It seemed like a good idea at the time.
I wanted very badly to use this sentence as a subtitle to my review. Not because I doubt my commitment to the goal of reading the Dark Tower novels and writing about them, but because this one sentence, from the introduction to my copy of The Gunslinger (the Scribner 2016 paperback), seems so applicable to so many of the choices that King made in his writing here. I will freely admit that this novel, which I have now read three times, is not an easy read. Prior to my most recent experience with it, I thought that it was just me. I was incredibly relieved to discover that I am not alone in having trouble with this book. In King’s own words:
The Gunslinger did not even sound like the later books — it was, frankly, rather difficult to read. All too often I heard myself apologizing for it, and telling people that if they persevered, they would find the story really found its voice in The Drawing of the Three (pg. xxv).
He goes on to say that the book was written by the younger version of himself, a man who was influenced by many writing seminars. As such, he believed a great many things that he would later go on to discover were falsehoods for himself. Among that list is the idea that language is more important than story. I believe I can safely say that we are all glad that King got over that particular conceit. With that said, let’s take a look at The Gunslinger.
The Gunslinger (1982)
Written by: Stephen King
Genre: Dark Fantasy
Pages: 251 (Paperback)
Series: Book One of The Dark Tower
Why I Chose It: I decided that, having read many of King’s other novels, it was time for me to tackle The Dark Tower series, and this is volume one.
Over three decades ago, Stephen King introduced readers to the extraordinarily compelling and mysterious Roland Deschain. Roland is a haunting figure, a loner on a spellbinding journey into good and evil. In his desolate world, a landscape strewn with the wreckage of civility, he tracks the man in black, encounters an enticing woman named Alice, and begins a friendship with a boy from New York named Jake. Both fiercely realistic and eerily dreamlike, The Gunslinger is the first book in what is perhaps the greatest odyssey Stephen King has ever written.
There will not be spoilers.
Discussion: If you haven’t read a Stephen King novel before, absolutely do not start with this series. It’s one of King’s earlier works, and it shows. This is not a bad book, per se; it is simply difficult to get through. The characters are not particularly memorable, even when they should be. A good example of this is the monstrous preacher, Sylvia Pittston. She’s a frightening, compelling character, until she simply isn’t any longer. When Roland left Tull, the town that Sylvia presides over, she slipped from my mind almost entirely. There was so much promise in this one particular villain, and it never comes to fruition. This happened to me constantly during my reading. As I mentioned in my introduction, I have read this novel three times now. Before my most recent read-through, I would have been very hard pressed to tell you anything about this novel at all.
After Roland leaves Tull behind, the story picks up. We meet Jake, a New York boy who has somehow been transported to Roland’s reality from some version of our own. This is an interesting point that enforces the idea that Roland’s story is taking place both inside and outside of our own world. The Beatles’ music, for example, is present (“Hey Jude” is playing when Roland first arrives in Tull), yet everything that Jake describes about New York is completely alien to Roland.
I am avoiding spoilers, so there is little more that I can say. Let me offer this advice to those who would begin their journey to the Tower:
1) Read The Gunslinger with a forgiving eye. This is a book written by a very different Stephen King than the one who wrote It.
2) Do not let the writing trip you up. King did revise the novel before he published the latter half of the series, so I recommend finding a newer copy if you are able.
3) If you can make it past chapter one, the rest shouldn’t be difficult. I spent two weeks trudging through chapter one. I finished the rest of the novel in two nights.
4) Keep in mind that, per King himself, the series doesn’t find its voice here.
5) Just keep reading. This is a necessary step. We are all in this together, and it gets better.
6) Conditional: If you intend to see film version, due in summer of this year, think very hard about how you wish to approach this material. As we recently discussed, sometimes reading the book first isn’t the best option. I would say that this is a particularly important thought to consider, given the nature of the film. Sources say that the film is a sort of sequel to the novels, yet incorporates the novels because it has to start somewhere. Here is a really good article on the film. Beware of spoilers!
In conclusion: Remember that if you decide to start this series, that you are committing to reading one long work that happens to be divided into multiple volumes. It is King’s answer to Lord of the Rings. Every journey begins somewhere. This is The Dark Tower‘s somewhere.