My relationship with Stephen King’s writing is a complicated one. On the one hand, his body of work demands respect and his gift for plot and pacing is legendary. Those books of his I’ve read (which are rather few–Carrie, a variety of his novellas, a few short stories, and about half the Dark Tower Series), I have enjoyed. None of them, though, have managed to grab me. None, except perhaps The Gunslinger.
Say what you will about the Dark Tower series, but it is different. King creates a world that’s full of pointy edges and odd curves – you can’t quite get a handle on it. Roland journeys through a sort of dark, decaying Wonderland, with a new crumbling edifice around each corner. It is a world steeped in a kind of melancholy mystery which is enchanting. The Gunslinger encapsulates that beautiful doom perfectly, in a short little book stuffed full of strange. This is no wonder, though, as the Robert Browning poem that inspired King’s work is, itself, a work of incredible imagination (greater, I would argue, than King’s work itself).
It has been years since I stopped reading the Dark Tower series. I made it as far as The Waste Lands and left it behind me. I tell myself I really ought to go and finish the thing, but I don’t and probably never will. I think the problem (insofar as it is a problem at all) is that the Dark Tower, for me, is something that need not be reached. I am not left with any wish to see Roland’s quest completed, nor am I engaged in the character arcs of any of the characters. For me, the Dark Tower series is more poem than novel, anyway. Beautiful imagery, wonderful ideas, peculiar mood…but narratively compelling? I don’t really think so.
See, Roland and the Man in Black and the strange parallel world they inhabit aren’t really people to me. The Dark Tower doesn’t really seem to be a place. The whole thing echoes with metaphor, striking thematic parallels with every hero’s journey from Sir Gawain to the Torturer Severian. The picture is complete for me, without the need for plot or narrative motion. Honestly, I feel like the kid and the addict and the crazy lady interfere with what I like about the first book. They inject ‘real’ into the cloudy ephemera of Roland’s world, and I resent it.
The Dark Tower – hell, all Dark Towers – are places to dream about. They are points of inspiration, ideas fashioned from unknowable black stone. To get there, to achieve the Dark Tower is to touch your own dreams; to find out, in a supreme moment of catharsis, if your hand will pass through and you realize your delusion, or if your hand will land firm and your dream will be pulled back down into filthy, complicated reality. It’s lose-lose. I, myself, prefer to leave it there, atop its field of blood-red roses, it’s riddle unanswered. I feel, ultimately, that the answer is inherent in the question, anyway.