I didn’t expect to get here this soon. When I reviewed volume VI in the Dark Tower series a few weeks ago I wrote that I would wait until VII appeared in a mass market edition before I had my say about it in these pages. As it happened, that was the very same week, so here I am again, travelling Mid-world and End-world with Roland of Gilead and his Ka-Tet.
The Dark Tower saga started in the mind of a 19 year old Stephen King as a head on collision between Sergio Leone’s spaghetti westerns and Tolkien’s Middle Earth. Imagine the young Clint Eastwood on a mystic quest to save the world and you have a picture of the Roland Deschain, Roland of Gilead (in which there is no balm any more) or, as he was called in the opening words of the first book, “the gunslinger”.
Gunslingers were knights in Roland’s world, a feudal world held together by the power and skill of these flint eyed men who lived by a code and tried to do the right thing. Along the way we have learned a bit about how the world “moved on”, how things fell apart, how the minions of the Crimson King nibbled away at the structures that held the worlds in place until they began to weaken, crumble and break.
The “beams” that radiated through the layers of reality were under assault by the King and his lieutenant, Randall Flagg (one of his many names). Roland simply knew him as the Dark Man to begin with, and pursued him for vengeance after the great final battle at Jericho Hill, the battle which left Roland the last of the gunslingers.
Roland added more to that roster, picking unlikely candidates from our reality: a junkie, and crippled woman, a teenage boy and his doglike companion. They became gunslingers and fought their way along the road, following the beam of the bear and the turtle, opposing the will of the enemy and breaking his plans as they drew closer to the Dark Tower.
Volume VI, The Song of Susannah, left them in a fine mess, separated in time and space and under the new threat of Mordred, who is somehow both the son of Roland and the Crimson King, born of a mystical rape, by Susannah and one other.
This volume deals with the confrontation between Roland and his devil son, the fates of the members of the Ka-Tet, the salvation of Stephen King, the reintroduction of several characters from earlier volumes and other books, the secret of the Crimson King, and the way in which the wheel of time seeks to heal itself from the damage which has been done.
This sequence of books, thousands of pages in length at the end, has been 34 years in the making, and came as close as can be to never seeing book form. It started out as a series of connected short stories and evolved into a complex mythos which has already spawned a fan created concordance and a number of web based fan sites for those who are trying to keep track of it all. Along the way Stephen King discovered that about half the books he has written have something to do with this particular tale, that the evil and the monsters came from somewhere and this was the place.
Small wonder that he began to talk about retiring, or at least cutting back, when he finally got Roland to that room at the top of the tower and saw where it was taking him. In his author’s note King admonishes readers not to write him angry letters about that.
“I wasn’t exactly crazy about the ending, either, if you want to know the truth, but it’s the right ending. The only ending, in fact. You have to remember that I don’t make these things up, not exactly; I only write down what I see.”
Since then, he has slowed down. Only one book a year now, it seems, and some of those are even under 300 pages. Well, I never thought he would stop entirely. He doesn’t need to do this for the money any more, after all, and this is a man who even writes short stories, a form of fiction that hardly repays the effort it takes to make them up, just because he gets an interesting idea.
His last two books have been a hard boiled mystery about a missing person and a horror novel that would really make you think twice about using a cell phone. I expect there will be more.