Sunday, July 15, 2012

Stephen King: The Dark Tower: The Gunslinger (1982)

The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed.

A 22-year-old college student named Steve King wrote that sentence in the spring of 1970. It was the opening line of what the ambitious young writer dreamed would be "the longest popular novel in history".

Amazingly, he wasn't too far off. More than forty years later, King is perhaps the most popular writer in the world, and that long novel - The Dark Tower, which totals 4,250 pages over eight volumes - is his magnum opus.

The Dark Tower defies classification, incorporating several literary genres, including fantasy, science fantasy, horror, western, and even Pynchonian absurdities and metafiction (two things not usually associated with King). It is also, at its core, the oldest story of them all: the quest or a hero's journey, what Joseph Campbell referred to as the "monomyth". In the Gunslinger's case, his quest is for the Dark Tower, which "stands at the root of time".

The five stories in this first volume were written over a period of 12 years and first appeared in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction:
The Gunslinger (October 1978)
The Way Station (April 1980)
The Oracle and the Mountains (February 1981)
The Slow Mutants (July 1981)
The Gunslinger and the Dark Man (November 1981)
King, from the afterword to the paperback edition:
The Dark Tower began, I think, because I inherited a ream of paper in the spring semester of my senior year in college. ... [It] was bright green, nearly as thick as cardboard, and of an extremely eccentric size - about seven inches wide by about ten inches long, as I recall. ... I was at that time living in a scuzzy riverside cabin not far from the University, and I was living all by myself - the first third of the foregoing tale was written in a ghastly, unbroken silence ... Those two factors, the challenge of that blank green paper, and the utter silence (except for the trickle of the melting snow as it ran downhill and into the Stillwater [River]), were more responsible than anything else for the opening lay of The Dark Tower.
The Gunslinger was initially inspired by Robert Browning's 1855 poem "Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came", which King read as a college sophomore. (Browning's title comes from a line in Shakespeare's King Lear.) King wanted to write a "long romantic novel embodying the feel, if not the exact sense, of the Browning poem".

His creativity was also sparked by "The Good, the Bad and the Ugly", Sergio Leone's 1966 spaghetti western, which King saw in a Bangor, Maine, movie theater.
[B]efore the film was even half over, I realized that what I wanted to write was a novel that contained [J.R.R.] Tolkien's sense of quest and magic but set against Leone's almost absurdly majestic Western backdrop. ... And in my enthusiasm - the sort only a young person can muster, I think - I wanted to write not just a long book, but the longest popular novel in history. ... If you were to ask me why I wanted to do that, I couldn't tell you. Maybe it's part of growing up American: build the tallest, dig the deepest, write the longest.
In 1982, King estimated that he would need roughly 3,000 pages to tell the rest of the story, based on a synopsis he sketched out, adding that (at his current rate of production), "I'll almost surely die before completing the entire novel ... or epic .. or whatever you'd call it."

King did nearly almost die, after only four of the projected seven volumes had been published, when he was struck by an automobile in June 1999. After his recovery, King pushed himself to write the final three volumes, which were published in 2003 and 2004. And he went back and revised (and slightly expanded) the first book. (An eighth book was published in 2012; chronologically, it fits between Books IV and V.)

King has said the original version of The Gunslinger (for all its charms) suffered from "a high degree of pretension" and "what seemed like thousands of unnecessary adverbs". And so King removed as much "hollow blather" as he could. There were also "many errors and false starts" with respect to what followed years (or decades) later and its tone was unlike the subsequent volumes ("it was, frankly, rather difficult to read"). Finally, King wanted "to give newcomers to the tale of the Tower a clearer start and a slightly easier entry into Roland's world. I also wanted them to have a volume that more effectively foreshadowed coming events."

(The various changes in the text are discussed in detail here: And Just as Far as Ever from the End: A Textual Analysis of The Gunslinger by Stephen King, by Sharmin Kent.)

As the 2003 revised edition is clearly the definitive version, that's the one I read:

All of The Gunslinger has the feel of a prologue, which I suppose it is. A gunslinger named Roland - the last of his kind in his world - is tracking the man in black across a vast desert, "white and blinding and waterless and without feature". He has been travelling for months. It is noted several times that the world has "moved on" - a description that seems to connote more than the simple passage of time. Civilization has been decimated, apparently, perhaps wiped away by a plague similar to that depicted in The Stand.

Near death at a desert way station, Roland is saved by a young boy named Jake Chambers, who, under hypnosis, reveals that he died in New York City in 1977 and was somehow transported to this world. He joins Roland, who tells him, "I have to make him [the man in black] tell me something. I may have to make him take me some place ... to find a tower."

Roland, while on a mescaline high, is told by an oracle: "The boy is your gate to the man in black. The man in black is your gate to the three. The three are your way to the Dark Tower." This is only one of numerous indications that Jake will have to be sacrificed to the gunslinger's quest. And when Roland is faced with a choice of saving Jake and never again seeing the MiB or letting the boy die and getting closer to the Tower, he chooses the latter.

The MiB then reads Roland's future with a special deck of Tarot cards, and shows Roland a vision of the universe's creation. Overwhelmed, Roland begs for the dream to stop, and the MiB tells him to turn back from his quest. Roland refuses, and the MiB, as a minion of the Dark Tower's master, tells him: "Start west. Go to the sea. Where the world ends is where you must begin."

Roland awakes from the dream, and discovers that he has aged ten years. He makes his way to the sea.
There the gunslinger sat, his face turned up into the fading light. He dreamed his dreams and watched as the stars came out; his purpose did not flag, nor did his heart falter; his hair, finer now and gray at the temples, blew around his head, and the sandalwood-inlaid guns of his father lay smooth and deadly against his hips, and he was lonely but did not find loneliness in any way a bad or ignoble thing. The dark came down and the world moved on. The gunslinger waited for the time of the drawing and dreamed his long dreams of the Dark Tower, to which he would someday come at dusk and approach, wainding his horn, to do some unimgainable final battle.

In the first half of The Gunslinger, King focuses more on the bleak landscape, or the gunslinger's few thoughts about his pursuit of the MiB, rather than any back story (although he does include a few flashbacks to Roland's youth and beginnings as a gunslinger). It is only in the final two of the five stories - written in the late '70s - that the action starts to pick up. Despite what King said about the book's readability, it was engaging and solidly written, although it did suffer from time to time from some overheated (and bizarre) prose, such as "Volcanoes blurted endless magma like giant pimples on some ugly adolescent's baseball head."


The second volume of the series - The Drawing of the Three - would not be published for another five years. When it was, King admitted that he had little idea where the rest of the story would lead:
I'm never completely sure where I'm going [when writing], and in this story that is even more true than usual. I know from Roland's vision near the end that his world is indeed moving on because Roland's universe exists within a single molecule of a weed dying in some cosmic vacant lot ... [B]ut what of the gunslinger's murky past? God, I know so little. The revolution that topples the gunslinger's "world of light"? I don't know. ... Except somewhere inside, I do. Somewhere inside, I know all of these things ... When it's time, those things - and their relevance to the gunslinger's quest - will roll out as naturally as tears or laughter.
Jessica Waller, "Stephen King's The Dark Tower and the Postmodern Serial" (2008):
This sense of writing without knowing is a vital characteristic of King's postmodern serial: it allows the reader to fully grasp that this is a universe where all worlds are collapsing and falling into one another, and the novels themselves become the product of that collapse.

King, afterward to The Dark Tower IV:
I have written enough novels and short stories to fill a solar system of the imagination, but Roland's story is my Jupiter - a planet that dwarfs all the others (at least from my own perspective), a place of strange atmosphere, crazy landscape, and savage gravitational pull. Dwarfs the others, did I say? I think there's more to it than that, actually. I am coming to understand that Roland's world (or worlds) actually contains all the others of my making ...
King, July 2003:
[T]he books that I wrote instead of the Dark Tower from probably 1988 on . . . all of them refer to the Dark Tower books in some way or another.
King says these novels are connected (albeit sometimes only by the slimmest of threads) to the Dark Tower series: 'Salem's Lot, The Stand, The Talisman, It, The Eyes of the Dragon, Skeleton Crew, Insomnia, Rose Madder, Desperation, The Regulators, Bag of Bones, Everything's Eventual, Hearts in Atlantis, Black House, and From A Buick 8.


The five Gunslinger stories were published in a limited edition by a speciality press in 1982. Its release was not publicized and most King fans had no idea the book existed. It was only when the title was included among King's published works in Pet Sematary (1983) that it became widely known. By then, of course, the limited edition of 10,000 had sold out. In response to the outcry and demand, a trade paperback was released in 1988.

Next: Different Seasons (1982).

1 comment:

laura k said...

A connection from Shakespeare to Browning (one of my Victorians) to Stephen King. Interesting!