Spoiler-FREE 1st paragraph: I’ve just finished Stephen King's THE DARK TOWER series, some 4,250 pages worth of epic Western/fantasy/steampunk. The first four novels are among my favorite of King’s work. The final three, written in one fell swoop after King nearly died in 1999, contain baffling missteps and a self-indulgent subplot that almost ruined the whole experience for me. However, THE DARK TOWER ultimately has a satisfying ending (two of them, the second better than the first) … and not to brag, but I called it way back when I first read Book II. The series is definitely worth your time.
>>> Spoilers from here down. <<<
By his own admission, THE DARK TOWER was King's attempt at a really long epic, his LORD OF THE RINGS or GORMENGHAST. The opening line, “The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed,” was conceived in 1970. Over the next 27 years, King published the first four books. The long, much-interrupted, but careful work on these books is evident in their tight structure, and King’s own growth as a writer shows in the novels’ variant tones.
We learn, slowly at first, about Mid-World, a world that has moved on. Like ours, even derived from ours, but not ours. The sparse, dry landscape and feverish demons of Book I; the dances into a New York similar to our own in Book II; the Mad Max steampunk of the Wastelands and Lud in Book III; the pleasant 1950’s-style Western setting of a small town mystery of Roland's youth in Book IV ... these are the places, times, and dimensions Roland passes through on his way to the Dark Tower. All four are all wonderfully written adventure stories, brimming with tension and creativity, filled with sharp characters and simple (but expertly told) plots.
These early works aren't without their blunders and indulgences. Blaine is a bit tedious, and the occasional hints to other works (like the WIZARD OF OZ, or even King's own oeuvre) paint a huge multiverse where perhaps a more closed-in pair of dimensions would have done. Eddie even mentions seeing the movie THE SHINING, ha ha, one of the multiverse worlds is our own.
That said, I admit to being excited at the idea that Randall Flagg was the man in black, aka Marten Broadcloak and Walter O'Dim et al. Flagg is right at home in this semi-magical, semi-technological world. I dared to dream that King may at long last let something fatal happen to his signature villain. Randall Flagg is like the Joker and Q, best in small doses spaced apart, but this isn’t comics or TV. These are novels, where even beloved characters die and stay that way. Roland of Gilead certainly seemed the type who could take that smug sumbitch Flagg down, once and for all.
After WIZARD AND GLASS' publication in 1997, King joked that given his pace in getting these volumes out, he hoped to live long enough to actually finish the story. He never made allusions that he knew how THE DARK TOWER would end or had outlined it all. It was different than his other fiction. It was just coming out of his mind.
Then on June 19, 1999, while out for a walk, King was struck by a van driven erratically by an absent-minded fellow. He suffered grievous injuries that nearly took his life. During the hospitalization, operations, and rehab, King wrote DREAMCATCHER longhand and his wife took advantage of his not being home and finally cleaned out his writing office. When King got home and saw his old office stark and bare, he was struck like a man seeing his own grave. Should he die, this is how Tabitha would have cleaned out his office for good, and not just to straighten up. King vowed to finish THE DARK TOWER as soon as possible.
And, sadly, he did just that: letting it all come out of his mind, King blazed through the final three books in a single session. Books V, VI, and VII were all published in a ten-month span covering 2003 and 2004. And holy shit, do they feel like it. Far from the long-considered and ploddingly-written early works, Books V, VI, and VII are a run-on mess.
Before my laundry list, let me note some very good bits in these novels. Book V is another small-town Western adventure, essentially (and admittedly) a version of THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN. Up until the last fifty pages, King builds a great world. To see the Calla folk’s hard lives soften at the chance of hope … to feel the pain at their losing children and getting back lumbering, drooling giants … to dread the dramatic buildup of the Wolves and their impending ambush … this is as good as WIZARD AND GLASS. I knew some of the townsfolk would die (just like in W&G), and I didn’t want them to. I even felt at some points that Roland and his ka-tet could fail at this task. That's how well done the first 85% of WOLVES OF THE CALLA was.
In Book VII, there are more well-written scenes. Jake and the Pere do wondrous battle with the minions of evil in a dark restaurant whose kitchen houses a gateway to Mid-World. There’s an assault on a remote campus of enslaved psionic technicians, whose work brings about the destruction of the Beams that hold the worlds together. The suspense of this battle is helped in no small part by the long and slow culmination of backstory Roland and his ka-tet learn about the town before they make their charge. This is as good as any of the early books’ moments, suspenseful and sad. Later, Roland, Susannah, and Oy set out for the final march to the Dark Tower, in a terrifying journey through Castle Discordia’s underground passages and into a frozen wasteland. Sadly, when they come upon Dandelo —
Oh right, I’m only talking good bits for now. So … how about Mordred’s introduction in Book VI? The demon-spawn child of Roland, the Crimson King, Susannah, and Mia is brought into this world by a psychotic doctor. The horrific bastard immediately eats his mother in the process. That sequence rates an honorable mention. Plus the second ending to Book VII, a truly transcendent denouement (literally so), is the redemption for all the nonsense I’m about to go wah-wah over.
Well. That’s about it for the good bits of V, VI, and VII. The remainder is, in my humble eyes, rushed, silly, or downright lame.
For example, the “wolves” of the Calla, the mysterious and deadly kidnappers of the region's children mind you, turn out to be robots in the shape and clothing of Doctor Doom from the FANTASTIC FOUR. Who wield lightsabers from STAR WARS. And throw self-propelled grenade things from HARRY POTTER.
Uh, okay …
Later on we see these robots sitting deactivated in a workshop in Book VII and learn they are the tools of the psionics and their masters. The Wolves are merely the mechanical stormtroopers who steal the Calla’s children. And, the children’s juicy brains form the fuel of the psionics’ power.
There is SOME internal logic here. The psionics and some of their masters are enslaved folk originally from Earth, so if they had a hand in the design of the wolf robots, they just might incorporate specific bits of their own culture into them. But fucking Doctor Doom? Fucking lightsabers and Harry Potter bombs? If they have to be callbacks to our society, why not a hundred copies of robot Batman in black robes and armor, hosing the Calla with tanks of Blofeld's knockout gas from DIAMONDS ARE FOREVER, and toting (just in case) the BFG from DOOM? You know, shit that's actually functionally menacing in the Mid-World setting?
And that's just off the top of my head. The psionics weren’t bound to any restrictions, so why they settled on Doctor Doom (of all things) is beyond me. The wolves — the goddamn TITLE CHARACTERS of Book V — are a terribly unsatisfying villain species, pop culture junk that doesn’t belong in this worldwide bestselling author’s magnum opus.
Speaking of unsatisfying, Randall Flagg meets his end in Book VII. Yep, I got my wish, ol’ RF is finally dead meat. In a duel with Roland? In a clever twist, an ironic moment, a stunning passage where he’s slain by an underling? Nope. Randall pops in to visit Mordred (just two agents of the Crimson King shooting the shit) … and Mordred kind of eats him.
And that’s that.
A most inglorious end to a beloved villain, negating all of the careful plotting Randall Flagg was up to in his bid to slay Roland (and the Crimson King) and take the Tower for himself. Flagg dies by clumsily going through a one-way door with what he knows to be a murderous, unstable demon, and then talks to him instead of demoning his way the fuck outta dodge. I guess it could be seen as the comeuppance of Flagg's arrogance, but I doubt it. If that was the case, King would have explicitly said so.
Then there’s the Crimson King himself. He appears but once in the whole DARK TOWER series, as a red-cloaked Saruman type standing at a balcony of his Isengard, throwing grenades at Roland the intruder. And Roland gets his new pal Patrick to rub him out. And, while not dead, the Crimson King is removed from the scene. I have more to say on this later, but let me just end with this: the Crimson King in this story is a bit of a punk bitch.
In Book VII, Roland visits New York once more to sit with the guardians of the rose, a magical plant whose beauty and energy enraptures Roland and his ka-tet (and gives them a motivation to keep it safe). The rose's roots go deep into the earth, crossing dimensions and connecting with the Beams of the world (and the Tower itself). Roland had set three Earth men to procure the vacant lot where the rose grows and keep it safe. When the gunslinger returns near the end of Book VII to check up, he finds that two of his appointed guardians have died, and the third — Moses Carver, Susannah’s godfather and a fellow we are just now meeting — is a goofball caricature. He comes off like Redd Foxx in SANFORD AND SON. This guy was the great business mind who could turn a small fortune into billions, while bringing together a whole corporation to shield the rose and assist the quest? THIS GUY spearheaded that? Sheesh.
Moses and the scions of the deceased guardians do a lot of ass-kissing, wanting to see and hold Roland’s famous revolvers, etc., then shower the gunslinger with gifts: in particular, a watch that will run backwards when the tower is close (never mind that Roland's eyes work, and will be able to see the damn thing rising up in the horizon) and a book. It’s like Elrond giving the Hobbits magic cloaks, only none of the items makes any difference. The whole scene makes no difference.
The book they give him, by the by, is INSOMNIA. Never mind (for now) who wrote it. It's the story of the Crimson King and some kid who is prophesied to bring him down. This is about all the information the scions tell Roland on the matter, advising him (and, by proxy, we the readers) to read INSOMNIA for himself, for it contains much wisdom and backstory. The actual book INSOMNIA apparently does contain all that. But I hadn't read it, and don't own it, and wasn't about to stop THE DARK TOWER with 300 pages to go and read another book! (Neither does Roland; at the first opportunity, he gives the book away without having even opened it.)
Flagg/man in black/Marten/Walter is from other books, but was also sketched in great detail in THE DARK TOWER. Ditto with Father Callahan, whose original book ('SALEM'S LOT) is discussed, along with the rest of his history. The Crimson King gets no such treatment in THE DARK TOWER. All we get is, "Beware of him! He's a real bad-ass, reputedly! I won't say why or wherefore ... that's a story for another day!"
GImme a break. Something that integral to THE DARK TOWER series should actually BE in the DARK TOWER series, not in some other fucking book hastily mentioned near the end. Sauron never shows in LORD OF THE RINGS but there's no shortage of greybeards flapping on about his deeds. The whole pointless final trip Roland makes to the guardian's rose tower could've been swapped out with him meeting some old witch hag along the paths of Discordia who tells him the whole story of the Crimson King (and Patrick), even the bits in INSOMNIA. That accomplishes the same plot service as the rose tower redux sequence, but in a way that actually answers some questions the reader has about the Crimson King, AND builds the tension of the last moments. I'm sure such a decision would've occurred to King or his editor ... if they'd not raced the book to the printers.
In any event, Roland goes back to Mid-World, and he is the only one to make it to the Tower (well, there’s the sudden new pal Patrick, but whatever). This is not unexpected and should not be taken as criticism; in my eyes, it was destined from the word go that the others in Roland's ka-tet would be waylaid or killed. Eddie Dean is killed in a fiendish (but hardly noble) way; Jake Chambers dies in a noble but fucking silly scenario (see the "elephant" rant below); only Oy the billy-bumbler gets a heroic AND noble death, murdered by Mordred but not before alerting Roland to the danger with his dying wails.
And Susannah? With only a few miles to go, and for no adequately explained reason, with no bemoaning her empty heart or bickering with Roland that the Tower wasn’t worth the death and misery, lacking any passage of her telling him that ONLY HE can go the Tower and must do so alone … with NONE of that, Susannah gets someone to draw her a door to another dimension and then leaves the story.
Yep. She emerges into a different Earth world, like ours but not ours, in which Eddie is still alive but has never been to Mid-World (or, evidently, been an addict). And yet somehow Eddie knows he supposed to love this black woman in a wheelchair whom he’s never met. Oh yeah, and Jake is now his brother. What a pathetic final moment for these characters, who King has vividly painted over six (or seven) books in bold strokes and whom we’ve been rooting for from the moment we'd met them. Yes, clever dick, there were ALWAYS alternate versions of these characters in the other dimensions. But we seldom saw them, and didn’t ever need to ... certainly not at the end, in the manner we end up seeing them!
And what of Eddie’s actual brother, Henry? He's not in this universe (or [to be fair] if he is, he isn’t mentioned). Of course not; nasty Henry would just get in the way of this squeaky-clean saccharine ending. It’s a real groaner, and these characters deserved better. Jake and Eddie died as heroes. Let the simbelmynë grow on their burial mounds, kind sir. Let the funeral pyres burn, with the survivors hanging heads low, and readers mourning their passing. And let it stay that way. It gives their toil meaning, and decency to their sacrifice. Our last moments with them should not be phony copies shoved in front of us for schmaltz.
And so we come to the oliphaunt in the thinny, the bit you’ve been waiting for me to bring up if you’ve read the books. (If you haven’t read the books … what the fuck are you doing reading this? You’ve read some asshole’s snarky critique of a better writer’s achievement without reading the achievement itself? In internet parlance: smh.)
The elephant is (drumroll) Stephen King putting himself in the story. And not just himself, but himself AS himself; as in, the character Stephen King in THE DARK TOWER is the writer of THE DARK TOWER. The other characters learn they are merely part of this character's bibliography. Roland and Callahan handle copies of King’s books, and some of the ka-tet later meet with the writer in person and discuss the plot.
They don’t call it the plot, of course. THAT would be trite.
Roland and Jake even SAVE the writer’s life when the dolt with the van runs him down. King in the books was meant to die in the crash that nearly killed King in the flesh. But Jake sacrifices himself to save him.
Let me parenthetically note that, insofar as King putting himself in the story is a huge misstep, this moment here is the only poetic one, a moment that follows logical rules in an illogical world. Jake dies (and yet lives) in a mysterious, suspenseful manner in Books I, II, and III, and he uses that life to become a gunslinger and do gunslinger-y things. The last of his noble deeds is to die a second time to save an innocent man. Who happens to have written all those moments in the first place.
Ugh. Look, I am a published novelist. I consider myself a decent wordsmith, with a small but fervent following. But I confess that ages ago, in my early 20's, I wrote a screenplay (a black comedy) in which a minor character was me. The screenwriter exists in his own screenplay. It was only done as a shaggy dog joke, to set up a punchline at the Gates of Hell, and I thought it terribly clever. The movie never got made, and now when I think about it ... well, the joke itself is still great, but the fact that it’s me in the shaggy dog portion is inane. Utterly inane.
In my CHRONICLE OF CALVIN CONNOR, the story is told in third person by an omnipotent but never identified "chronicler," whose opinions and intrusions are used to seed jokes and make the close reader ponder who he (or she) might be. I may not have entirely succeeded in using this conceit in such a way that it doesn't break the reader's immersion, but at least I keep the mentions down to single digits, and make them mercifully brief.
That's not what's happening in the DARK TOWER. King writes King in great detail, with newspaper articles and local Maine residents discussing him and his doings and wealth. I cannot put the words together to adequately explain how cringe-worthy and shatteringly immersion-breaking I found King’s appearances in the final three books.
The silly diary entries at the end of Book V, the pinpoint details of his descriptions of his old home, and his old bearded appearance, and his old addictions ... I mean, there IS quality stuff in there. I’d’ve loved to have read about it as a nonfiction book, or a humorous essay or short story in which King dreams that he was saved from death by his own characters. Or — here's a thought — IF THE WRITER WAS SOME OTHER CHARACTER, a guy named Keevin Singh or something, who was the first-person narrator from the start of Book I and turns out (in a long-plotted twist) to be the devilish scribe of the Crimson King all along, a denizen of the Dark Tower, twisted by the further machinations of Flagg, whose quill holds the characters fate over their heads …
Nope. It’s Stephen King as Stephen King. For Christ’s sake, when Roland and Susannah meet Dandelo — an otherwise superb and whimsical chapter that you just know will end with gruesome violence — Stephen King does the most supreme deus ex machina possible: King the character leaves a note in the bathroom for Susannah to let her know that the comedian is a villain. SERIOUSLY?! I nearly rolled my eyes straight out my head and onto the paperback.
Dandelo is mentioned in the dying words of Eddie, though how he knew about it is anyone’s guess. I suppose King left a note for him too.
The reward for besting Dandelo is a character called Patrick, the one the Crimson King shits himself over in INSOMNIA. Once more, I've not read INSOMNIA. Despite this brutal slamming I'm leveling here, I am a longtime fan of King’s works. Beyond this series, I’ve also read THE SHINING, THE STAND, IT, NEEDFUL THINGS, THE DARK HALF, DIFFERENT SEASONS, MISERY, and DREAMCATCHER. Maybe it's just me, but I feel a character as vital to the end of this long series should've originated from this series (or, as I said above, should've been set up at great length ages ago).
Whatevs, Patrick's in Dandelo's basement. He's a kid and has no tongue. But with his magic drawing pad, he can draw the world around him and then alter it, and the alterations happen in real life.
I won’t say deus ex again. Oops, just did.
Patrick learns this power after drawing Susannah's face (with a bloody sore she’s been nursing for days) and erasing the sore, and watching it vanish in real life. Susannah jumps on that power and asks Patrick to draw the magic door that'll get her out of this story. The whole rest of that chapter, I was yelling, “While we're at it, draw Susannah some legs! And draw Roland a normal right hand! Draw any number of other things that might help — a helicopter to fly straight to the Dark Tower's highest balcony. Or that motion tracker thing from ALIENS; that'd come in handy versus the stalking Mordred!”
But none of that happens. None of these ideas are even mentioned, not even with convenient Mid-World logic that would prevent them from working (like, say, only magical shit can be drawn and not mechanical devices, and some arcane rule of ka that one should never regain lost limbs on a quest or some shit). Nope. Our heroes have the equivalent of a notepad's worth of D&D Wish spells, and never think to use it. That only compounded my frustration at Susannah’s exit.
When Roland and Patrick reach the Tower and the Crimson King pins them down with an endless series of the Harry Potter props, Patrick draws the Crimson King and then erases him. And suddenly Roland has a free path to the Tower's front door.
I won’t say deus ex a third time. Oh, I just did.
Now, in a “2% of this contrivance is actually thematic” kind of way, Roland using Patrick’s power in the service of his grand quest really fits the moment. Roland, while not selfish, churlish, or scheming, is an exploitative fellow, and does everything he needs to in order to get to the Tower, even letting Jake die (the first time). He is not without remorse, and his mistakes torture him (cf. his mother's demise and the battle of Jericho Hill).
So if Patrick had been set up earlier, say in Book V … with the Crimson King's agents gunning for him with all alacrity ... and then a “final battle” happened, involving some actual daring, suspense, trickery, or Patrick's sacrifice … well, then Roland’s using him might’ve been a great character moment, a bittersweet tear rolling down his cheek, a last bit of suffering on the threshold of the door to the Tower.
Anticipating that some critics and fans might hate both the Stephen King character and the series’ ultimate ending, the author had the temerity to write an afterword letting us know that he hates the word “metafiction,” cuz it’s all academia and shit; and before some of you get all uppity about the ending, you should know that the journey is better than the destination. You HAVE heard of that, haven’t you … dear reader?
I've always enjoyed King's prefaces and codas, where he talks straight to the reader. But this grumpy passage only made the bad taste in my mouth worse. Did King really try to preemptively cull that bit of his audience who he feared wouldn't be elated at the series' triumphant ending? Why? And why do so IN THE BOOK itself? We’re entitled to opinions; so is he. He is the author, and we are the paying customers. But why tarnish your opus with that kind of gripe on the last few pages? None of the grumpy ideas he brings up in the coda would have crossed my mind if King himself hadn't set it in stone in the book's afterword, which of course I was going to read.
Plus, even though some authors dislike this idea, the readership has control of a work's perception after publication: “death of the author” and all that. (Oh right — taken literally, that was King's motivation!)
King admits that even he didn’t really dig the ending either … there just had to be one. But for those who simply won't be satisfied, he gives us an optional second ending, apparently against his will, and kind of daring us to be better customers and not read it.
I read it, naturally. I'm so glad I did. It's a continuation of the first ending: after Roland climbs the Dark Tower’s steps and enters, he finds the Tower is actually the flesh of Gan (God), and contains every experience of the gunslinger’s life neatly separated on successive floors. And not just memories, but the associated emotions: the joy, pain, rage, and wearisome toil.
And Roland reaches the top, opens the last balcony door, and to his ghastly horror (but my supreme delight), the gunslinger sees the desert from page 1 of Book I, and realizes he has made this journey before. Maybe hundreds of times. We all turn with ka, and sometimes we go all the way around the wheel to end up at the beginning again. Roland has just done that. And now, he has to do it all … over … again.
What an incredible ending, one I wish formed the final words of the book (WITHOUT coming after the coda full of silly salt about audience and critical perception). I said early on in this essay that, after having read Book II, I called this ending. What I'd thought was this: it seemed to me that Roland had ingrained memories of his journey's path, and could form instant, inherent trust with the folks who join his ka-tet. Like he’d met them before in a previous life. Goddamn, I was right.
Roland’s discovery in the Dark Tower, the Sisyphean nature of his fate, made the whole journey worth it in the end. Hopefully, years from now, THAT’S what I’ll remember, and not the sloppy illogic, the pop culture silliness, and the meta-bullshit of Books V, VI, and VII.
What a ride.
A few years ago, King wrote a new novel, THE WIND THROUGH THE KEYHOLE, that fits between Books IV and V. It’s a story of Roland telling a story about this one time when his mom told him a story. It's a featherweight tale that is nonetheless is spun with precision, a complete joy from start to finish. I could read a few more like that, Steve.
If I had to put the Dark Tower novels in order of my enjoyment, from most loved to least:
II - THE DRAWING OF THE THREE
I - THE GUNSLINGER
IV - WIZARD AND GLASS
IV.5 - THE WIND THROUGH THE KEYHOLE
III - THE WASTELANDS
V - THE WOLVES OF THE CALLA
VII - THE DARK TOWER
VI - SONG OF SUSANNAH
This critical analysis © 2016 Christopher M. Morlock. Thanks for reading. The copyrighted images belong to Stephen King, his publishers, and his fans, and I believe their place in my review constitutes fair use. Click this link or any of the pictures above to purchase Mr. King's DARK TOWER series on Amazon. If you have thoughts, objections, or think I’m just a butthurt fanboy, go ahead and air them out below. I’d love to hear your opinions!