Friday, August 20, 2010

A Book(s) Review

The Dark Tower:
The Gunslinger; The Drawing of the Three; The Waste Lands; Wizard & Glass; Wolves of the Calla; Song of Susannah; The Dark Tower.
by Stephen King

"It's the journey, not the destination," is a famous quotation, which I believe is what Stephen King might use as a fall back excuse for this monstrous work. And I mean monstrous in two ways - it is a massive 7 books long and it's pretty horrendous...

Investment isn't just an economic thing. You invest time, energy and and emotions into some things. There are some people who view things as minutes, hours or days that they have wasted, while others repeat another man's boredom because it isn't wasted on them. For the Constant Reader of King's books, investment is a large part of one's involvement, especially the Dark Tower books, because the first one was published nearly 30 years ago (and the first lines of that story were written 40 years ago). People who bought the first book probably had no idea that so much of their time, energy, emotions and, yes, hard earned cash, would go on a story about a despicable man, his band of misfits and a place called the Dark Tower, which ends up being the biggest misnomer of the entire story.

When we first meet Roland Deschain of Gilead, he is a man pursuing another man across a vast almost timeless desert, in a world that has 'moved on'; He is a Clint Eastwood kinda guy, but without the soft edges. In The Gunslinger we meet Roland, a boy called Jake, who would be sacrificed, some characters to set the scene and a man, who may or may not be someone we've met before (and might meet again). The book isn't an enjoyable read; in fact, there's little about the book to inspire. It seems to be a western set in either a far future of this or an alternate reality, very similar to our own. This is essentially a scene-setter, a raison detre for Roland's quest; although, to be honest, the reason for Roland's quest for the tower is never really fully explained. It is his job, so no real questions are ever asked.

As if to compound the awkward and almost jarring nature of The Gunslinger's prose, The Drawing of the Three isn't a good read. It's a rip-roaring fantasy piece that introduces us to two more equally unlikeable characters in Eddie Dean - a junkie from the 1980s and Odetta Holmes - a black schizophrenic amputee from the early 1960s. It also introduces us to a character who links the characters together by his murderous actions and links them to Jake Chalmers, the boy who died in the first book, only to be reborn and then die again.

Even after numerous readings, this book is a mean and unpleasant tale. Nasty things happen to major characters and you find yourself not giving a hoot. Yet, by the time King wrote The Waste Lands, the characters had moved on, become more like the ones they would develop into. Yes, Roland was an arse; But Eddie was growing into a good character with a pretty grim past (and a past that I personally got fed up of reading about). Even the reintroduced Jake Chalmers had something kind of unlikeable about him. And there was now Susannah, the amalgam of sweet natured Odetta and her psycho black bitch side Detta. This was a character that you struggled to feel any sympathy for; she was just less endearing the longer you spent time with her.

Yet, The Waste Lands developed the story much further and it now became clear that Roland needed a band of like minded folk to accompany him on his journey - a new ka-tet, to replace the one he lost in a never truly revealed story. Slowly, but surely, we learned about the world they found themselves in; which grew more and more like Earth at the end of civilisation and time. Links to other King stories became more apparent, especially The Stand and The Waste Lands, while really 2½ stories in a single volume began to infiltrate its way into everything King wrote (and to start with, this really wasn't a bad thing).

However, the gap between the third and fourth books was considerable and I don't believe many of King's Constant Readers' were particularly thrilled. Wizard & Glass was unbelievably boring; it was a rambling 'western' bookended by the proper ending of the third book and a disjointed and hard to follow sequence involving Randall Flagg. But it was the sprawling tale of Roland's youth that dominated. We met his first ka-tet, the reasons for his ascension to Gunslinger and the first hints that the story was slowly developing away from what many believed was King's original idea.

What this book also did was start asking more questions and not giving satisfactory answers - one wonders if the writers of Lost used this book series as a reference library. Even four books in, Roland's quest was vague; he was in search of the mythical Dark Tower, being called by it, but the reader never quite understood the importance or the reason for reaching it. What also started to become clear was that the Dark Tower wasn't actually a bad place, despite its ominous sounding name; it appeared to be the nexus of all realities and an overwhelming force of good. So why the Dark prefix?

Then Stephen King almost died in a bizarre hit and run accident and the world changed...

Before it did, King released Hearts in Atlantis, which can only be described as an essential part of the Dark Tower story and that's where things started to get a bit loose. In this book (of 5 interlocking stories) we are introduced to Ted Brautigan, who plays a large part in the final book; but more importantly, we're introduced to the can-toi or Low Men as Ted calls them. Hearts like King's Insomnia prior to his accident, appeared to be pivotal to the story; it also changed the complexion of villains (The can-toi had sort of been introduced in Desperation, but not in the same way).

The annoying thing about Hearts is that while it had its inevitable links to the Dark Tower (as all of King's books did by then), it didn't feel like it had a pivotal part to play in the magnum opus - in fact, when King released the follow up to The Talisman with Peter Straub, a excellent (if not at times confusing) book called Black House, which remarkably also has links to The Dark Tower, despite it being co-written; this seemed to be more linked to Hearts than anything else. To be honest, King and Straub's two books, while both excellent reads, just muddy the waters for King aficionados - the problem is King (presumably him as its his baby) has linked them to the Dark Tower and all the latter explanations don't help to shift the incongruous feel. In the end, King chooses to make Low Men in Yellow Coats, the main story in Hearts a sudden and new direction for his Dark Tower story.

Meanwhile, back into Dark Tower reality and King, recovered from his life threatening hit and run event has decided to finish the story before death finishes him. Wolves of the Calla is actually, in many respects, the best of the lot. It has a Stephen King feel about it, which the others didn't seem to have, despite the fact that as it draws on, the reader becomes more and more infuriated by the cliché after cliché that riddles the book, the sudden change in language (which would retroactively be changed in re-issues of the previous books) and the nagging feeling that this was no longer a fantasy novel series, but a review of King's bibliography mixed with American culture references.

Wolves was at least a complete story, even if it was The Magnificent Seven and not just in plot similarities, but in many other ways - it is set in a place called Calla Bryn Sturgis: Yul Brynner was the star of that film and it was directed by John Sturgis. It also started to mix fantasy with reality - real reality; our reality. We also discover in this book that Stephen King exists and so does one of the characters from one of his earliest novels - Father Callahan from Salem's Lot.

It is in this book however that one of the books most jarring continuity lapses happen; the reader wouldn't realise for another 700 pages, but in the grand scheme of things it proves, for me, to be very important.

Song of Susannah isn't a novel as such, more a preamble or scene setter for the denouement; in fact, very little happens in the book apart from muddying the waters further, plus we're introduced to the one single thing that completely destroyed the story's credibility - Stephen King, as himself, in his own book, talking about writing (or not) The Dark Tower books with Roland and Eddie.

Song also introduces us to the taheen, a race of animal creatures with no real explanation as to why they are there or where they originate from; we also get reintroduced to the Low Men, who suddenly now are the vehicles of the Crimson King despite having only been introduced a couple of years earlier. The Low Men are actually not humans, but are creatures that wear slightly ill fitting human skin (presumably stolen from a real human). But there's more; we also learn that the vampires that Callahan talked of and were introduced in King's second ever novel are also linked directly to the Crimson King. Can you see why this book does nothing but cloud issues; we're a book away from the conclusion and suddenly we're into character introduction overload.

To further confuse, Susannah, who we know is pregnant from some demon from Book 3, has manifested another personality and is in the process of giving birth to a child that is both clever in its creation and equally pointless. A character built up to be the ultimate nemesis of Roland, but turns out to be another damp squib.

To add to the confusion; Roland and Eddy spend some time with the writer and we begin to see that King has written himself into the story, possibly not because of ego, but because he deluded himself into thinking the story would have more resonance if he told it as if he was being made to write the story rather than him just making it up. This doesn't work, because the it isn't needed - unless it was needed to give the book a conclusion.

I think it was pious of King to use his accident and real characters from his life to try and make this great American tale. Yes the book is about realities and alternate ones, but why introduce himself as almost as real as he exists? Why not just have a writer who is chronicling the story, in another reality?

Six books down and yet suddenly we gave a shit about Eddie Dean; he's become a decent guy; we now cared about Jake, not because he was just the kid, but because he was developing into a clever character. We all had soft spots in our hearts for Oy the billy-bumbler; apparently something like a cross between a badger and a collie dog, who also spoke and had more than just an understanding of what was going on. Susannah was just plain unlovable and Roland was infuriating - as King obviously intended him to always be.

The story seemed to change in urgency very quickly. Suddenly the emphasis was on saving the beams rather than finding the Tower - after all, the two have been linked throughout the series. In the final instalment many things happen very fast: Susannah gives birth to Mordred, who is half human, half monster; he in turn kills Randall Flagg (in what was one of many almost pointlessly understated deaths) and begins a quest of his own. The gunslingers, with the aid of Ted Brautigan (from Hearts), Dinky Earnshaw (from the short story Everything is Eventual) and Stanley Ruiz, who turns out to be Sheemie, the idiot helper from Wizards and devoted follower of Roland. The 'coincidences' in this story had been cringeworthy, but this was possibly one of the worst. I would think the basic responsibility of a writer is not to test the patience of his readers, but this bit of coincidence was just a little too hard to swallow.

This group of 'Breakers' - the concept had been introduced many years earlier of psychic beings used to break the beams that run through the top of the Tower - help Roland and co., to defeat the people responsible for breaking the beams.

It is during this period that one of the biggest continuity glitches hits home; in Wolves we are introduced to a character called Finli o'Tego; we never see him, he is the person the traitor amongst the Calla people reports to. In Wolves, the traitor reports to o'Tego that there are gunslingers in the Calla and their intention is to help the folk. Obviously Roland and his tet triumph and the traitor no longer will report back to Thunderclap - the place where the beam is being broken. However, during a conversation between o'Tego - a taheen - and his boss, while he makes reference to some of the events in the Calla, he dismisses it all as hearsay, despite the fact the wolves they sent to harvest children had all been destroyed. It might not seem like much, but it just doesn't compute on all kinds of levels. The series has its flaws, big time; such as never fully explaining anything - like joining a 13-part TV show without seeing the first three episodes. It's like the reader is being left with the nagging feeling that he's just witnessed a cat walk exhibition with no theme - lots of things happening, but where actually is the story and internal logic. Why are these things happening? My belief is that the story was so flawed, that King just continually introduced new characters, races and ideas to cover up the fact that there wasn't actually a story to be told. The journey rather than the destination...

The Dark Tower is in many ways a complete bastard of a book. It doesn't actually do anything the Constant Reader probably had hoped for. From the almost pointless death of Eddie Dean and his prophecies (the first of many deus ex machinas used in just 650 pages), the equally pointless death of Jake, this time dying to save Stephen King's life. The way Mordred was built up only to end up being nothing more than the facilitator of Oy's death and the final book's eventual Wizard of Oz feel; with Roland and his dwindling team facing different obstacles along the final road to the fabled Dark Tower.

Probably the thing that upsets me more than anything else in this book was the reintroduction of Patrick Danville. This is a complicated issue for dedicated King readers and especially for me as Patrick was introduced in my favourite King novel, Insomnia. There is so much about Insomnia I could probably write a long essay about it. I think, once upon a time, it was the most important book King had ever written, in relation to the Dark Tower. It was written during the period between Book 3 and 4, the longest gap. This book introduced us to the Crimson King, has a mention of Roland and lays the tantalising foundation that the entire adventure was tom prevent a child from being killed, because the child, 6-year old Patrick Danville, will grow up to save the life of a man who will ultimately prove to be pivotal in history. It was like King either intended at some point to return to Patrick Danville or planned to use him eventually in the Dark Tower. He did, but in an almost heartbreaking way. Insomnia, I believe, was King writing the Dark Tower story in short hand. I think he had grown tired of Roland and Mid-World by the early 1990s and he still felt compelled to tell the story; so he told Insomnia instead, which explains so much about the nature of King's universe and how the Dark Tower sits in it all. In fact, I'm not the only person who believed Insomnia was vitally important in King's work; the writer himself writes Insomnia into the final Dark Tower book. But Roland dismisses the advice to read the book, believing it to be jinxed.

Patrick in The Dark Tower is of an undetermined age - he could be a teenager, but equally he could be much older. He has been kept prisoner by the evil psychic vampire Dandelo (another character introduced at the death to steer us away from the story's eventual pay off) for an unknown amount of time; he has been tortured, drained and eventually had his tongue ripped out. He is still the artist he was when he was 6 and this proves to be very important.

Patrick can draw things into reality and eventually he discovers that with the aid of an eraser he can un-create things, but not before Mordred and Oy are killed and Susannah decides to leave Roland to follow the strange dreams she's been having.

Finally, it's just pompous Roland and mute Patrick on the yellow brick road; all diversions have been passed and finally they face the Crimson King and still the incredible bullshit continues - the King is throwing Harry Potter exploding Sneetches at them. The final confrontation is a man stuck on a balcony throwing stuff at the gunslinger hiding behind some stones in a field full of roses. Finally, Roland gets Patrick to draw the King and then erase him from existence, which he does, leaving nothing but the trademark pair of burning red eyes to spend eternity trapped on a balcony on the lower part of the Tower.

The book ends in an odd way. It has three endings. The end of the quest, that has Roland sending Patrick off back towards civilisation and finally entering the Tower with a fanfare. The first epilogue follows Susannah into an alternative world where she meets versions of Eddie and Jake, now brothers and we get the impression that they live together for a long time and might even be joined by a dog with familiar characteristics. What's galling for me about this is that the character who deserved a happy ending the least was Susannah and yet she got one.

Then we're left with Coda - the final chapter. This is Roland's journey up the steps of the Tower to the room at the top where he believes all his answers will be revealed. You pretty much know how its going to end and in many ways I'm happy with the conclusion. It was at least what I'd expected for a few years. However, the book has so many inconsistencies, changes in direction, rewrites and confusing elements - especially the way it attempts to write everything as a self-fulfilling prophecy.

The irony for me is that Marvel Comics have published a number of spin-off series, which allegedly fill in the gaps left in the books. Well, surely the books shouldn't have had any gaps. It should have been a story that any one can pick up and enjoy, without having to read everything else. King has proved that he could hack it big big in a PR or promotions firm.

Ultimately, I really felt that King robbed me of 20 years of my life (well, not literally, but you catch the drift) and it wasn't because it didn't pan out the way I'd hoped, but because he changed the way he wrote it. It wasn't the story he started in 1970, nor was it the story he was writing during Book 3, although I'm sure much of that remained, it just got obscured by what King probably felt was the better dynamic. I just think it's the ultimate cop out for a writer to start something, get half way through and decide that he wants to do something differently, so reissues the earlier books in a revised format and pisses over all the expectations of the people who started the success that became The Dark Tower. King let me and many other people down with this volte face and I don't care what he says about the story never really changing that much; it would have been nice to have had a story rather than a travelogue of events.

Now there's news that he's to release a new Dark Tower book, set between Books 4 & 5, which sounds to me like a bit of retroactive repair work, because the difference in the way the first 4 books read compared to the final 3. Marvel is to continue telling stories of In-World, Mid-World and End-World and there's going to be a 3-film trilogy for the cinema produced in 2011. The Dark Tower is massive; it's a rollercoaster and a financial cash cow; but it's actually a pretty crappy story, riven with holes, continuity hiccups and far more dislikeable characters than deserve your money.

I wouldn't recommend this series to anyone who wants to experience Stephen King, or for that matter, anyone who wants to read a good story. The Dark Tower's presence has effectively made some good books not worth reading, because no casual reader is going to want to read a story that is laced with references to another story, especially if that other story doesn't deliver the goods. I said many years before The Dark Tower 'concluded' and have stuck with it - read Insomnia, it tells what I think was the original story in a sort of shorthand way. Treat the three lines about Roland getting a good night's sleep as a throwaway comment, that the sneaker reference is not worth pursuing and think of Patrick Danville's future story as something you don't need to know about and you'll see why Insomnia is such a great and utterly bizarre story. Plus, you'll be hard pressed to find a more heroic and likeable character than Ralph Roberts.

The Dark Tower story has some genuine high points, but these have either been written out or are so few and far between that it makes the series an expensive purchase. It does have many low points, far too many. Don't get sucked in, you'll feel cheated, even if you read just the revised versions.

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