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.

Monday, June 16, 2014

Monday, June 09, 2014

Death Merchant #8: Billionaire Mission

I don't have Death Merchant #7 (The Castro File), so I will proceed to the eighth number in Joseph Rosenberger's long-running series: Billionaire Mission.

Cleveland Winston Silvestter is a paranoid, misanthropic billionaire businessman who, after much deep study of the occult, "discovered" that Satan is the true God and controller of the world and that he, Silvestter, is his chosen disciple. Silvestter believes the complete destruction of the human race is necessary to make a new beginning - a new dawn - for Lucifer, with CWS as the new Adam!

His plan to bring it about: assassinate various world leaders and blame enemy nations. When the book begins, several leaders are already dead and only two assassination plots remain: the U.S. President and the Russian Premier. Silvestter plans to retreat to his 850,000-acre sheep ranch in northeast Australia and sit tight as the nations of the world annihilate each other with atomic weapons.

Richard Camellion, the Death Merchant, argues with the CIA about the best way to go after Silvestter. The DM wants to infiltrate his Manhattan skyscraper, but the decision is ultimately made - early in the book, page 44 - to waste him in Australia. So we know that the ultimate battle will come with Camellion travelling Down Under. Camellion first goes to Rome, to meet up with agents from Russia, Britain, France, and Australia, who will assist him in storming Silvestter's massive compound.

Camellion and the other assassins fly from Rome to Bombay and then are transported by yacht to Brisbane, which leaves plenty of time for conversation. And considering Silvestter's religious beliefs are key to the book, Rosenberger has the Death Merchant engage in not one, not two, but three separate arguments about religion. One of the discussions (which becomes a lecture when Camellion is talking) goes on for seven pages!
Whether it's Satanism or Christianity, each form of belief is based on the acceptance of sheer myth as concluded fact. Each is a narrow form of belief, and both are childish. ...

The world would have been spared a lot of pain and suffering if Christianity had evolved into a religion of tolerance as, say, Taoism or Buddhism. Instead the religion of the Bible is as intolerant and militaristic as any Hitler ... a religion that has to go out and conquer the world - and God help those who disagree with it, if you'll pardon the pun! ... The great tragedy is that none of it, not a damned bit of it, has anything to do with the real creator of this universe! ...

I deal only in facts! And I have refused to let myself be influenced by a religion that is more interested in money than men! Behind the Biblical idea of 'Jehovah' stands a political pattern of tyranny, of rule by violence, of mental and moral slavery.
Camellion does not elaborate on "the real creator of the universe". During the debate, the Russian agent discourses on the "sociopolitical domination" of organized religion and points out various inconsistencies in the four "inspired" gospels.

During the voyage to Brisbane, they are met by a large enemy ship sporting an antiaircraft gun on its deck (a German 5.5-cm Gerat 58-AA). After a lengthy shootout - in which Rosenberger tells us what kind of gun each man is using - and some fancy maneuvering by the yacht's captain, Camellion actually leaps aboard the enemy vessel. In no time at all, he has killed everyone on board. Then, after pouring shark repellent over his body, he leaps into the sea and swims back to the waiting yacht!

When the men are back again on dry land, they are flown to within sixty miles of New Eden, and they set off in armoured jeeps. They are met with resistance once they cross over into Silvestter's land, but they get through and storm the main compound. There is a fierce shootout in a gym/pool area: "Pavel [the Russian agent] gave the last rites ... sprinkling them with holy lead from his blessed submachine gun ... From then on, the devil dunces would have to do their calisthenics in Hell ..."
[In the building's hospital] Two patients in bed were too ill even to hold weapons, but that didn't prevent Pavel from giving them shots not called for on their charts - a prescription of 9-mm slugs guaranteed to cure any aliment! No one ever complained about the dosage ...
Rosenberger also delivers his usual hilarious (and often racist) descriptions of the goons and boobs gunning for the DM. This time, they are Italian: "spaghetti elbow bender ... garlic gobblers ... wop cops ... goofy guinea". Also, Silvestter's group of believers are described alliteratively as "Satan saps", "demonologist dummies", and "Lucifer lunatics". My favourite line, which came completely out of the blue: "The old bastard looked about as intelligent as a high-school football coach."

After driving into the underground compound and wasting everyone on the first floor, Camellion and his men quickly race through the other floors, making their way to the sixth and final level and the Hall of Conjuration. The DM and four men blast in, outnumbered 2:1 and quickly out of ammo. What follows is 12 pages of intricately described hand-to-hand combat! One of Silvestter's men catches a knife in the neck, his blood "spurting as thick as a pencil".

The Death Merchant emerges victorious. The CIA wanted Silvestter taken alive, but that was not possible. The epilogue has Camellion already contemplating his next mission: "I've got to go waste some sandcrabs!", i.e., Arabs in North Africa.