“The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed.”
So begins what Stephen King considers his magnum opus, The Dark Tower. The line above is among the most well known opening lines in modern literature, and it perfectly sets the tone for the rest of the short novel. This first installment, The Gunslinger, is the only book in the series I’ve read before, and I knew I needed a refresher before I dove any deeper into The Dark Tower. While The Gunslinger isn’t perfect by any stretch of the imagination, with areas that drag and a last quarter that goes too hazily ephemeral to maintain an emotional connection, it’s a fun and very original introduction into what I’ve heard is an incredibly powerful and unique series.
“I do not aim with my hand; he who aims with his hand has forgotten the face of his father.
I aim with my eye.
I do not shoot with my hand; he who shoots with his hand has forgotten the face of his father.
I shoot with my mind.
I do not kill with my gun; he who kills with his gun has forgotten the face of his father.
I kill with my heart.”
I don’t know about the rest of the series, but this book is an odd mix of high fantasy, Western, and contemporary fiction. King was first inspired by a Robert Browning poem, “Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came”. He wanted to somehow marry this concept to The Lord of the Rings and Spaghetti Westerns, and I definitely think he accomplished that objective. I love the fact that there are multiple worlds, but that they’re hidden, mysterious, little known and borderline inaccessible. What I love even more is the knowledge that so many of King’s other books will be referenced in some way throughout the series, and that The Dark Tower and its characters either make appearances or are somehow loosely connected to each and every story King pens. In the Afterword to Wizard and Glass, the author himself says:
“I have written enough novels and short stories to fill a solar system of the imagination, but Roland’s story is my Jupiter–a planet that dwarfs all the others . . . a place of strange atmosphere, crazy landscape, and savage gravitational pull. Dwarfs the others, did I say? I think there’s more to it than that, actually. I am coming to understand that Roland’s world (or worlds) actually contains all the others of my making…”
Wild, right? I think any dedicated follower of an author or television series or movie franchise or band or any other form of entertainment love to look for Easter eggs, hidden references in a book or movie or song to other of their favorites from the same artist or creators. Whether it’s Marvel movies or Brandon Sanderson’s Cosmere, this search for hidden connections is one of my very favorite things. And I think that, in some small way, King helped launch this trend.
“Go then, there are other worlds than these.”
Ted Dekker had to have been inspired in large part by this book when writing Showdown, which was one of my very favorite novels as a teen. Showdown is a Christian speculative novel, thrilling and suspenseful and dipping in and out of the horror genre. Marsuvees Black had to have been created in the Man in Black’s image as rendered in The Gunslinger. From the Western feel to the town that goes down in flames, from whacked theology to the innocent sacrifice to the knowledge that other worlds are waiting just beyond the veil, the two books have an incredible amount in common. Showdown almost seems to both ask and answer the question “What if The Gunslinger had less weird sex and more Jesus?” The Gunslinger came on the scene 24 years before Showdown was published, and I don’t see how on Dekker could have written his book without first being inspired by King’s work. Not that I think Dekker in any way ripped off The Gunslinger; on the contrary, I think he paid homage to it very well. I also think that his decision to link all of his books in someway to his central series, The Circle, was in part inspired by King. All of that to say, I love that King inspired another of my favorites whose works have touched me deeply over the course of my life.
“Yet suppose further. Suppose that all worlds, all universes, met at a single nexus, a single pylon, a Tower. And within it, a stairway, perhaps rising to the Godhead itself. Would you dare climb to the top, gunslinger? Could it be that somewhere above all of endless reality, there exists a room?…’
To say a little about the book itself, I really liked The Gunslinger. It lost me a bit at the end, as many of King’s books tend to do, but the journey was enough to make up for the lackluster conclusion. I think that King tends to try to shoot for something too expansive and cosmic in his endings, but he doesn’t always manage to pull it off. Regardless, I love the feel of this book. The vastly different settings, the fantasy realm of Roland’s past, the arid Western-inspired desert of his present, and the contemporary real-world setting described by another character came together to make up a truly unique story. I also love how the worlds cross over in places, namely through song. The idea that a song like “Hey Jude” can bridge worlds is lovely and thoughtful. The last leg of the Gunslinger’s journey might leave me cold, but Roland himself is a wonderfully compelling enigma who I came to care for very much. I’m eager to see where his journey takes him next.
“They were close to the end of the beginning . . .”
I know that The Gunslinger is the tip of the iceberg that is King’s Dark Tower. As I plan to take the long road by reading the suggested novels from the rest of his catalogue so as to get the most out of the experience, I know that I’ll be on this journey for a long while before I finally reach the Tower itself. But oh, how I’m looking forward to the climb.
Long days and pleasant nights, my friends.
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