As I write this brief report I’m approaching the last stretch of Wolves of The Calla, the 5th book in the Dark Tower series. There are currently 8 books and with Stephen King very much alive there will no doubt be additional volumes added.
During the last book, Wizard & Glass, I stopped reading entirely at one point. Stephen King had become too much to bear and like many series that span the length of a creator’s career we can see them slip as, having rolled their boulders up one side of the hill, they sit down and rest as it rolls back down the other. I commented to my wife somewhere around the 3rd or 4th book that I would bet money that Stephen King wrote this book wearing white sneakers. How that manifests as literary criticism is all down to your particular associations with white sneakers, but I’m content to let it stand.
So why have I continued on, like Roland Deschain across the wastelands, consuming a good 6 pounds of questionable literature? It’s difficult to say – and the reason has likely changed over the past year it’s taken me (sometimes haltingly) to get this far.
To start with, I’ve gained a new – and, I believe, very accurate – appreciation for Stephen King. This characterization has so far suffered well through the unpredictable swings in the quality of his work because it may be the most “on the head” summation of his personality as a writer. I realized by the third book (I have to think of the first book, The Gunslinger, as a separate work – more on that later) that I had this feeling before. It eluded me for a brief time, but then I identified it as a creative writing class at college. Reading Stephen King is like reading the work of the world’s best creative writing teacher. Unlike many of my other favorite authors he seems absolutely unconcerned with voice and will bounce from narrative device to narrative device with unchained whimsey. These hapless applications of trope and device remind me of the sort of exercises we used to undertake in writing classes. We’d have to write everything from essay to poetry to longer form fiction. We’d have to write from various points of view. We’d have to write in the voice of familiar authors. We’d undertake “challenges” like chain writing where groups would build a story around an agreed upon object with very few ground rules and “pass” that object from author to author. All of these bore varying degrees of success, but they were always very clearly relevant only within the classroom setting. No mass audience would brook such a kitchen sink approach to authorship, would they? Well apparently they would.
To further highlight King’s “anything goes” approach writing this opus, the final battle scene includes the use of weapons called Sneetches which are exactly J.K. Rowling’s Snitches from the Harry Potter world’s Quidditch game. He even gives her and Harry a shout-out. It’s gross.
I’ve learned that in the coming books I can look forward to Stephen King himself becoming a character. Gadzooks. I can see another long break while I adapt my stomach to the undercurrent of sour heaving that accompanies the rapid-fire suspension of disbelief necessary to stick it out with King and his Mr. Toad’s wild ride of a literary crap-opera.
That’s not to say that there aren’t gems. As I said, King swings wildly and in producing these works has turned some touching and artful phrases and invented a few colloquial versions of English that are as well executed as I’ve ever experienced. Included among the pockets of treasure are the entire first book, The Gunslinger, the flashback portions of Wizard & Glass, and most of The Wolves of the Calla.
The Gunslinger in particular finds King at the very beginning of his published writing before he played in a dad-band with Dave Barry. It’s sparse and unpolished and could convincingly find a home in Cormac McCarthy’s early canon. In The Gunslinger, King describes a world that’s moved on and explains that the thread that holds the jewel to the breast of the world has snapped. That’s as touching a description of the dystopian condition as one can demand. Similarly he describes death as the clearing where the path ends. Also economically beautiful. The book has a sense of space that spreads out meaningfully between events and stakes are felt rather than explained. It’s a short book and so unlike what an uninitiated reader would expect of King that you can’t help but to proceed, especially with the promise of so many volumes.
No sooner has King played so artfully against type that we find ourselves in The Drawing of The Three where one could say, especially in hindsight, that the series really finds it’s legs. Slipped comfortably on the feet at the base of those legs? You guessed it – big white sneaks.
With this book King firmly defines The Gunslinger as a prequel and established what will be the voice and timeline of the book’s Now. The nearly silent main character, Roland, now picks up some companions by dipping into other worlds through doors in thin air. Each door leads to a different time in New York where Roland is able to collect a wise cracking drug addict named Eddie, a brassy legless black lady named Odetta Holmes, a little boy (who was previously a slightly different character in The Gunslinger) named Jake Chambers, and A TALKING DOG-LIKE CREATURE CALLED A BILLY-BUMBLER.
I’ll wait while you grab some sawdust to put down.
I forgot to mention that while Roland is snatching these folks out of New York across a span of decades he is battling giant gabbing lobsters.
There’s the Stephen King I was worried about.
It was during The Drawing of The Three that I would go through periods of weeks without progress on the series. When, in Wizard & Glass, the rag-tag crew finds themselves on a yellow brick road with red sparkling shoes laid out for each of them I stopped altogether. It was nearly 6 months before I returned to the story.
The reason I kept coming back is two-fold. I was investing considerably more time as I progressed (these are long books) and I’m a sucker for long series. Then there was the fact that so many people held the series in high-regard and it seemed to have a cult following in the fantasy & Sci-Fi worlds where I’m an erstwhile but card-carrying member. I figured that at worst I’d be treated to a 50/50 endeavor and that’s about what it’s turned out to be so far.
As I move to wrap up The Wolves of The Calla with Song of Susannah waiting patiently I know a few plot points that I have to look forward to. A spoiler addict I also know that the book effectively ends in the now penultimate book The Dark Tower and that the following book, The Wind Through The Keyhole seems to feature a young boy and a tiger on it so god only knows what’ll happen by then.
Onwards, I suppose. More as the story develops.