I’ve always really enjoyed the work of Stephen King. I’m not a “die hard” fan(Or a “die harder” fan, for that matter.)or anything, but intermittently throughout my time on this this rock every once in awhile I’ll pick up one of his books, read it, and wonder why I don’t read more of his stuff. I mean, there’s definitely enough to check out. He’s one of the most prolific writers maybe ever. I almost find the breadth of his work intimidating, and whenever I go to a book store, and peruse his back log, I become almost overwhelmed. So many options! This isn’t a complaint, or anything, but I find that more often than not I can’t make up my mind.
I’ve been really into his short stories over the past few years. I had been traveling a lot, and whenever I’d have to go on a long drive I would head to the bookstore before I set out, and pick up one of the collections in audio book form. There’s just something about the way he writes that sounds really good spoken out loud, and the talent that they get to read his prose are usually pretty top notch(His short The Doctor’s Case, a Sherlock Holmes story, read excellently by Tim Curry, comes immediately to mind.). Even when he lends his own, Maine tinged, dulcet tones to the recordings they end up pretty great. Even though I do really love his short stories, I’ve always had a desire to read more of his full works.
For years I’ve wanted to get into his The Dark Tower series. I first became aware of them when I was a teenager. I remember when the fifth book in the series, Wolves of the Calla, came out, seeing it on display at a book store, and being immediately intrigued. But it was the fifth book, and I would have to read all the others. Now, this wouldn’t be a net negative if it wasn’t for the abusive tyrant called time. Time is a real shit sometimes(Wanker!). There are so many things to read, watch, and listen to… Life is just a daunting endeavor. Enjoyable, but daunting, none the less. Anyways… Once I did a little research on the series, I found that this was probably one of his most ambitious works. Well, outside of The Stand, and It, but the word “epic” is definitely something I would attribute the the series’ ambition. I love when story tellers, especially good ones, engage in this type of stuff, and reading the series now, a few years after it’s conclusion, I have a tertiary awareness of how epic he really went. I don’t know all the details, but the universe he created, and the unconventional places the story goes, has my eyeballs pretty baited, and ready to read.
At it’s heart, The Gunslinger is a mystery. Not in the traditional sense, I suppose, but the way King doles out information I would definitely consider it “mysterious.” The story picks up in the midst of a story already in motion. Years in motion, in fact, and the only thing that is really clear is that this is taking place in a world that is very “old west” in nature, but there is something darkly magical just underneath the surface. A really vivid picture is painted for the reader. It spends the first third of the book exploring the nature of the world that we are visiting( Fucking tourists!). Like I said, it feels “old west” at first, but then more layers are pulled back. What we find is a hodge podge of sensibilities, from different times in history. There are elements of feudal life in there, especially once we find out a little bit more of the titular character, Roland Deschain. He’s the universes equivalent of a knight, and he’s the last one. The world is trying to move on from it’s magical state, into a more “progressive,” and “normal” existence, but Roland can’t let go of the past, and maybe he’s right. Just the universe this story takes place in is interesting enough. It’s a fascinating environment, and seeing the world try to reconcile the old ways and the new ways is always interesting. It feels like a character in it’s own right, but it’s not just “cool.” It serves to underline Roland’s disposition as he interacts with the other characters, and there’s always the sub-text of “Who’s right?” present. This could have just been a thrilling, straightforward adventure story, so, the added depth is much appreciated. Also, I find that kind of thing a fascinating thing to discuss. With the oppressive speed that technology advances now a days, sometimes I feel like Roland. A vestige of a time that the world is trying to erase, or “delete,” if you prefer(Hipster!).
There is some really great character development in this book. All the characters start out as some type of archetype, but as the the story goes on the artifice starts to evaporate. Yeah, some of the smaller characters are more for exposition and world building, but even those ones feel just developed enough to make them feel real. Stephen King is really great at that kind of stuff. He’s a thoughtful, patient writer, that never sells his characters short. It’s clear he loves spending time with them just as much as we do, and as soon as we start feeling like maybe the story should move on, it does. In this novel at least. If King does have a weakness, it’s probably that he can linger too long on the small details(And, Christ, some of his novels are long enough. Fucking “tomes” might be a more appropriate label.). I’m glad to say that The Gunslinger doesn’t have suffer from this. The writing is taught, and economical in the best sense. Everything feels necessary, and important. I felt that the characters really benefited from it. Rather than going into long winded explanations about the minutia of the surroundings, King allows the characters to tell us about it. What’s really smart about this is that every character has their own perspective about the world, and it just adds to the “mystery” of it all. Too often, I find, that writers don’t let the characters inform us about the world, and seem to prefer just using their “voice” to describe it. It’s a tough balance to strike, but here it seems to have been found.
The actual plot is pretty straight forward, but only at first. As the motivations of both the antagonist and protagonist are explored, it becomes clear that this is not a “black and white” story. It’s not that simple. Yes, we a re given a sense of a “good vs evil” element, but the thing that the novel explores is the different levels of those opposing states. The character of Roland is not without compassion, but he has a real selfish streak to him. This journey is his, and he will not let anyone or anything deter him from his goal. No matter what. This disposition leads him to do some pretty terrible things, but you have to ask yourself, just because his mission is not altruistic in nature, does that mean that the world won’t be better off upon completion? It’s some great sub-text, and just adds that much more depth and complexity to the proceedings. Their is a dual nature to every interaction within this story. It works both in terms of plot, and as a cohesive thematic arc for the piece.
Another thing I loved about this book was it’s mixing of genre. It has elements of fantasy, sci-fi, horror, westerns(Particularly, of the spaghetti variety.), romance, and even has a slight biblical slant to it. It’s like an amalgamation of everything King had written, and would write later. There’s a lot of interesting references to his other works inside, and it’s kind of exciting when you realize things like, “Holy shit, is that Randall Flag?” Catching these things isn’t necessary, or anything, but it brings some interesting food for thought for those that do. It puts off a feeling of connectivity with the rest of his oeuvre(Oh yeah, big words, suckas. Big words. Foreign even!). Personally, I love that kind of stuff, and as a reader it makes me even feel a little special. Like, I’m in on something that not everybody is. This inclusive element just made me like the novel even more, and has me excited for the possibilities of the other books in the series.
Just as a side note, I read the 2003 expanded and revised edition. Stephen King essentially re-wrote the book to eliminate any plot holes and contrivances he felt were present. Having not read the original publication, or any other books in the series, I can’t say how it impacted the story or characters. Although, from what I read of the notes, it seemed like he made some really smart decisions. Like, making the world a little more vague. I feel like this might be his most important update. The universe is such a big part of this story, and having it be less identifiable as just a post apocalyptic version of our own, feels like a really smart move. It might have been too “Wink, wink. Nudge, nudge,” otherwise. Especially, considering some of the plot developments. The other changes seem to be more character based. Obviously, as he got further down the road writing these things, he changed his mind about the “nature” of certain elements. Honestly, I just have no idea where this guy finds the time. But, like they say, “A writer’s work is never done.”
As you can probably tell, I really enjoyed The Gunslinger. It’s a pretty quick and enjoyable read. It seems like this series is going to be some perfect summer reading. It took Stephen King the better part of 22 years to complete this mother, and I’m really happy that I’ve taken the first step down the road toward The Dark Tower. I can’t wait to catch back up with Roland, and further unravel this mystery.
Also, just for fun, and those that are interested: