Tuesday, February 08, 2005

Book Review: The Dark Tower, Stephen King

Stephen King's career-spanning magnum opus - the Dark Tower cycle - reaches its conclusion in the seventh book of the series, aptly and simply titled, The Dark Tower.

This cycle begins with The Gunslinger - which, if I remember correctly, is the first novel King ever wrote (Carrie was published first, but The Gunslinger's completion predates it). I remember beginning The Gunslinger - oddly enough - in a plastic surgeon's office after my own life-altering (and life-threatening) high-impact encounter with a high bar.

At age sixteen-going-on-seventeen I was perfectly suited to be swept up by King's Wild West-meets-Mad-Max blend of traditional Western with modern technology with deep, deep mysticism and magic. He pillaged the best of all genres and created a fascinating, irresistable world.

I tore through The Gunslinger, the immense Drawing of the Three, and the thrilling but awkward The Wastelands (with its damn frustrating cliffhanger ending). And then I, like thousands of his fans, waited years for the next installment in what he promised to be a six or seven novel series.

It wasn't until my junior year of college that the fourth novel finally emerged, Wizard and Glass. Reading that was also an unforgettable experience. It was over my Christmas break - the break where I had begun my semester-long junior independent work on the first day of the three-week break. I had to stay at school over the break, working like a madman to the point of exhaustion.

And yet when I finally returned home to my dorm room, I'd pick up Wizard and Glass and find myself unable to put it down. Other than the three days I spent at home for Christmas, my entire break was my junior independent work and Wizard and Glass. Its tale of tragic adolescent romance coupled with the usual action, adventure, and magic was absolutely captivating (though many others find it intolerable - to each their own).

And again we waited.

Sometime around 2001 King announced that he was completing the Dark Tower novels - all three - back-to-back-to-back. The Wolves of the Calla came first and felt a little rusty, a little overlong, somewhat lacking in the magical, creative vitality that the other books possessed.

The Song of Susannah reads so quickly that it's practically a footnote compared to the others. King himself appears in fictional form as a character in this novel and in the next. While it's borderline egomania, it makes plenty of sense in the gunslinger world. Especially if you consider the alternating difficulty and inspiration this story has offered him over his decades-long career.

And then The Dark Tower imposes its mighty and lengthy self. It recaptures that magical allure and is a good read. But as a conclusion to his immense, most important work, it is merely quite adequate. This is, in some ways, no fault of King's. He wraps up his Dark Tower cycle in as fitting a manner as anyone could expect. But for all the earth-shattering revelations in the previous six novels, the conclusion is merely "right". But not brilliant. Not awe-inspiring. But not exactly disappointing either.

After all it's a seven-novel journey of incredible sacrifice, incredible hardship. The very definition of a Pyrrhic victory. A happy, glorious conclusion was never in the cards. The conclusion that is offered is the only one that could be written. But I don't think it compares to the other high points in this series.

It's well-known that many of King's other stories tie in somehow to the world of the Dark Tower. 'Salem's Lot, Insomnia, and Hearts in Atlantis figure very prominently in the Dark Tower novels and are therefore required reading. However The Stand, It, Misery, The Eyes of the Dragon, and others tangentially (or directly) refer back to the Dark Tower world.

The Dark Tower cycle is an immense achievement and a testament to King's incredible imagination. His concept of fate - "ka" in gunslinger lingo - and the way it guides, controls, and condemns his characters' lives is captivating and seductive. He set out to write his own Lord of the Rings (this is quite obvious as the stories unfold) and, for the most part, succeeded masterfully.


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