Thursday, April 23, 2015

Castle Rock Companion - The Dark Tower I: The Gunslinger

"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.
  1. The Gunslinger
  2. The Drawing of the Three
  3. The Stand
  4. The Eyes of the Dragon
  5. The Waste Lands
  6. Wizard and Glass
  7. "The Little Sisters of Eluria"
  8. Salem's Lot
  9. IT
  10. Insomnia
  11. "Everything's Eventual"
  12. Hearts in Atlantis
  13. The Wind Through the Keyhole
  14. Wolves of the Calla
  15. Song of Susannah
  16. The Dark Tower
  17. The Talisman
  18. 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.

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