(Originally posted elsewhere early in 2014. I didn’t read seven books in a few days for that would be crazy)
Today marks my finishing of the Dark Tower series by Stephen King. I’ve held off writing about these books so far, but now that I’m done with them, I feel I owe them something. I did, after all, spend a great deal of time reading them (perhaps three months), and they brought me much enjoyment. The least I can do is manage a paltry three or so pages. I won’t be spoiling anything, because even though these books aren’t new by any Internet definition of the word (the last one came out somewhere in 2003), I know how rude and awful a well placed spoiler can be.
That being said, I can’t talk about them without explaining some details, so if you plan on reading the books—and you very much should—and want to know nothing before going in, feel free to depart.
I first heard about these books from an ex girlfriend sometime in 2011. We had talked of swapping our favorite book series over a summer for shared reading experiences. I’d get The Dark Tower and she’d get The Death Gate Cycle. Both, coincidentally, are seven books long, feature antiheroes, are fantastical in setting, and involve the concept of a world that has “moved on.” I stand by my proclamation that reality is false and everything that exists is a part of my delirious, mind-fueled coma dream because coincidence surely isn’t a real thing.
I turned her down then, having never read a Stephen King book before and having professed no desire to wade into seven books that thick. She was pissed, but that’s okay.
It’s a good thing I chose to wait. The Dark Tower isn’t just about a singular quest; it’s a unification of Stephen King’s library of works. To go into this series without knowing his other books would be somewhat foolish as you’d miss out. You don’t need to know his other books or grasp all of the references to them, but they help set the tone and build up to the biggest reveal which starts in book five and really happens in book six.
I’ve read but a small amount of King’s books, but here are the ones I’d say you should know before reading The Dark Tower:
- Salem’s Lot
- The Stand
A small list to be sure, and there are far more books referenced that I’ve never read, but I found my knowledge of these three to greatly increase my enjoyment in The Dark Tower. If you had to skip one of those, for all three are quite large clocking in, around, or over 1000 pages, I’d say The Stand is the least important of them.
And before I continue, let me say that I hold Stephen King in very high regard as a writer. I won’t go into a long paragraph of lavished praise, but I do respect the man as a creative person, a story teller, and as an inspiration. Reading Stephen King makes me want to write. It’s as if his joy in the medium rubs off onto the reader, and that makes me happy.
That said, there’s something devilishly simple about the layout of all seven of these books, even though what’s in them is quite complex. This isn’t out of the ordinary for King, all of his books start off with a fairly simple idea and just bloom out when the characters start moving around (this he mentions in On Writing, citing Cujo as an example. The book started out as “What if a boy and his mother were stuck in a car and outside was a very large rabid dog.” That thought blossomed into a fairly mediocre book if I must say so, but it blossomed into a book nonetheless. There’s something to be said for turning a simple idea into more than the sum of its parts).
To prove my point, here’s a list of the seven books and what they are generally about:
- The Gunslinger: Introduces Roland, his world, and his quest to find the Dark Tower.
- The Drawing of the Three: Introduces some of Roland’s group/clan/party/etc.
- The Waste Lands: Introduces the final member of Roland’s group/clan/party/etc along with general adventuring.
- Wizard and Glass: Introduces Roland’s back story bookended by general traveling and adventuring.
- Wolves of the Calla: Introduces more pointed adventuring and some new characters and concepts that become the defining existence of the series.
- Song of Susannah: Introduces a split in the group/clan/party/etc and further continues the story and its concepts.
- The Dark Tower: Concludes the long and weary end of Roland’s journey, for better or ill.
Simplified that might be, but books one through three really do just act as introductions to characters alongside general questing through Mid World. Yet the books are all great, and there’s a great sense of urgency to them. King spends much time on his characters, but he’s never dull in doing so. There’s always a gnawing feeling of wanting more, and that feeling persists all the way to the end of the series.
As of now, I’ve yet to read a full-fledged fantasy novel by Stephen King. Most of his books have elements of the fantastical, but they are always grounded in some kind of reality. I love this duality, and King handles the real world so well that the fantastical elements really pop out and become something great. The Dark Tower is the closest I’ve seen him write to straight fantasy, but even then it’s a far cry from dragons and magic and sword fighting. And the books are set in a kind of reality which becomes ever more important and prevalent as the series goes on, and like with his other books, the duality of fantastical and reality become something great.
But even more than that, it becomes something important. The Dark Tower becomes more than a long story about a quest; it becomes a commentary on writing, stories in general, and the author’s importance to seeing the quest through. To put it in a less pretentious way: The Dark Tower is very Meta. But it works, and very well at that.
There’s so much I could talk about, but I want to keep this short and spoiler free. I’m now going to jump to the final book and talk about that for a paragraph or three and then call this done and be off to do something else with my time. Though I like to hear myself talk, so I suppose you should expect some kind of long winded conclusion as well.
From my experiences with Stephen King, he’s not always the best at ending his stories. This was especially prevalent in It which had a very unsatisfying ending despite the other 96% of that book being awesome, scary, and entertaining. I left disappointed and confused.
But really, how was King to end that story?
The Dark Tower has this same kind of problem. How was King to end the story? And don’t get me wrong, the ending is fine. It fit in with the established tone of the book, it fit in with the established rules of the book, and it fit in with the established themes of the book. It wasn’t a happy ending, but none of these books were happy. It wasn’t a noble ending, but none of these books were noble. By all means it was a good ending, but it was still somewhat unsatisfying.
And King makes a note of this in his afterward, “it’s unsatisfying, but it’s the right ending.” And he’s right on both accounts. The ending to this quest is the right ending, even if it isn’t the most satisfying of endings.
The real issue isn’t with the ending either; it’s with the climactic battles. The six books before this introduce some fairly interesting and powerful villains, but their villainy is wrapped up fairly quickly and without too many problems. There were many loose threads to tie up in one book, and this is my one complaint: they weren’t tied up in a satisfying way. There isn’t much to be done there though, and even then, all the tyings up fit in with the general tone, rules, and themes of the book, at least partly. Still, when you have a really interesting and powerful bad guy, you want a pretty interesting and powerful battle to see such a bad guy dead. The Dark Tower doesn’t deliver that.
And there you have it. My few complaints are with the final book, but those complaints don’t feel like much given the five or so thousand pages of story before them. In a way, it comes down to expectations and an increase in quality from one book to the next. The Gunslinger is the worst of the seven; The Drawing of the Three is the second worst of the seven, continuing all the way to the end. Each book is better than the last until the last, and that’s where every expectation must be filled. And that’s a hard thing to do all while wrapping up such a giant quest filled with different kinds of characters.
The last book didn’t meet my expectations, but they were obnoxiously high. And really, it only didn’t meet them within the last two hundred or so pages. The other 850 pages followed the rest of the previous formula: being better than all the books before it.
I spent about three months reading through The Dark Tower, averaging about seventy pages a day towards the last three books. I’ve never been on a more fun or interesting quest. I’ve never been enthralled by characters in this way. I’ve never consistently dreamed about fictional characters until now. I’ve never been so sad to see a series end.
Thank you, Stephen King.