Thursday, April 30, 2015
Song of Susannah
When you came right down to it, how did anyone know they weren’t a character in some writer’s story, or a transient thought in some bus-riding schmoe’s head, or a momentary mote in God’s eye?
Much like what happened when I finished reading The Waste Lands, the abrupt ending of Song of Susannah left me feeling like I had little to say on the matter at hand and more like it was just time to move on to the next book. Regardless of length, Song of Susannah is really just a lot of set up for what comes in the final book.
It feels incomplete, having hit the ground running from when Susannah left at the end of the last book and finishing with us still waiting for the birth of the demon child she's carrying in her. Leaving poor Jake, Oy, and Callahan outside The Dixie Pig in particular, about to enter a battle where the stakes are high and casualties likely is a cruel thing to do to anyone who can't get their hands on the next volume immediately. A lot of Susannah's struggles with Mia, the demon who has inhabited her body and wants to raise the child, also feels like a lot of wasted effort and stretching for time so that Roland and Eddie can go have their story and not miss out on the big events that will occur in the next book.
And really Roland and Eddie's story of going to Calvin Tower and purchasing the lot also feels like it should have been done sometime before hand. I really do love this series, but this second look is making it very apparent to me that King really should have taken some more time to map things out and figure out exactly how many books he needed to tell the tale. I also wonder if too many other authors could get away with making these as incomplete as the individual novels feel.
An author inserting himself into his work is also a very difficult balance to get right. More often than not, they can end up looking full of themselves. Not satisfied to provide a Deus Ex Machina from their pen, they have to insert an image of themselves into the story as well. Your mileage may vary, but personally I enjoy the rather self depreciating version of Stephen King who appears in The Dark Tower series. I also feel like his appearance just makes sense, given the nature of the story and the various worlds our characters can go between, why not also show up in the "real world" as well?
The Dark Tower
I’d have you see them like this; I’d have you see them very well. Will you? They are clustered around Suze’s Cruisin' Trike, embracing in the aftermath of their victory. I’d have you see them this way not because they have won a great battle—they know better than that, every one of them—but because now they are ka-tet for the last time. The story of their fellowship ends here, on this make-believe street and beneath this artificial sun; the rest of the tale will be short and brutal compared to all that’s gone before. Because when ka-tet breaks, the end always comes quickly.
The final book is definitely epic in scale, and the stakes are high straight from the start. Six characters who have appeared in previous volumes die, seven if you also count The Crimson King, who has at least been heavily discussed if never truly appeared before. Being with these characters for as long as we have up to this point, it's a difficult read. Again and again it's been stressed that Roland would have to give up nearly everyone and everything he loves to achieve his goal, but it's far more painful because by this point we have to lose them too.
One of those deaths was the most painful character death I've ever experienced. The first time I read this book and I reached the point where Eddie was shot, all I could do was put the book down and sob. Much like Susannah, it was a struggle for me to go on. Eddie's journey from a strung out, insecure junkie to capable gunslinger with a chosen family who was much better to him than the one he had been born into meant a lot to me, and he is certainly my favorite King character, possibly one of my top favorite characters in all of fiction. I couldn't bear to lose him. And of course, when I did finally pick up the book again the next night, I had to weep all over again as Eddie lay slowly dying in bed, muttering things that didn't make sense.
This time around I was prepared for it, though I dreaded every moment leading up to it. Strangely, while I also remembered Oy's death being painful, I completely forgot Jake died yet again. I could joke and say this must be a different go 'round of Roland's journey than the last time I read it, but I'm guessing the reality is that Jake's death comes so soon after Eddie's that I was probably still reeling and just forgot all the details exactly. It's a tender moment regardless, to see Roland bury the boy who for all intents and purposes was now his son.
One death I was disappointed in for very different reasons was that of Flagg/Walter. As a character who has been built up for so long, not just in this series but also in The Stand and Eyes of the Dragon, he deserved a little more than to just suddenly be eaten by Mordred. I suppose it's supposed to be one of those moments where we find out just how dangerous this new foe is, but the fact of the matter is he's not. Mordred largely seems to exist to tie Roland to King Arthur and very little else. He's a perceived threat that ends up being nothing, who literally would have died in his own time if the characters had never interacted with him. I would have greatly preferred to see a showdown between Walter and Roland around that point in the book instead.
Beyond that, I do enjoy the journey over all. The end of the book is interesting, as it ends with Roland approaching the tower, followed straight to an epilogue where we see where Susannah has ended up. I love that epilogue. Some may say it's a bit cheesy or silly but the fact is that Susannah, Jake, and Eddie all deserve a happy ending after everything they've been through, and it's good to see that on at least one earth they can have something very close to it.
What I don't agree with is the beginning of the coda that follows the epilogue, where King begs you to stop reading. He insists that the journey is everything, and that knowing what's inside the tower will only lead to disappointment. But to me, seeing what's inside the tower is anything but disappointment. In a story where we've seen infinite possible worlds and characters moving between them, it makes perfect sense that the top of the tower is truly nothing more than a reset button which sets Roland back to the beginning of his quest all over again. Perhaps it's because I see life constantly moving in cycles, but I love the idea of Roland being forced to repeat his journey and hopefully learn something more each time. Will he save Jake from falling at the beginning? Would that prevent Mia possessing Susannah and giving birth to Mordred? What else could change? This is the best possible way to keep your readers guessing and wanting more.
It also largely suggests that any and all changes made in adaptations they do for the screen will mean that they are just a different cycle for Roland. I just saw a recent blurb that said development for an adaptation is on yet again. I'm not holding my breath at this point, but I do look forward to seeing whatever they come up with. More than anything I will probably be critical of casting choices. At this point I'd prefer unknowns in nearly all the major roles. If this series really lasts all the way until the end, then you need people who will inhabit these characters completely rather than you sitting there thinking about the actor behind them. Though I do think it would be neat if they could get Joe Hill to play his dad in 1977.
Technically, I would still like to re-read Insomnia and the two books King co-wrote with Peter Straub, The Talisman and Black House as they all tie into the series, but at this point I feel like I need a break from King. This series can take a lot out of you.
Wednesday, April 29, 2015
He saw the Tower itself in the burning folds of the rose and for a moment understood its purpose: how it distributed its lines of force to all the worlds that were and held them steady in time’s great helix.
I'm continually surprised by the abrupt endings these books tend to have. It lends itself to King's suggestion that like the Lord of the Rings, this is in fact one very long novel, but must have been infuriating for people who had to wait for the next book in the series to be released. Wolves of the Calla is a stronger and more interesting book than Wizard and Glass was for me, but there were moments where I struggled to keep paying attention.
Unlike the last book, the flashbacks here are the strongest part. I remember being very surprised to discover Father Callahan here, and it was a very pleasant surprise. His journey from his abrupt departure in Salem's Lot to the Calla is a great story. It also guarantees that "Someone Saved My Life Tonight" is going to be stuck in your head for pretty much the whole time you're reading this book.
The story on the Calla itself isn't bad, and the idea that these evil creatures are taking one from each set of twins in a small town is a fascinating one. The characters are interesting and believable, and Andy the robot is a fun character. But mostly it takes far too long to get to the point, and then that moment is over and done super quickly. I know that's a part of what King is stressing, that the build up is always longer and worse than the battle, but there's only so much "old important man in town doesn't want to fight" that I really need to read before I'm asking him to get on with it. If it wasn't for interesting bits like Andy and the Sisters of Oriza, it would be even more painful.
Perhaps the most infuriating is that a lot of this is just build up for the next book. From the very start we're presented with the knowledge that Susannah is pregnant with a demon baby, and Roland knows but he's not telling, then he tells Eddie but no one else, then Jake knows but they still don't tell Susannah, then it's out in the open but Susannah keeps lying about her alternate personality trying to emerge. These people are ka tet, supposed to be able to sense each other's thoughts and feelings, so their lying to each other and hiding things is so much worse. Oy's about the only one of them I don't want to smack some sense into.
The other bit of story left hanging is their quest to protect the rose that exists in New York, purchasing the lot from Calvin Tower before the Crimson King's men can instead. This hanging thread is a little less annoying, but it does feel like something that could be simply answered in another chapter or two rather than making us wait for the next book. I can't help but feel like King's choices on where to end these novels is a bit misguided, and I don't envy anyone who was trying to adapt them to film. It seems like you'd almost have to cut the stories in different places than where he does to make satisfying films.
That said, this book is important to the series as it drops a lot of important knowledge and lore on us. This is our first real introduction to the Low Men in the story proper, along with the vampires and breakers, and we get some more details about the Crimson King and what he wants. I just wouldn't recommend pulling this one out to read on its own.
Tuesday, April 28, 2015
Do decimals work the same in Roman numerals? There's something I didn't consider when I started to title these. While The Wind Through the Keyhole is the most recently published of the Dark Tower novels, in the foreword King states that it should be considered 4.5, coming after Wizard and Glass. It's a fairly brief novel, and when you consider that it is a story within a story within a story, it's almost more like three short stories bound together.
If you are a familiar with the series and hoped this new novel would bring you more tales of Eddie, Susannah, Jake, and Oy, you would probably be disappointed. They are there, but you're not going to gain a whole lot insight into their characters or any new knowledge from this adventure. The book picks up very soon after Wizard and Glass ends, where upon their journey towards the tower, they run into a powerful windstorm that has them seeking shelter. While there, Roland tells a tale from his younger days, one that happens chronologically not long after the flashback he tells in Wizard and Glass. For these reasons, this book really does belong where King suggests in the reading order.
In this new flashback story, Roland is set on another gunslinger's task, to investigate a small town and a fabled "skin man" that is torturing them. Skin men have the ability to turn themselves into various large animals, which can differ in species but always seem to be large predatory beasts. Unlike werewolves, they seem to be in control of when they can change. In the midst of investigating this mystery, Roland meets a young scared boy, and he tells him a kind of fairy tale, from which the novel gets its name.
The actual story of The Wind Through the Keyhole reminded me greatly of Eyes of the Dragon, and not just because it features a dragon and even at one point a very special napkin. It just has that same fairy tale quality to it, of a young boy set upon a quest to become a man. He overcomes a lot of challenges and meets some interesting creatures along his journey. Of the three stories set within the book, it's definitely the strongest, and I found myself very fond of the young boy Tim, wanting him to survive his ordeal.
Perhaps the only issue I had with it is that Roland says that this is a story his mother read to him as a young boy, and King even says that Roland begins to hear her voice in his head as he repeats the words to the young boy beside him, but this isn't truly written like a story you would tell to young children. Parents die and get replaced by stepparents all the time in fairy tales, but those tales don't include explanations of how the surviving parent weighs all their options and whether it's right to marry just for money instead of love, nor do they include moments where the child can hear the parent being raped by the stepparent in the other room. They may be hinted at, but never stated so bluntly. But perhaps we're meant to believe that Gilead is a harsher world where people are more frank with their children? Or maybe King just knew he wasn't writing for kids here so he didn't tone things down.
Adult as it may be, it's a good tale, and the flashback story isn't bad either. I doubt Jamie DeCurry will be anyone's favorite character of the Dark Tower series; he plays so little a role in the story as Roland's companion. But after the constant wisecracking Cuthbert and solemn Alain from the last adventure, his silent demeanor was a bit of a welcome respite. The story of the skin man holds a lot of ties to King's novel Desperation, and may be better appreciated by people who have read that one. As a story in and of itself, it's alright, but also very brief.
For the main wraparound tale, there isn't much to be said. While there's a bit of an intro, once the skin man flashback is over, we only get a brief moment of our main ka-tet before the book ends. I don't know that I would call this book something that was needed for the Dark Tower series, but it's still a good book in and of itself.
Monday, April 27, 2015
Castle Rock Companion - The Dark Tower supplemental: The Little Sisters of Eluria and Everything's Eventual
After finishing Wizard and Glass, another break can be taken before continuing through the series. The main recommendations I saw for reading before continuing on are the two short stories "The Little Sisters and Eluria" and "Everything's Eventual," both of which can be found in the short story collection titled Everything's Eventual (back to back no less) as well as the novel Insomnia. If you've never read Salem's Lot or Hearts in Atlantis, now would also be a good time to cover those as well. As for now, I'm putting off Insomnia, which doesn't entirely connect to the series until book 7 anyway.
The Little Sisters of Eluria
This is a story about Roland's encounter with vampire nuns in a deserted town while following the Man in Black. So it technically happens before The Gunslinger, but makes so many references to the story that Roland tells in Wizard and Glass that it makes sense to read it here rather than before The Gunslinger. It's fairly short, but the characters are vivid, both the frightening older vampire women and the reluctant young one who is part of their band. It's a fairly brief tale, and not entirely essential to understand the series, but a good one worth reading.
On the surface, this doesn't seem like a Dark Tower tale, and could very easily be taken on its own. Dinky Earnshaw has a strange special ability - when he writes a bunch of strange symbols down along with something familiar to the person reading it, they suddenly want to commit suicide. The symbols are so strange and foreign that the average person has no idea what they are, and he can literally get away with murder. He uses it very infrequently, only to silence the mean dog who pesters him on the way to school, or to get rid of the equally pestering bully who torments him. But then one day a man shows up to offer him a job, and if you've read Hearts in Atlantis, you may recognize him as one of the Low Men.
Dinky is given a house, a car, and seventy dollars a week, along with a whiteboard in the house where he can write down just about anything he could ever want, and it will be delivered to him along with his groceries. There are a few catches - he can't contact his friends anymore for one. The strangest, on the outset, is that any amount of that seventy he doesn't spend every week must be thrown away or destroyed. In exchange for this easy lifestyle, Dinky sends emails and occasionally hand written letters to whoever the company wants him to. Eventually Dinky starts to question whether or not the people he's killing are really the "bad guys" as the company told him. It becomes clear to him that the whole reason he's required to toss his money is because they don't want him making an escape, and he makes a plan to fix it. Whether or not he's successful isn't revealed within the story.
With the Low Men connection, it isn't hard to guess just who Dinky might truly be working for. It's also just a good short story, as King does a good job of introducing us to this young man and the way he is paid for his job first, then slowly revealing all the stranger details later. It helps to keep you interested as the story goes on. Wikipedia tells me that Dinky will appear in the regular series eventually, and I have to admit I don't remember where or how, but I'm looking forward to it now. He's an interesting character.
Edit now that I've finished: Dinky shows up in the last book in the series, so you could technically hold off on reading this one until then if you wanted. His story here is not exactly contradictory to where he ends up in the series, but does leave me wondering just how he got there from here. Once again, this story isn't essential reading to understand things by any means, but it is worth reading if you have a copy in easy reach.
Sunday, April 26, 2015
As I mentioned in my Eyes of the Dragon review, The Wastle Lands ends on a cliffhanger that is resolved in the following novel, so grouping the review of the two together makes sense in its own way.
The Waste Lands
All things serve the beam.
This novel is very much a transitional one, and I can't help but feel that it could have been broken up and the pieces added to the books that come before and after it with no damage done beyond making those books longer. And this is King we're talking about, so who is going to complain about that? The first half involves bringing in Jake and Oy, thereby completing the ka-tet and bringing in all the major characters of the series, and the second half features our heroes entering the town of Lud and eventually boarding Blaine the Mono, a train that challenges them to a riddle contest in order to give them safe passage on their journey. The book abruptly ends before that contest begins, and even has an afterword from King where he tries to justify leaving us hanging like that. As you can tell, I don't really buy it.
The challenge with rescuing Jake ties very heavily into what happens at the end of The Drawing of the Three, and I love the idea that both Roland and Jake are dealing with these dual memories of two different conflicting timelines. I also love the journey Eddie takes here, slowly shrugging off the damage his older brother has done to his self esteem and embracing the quest for the Tower instead, giving him an understanding of Roland's choices. There's a lot of great character moments here even if the narrative of the book itself feels so incomplete.
There is also the first introduction of Oy, who I fell in love with immediately. He's adorable, and his ability to mimic human speech gives him a quality a step above the average pet, without making him too far into fantasy by being a full fledged talking animal.
The time in the town of Lud is action packed and great world building, one of those moments I would really love to see a movie adaptation for. But I do think if King couldn't quite settle on how to resolve the Blaine conflict here, he should have just ended the story sooner and included these moments at the beginning of the next book.
Wizard and Glass
And now, all these years later, it seemed to him that the most horrible fact of human existence was that broken hearts mended.
Because doing it that way, you now have this highly active riddle fight at the beginning, and then everything comes to a grinding halt as Roland tells a story to his companions about his youth. I'll admit, part of the problem here may be me. I found the tale of young Roland, Cuthbert, Alain, and Susan far less interesting this time around, and it may be about fatigue. Not only was this my second time reading the book, I've also read the comic adaptations of this story already, and knowing how it all ends makes it harder for me to feel invested in these characters. They are no where near as lively and lovable as Eddie, Susannah, Jake and Oy and so I found myself wishing for it all to be over so we could return to Kansas and the setting of The Stand. Of course when that moment finally comes, it's mostly just Wizard of Oz metaphors instead. Which is not a bad thing, necessarily, I have a lot of affection for that book and film, but I have to admit I do wish we'd seen a lot more of Flagg before he disappeared.
This was definitely my least favorite of the novels so far, but my detachment to the story did actually help me to start thinking about ka-tets and how they function in King's other stories, the similarities of the groups that make up the heroes. It doesn't work for every single one obviously, but The Stand, Salem's Lot, It, and Dreamcatcher all jump into my head of a group of 4-5 people, with often one female, one child, one pet, and/or one disabled person included. Whether this was something King was doing intentionally or not, it's a fun thing to look for among his works.
Saturday, April 25, 2015
The nature of The Dark Tower series and its multiple worlds means it ties into a great number of King's other works. One could easily say it ties into all of King's other works, it's just that the ties in some are more noticeable than others. As such there are those that when doing a Dark Tower read through, recommend hitting at least some other of King's works as well. The order in which to do so is really the question. The Gunslinger and The Drawing of the Three lead directly into each other, and The Wastelands ends in a cliffhanger that is resolved in Wizard and Glass. Wizard and Glass features Randall Flagg as a character, who we've already seen mentioned in The Gunslinger briefly. As such, it's probably good to read The Stand before you get there, but thanks to that cliffhanger at the end of The Wastelands, you may either want to read that novel before you begin completely, or, as the order I found suggested, take a break between The Drawing of the Three and The Wastelands. Having just read The Stand not long before for Castle Rock Companion, I did not read it again. But there is another book which contains Flagg and is frequently recommended as part of a Dark Tower read through, and that is The Eyes of the Dragon.
Besides Flagg being the main antagonist, this story also features a king named Roland, a tower located in the center of the kingdom, and toward the end a group of five containing three young men, a woman, and a dog are instrumental in setting everything right again. That last bit won't make as much sense to you if you're reading this early in the series, but trust me, it ties together. It's certainly not a direct connection by any means, King Roland has little in common with our gunslinger, but it's clear King was having a bit of fun with it all.
Even without the Dark Tower connections, this is simply a great book. King has said that he wrote it for his daughter Naomi, who was not a fan of the horror stories he normally wrote. While not 100% a children's book, it does certainly have some those traits. This is The Hobbit of his Dark Tower series in a way, written in a wonderful conversational style much like that book was, being a bit more whimsical in places though still a bit of dark fantasy at times. There is magic and dragons, but it is also fairly grounded in reality, so that the world is not too far off from our own medieval period.
It's a fairly simple tale, of a brother accused of killing his father so that the evil magician can put his not as smart younger brother on the throne and rule through him. Prince Peter is locked away in the tower and slowly comes up with a means to escape his prison and avenge his father's death. It's really all the telling that makes it so enjoyable, as well as the delightful evilness that is Flagg as our antagonist. Similar to his appearance in The Stand, he takes joy in manipulating people behind the scenes to get what he wants, biding his time and watching over everyone. Or at least he does until suddenly Peter gains the upper hand, and he unravels with such a vicious temper that shows he's not as calm and collected as he would like everyone to believe. Flagg is only good at his job as long as people fear him, and once that is taken away, he's nothing. Read concurrently with The Stand, it gives us a sense of just who this character is and his purpose. Here he is specifically called a demon, and it's clear he's meant to sow chaos in places that are on the razor's edge between prosperity and destruction. He's meant to tip the scales towards the sides of evil; and he seems to always come very close to accomplishing that but yet frequently beaten by good in the end. Like in The Stand, it's actually someone he thought was firmly in his pocket that helps to deal the defeating blow on him.
King ends the novel with a hint at a possible sequel, telling us that two characters went on to have more adventures and even see Flagg again. But for now, those further adventures will have to live in our imaginations. But if you're looking for a nice light read in the world of fantasy, I highly recommend you give this one a shot. I'd love to see an animated adaptation of this story, but the attempts to make one around the turn of the century never got off the ground. For now the Syfy channel seems to have the rights to the book and may end up turning it into either a series or a film.
Friday, April 24, 2015
"There are people who need people to need them. The reason you don’t understand is because you’re not one of those people. You’d use me and then toss me away like a paper bag if that’s what it came down to. God fucked you, my friend. You’re just smart enough so it would hurt you to do that, and just hard enough so you’d go ahead and do it anyway. You wouldn't be able to help yourself. If I was lying on the beach there and screaming for help, you’d walk over me as if I was between you and your goddamn tower."
The Gunslinger is a brief introduction to Roland and his purpose. The Drawing of the Three is where the Dark Tower story really gets rolling, shows us what this is all about, and introduces us to more of its key players. If a movie version of this series ever officially gets off the ground, I would expect the first film to condense both of these books into one. But for now all we have is the books, along with the comic series.
It was a happy coincidence that the first three issues of The Prisoner comic series were published shortly before I read The Drawing of the Three again. The comic is based on moments Eddie remembers within the novel, though with a few details added in that hint to us that Eddie's fate or ka was set long before he ran into Roland, just as Odetta Holmes' was. I recommend it.
Of course, I'm also extremely biased. Eddie is my absolute favorite character of Stephen King's, the one I've cared for the most. It's still early, and Eddie is still very much a victim of his addiction in this story, but you can still see the good man underneath all that. He's not the only junkie King has ever written, nor is he the only bad boy gone good, but the way Eddie is always so willing to tell things like they are is a large part of what endears him to me. The quote above is him speaking to Roland, and it stings Roland and rings true to us because we've already seen how Roland sacrificed Jake. But we also see Roland change, and maybe Eddie's damning words are a large part of that. He's not going to give up the Tower, certainly, but his heart has already been softened just a little by the presence of his new companions.
This book largely feels like it's broken up into two segments, the first being Roland drawing Eddie, and then the remainder is all about Odetta Holmes and Detta Walker, two women living in one body. While I love everything about the first part of the book, the second half has some flaws that prevent me from loving it as much. The first is that Odetta's condition is constantly referred to as schizophrenia, which it is not. Part if this may be characters making the mistake, but the fact that King never once has anyone use the term "multiple personality disorder" (which would have been the proper term when this was written) makes me think it's his mistake as well. The other issue I have is the personality of Detta Walker, and that's a bit more complex. Detta is supposed to be a caricature, but that doesn't make her constant over the top stereotypical language any less difficult to listen to at times. There were large points where I desperately wanted Detta to go away, not because I was worried for Eddie and Roland or wanted Odetta back as much as I just didn't want to listen to her "honky muhfuh" talk.
That aside, I do like her story overall as well as the insight we get into the character of Jack Mort, who is responsible for both her disabilities as well as Jake's first death. King does a pretty good job of keeping the suspense up toward the end as Roland tries to get the supplies they need from New York while Eddie's life is on the line back on the beach. And all my issues with Detta will largely go away as she has now become Susannah, a character far more enjoyable that I'll come to love almost as much as I do Eddie in future volumes.
The novel does definitely feel like a stepping stone in the full series, something you'd probably have a hard time taking on its own. As I said, it gets most of our main players together, but the story itself really feels more like two mini volumes than one full whole. In a way, you could easily have made three novellas called The Gunslinger, The Prisoner, and The Lady of the Shadows, but since Eddie and Susannah are very much linked to one other, it makes sense to group them together here. The story ends on a quiet note, a nice breather after all the tension on the beach, but still leaves me wanting more and ready to continue with their journey.
Thursday, April 23, 2015
"Go then! There are other worlds than these!"
Despite being a King fan for so long, it took me quite a while before I dug into the Dark Tower series. At one time, westerns were a genre that simply didn't appeal to me. These days, however, I understand that the fictional version of the American western settlers is often a genre and setting that gets mixed and matched with others. In this case it's primarily high fantasy, though there's a smattering of other genres also brought in at different times. That's just one of the many reasons I love this series - the fact that there's so many different elements brought in to create this one epic story. There's also the strong batch of lead characters that feel real in the way that so many King characters do, the way the epic ties in to so many of his other novels, the humor, the drama... I could go on. When I first finished the series, I had the urge to start it all over again - for reasons I'll save until I reach that final novel once again. However I hadn't revisited it yet, even when I would run into those Dark Tower threads in other novels for Castle Rock Companion until now.
What struck me as I listened (because this second time around I'm listening to the audiobook versions) was just how many elements King had planned out from the beginning. Our gunslinger Roland has prophecies told to him by two different seers and they are cryptic enough that they don't entirely make sense to a new reader, but can cause those of us more familiar with the series to smile and nod as we recognize what is to come. Of course it is worth mentioning that in the revised 2003 edition,changes were made to make everything gel better with the later details. I at least can forgive King for "retconning" stories he wrote nearly 30 years before for the sake of matching the novels he wrote much later. There are still threads here from the original work that pay off throughout the full epic tale.
Roland's world is a fascinating one, as it has elements of the early days of America's unsettled wild west but also post apocalyptic desolation as well. When Roland enters a saloon and we hear that "Hey Jude" is playing, it perks up our ears immediately, and makes you wonder if this is our world set eons after an atomic bomb has dropped. There are, after all, mutated humans and livestock all around. The first short story "The Gunslinger" let's us think just that for awhile, and is a great tale of the stranger coming to town and starting a relationship with the local barkeep, but the priestess and her loyal followers paint him as the anti-christ and soon come after him. The whole thing turns into a blood bath and shows us just how powerful Roland is as he manages to take down the entire town.
But once we get to the second story "The Way Station" we realize that things are more complicated than we initially thought. Jake appears seemingly out of nowhere, and his world is near identical to our own in the present day (well, 1970s present day). So Roland's world is most likely just an alternate universe, one that shared similar elements with ours, but not all of them. In time Jake talks of "buildings that scrape the sky" and other things that Roland has no knowledge of. Of course, we're also repeatedly told that Roland's world has "moved on," a sign that it is near its end, and it's possible that some of the things he doesn't know have simply been lost with history and time.
Roland is pursuing the Man in Black, on his way to reach the Dark Tower. We don't truly understand why yet, just that it has become his mission and he has pledged his life to it. Jake joins him and the two of them bond, something Roland desperately needs as he has been alone for quite some time now. Even the barkeep was more a temporary distraction rather than someone he truly cared for. But not so with Jake. Jake is young, but thanks to parents who are largely too busy to pay attention to him, is very mature for his age and takes his presence in this new alien world in stride. He clings to Roland as a mentor and father figure, and it's very hard not to like him. But Roland is soon told that the boy is a trap set for him by the Man in Black, and there's a building sense of dread as to what will happen.
King really does a great job of balancing that dread and tension with moments of general calm, and the glimpse back into Roland's youth provides a great distraction from the peril that he and Jake face together. The flashbacks also fully cement the idea that here gunslingers are just knights with guns, and as someone who has always loved the more medieval stylings of fantasy I can appreciate this slightly altered form.
The inevitable conclusion of Jake's story here was heartbreaking to me the first time I read it, and this second time around I was surprised to remember how quickly it happens. There's plenty of tension building up to it, but it seems to happen in a flash, leaving you with that sudden shock. Of course, the sting was lessened this time around since I know what is eventually to come.
Overall, this novel is still very brief. While the additions and changes King made do make it feel like a complete volume rather than just a collection of short stories, it is still primarily more like novella length, and more like a brief intro before the series really takes off. While it could be taken on its own, I would say this is really more just a good way to dip your toe into the series and see if you like the tone and world it is set in. It's so brief that you have little to lose, and I have a feeling you may be as hooked as I was. If you even somewhat like it, I highly recommend following it with The Drawing of the Three, where things really start to crystallize.
While film adaptations of the Dark Tower series continue to float between developers, there have technically been comic book adaptations of parts of the series. The story Roland tells Jake of how he challenged his teacher and became a gunslinger is told in issue 1 of The Gunslinger Born. It is a faithful adaptation with a few extra details thrown in for good measure. The remainder of The Gunslinger Born tells the story that while hinted at by Roland whenever he brings up Susan in The Gunslinger, are not properly told until Wizard and Glass, the fourth novel.
On this re-read, I had a question of what proper order to take the series in. The biggest question is primarily where to place The Wind Through the Keyhole, as it was published after the main series was finished but happens in the middle. There are also so many tie ins with King's other books that some are certainly at least suggested reading to go along with it. After scanning some other fan made suggestions, I've developed one of my own. If I've already read a novel for Castle Rock Companion, I won't be revisiting it as I feel like the details are fresh enough in my mind that there's no need. But I'm including them here for anyone else who may want to do this.
- The Gunslinger
- The Drawing of the Three
- The Eyes of the Dragon
- The Waste Lands
- Wizard and Glass
- "The Little Sisters of Eluria"
Salem's Lot IT
- "Everything's Eventual"
Hearts in Atlantis
- The Wind Through the Keyhole
- Wolves of the Calla
- Song of Susannah
- The Dark Tower
- The Talisman
- Black House
There are other novels that King says have Dark Tower ties and that others include on their lists, but personally I think the ties are so small they do not need to be included. You can just read them later and recognize the references if you'd like. Most people suggest putting The Talisman and Black House in the middle, but to me they seem like just an alternate cast of characters that are also in pursuit of the Dark Tower, and therefore can be treated separately. I may change my mind after the fact, as I read The Talisman so long ago I barely remember it, and have never read Black House before. But you could easily just read the main eight novels of the series and still get a complete story, so I don't think I'm hurting myself by putting those two at the end.
Note: I wrote these entries as I would finish a book, but am posting them all marathon style together. As you'll see, some books also share a post together as well, depending on how much I felt I had to say on them.
Monday, April 6, 2015
Rose Red began its life as an attempted collaboration between Stephen King and Steven Spielberg to do a remake of The Haunting, a film which is an adaptation of Shirley Jackson's novel, The Haunting of Hill House. It would seem that King always wanted that separation, as while this story borrows certain elements from Jackson's novel, he also used it to go off in his own direction. He was also clearly inspired by the Winchester Mystery House, and brought in elements from that real life house as well. As such, this is largely King's first attempt at adapting someone else's work for the screen. The King/Spielberg collaboration fizzled because Spielberg reportedly wanted more action than what King gave him. Someone else eventually remade The Haunting, and King took that script and turned it into this mini-series. Work began before his tragic accident where he was hit by a van while running in 1999, but was finished while he was in recovery.
I bring this up because, at least for me personally, I find a distinctive lull in King's work for a few years after the accident. The man was in serious pain and considered giving up on writing all together near this time, and I certainly don't blame him. In time I think his experience aided his writing and gave him something to add to his stories, but for a while there I think his work suffered.
The mini-series starts off strong, introducing us first to young Annie Wheaton, a girl with powers very similar to King's Carrie White and The Haunting of Hill House's Eleanor Vance. From there the story jumps ahead ten years and we meet our cast of characters. There is Dr. Joyce Reardon, a professor determined to provide scientific proof of the paranormal, as well as a group of people with paranormal abilities that she assembles to inspect the haunted house Rose Red. They all have a wide range of powers from being able to touch an object and see its history to being able to see ghosts, but Joyce believes the clincher is to bring young Annie to Rose Red in order to fully unlock all the power of the house and get her evidence. She's also been sleeping with Steve Rimbauer in order to gain access to the house to conduct her experiments. There's a nice amount of movement and tension as we meet all these players and we learn that the head of the university Joyce works for strongly disapproves of her interests and sets a young ambitious reporter from the school's newspaper after her to catch her red handed using university equipment.
At the same time we are exposed to the history of Rose Red itself and the Rimbauer family who built it. While initially John Rimbauer built the house as a gift to his new wife Ellen, she eventually takes it to a whole new level, taking the advice of a fraud psychic who tells her the house must continually be constructed and never finished. If she does this, Ellen will live forever. She takes the advice and continues to do so, ignoring the fact that men have a history of dying in the house and that women (and even her young daughter) have a history of disappearing in its vast, seemingly changing corridors. Ellen herself even disappears among its halls eventually. The house was open for tours for a time, but the disappearance of an actress closed the house for good and Steve is quite eager to tear the whole thing down, but has agreed to allow Joyce to do this study first.
Unfortunately, once the full cast has assembled at the house, things slow down to a crawl. The young reporter arrived at the house before everyone else with the intention to snoop on them, but he's quickly killed by the house. He employs terrible scary movie logic, walking right into a swarm of bees for no good reason and shaking doors pointlessly when we've already seen that he has keys to the house. As the others arrive they find evidence of his death and wander the rooms a bit but not much else. Since we've already been told the history of the house, there's virtually nothing new to tell us, and the plot drags on.
I believe a large part of what King was trying to do around this time is to keep us guessing along with the characters as to what is real and what is not. But when characters wander off for a time and then are apparently taken as fact as dead thereafter, it becomes truly confusing. And they continue to make boneheaded choices, like Emery, the character who sees spirits, choosing to believe that one of his companions is already a ghost and therefore ignoring his cries for help. Emery is also just all around annoying. Matt Ross wears this permanent lip curled sneer on his face that is just ridiculous, and speaks in a terrible nasal whiny nerd voice. Like his name counterpart in The Stand, Harold Emery Lauder, this is King bringing nerd stereotypes to the extreme. At least Harold was pitiable, this Emery is just terrible, being needlessly cruel to young Annie and helping to doom Victor.
The house does what it does, killing off male characters and getting female characters lost, but for me at least, none of it is shown in a particularly compelling way. We learn that Ellen killed her husband John with the help of her friend and servant Sukeena, but it was pretty obvious from the start that his jump out the window was not a suicide, so it's no big revelation. Ellen's daughter April's disappearance is tainted for me, because she sings "I'm a Little Teapot" in the halls and it left me baffled wondering if this was some kind of inside joke between King and director Craig R. Baxley, or just them trying to make a call back to Storm of the Century.
It's not all bad though, as the effects used in the film are spectacular. The shriveled moving corpses that haunt the house are genuinely horrifying, and a scene with a statue of Ellen coming to life (and tearing off her face to get a look at what is behind her) is also fantastic. There's a few CGI elements that don't work, like the aforementioned bees and the ghosts, but they're more than made up for with the other creepy effects and great set design. It's just a shame that the story largely fizzles around it.
The house happily welcomes Annie, who becomes fascinated with a dollhouse recreation she finds within it. Joyce convinces her to keep them all trapped inside the place so she can study the effects, while everyone else eventually works to convince Annie to let them leave. If Joyce were more interesting and compelling I might be more caught up in this, but the fact is the moment she smeared her blood all over the face of her employer to scare him she revealed herself as a complete nut, and beyond her one talk with Annie she mostly sits back in the main hall of the house and giggles gleefully while her companions die. She receives a comeuppance for her actions but I find myself nonplussed about it all. There was a really good set up here, but the actual events in the house simply don't live up to it. I find myself wishing that King had decided to keep things closer to The House on Haunted Hill, or even his own The Shining, so that maybe all those spirits calling on Annie and wanting her to stay would have actually become something.
There's such a divide between the quality of the writing in part one versus that of parts two and three that I'm not at all surprised to learn it was a project divided by King's hit-and-run accident. The first part is so measured, so steadily woven together as we introduce Annie with a scene reworked from Carrie's origin, which King himself partially lifted from backstory of The Haunting of Hill House. Then we're on to Joyce, learning about the ropes her career is on, all the hopes she's hinging on the study of the massive edifice of Rose Red, teaching us an intricately detailed backstory of the house. It's almost too much detail, and definitely speaks to the padding of this material from a single screenplay to a miniseries of not just two, but three parts. And yet, I like it, as it is great haunted house lore, centered on the character study of Ellen Rimbauer, for whom everything seemed to go wrong as her tragedy spread into this cancer of a house. It'll be interesting to see the prequel movie which followed, because I honestly don't know how much story is left to tell.
Though she goes off in later parts (which I mostly blame on the writing), I quite like Nancy Travis as Joyce Reardon, and think she does a nice job mixing the charm of the character and her stabs of intensity. Yeah, the scene with the blood was a bit of a giveaway as to how far she was going to go, but I never felt like that was meant to be a surprise, as she's the Captain Ahab entering her own white whale, and such studies are allowed to tip their hand early. Shame it fumbled the followup. Then we get our group of psychics, who are mostly well cast and well played. The standouts for me are the luscious Julian Sands as Nick, who often falls into the defacto lead of the group due to his ability to laugh off anything terrifying, and the dabbling spread of his power giving him a sense of where everyone's individual strengths lie. And then there's Kimberly Brown as Annie. Annie is a tough character, given the nature of her powers and how they've either led to or are tied with a difficulty functionally connecting with people and destructively lashing out when aggravated. While I appreciate the effort to explore a character with what's labelled as "autism", King's actual handling is wildly inconsistent and feels as unresearched as his often (and rightly so) mocked and criticized portrayals of mentally disabled characters, and there's times where it comes off just as eye-rollingly stupid here. Brown, though, gives it her best, and I like her bashful smiles and piercing glares.
And then there's Emery. I'll get to Emery. Oh, Emery.
So introduction, yes, great stuff. In fact, this first part reminds me a lot of "Before the Plan", the extended, excised prologue to The Shining which set up heaps of backstory for the ghosts which would later come into play. I understand why that was trimmed, but what we get here works better because we're learning it through the characters, as they process and question the info in ways which equally tell up about them. And at the heart of it is the true series protagonist, Steven Rimbauer. I'll get to him in a moment, as well.
Once we get to the second half, that's where it spirals out of control. Even during the early tour of the house, things begin to feel scattershot and random as we'll jump between disconnected scenes or characters are acting contradictory to how they just were in scenes prior, with powers and dynamics flopping around inconsistently. This feels harried and rushed, like King wasn't fully paying attention as he just burned through the rest of the script in fits and starts. There's no flow to any of it, many builds lack payoffs, scares are random instead of, as I usually expect from King, rooted in the actual characters. For example, Pam is an entirely pointless character who does nothing plot-wise before being axed off early in a way that leaves behind no actual impact. She's mentioned and sighted a few more times, but hardly in any meaningful way. Yes, there's using her ghost to lure Vic to his demise, but that could just as easily have been the old actress spectre we also see about. And speaking of Vic, while his death had a nice dramatic punch, not to mention the gruesome linger of his unreachable corpse, there's no point in the narrative where he ever gets to actually use his powers or service the story before also being axed early. And Sister keeps swinging between explaining how Annie works and telling Annie to stop doing the very things Sister just explained. And Cathy again doesn't get to do much involving her powers of spirit writing (which do play into the big climax, though I can't for the life of me explain how or why), and instead settles into being the pious Christian woman often escaping from horrors through the constant whispering of prayers.
As for the ghosts of the house, there's little rhyme or reason to any of their actions or tactics, or why certain ghosts appear to certain people, or behaviors or motives, most of which almost entirely negates the point of having so thoroughly established their backstories to begin with. And it doesn't help that the effects are a mixed bag. Yes, the sets are fantastic, the miniature of the full house is great, and there's some nice animatronic ghoul puppets (agree that the statue scene is a major highlight), but there's so many bad digital overlays and morphs and traveling mattes and whatever that is rippling under the rug, that never did I actually get scared during any of this, especially with the characters inconsistently blundering into their own demises like the type of cheap horror victims a massive production like this should be above. And what the hell was with that fake rat springing out at Nick!
Now for Steve and Emery, which were my favorite parts of the second and third episodes. Not because they were great, but amidst all the scattershot randomness, they at least had some interesting arcs.
Yes, Emery is annoying. He's really, really fucking annoying, and is one of those frequent occurrences of a part over-written by King colliding with an actor over-playing it, especially whenever his mother is involved. And yet, I don't entirely unsympathize with the character, because he is in a tough spot, forced wildly outside his comfort zone, and faced by visions his powers can't easily drive away. While he again overplays his antagonism toward Annie, whom he rightfully blames for being the psychic channel through which they're all being attacked and held, especially in a moment costing him half his fingers, it's a believable antagonism and plays a necessary part in the debate over what they should do now. It gets points for never quite going where I expect it to, with his attempts to kill her grinding to a halt when she animates an axe-wielding suit of armor to go after him, and it then becomes a story of him finally having to take action to escape his mother. His mother is handled horribly in this story, running around the woods shouting for an hour (along with the professor who never again should have reappeared), then tied to the floor shouting for an hour. Good lord did she shout a lot. But when she's trying to drag him into the house with her, that's a good moment and a nice end to his arc as he finally pulls away, and among those seen in the epilogue, I'm most happy to see he's grown and moved on from constantly spewing the misery he's suffered.
And as for Steve, it's not a complicated arc, but I like how he goes from the loser yuppie sleeping with the boss and eager to unload the family homestead to becoming the surprise protagonist, forging a connection with Annie and having to face the legacy of his ancestors who are also using him as a channel through which they continue to cling to the past and feed on the present. The romance between him and Sister isn't needed and falls flat, but he's a good anchor to keep the team focused and moving, especially when Nick is swept away by whatever the hell that thing in the carpet was.
Overall, it's a mess of a miniseries, and a huge step back from King's previous collaboration with Baxley, Storm of the Century. It starts off well, but then loses focus and completely falls apart. It never scared me, very little moved me, and by the time we reached the end, I'd already spent a good hour waiting for it to be over. It's just not good. It was interesting to see King's take on The Haunting of Hill House, and I do wish I could read that original screenplay he wrote, but the resulting miniseries is so scattered and drawn out that I'll gladly take the actual remake of The Haunting, as silly of a mess as it also is, over what we get here.
On a final note, I have read "The Glass Floor", King's 1967 short story (his first professional sale!), which served as inspiration for one of the room in the house. It's not a very good story, stumbling through some awkward character beats involving a dude investigating the death of his sister. But when he actually steps into the room, it's a great bit of visual prose as he experiences a maddening case of vertigo, as the mirrored floor also lies below a mirrored ceiling. Here, they do very little with the mirroring effect, which is further lessened by the lack of mirrors above and the CGI ripple to the glass which erases the effect of a perfect polish. Would love to see another crack at that sequence some day.