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.