November 25, 2005

The Dark Tower

I'm finally finished with it. Stephen King's "Dark Tower" series is seven books written over a 20+ year period. It's the longest continuous story I've read in maybe ever. All I can really say about it in short form is that it was "okay". There were moments of greatness in the series and writing or plot developments that made me wince. A lot of times, I was impatient to finish just so I could get on with other books I was more interested in. But it wasn't the kind of series that I would just give up on either.

The story follows Roland, a gunslinger. He has a gift with guns that lets him take on dozens of opponents at a time, shoot small objects out of the air from a great distance without really aiming, that sort of thing. For some reason that is (maddeningly) never made quite clear, Roland is on a quest to reach the Dark Tower, a monument that stands at the crossroads of all possible worlds. Something is wrong with the tower and/or the beams that stretch from it in a criss-cross pattern over all worlds, providing a framework for their structure. Roland wants to find out what that is, I guess, and try to fix it.

How does he intend to fix things? He repeatedly says he just wants to go to the tower, climb to the top and "look around". What the hell kind of plan is that? You would think a plan would crystallize along the way, during the seven books of the quest, but no. Roland finally reaches the Dark Tower, and he pretty much just figures he'll climb to the top and see what's up.

It isn't until book four, which was my favorite of the series (and more like traditional fantasy than any of the others) that Roland tells an important story from his youth as a flashback. It is here that we see the bulk of Roland's initial motivation to seek out the Dark Tower and figure out what is going wrong with the world. The problem isn't necessarily with the tower itself but rather with the beams that support the world, and so along the way, Roland has to deal with that as well.

But let me go back to the start. Roland is chasing a "man in black" who turns out to be an incarnation of Randall Flagg, the bad guy from "The Stand" and various other King novels. He knows that this guy is working for the Crimson King, who is a powerful, insane wizard whose history and motivation for trying to destroy the tower and the beams are really never made clear (neither are Flagg's, but at least he has an interesting personality). He finally catches the man in black, and the man reveals some of the truth to Roland, only to get away.

Roland wakes up at the beginning of book two on a beach where some strange giant lobsters are trying to attack him. How did he get there? One of the creatures snaps off two of his fingers, but Roland manages to crawl to safety, only he is deliriously tired and starts to become sick thanks to the poisoning from the creatures. Why does this happen? Roland decides to walk along the beach, and he comes across doorways, one by one.

Each door opens into a close variant of the "real" world, and from each world, he draws a person who is designated to help him (or indirectly finds a way to get that person to his world). Each is a typical King anti-hero, with coarse personality and all kinds of mental and/or physical problems. Once that is accomplished (or around that time), they find one of the beams and begin to follow it, knowing that it will eventually lead them to the Dark Tower.

After book three (which to me ends after they get off the train at the beginning of book four, the end of a pretty bad cliffhanger plot at the end of book three), the series improves (and the books get longer) and the group starts to get close enough to the source of the problems that they can start actively doing something about it. Like book four, book five kind of stands alone as a set piece, and it is all right. Books six and seven return to the overarching quest.

The only weakness for me near the end of the series was King's vision of the world, which included himself. King became an important character in his own book, even incorporating the time he nearly got killed when he was struck while walking by a careless driver. There's also a silly book collector involved in a plot to protect the tower in the "real" world, and this whole sideline didn't do much for me. King's other worlds from his other novels also make appearances here as the quest forces the characters to pass through these worlds, and I was fine with that.

The ending of the story was all right for me. King himself mentions in the text of the novel that writing an ending that would satisfy everyone for such a long series is incredibly difficult. I like closure, so I would've preferred a "Lord of the Rings" style ending where all the major characters sail off to the Grey Havens, but King chooses an ending which, to be fair, he foreshadows throughout all seven books without really realizing it (he says himself he didn't know how it would end until about 20 years after he started writing the first book).

I guess I would recommend this book to anyone who has read and really loved four or five different Stephen King novels. Some of his best are "The Stand", "It", "The Regulators", "The Tommyknockers" and "Salem's Lot". I think you would have to be familiar with King's work and style and characters to really enjoy this. This definitely shouldn't be the first or only thing you read by King. It isn't meant for the casual fiction fan or even casual King fan (which is me). I'm sure the hard core King fans think this is better than "Lord of the Rings".

It's not good enough to re-read, although the ending naturally invites that, and it's also not good enough for me to want to go out and buy a beautiful boxed set or anything like that. I'd buy the boxed Calvin and Hobbes treasury for 80 bucks at Costco first.

Posted by Observer at November 25, 2005 09:17 AM

Comments on entries can only be made in pop-up windows while those entries are still on the main index page. Sorry for the inconvenience this causes, but this blocks about 99.99% of the spam the blog receives.

I've only read the first four novels so far, and indeed they were the first King I'd read.

Pretty decent so far, I think.

Posted by: Andrew on November 26, 2005 12:33 AM

The reason I said this shouldn't be the first or only thing you read by King is that, if you're familiar with some of King's other works, I think it makes the Dark Tower stories better (because you have more background going in). Also, it shouldn't be the only thing because he's written so many other better things, as I've mentioned.

Posted by: Observer on November 26, 2005 11:44 AM