Well, I finished up The Dark Tower the other day. I know I was a late bloomer on getting around to it and it’s already pretty widely read compared to many of my recommendations, but if you haven’t yet given it a shot you can consider this post a solid recommendation for it instead of my usual rambling + book review format.
Overall I liked it. I liked the scope of the saga and how it continued to ramp up and expand this extraordinarily weird collection of half-worlds while keeping the stakes both cosmic and intensely personal. When it comes right down to it, the villain intends to end reality and rule over the void that will come afterward, but it never feels like that’s what the characters are racing to stop. They’re racing to get Roland to the tower because it’s his destiny, and his reasons to confront the villain are more personal. I firmly believe that if he had to let reality fall and the tower crumble to “win” against the Crimson King, Roland would do it in a heartbeat because his character is so singleminded and bent on one task. We’re reminded throughout the story, again and again, that even though he loves the group of misfits and allies he’s accumulated on his journey, he would sacrifice any or all of them to reach his goal, even if he would torture himself forever after doing so. It’s what makes him such a frightening and compelling character. He even questions it from time to time, and lies to himself, but as the reader we are shown that those lies ring hollow even to him.
I enjoyed reading it as a writer more than a reader, if that makes any kind of sense. Especially as one who has read King since he was quite young — my earliest memory of King was of my folks renting a cabin out in the Rangeley Lakes area when I was around 12 or 13 and me finding a stack of old King paperbacks in one of the closets, which led to my reading Cujo, ‘Salem’s Lot and Pet Sematary over a week’s vacation and scarring myself for life. But in a good way. It’s been interesting watching his writing style over the years, not necessarily evolving but changing in noticeable ways. I always feel a stab of sympathy for him when I hear people talking about how they only prefer his older works, because the implied message to him must read something like “you were at your best when you were so strung out on painkillers and booze that you couldn’t remember what you wrote the previous night and writing sober ruined you,” and that’s a shitty thing to imply to a person. I like The Stand a ton. It’s one of my favorite fantasy novels, it created an Americana version of The Lord of the Rings that worked for me. Salem’s Lot is one of the few pieces of vampire literature that actually spooks me to this day. But his newer stuff has been damned good, too. I think that his recent Revival might actually be my favorite of his works, because it’s got that level of intimacy in the writing that he never nailed quite right in the old days. He even mocks himself in The Dark Tower as having a bit of a tin ear for dialogue but I think his sober works have seen a marked improvement in it, and in the conversational and informal tone of his narratives.
But that’s spinning off topic from The Dark Tower itself. You can see a real shift in the focus before and after his accident, and in ways that clicked with me. I liked the old stuff for the raw, surreal weirdness of the pieces. A wasteland where jukeboxes still sing Hey Jude with the lyrics slightly off, and spaghetti western aesthetics overlaid on a world of stone circles, succubi, Arthurian legend, and Tolkien nods? Great, just really great. I think I liked the second half of the series more, though. I’d written it off as up-its-ass metafiction up until I read one of his afterwords where he spoke at length about how he didn’t want it to be thought of as meta at all, and he found some of the criticisms as making him out to put way more thought into certain elements than he actually did. With that in mind I tried to read it as a straightforward literary piece and enjoyed that. As I’ve said before in this blog, I think that the shift to more “modern” references being framed as if they were retro works extremely well. The series is chock full of stuff that happened hundreds or thousands of years ago, lots of nods to King Arthur, the same myths that Tolkien drew inspiration from, even more modern retro stuff like the Beatles and ZZ Top. It makes sense then, that in a setting where our “now” is thousands of years in the past, that our pop culture would have entered kind of a mythological standing. Who’s to say that our great x 10 grandchildren won’t look at how many images we have of Doctor Doom and Harry Potter floating around and go “ah, this must have been their version of the Iliad and the Odyssey, shaping their entire civilization and used as a bible of sorts, we should make sure to reference this constantly when writing about them.”
That’s not to say all the elements worked great. I liked that he kept three characters from radically different decades using different sets of slang and historical references when talking amongst themselves before finding a common tongue in the slang-laden language of Roland’s world, but at times the “dated” way of writing minority characters came off as very minstrel show-y. A middle aged white dude trying to write jive without actually having spoken it before, just mimicking the worst stereotypes picked up on television. I don’t think that was the intent, and outside of the phonetics I think that Susannah is one of the best characters in the entire series, but man did I cringe whenever she shifted into Detta-speak and started talking like a character from a white nationalist’s cartoon. I also found the continued focus on mental illness unlocking magic as offputting, as I always have in King’s work. It doesn’t detract from my enjoyment of the overall work but I can’t help but feel that it’s really romanticizing something in a way that makes me wince. It didn’t really start cropping up in these books until halfway through, and then it kind of lurked in the background as Sheemie and the Roont children for awhile.
The biggest surprise to me was actually King’s semi-fictional notes on the writing of The Dark Tower between the last two books. It honestly felt a bit like a sequel to On Writing, one of my favorites of his works. I think that even though he was making it dramatic for the story, it spoke pretty true to how he formulated the story and actually wrote it.
His talking about serving as a conduit for the story resonated with me because honestly, that’s how it feels sometimes. I am aware there’s no mysticism to it, and when you’re “discovery” writing it’s really a complex series of chemical reactions in your brain dredging your subconscious for all the inspirations you’ve picked up and secreted away, putting them in an order that makes sense to you and draws on the story structure of all the books you’ve enjoyed before. But when you’re really in the heat of the moment, that kind of melts away and it does feel like you’re hearing some kind of secret song and the story is a hot lump in your chest beaming itself into your fingertips and bypassing your brain entirely as you read the words on the screen like you have no idea what’s going to happen yourself.
Finally, and speaking of discovery writing, I found it to be a huge breath of fresh air for me. Prior to this I’d been reading a lot of Sanderson, Abercrombie and Erikson where the stories are plotted out meticulously and balance entirely on a giant twist at some point to make you go back and go “oh my god” at all the foreshadowing you totally didn’t pick up on for the last several hundred pages, and I love stuff like that, but it had felt a bit like my book would be lacking if it didn’t have a bunch of moments like that. The Dark Tower was a great reminder as the importance of the journey and the characters in it. I’ll probably remember the Ka-tet more fondly than most groups I’ve read about because they’re written so warmly and you care way more about their day to day adventures than their end goal. It doesn’t work for all books but it works fantastically here. If he decided to write more one-off stories like The Wind Through the Keyhole taking place halfway through their journey and having no impact on the larger plot, I’d read it just as happily as a new Sanderson book building the inevitable avalanche of shocking twists and turns.
(photo credit to Javier Diaz)