Monday, June 23, 2014

Stephen King: The Dark Tower V: Wolves Of The Calla (2003)

After nearly being killed by a van while walking by the side of a road in Maine in June 1999, Stephen King realized that he could have died before he finished writing what he has referred to as his magnum opus - The Dark Tower series. And so, in the summer of 2001, he got to work.

Wolves of the Calla was published in November 2003 and the final two volumes came out the following year. King also went back and revised the first volume, The Gunslinger, to bring it into line with the future plots of his extensive story; he added material, while cutting off some loose, dead ends. Finally, he gave the novels subtitles beginning with "R": Resumption, Renewal, Redemption, Regard, and Resistance.

The Wolves story has very little to do with the actual quest for the Dark Tower. Roland Deschain and his ka-tet are following the Path of the Beam, when they come upon the farming town of Calla Byrn Sturgis, and are asked by the townspeople to help them fight against the Wolves, strange creatures on horseback who come once every generation and steal away one-half of the town's many twins. While the children eventually return, something has been done to them ("whatever spark makes them a complete human being, is out forever"). They grow to gigantic proportions, live for only a few more years, and die painful deaths.

King's story covers the events in the month before the Wolves are scheduled to attack the town. Since we know early on that there will be a climatic battle, much of what happens until then is simply King telling us stories - about past battles with the Wolves, Jake's friendship with a local boy, Susannah's strange pregnancy. The New York Times faulted King for "endless pages of 'palaver', as Roland would say" and of immersing readers in the political intrigues of Calla Bryn Sturgis when we all know the ka-tet will leave the town behind and continue their quest after (Spoiler Alert!) defeating the Wolves. At 709 pages, this book could definitely have been much shorter.

King notes in his Afterword that Wolves of the Calla is his tip of the hat to Akira Kurosawa's 1954 film The Seven Samurai (which was adapted into the western The Magnificent Seven, directed by John Sturgis. (The other part of the Calla's name comes from actor Yul Byrnner.) King also mentions the work of Sergio Leone, Sam Peckinpah, and Howard Hawks.

One of the more interesting subplots concerns the town's white-haired priest, who turns out to be Donald Callahan, one of the characters from King's 1975 novel, 'Salem's Lot. Callahan's story of the intervening years is related in detail, and although it is interesting and well-told, it doesn't have much to do with the main plot. King has claimed that all of his books (and their myriad characters) are part of Roland's world(s) and this is further evidence of that interconnectedness. Callahan actually thumbs through a copy of 'Salem's Lot late in Wolves and is astounded to read about himself and his experiences in Jerusalem's Lot. "A novel is fiction! ... I can't be in a book. I am not a fiction ... am I?"

For all of its build-up, the fight against the Wolves happens pretty quickly (King describes it all in only eight pages, "one of the briefest appearances you'd expect from an antagonist", according to one reviewer) and with minimal casualties on the Calla's side.

Matthew Peckham, SF Site:
[WotC is] a collage of action, western, romance, science fiction, fantasy, meta-narrative, suspense, and horror. In addition to cinematic homage, King culls from a mix of themes: a coming of age tale with no easy transitions; an examination of village life, its politics, its gossips and cowards, and the rituals of inclusion and exclusion; the slow and vexing process of recovery (its second appearance in the series) from substance addiction. Most of all, the book circles back time and again to a theme Kurosawa first explored in Seven Samurai, the traditionalist notion of caste, fate, and acceptance of station or duty.
All of that is true, though King has done all of this much better in his earlier books.

Kevin Quigley writes:
Where Wolves of the Calla mainly succeeds is in its functionality. It neatly sums up the important themes of the first four novels and forwards those of the final two. ... It introduces storylines that will flow through the final books of the series, making these last three books read like a trilogy within the series. ... [WotC] never achieves the resonance or significance [of] the other six Dark Tower novels. Perhaps overly long and lacking cohesion until the final third of the novel, Wolves is, though crucial, the weakest book in the series.
A Book Slut reviewer said King was "remarkably slipshod when it comes to time and place". When various members of the ka-tet travel back to New York City circa 1977, they encounter things that were not present until the 1980s and 1990s (AIDS, advertisements on city buses, fanny packs).

[Baseball Note: Callahan died and entered Mid-World in 1983, so when he hears Eddie is from 1987, he has to ask: "Had the Red Sox won the World Series yet when you left?" Eddie, a New Yorker, explains all about 1986, the Mets, and Bill Buckner.]

I started reading Wolves in late March, but was bored and put it down for a few months before reluctantly returning in June. I'm not much of a fan of the series, but I am interested in the sixth volume because King is going to get seriously meta-fictional - and become a character in his own book (and Roland's quest)!

Next: The Dark Tower VI: Song Of Susannah.

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