the character of Geiger and sidekick Harry to the world. It is unlikely, in this reader’s humble opinion, that this is the last we’ll see of either of them. Geiger presents as a cross between Jack Reacher and Sheldon Cooper. While The Inquisitor may not appeal to fans of The Big Bang Theory, fans of Lee Child’s series would do well to give it a shot: it’s an excellent first novel, and brings with it the promise of more to come.
Translated by Sam Taylor
Harvill Secker (www.vintage-books.co.uk/about-us/harvill-secker)
Released: 3rd May 2012
Laurent Binet’s debut novel, the oddly-named HHhH, appealed to me on two different levels: first of all, as an avid consumer of any and all information concerning the Third Reich and the Holocaust, and secondly, as a lover of the beautiful city of Prague. Unsure what to expect when I started to read this odd, but strangely engaging novel, I was not to be disappointed on either level.
HHhH ostensibly tells the story of the May 1942 assassination attempt on Reinhard Heydrich, the so-called “most dangerous man in the Third Reich”, and of the consequences that followed. It is also Laurent Binet’s own story, the story of a man with a tale to tell and no idea how best to tell it. Amongst chapters detailing the rise of the Blond Beast, or of the convoluted journey that ultimately brought Jozef Gabčík and Jan Kubiš to the north of Prague on the morning of May 27th 1942, we find chapters detailing the author’s research, his wishes for the novel, his neurotic analyses of certain phrases or paragraphs and whether they should remain in the final draft:
I have no evidence that Gabčík and Kubiš’s clothes were provided by the British SOE (Special Operations Executive). In fact, it’s more likely that this was dealt with by Moravec’s Czech services. So there’s no reason why the NCO who looks after them should be British. Oh, what a pain…
Early in the book, Binet sets out his stall, and defines the parameters of this extraordinary novel: he will stick to the facts, with no embellishments. Where dialogue is required, it will be based on documentary evidence of some description, or it will serve to illustrate a point, and be marked as an invention of the author. What he ultimately produces is littered with invention and coloured by the personal opinions of a man who has been living with the story since childhood.
Hácha signs. “I have sacrificed the state in order to save the nation,” he believes. The imbecile. It’s as if Chamberlain’s stupidity was contagious…
If not for the polished prose and level of detail included on the central storyline, this could almost be an annotated early draft, littered with the author’s musings, notes and questions for further research. But that’s doing this wonderful novel an injustice, because it is a finely polished work, exquisitely researched and unbelievably tense. Binet references earlier histories, and fictional attempts at chronicling this period of history, or this group of monsters, including two of my own personal favourites – Robert Harris’ excellent alternative history of the Reich, Fatherland, and the wonderful BBC dramatisation of the Wannsee conference, Conspiracy, with Kenneth Branagh and Stanley Tucci in the key roles of Heydrich and his own right-hand man, Eichmann – revealing an interest that verges on obsession.
Despite the interruptive style, HHhH builds in intensity as history pulls us inexorably towards the morning of May 27th 1942. The central storyline culminates in the 17-page Chapter 222 (the book is barely over 300 pages long, which should give you some idea of the average chapter length, and the relative importance of this one) and again in the 14-page 250th chapter, both of which seem designed expressly to take the reader’s breath away and keep them glued to the page. They succeed. The first details the assassination attempt itself and, from multiple viewpoints, the stories of each of the protagonists as they once again diverge from this nexus – Gabčík and Kubiš as they flee for their lives; Heydrich as he collapses and is rushed to hospital. The second details the siege of the church where Gabčík and Kubiš have holed up, waiting for the opportunity to flee the country.
Throughout, there is a sense of immediacy; the story is told in the present tense, in short, sharp bursts that would be the envy of any thriller writer. The author is a constant presence, and his personality and sense of humour infect the story, offering brief glimpses of light in otherwise dark places. Take, for instance, this offhand remark as the SS begin clearing the village of Lidice, a village removed completely from the face of the Earth on the orders of Hitler as punishment for the assassination of Heydrich:
Then the Germans begin to do what will soon become their favourite occupation: they divide the group in two. Women and children are locked up in the school, while the men are led to a farmhouse and crammed into the cellar.
HHhH is an extraordinary piece of work, a book that sets out to be a historical document and ends up as something completely other. At times tense and thrilling, at others touching and intimate, the author manages to endow this story and these characters with a three-dimensionality that would otherwise be lacking in a straightforward reportage of the events. We are also offered a unique insight into the mind-set of the author, whose sole task should be to relate the events as they happened, but who is so invested in the story that impartiality is impossible. At once accessible history and fast-paced thriller, HHhH is, to overuse a cliché, like no book you’ve read before. Three short weeks after calling Stephen King’s The Wind through the Keyhole the best book you’re likely to see this year, I am forced to eat my words, and make the same ostentatious claim about Laurent Binet’s HHhH. It’s an awe-inspiring debut, from a writer of enormous talent and immense potential. We can only hope that the story of Heydrich, Gabčík and Kubiš is not his only obsession, and that we will hear from him again soon.
|GRANDAD, THERE’S A HEAD ON THE BEACH
Colin Cotterill (www.colincotterill.com)
When we first met Thai crime journalist Jimm Juree in last year’s Killed at the Whim of a Hat, she had been forcibly relocated to the somewhat backwards Maprao in southern Thailand with her mother – slowly succumbing to Alzheimer’s – and the rest of her dysfunctional family. In the tradition of all good crime reporters, it didn’t take Jimm long to find a juicy story and before anyone knew what was going on, the sleepy village of Maprao and the nearby small town of Pak Nam were coming down with dead bodies.
The second novel in the series opens, as the title might suggest, with the discovery of a head on the beach at the back of the Gulf Bay Lovely Resort and Restaurant, where Jimm lives and works. With the same sharp humour and self-deprecation that Jimm displayed in the first novel, we discover that no-one seems particularly interested in the head, nor in investigating who it belongs to, or why it has ended up on the beach. Outraged and intrigued in equal measure, Jimm sets out to track down a story and finds herself in the middle of an international slavery ring involving the local police, dodgy charities, deep sea fishing vessels and the local Burmese immigrant population. Throw in a couple of mysterious women who have just checked in to the resort and it looks, once again, like living at the seaside could be detrimental to one’s health.
For perhaps the first half of Grandad, There’s a Head on the Beach (perhaps the best book title you’re likely to see this year), the pace and style matches that in the earlier volume in the series. Told in first person by Jimm, the story, while never boring, takes its time to get to the meat of the mystery. In an aside in the first handful of pages Jimm tells us:
I’m spending too much time here on sidetracks and making a mess of what should be a tense and exciting opening to my story so I’ll save all the gripes and family intrigues for later.
Let’s face it, the humour is the essence of a Colin Cotterill novel, and the voice and mannerisms of Jimm are what made Killed at the Whim of a Hat such an endearing read, and enticed this reader back for a second try. And since the tangents and sidetracks are no less entertaining than the mysterious origin of the head, or the mysterious origin of the resort’s two guests, it’s easy to sit back, relax, and enjoy.
Around the halfway point, things take a dark turn, and the tone of the novel changes very subtly. The humour is still there, but it is now strained, tempered by the dangerous situation in which Jimm and her friends and family now find themselves. It’s a superb bit of writing by Cotterill who manages to strike the right balance between light-heartedness and tension to leave the reader unsure of just how safe we are, and how likely it is that we’ll reach the end of this second novel with fewer main characters than we started with. This change in tone is down, in part, to the fact that Cotterill has chosen to deal with local “big issues” – the treatment of the Burmese immigrants in Thailand, and the slavery into which they often find themselves forced; real problems affecting the region that he has attempted (quite successfully, it must be said) to address head-on. What we end up with is a lot fewer belly-laughs than we got from Hat (although there are still plenty to be had) and a tense, riveting story that, far from being the farce it was always in danger of becoming, defines these characters and gives us some insight beyond the sass and sarcasm that we have seen so far.
One of the novel’s minor plot points involves karaoke, and Cotterill replaces Hat’s “Bushisms” chapter headings with the mangled lyrics of famous songs as performed by the lounge performers and cover bands of Thailand. Hilarity, as you might expect, ensues, and most people will be glad to know (I certainly was) that the correct lyrics are collected at the end of the book, just in case you can’t work them out for yourself.
Grandad, There’s a Head on the Beach shows a writer willing – and more than able – to experiment with the form, and produce a novel that certainly threw this reader off-guard, based on my limited experience of his work (so far, I have only read the Jimm Juree novels). It’s a much darker read than its predecessor, but still retains the trademark humour that defined the main character. There is a danger that the series could become somewhat formulaic (e.g. two unrelated mysteries to solve in each outing; the reliance on various family members and friends to assist with the investigations) but the uniqueness of setting and characterisation more than covers any minor quibbles I have in that area. This is a must-read for anyone looking to escape to more exotic climes, anyone looking for smart, entertaining mysteries and, above all, anyone looking for a fast, fun, engaging read.
Iain Banks (www.iain-banks.net)
Little Brown (www.littlebrown.co.uk)
I didn’t have to read too far into Iain Banks’ latest novel, Stonemouth, to realise that I’ve been more than a little unfair to him over the course of the past few years. As a younger man, I read The Crow Road, having enjoyed the BBC television adaptation. I remember very little about either TV series or novel – vague memories of a game played while driving at night that involved identifying cars in the distance by the shape of their taillights – except that I enjoyed both immensely, which should speak more to my atrocious long-term memory than to the skill of the author. Since then, I have avoided Banks’ work, a little voice in the back of my head repeating the mantra that here was an author with nothing to offer me, a man who exists too far along the literary spectrum to appeal to my baser sensibilities.
As Stonemouth opens we find ourselves standing on a bridge with Stewart Gilmour. Stewart is back in his home town – the north-eastern Scottish town of the book’s title – after a five year exile, punishment for an unnamed sin committed against the Murstons, the town’s premier criminal family. He has returned for a funeral, the funeral of Donald Murston’s father, at the old man’s request, and it is immediately clear that he is back under sufferance, and with the understanding that he is gone again as soon as the funeral is over. As Stewart settles in, and gets reacquainted with old friends, we begin to get glimpses into his past, growing up in Stonemouth, and his budding relationship with the girl who would turn out to be the love of his life, Ellie Murston. And, as the weekend progresses, it becomes apparent that not everyone is aware of Stewart and Donald’s agreement, leaving the young man wondering if he’s likely to make it through his stay in one piece.
Stonemouth is part coming-of-age story, part (lost) love story, part small-town gangster story. It’s a frequently laugh-out-loud portrait of life in a small town as seen through the eyes of someone who has been away for some time and has returned to find something at once familiar and completely alien. Banks has tapped into a younger generation, and his portrayal of these people – people in their mid-twenties, straddling that fine line between the last lingering remnants of youth and true adulthood – is spot on. Everyone we meet over the course of this weekend is introduced to the reader in terms of their school relationship to Stewart – he was in the year above, she was two years below, he was in the same year – as if everything in this town revolves around, and is defined by, school. There are also more obvious traits, which quickly begin to get under the reader’s skin, but which do define people of a certain age in this country, such as the ubiquitous question mark, turning random statements into meaningless questions:
Jolie played with her empty G&T glass, revolving it on the white tablecloth. ‘Oh, just because they take over your life. They become your life. I sort of had plans? But, well.’
The novel simmers with barely-repressed violence throughout, and when we learn exactly what Stewart has done – in a reveal about halfway through that is, quite simply, a work of genius – it’s clear why the Murstons are out for his blood. Aside from Ellie’s brothers – certifiably nuts, each and every one – there’s the imposing figure of Powell Imrie, and every wannabe on the streets of Stonemouth out to make a name for himself by bringing the head of Stewart Gilmour to Donald Murston. Banks knows how to ratchet up the tension and there are a handful of scenes that leave you forgetting to breathe. When violence does finally erupt, it comes from an unexpected direction, catching the reader completely unawares, and is all the more effective for it.
Stonemouth shows a writer comfortable and confident in his chosen field. Perfectly plotted and beautifully written, it presents a cast of characters that fairly leap off the page from the outset. It is a funny novel – there are some genuine laugh-out-loud moments – but its power lies in characters with whom we can identify – the banter between Stewart and best friend Ferg, for example, spotlights two very believable people that we may have, at some stage in the dim and distant past, known or even, in some cases, been – and a story in which we can invest to the point where the outcome is as important to the reader as it is to Stewart Gilmour. Banks is a writer not to be missed (and certainly not to be consigned to the “too literary for my liking” shelf) and, on the strength of Stonemouth, is arguably one of the most entertaining and exciting talents working in Britain today. He is a writer worth your attention, and Stonemouth should be on everyone’s “must-read” list this year.
|THE WIND THROUGH THE KEYHOLE
Released: 24th April
I have mentioned before my love for the work of Stephen King, so it’s difficult to describe how excited I was to find his latest novel – a Dark Tower novel, no less – on my desk a month before the official publication date (many thanks to the wonderful folks at Hodder for the opportunity). As I read, I convinced myself that a straightforward review of the book might not be enough this time around. As a result, I’ve written a three-and-a-half thousand word essay that includes a review of the book in the context of the larger series, and also the work of King over which the Tower casts its influence. It’s something of an experiment for Reader Dad, and I appreciate it’s not what everyone wants to see. For that reason, I’ve made life slightly easier, and you can skip directly to the actual review by scrolling down to the section headed The Wind through the Keyhole: A Dark Tower Novel. If you feel inclined to read the essay, I’d love to know what you think (Do you agree or disagree with what I’m saying? Does the experiment work, or should I stick to the type of review I’ve been producing for the past year or so?), so do please comment below. Thanks, as always, for visiting.
The Dark Tower
The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed.
I probably hadn’t quite reached my early teens when I read this line – the opening line to Stephen King’s seven volume Dark Tower series – for the first time. What followed was a strange tale that was part fantasy, part science fiction, part western, and somehow much more than the sum of its parts. I quickly devoured the first two books in the series – The Gunslinger and The Drawing of the Three – and promptly got stuck halfway through the third. It took me two more attempts (and two more re-reads of the first two books) before I finally made it through to the end of book three – The Waste Lands – wondering what had held me up for so long. Since then I, like the many others who have read and enjoyed The Dark Tower novels since early in the author’s career, have had two long waits – first for book four (Wizard and Glass), and then for the final three instalments of the series (Wolves of the Calla, Song of Susannah, The Dark Tower), which appeared in rapid succession (a wait that was made marginally more bearable by the publication partway through of the short story “The Little Sisters of Eluria”). Finally having a copy of that seventh volume in my hands brought a strange sense of relief that King had managed to finish what he started, something that was cast into doubt on that fateful day in June 1999 (it’s a worry that nags persistently at every fan of George R. R. Martin, and so many others, that the author isn’t getting any younger, and these massive works remain uncompleted).
The Dark Tower is probably one of Stephen King’s most divisive works, and there are many Constant Readers who have yet to read it for one reason or another. At the beginning, it was seen as a massive deviation from King’s standard horror fare (if anything he has produced over the course of 35 years could be called “standard”), but as the series progressed, and King’s back catalogue grew, it became very clear that this was not a separate work, but the backbone to almost everything King has ever written, and the influence of the Tower shows up in the unlikeliest of places, as if leaked through a thinny from that next-door world into this one.
Based loosely on Robert Browning’s epic poem “Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came”, The Dark Tower tells the story of Roland Deschain, a gunslinger from the land of Gilead, and his quest across Mid-World to reach the Dark Tower. Along the way, Roland draws three people from our world – or close approximations thereof – at different points in time: drug-mule and heroin addict Eddie Dean; wheelchair-bound Civil Rights campaigner Odetta Holmes, who is sometimes the foul-mouthed and vicious Detta Walker and who ultimately becomes Susannah Dean; and the boy Jake Chambers, whom the gunslinger has already met, and lost, at an early point in the story. Rounded out by the billy-bumbler Oy, the ka-tet follow the Path of the Beam through a world that has, as Roland puts it, moved on. As the story progresses, we learn snippets of Roland’s backstory (the bulk of Wizard and Glass tells the story of a much younger Roland and his friends, a love lost and a treachery avenged), and discover some of the driving force behind his quest.
The Dark Tower forms the nexus of all possible worlds. As the series progresses we learn that these worlds exist on different levels of the Tower and for the most part are completely separate, but there are doorways (such as the ones used by Roland to draw his ka-tet) and thin places (thinnies) where the worlds merge together. Mid-World is part fantasy land, and part future post-apocalyptic version of our own world (clues like slightly off-key renditions of “Hey, Jude” point to deeper links than are immediately obvious). Technology exists, but it, like everything else in this world, is tired, and few know how to use or maintain it. It plays a large part in the group’s quest, often in an adversarial or outwardly threatening role (most memorably, Shardik, the great bear that guards the end of the Beam along which Roland will travel to the Tower; or Blaine the Mono, the insane monorail aboard whom the group flee the city of Lud). Behind the technology, the ever-more sinister North Central Positronics, which plays a pivotal role in the series’ climax.
It took Stephen King 30 years, give or take, to write The Dark Tower opus. Towards the end he makes an appearance in a complicated self-referential storyline that makes perfect sense when looked at within the overall context of the Dark Tower series, and King’s wider canon. There was always a danger that after all that time, and all those words, that the ending may not live up to expectation (it’s not a view I share, but it has been said on many occasions that King tells a great story, but lacks considerably in writing endings), but in hindsight, there was only one way that such a story could possibly end and King pulls it off with a skill and mastery that is, quite frankly, second to none.
There a number of themes, both literal and figurative, running through the series. Roland is driven by a strange sense of honour and duty that often places him in a difficult position; more often than not, duty to the Tower wins out over duty to anyone or anything else and as a result Roland comes across as a cold and calculating character, something that Eddie points out in colourful ways on more than one occasion. He may seem a strange choice for the hero of the piece, but it’s difficult, as the story progresses, not to like him, despite his faults. The concept of ka underlines all, a concept similar to destiny (or probably, more closely, predestination) that drives Roland on his quest, and binds this group of disparate souls together as a sort of family. “Ka,” King tells us on many occasions, “is like a wheel” and this is probably the underpinning ethos of the whole Dark Tower opus. With the final three books, King introduces the number nineteen (see the name of the ka-tet, for example), which takes on significance as the story proceeds towards its climax. It is a number that crops up in King’s fiction quite frequently.
In the Shadow of The Dark Tower
As the story of the Dark Tower progressed, and as King grew as a writer, Constant Reader started to find references to this larger work throughout King’s novels and, more importantly, references to King’s other novels within The Dark Tower series. It was probably with the publication of King’s 1994 novel, Insomnia, that he cemented the idea that the Tower forms the nexus of his own work, that all of his novels take place in worlds on various levels of the Tower. It is also in Insomnia that King introduces the villain of the overall piece, in the form of the Crimson King.
There are references to the Tower throughout King’s later work, often oblique and easily missed, but sometimes more obvious. Some of his novels are more closely linked: the fairy-tale-like The Eyes of the Dragon is set in some remote corner of Mid-World, and contains at its centre the same dark man that wanders through much of his other fiction; and the opening story of his collection Hearts in Atlantis deals heavily with the Tower, seen through the eyes of the people forced into a kind of slavery, their goal the downfall of the Tower. Some clever retro-fitting brings many of his earlier novels into the fold: the ka-tet arrive in a version of Topeka ravaged by Captain Trips, proving that The Stand takes place on a nearby level of the Tower (although this novel has much closer ties, as we’ll discuss momentarily); Father Callahan, who we met first in 1975’s ‘Salem’s Lot, turns up late in the series, and the group encounter him as they enter Calla Bryn Sturgis. The Tower also, surprisingly, has a heavy influence on King’s second collaboration with Peter Straub, Black House. Surprising because it is a collaborative effort, but the two series – The Dark Tower on the one hand, The Talisman/Black House duology on the other – do have similar themes and concepts driving them, which makes the crossover much more logical.
There is a single figure that moves through King’s work like a restless ghost, pure evil distilled in the form of man, although it’s immediately obvious, to the reader at least, that this is no mere man. We first meet him in The Stand in the form of Randall Flagg, and he turns up again and again throughout King’s works, often – but not always – bearing the initials R.F. We find him in many places throughout The Dark Tower: he is the fabled man in black who fled across the desert (who has been known as Walter, and as Marten Broadcloak), and appears in the city of Lud in the guise of one Richard Fannin. Flagg (the name by which he is most commonly known) is one of the most instantly-recognisable figures in King’s fiction, regardless of which disguise he wears, and without doubt, one of the most sinister characters in fiction.
The Dark Tower is, perhaps, King’s most personal work, so it was interesting to see him relinquish some creative control to his research assistant Robin Furth (author of the encyclopaedic The Dark Tower: A Concordance) for a series of comics from Marvel chronicling the earlier years of Roland, picking up where the story Roland tells for the majority of Wizard and Glass left off, and detailing the fall of Gilead and the beginning of the gunslinger’s quest. It is also interesting to note that Ron Howard is planning a series of film and television adaptations of the novels which will reportedly cast Javier Bardem in the role that was custom-built for a much younger Clint Eastwood.
About 35 years after the first publication of the first part of The Gunslinger in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction (and over 40 years since he first put pen to paper on the project), the Dark Tower still casts a shadow over much of King’s work. As recently as the massive 11/22/63, King is making reference, in some shape or form, to Mid-World, and the other worlds that branch from the Tower. Likewise, many Constant Readers (and I’m happy to be counted among their number) have lived in this same shadow, waiting for long periods for the next instalment, breathing a sigh of relief when that final volume was finished, and watching hopefully for any small reference in each and every one of King’s novels and short story collections.
Imagine, then, my surprise, not to mention outright glee (and that of many other people, presumably), at the announcement of a new novel set in Roland’s world. Seven years after King brought his gunslinger to the end of his quest, he returns to Mid-World.
The Wind through the Keyhole: A Dark Tower Novel
There are a number of gaps in time during the course of The Dark Tower, presumably because a lot of walking and not a lot else went on. One such gap is between the fourth (Wizard and Glass) and fifth (Wolves of the Calla) volumes, as the ka-tet leave the Green Palace that wasn’t Oz and head for Calla Bryn Sturgis, and End-World beyond. The Wind through the Keyhole goes some way towards plugging this gap, picking up immediately after the events of Wizard and Glass and joining Roland and his companions as they follow the Path of the Beam towards the river Whye. Oy, the billy-bumbler, is acting strangely, stopping suddenly and raising his snout towards the north, and it takes the ferryman who carries them across the river to jog the gunslinger’s memory, and alert him to the approaching starkblast – a storm of such ferocity and freezing temperature that it can cause trees to implode, and birds to fall, frozen solid, from the sky.
Hurrying to shelter, and beating the storm by a heartbeat, the group settles down with enough firewood to see them through a couple of days and, finding themselves unable to sleep, they turn to Roland for another story. The gunslinger starts to tell them of a time shortly after his return to Gilead from Mejis when he and one of his original ka-tet, Jamie deCurry, were sent to the town of Debaria to capture a skin-man that was terrorising the town, and which had already claimed upwards of twenty lives. When they arrive, they find fresh slaughter, but this time there’s a survivor – a young boy no older than Jake – and Roland, already showing some of the coldness for which he will be well-known in later years, decides to use the boy to flush out the culprit. As they wait for the arrival of a group of suspects, with a wild wind blowing through the town, Roland tells the boy a fairytale, the story of young Tim Stoutheart and his encounter with a trickster in a dark cloak.
The Wind through the Keyhole is a tale within a tale within a tale. The titular story is a fairy-tale told to Roland as a child by his mother. Set in a remote corner of Mid-World, it is a coming-of-age story centred around Tim, a young boy willing to do anything to save his mother’s sight. Set on a quest by a man Constant Reader will know all-too-well — up to his old tricks, manipulating people for his own amusement — Tim finds himself out of his depth and in the path of an oncoming starkblast. This tale is sandwiched between the two parts of the story about Roland and his hunt for the skin-man (or were-creature) and the whole is book-ended by the story we know and love so well, the journey of Roland, Eddie, Susannah, Jake and Oy along the Path of the Beam, moving ever closer to the Dark Tower.
King slips into Mid-World very comfortably, despite the fact that it has been almost seven years since his last visit. The feel of the world is unchanged, and the language has a handful of idiosyncrasies that weren’t there before, but in all, nothing has changed here and the return is as comfortable and natural for the reader as it apparently was for the author. This book, described on the cover as A Dark Tower Novel, was more accurately described by King in the original announcement as “Dark Tower 4.5″. What’s obvious is that this book will have no impact on the outcome of the series as a whole, and will contain very little in the way of character development (except in revealing more about the still-mysterious past of the gunslinger). As a result, it’s unsurprising that King spends very little of the book with the ka-tet (less than 50 pages all told) and launches as quickly as possible into Roland’s tale, which he then uses as a springboard for the main event.
As a result, the book deals very little with the key characters of the series (with one obvious exception), and is perhaps closer to The Eyes of the Dragon in that respect than even Wizard and Glass, which would be its closest counterpart from the original seven volumes. In his Foreword, King assures us that this book can be picked up and read even without the in-depth understanding of the surroundings and characters that comes with reading the original series and, to a certain extent that is true, but those readers will have a much different experience (most likely with much more head-scratching and -shaking) than people who followed Roland for the duration of his quest. The exception I mentioned above is, of course, the man in black, best known as Randall Flagg who sets Tim on his course because it amuses him to do so.
Ka is like a wheel. As we read, and as the elder Roland recounts the tale, this fact comes crashing home, and the parallels between Roland’s story and Tim’s are unmistakable. It also speaks to Roland’s stubbornness that, despite this realisation, he is as determined as ever to complete his quest and reach the Tower — he has a score to settle, regardless of who set him on the path, or what that person’s motives were.
Through all three stories, there is a constant wind — starkblasts ravage outer and inner, while a simoom blows alkali dust through the town of Debaria in the middle tale. The wheel is a metaphor that Roland used frequently when speaking of ka, but he also spoke of the mysterious force as a wind, before which nothing can stand. Blowing across the years, the wind carries revelations that shed greater light on Roland, and add a richer experience for the long-time reader.
As with all the Dark Tower novels, The Wind through the Keyhole contains a number of illustrations. Noted artists such as Michael Whelan, Bernie Wrightson and Dave McKean have illustrated past volumes, each stamping their own style on Roland, his world, the Tower. This time famed comics artist Jae Lee (who also provides the art for the Marvel Comics Dark Tower comic book series) takes his turn. As well as chapter and section headers, Lee has provided five beautiful full-page black-and-white pieces that help to set the tone. What’s missing, unfortunately, are the colour plates that he also produced for the novel, and which seem to be exclusively included in the limited edition of this volume from US publisher Donald M. Grant. It’s a shame, since past volumes from Hodder have included all of the artwork.
The Wind through the Keyhole is a welcome return to a well-loved world, and a set of well-loved characters. It doesn’t advance the plot and adds minimal character development to the overall arc, but it’s a welcome addition to the set nonetheless. King is a master storyteller, and this is as good a showcase as any for his talents, as he interweaves three seemingly unrelated narratives into a single, consistent whole that stands with some of his best writing. It’s a beautifully-written novel that is clearly close to the author’s heart and is sure to be well-received by long-standing Dark Tower fans. Will it win any new recruits? It’s certainly not a bad jumping-on place, in that it provides a taste of the world without the commitment to the complete seven-book series, but I suspect it will deter as many people from seeking out those books as it will drive towards them. It is the nature of a beast like this that in order for the standalone novel to work, it must still meet the needs of the multitude of existing fans, and elements of the Dark Tower series — the language, the history — are just too alien to hold the attention of the average reader.
For the aficionado, though, The Wind through the Keyhole has everything that we’ve come to expect from the series. Here are our friends in the middle of their journey and while the starkblast poses no threat (we know they all live through it), King still manages to notch up the suspense in the telling. Here is the broken-down world that these people inhabit, the world that is almost, but not quite, like some future version of our own. And here, most importantly, is our old adversary, the man in black, the Walkin’ Dude, Randall Flagg, doing what he loves and what, if we’re totally honest with ourselves, what we love to see him do. The subhead of this book fills me with a sense of expectant glee: not Dark Tower 4.5, as was originally mooted, but A Dark Tower Novel. This is one Constant Reader that lives in the hope that Roland and his ka-tet still have more to say, especially if what they have to say is as worthwhile as what’s within the covers of The Wind through the Keyhole. There is no better master of his craft than Stephen King, and I’m finding it difficult to believe that I’ll see a better book than this before year’s end.
If you’ve read the series, I urge you to pick this up (though suspect I’m preaching to the choir on that one). If you haven’t, this one is definitely worth a go (and at just over 300 pages doesn’t require much commitment), but I would urge you to find a copy of The Gunslinger and see where you end up.