Archive for May, 2016

Roland

“What’s that?” Twelve-year old me pointed. My dad and I were at Borders and a display had been set up in the middle of the store. It was advertising the first four books of a series called THE DARK TOWER by Stephen King to coincide with the release of the then fifth(out of seven) volume. Each book had a dark and mysterious cover on it, but I had singled out the first: THE GUNSLINGER.

“Oh, those,” my dad’s voice dropped. “That’s The Dark Tower. I starting reading the second one and didn’t finish it. Too weird.”

Too weird. That was the best sales pitch I could ever ask for. No blurb on the back by a prestigious¬†¬†author or a glowing review from the New York Times could persuade me more to read something than that it was too weird. I was familiar with the name Stephen King (he was that horror guy. And I had been a horror junkie since birth), but I had never read anything from him. I suppose most King fans became a Constant Reader from his more famous works like THE SHINING, THE STAND, or IT. But something about this book shouted out to me. With the lean figure of a Clint Eastwood cowboy type standing in a vast desert, his face cast in shadow as he gazed upon a rib cage of some sort of animal in front of him. A bird perched on top of it stared back. And in the background, far off into the distance, loomed a silhouette of a great castle. Or was it a tower? I had to know its secrets. I had to know what it all meant. It felt grand, epic, and serious. “Serious” is something that most twelve-year olds crave out of their fiction. No more kid’s stuff, it’s time to put on my Big Boy pants. This book needed it to be read by me. And so I did. Again. And again. And again. I read the rest of the series over and over too. Each time starting with that wonderful, perfect sentence:

“The man in black fled across the desert and the gunslinger followed.”

The plot of THE GUNSLINGER is quite simple. A man named Roland, the last of the gunslingers(think of Eastwood’s legendary Western figure mixed in with the peacekeeping philosophy of the Jedi) is chasing after the evil wizard known as the Man In Black. Their goal? To reach the legendary Dark Tower. This short description is what turns a lot of readers off from it and never continue with the series. After all, if you’re going to start a huge Tolkien-esque quest series, why do it with a novel that isn’t even three hundred pages long, has little to no plot, and a protagonist that is mostly unlikeable? But those reasons are precisely why I was attracted to it in the first place.

If you’ve read a Stephen King novel, you’re probably familiar with how he writes his prose. His words have a tendency to have a very accessible almost folksy feel to them. He’s not there to impress you with his way to craft a sentence, he’s there to tell you a story. With THE GUNSLINGER, that signature voice is gone and is replaced with an abstract, poetic kind of writing. Like Cormac McCarthy if he wrote LORD OF THE RINGS, the wold of The Dark Tower is described in beautiful fragments that conjure dream-like images in our minds. It is common in most epics of this kind to have a concrete history of its world. Maps, monetary systems, political and religious affiliations are usually laid bare to us as if the author has a PHD in the history of their own imaginary lands. King takes an archeologist’s approach to his world-building. Very little is known about Mid-World through the course of the book primarily because King himself didn’t know too much about it at the time of writing it as well as the fact that it has “moved on.” That is to say that civilizations have crumbled, machines have turned to rust, and vast green valleys have dissolved into sand. Our only real connection with the life of Mid-World is that it is similar to our own. Gas stations once existed as did the Bible and songs like “Hey Jude.” This gives it an fossil type texture to it. What is shown above the dirt is only a small piece to what lies below. And that gives readers, or this one anyway, a desire to dig deeper and deeper into the earth of King’s imagination.

But what good is a world if there is no one in it to care about? King’s greatest strength, I believe, is to create characters that feel like real people and not constructs on the page. Anyone that is an avid reader of his will tell you this. From the Losers Club of IT to the Torrance Family of THE SHINING to even the inmates of death row from THE GREEN MILE, King has an uncanny ability to make us believe that we have met his creations and want to be with them. Roland is an experiment in that field. Quiet, stoic, and cold, the last gunslinger is not your standard hero. In fact, he is downright cruel in most cases. From the horrific massacre of the small town of Tull(once its citizens have been mind controlled by the MIB) to allowing a child to fall to his death, Roland projects very little good in him. Or at least, what little we see on the surface.

On the verge of death in a desert, Roland is saved by Jake Chambers. A young boy who was transported to Mid-World after dying in ours. The first real act of kindness he has seen in years (maybe even decades) awakens a part of himself that Roland has kept buried ever since his hunt for the Tower began. Jake is not a surrogate son for him, but reminds him of the boy that he once was. The boy who lived in the great city of Gilead and stood holding his best friend’s hand as he witnessed the hanging of a traitor. The boy who defeated his teacher Cort as an act of overzealous revenge after discovering his mother having an affair with his father’s confidant Marten, thus earning his guns. A boy who is the direct descendent of the legendary king Arthur Eld. A boy who loved a girl named Susan Delgado. A boy who’s dream was to bring peace as a gunslinger across the land. Jake reminds Roland that even in that darkness, there is light. That, despite the MIB’S taunts, there is still some shred of humanity left within him. That, just because the world has moved on, doesn’t mean that he has to.

SPOILERS IN THIS NEXT PARAGRAPH FOR THE END OF THE SERIES.

Knowing the end, it struck me that perhaps in other cycles, Roland never met Jake. That, perhaps, not meeting the young boy would’ve served as a death sentence. After all, the MIB placed Jake in Mid-World to begin with as an obstacle that would throw Roland off. Or maybe in one cycle he didn’t let Jake die at all? If that was the case, could he have never met Eddie, Susannah, etc? Could he have reached the Tower sooner or later? Something to chew on.

END OF SPOILERS.

In the end, Roland’s addiction to finding the Tower overthrows him and he has to let go of Jake. Very little is known about the meaning of all this by the book’s final page. We know that the Man In Black has many identities, including that of Marten from Roland’s childhood. We know that the MIB serves a king of darkness of some kind. We know that the universe that Roland lives in is vast beyond comprehension. And finally, we know that the Dark Tower holds all of the universe within itself. These few scraps of information took me in like bait on a line and I’ve been chasing the Tower ever since.

Now at twenty-five, Stephen King has become my favorite author, inspiring me to become one myself. Next January, the film version of THE DARK TOWER hits theatres and I think it’s time to take that road once again. Join me, won’t you? Join me as we search across seven books leading up to the field of roses and the Tower itself. For ka is a wheel.

You can purchase my novel BLOOD TRADE in paperback and ebook format right here.

You can purchase a copy of THE GUNSLINGER right here.

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