The Dark Tower: The Gunslinger By Stephen King

I could start by saying this is a strange book. And you’d say, “Well, duh. It’s a Stephen King book.” But there’s a certain sense of normalcy in a King book. The monster is more a catalyst than the star. Witness how Barlow shows up in Salem’s Lot and sets the town against itself while he picks off the inhabitants one by one. Or Randall Flag quietly gathering his forces in The Stand. Sure, “The Walking Dude” is a rock star villain, but he’s not the central player.

The Dark Tower: The Gunslinger is a weird book for Stephen King. For starters, it takes place in a world that “has moved on.” The world Roland Deschain, the last gunslinger, is spent, used-up, long past its civilization’s peak. There are bits and pieces of our world in Roland’s, but it’s clearly not ours. In the beginning, Roland shows up in a town called Tull, at the edge of a vast desert. He’s been walking for a thousand years, chasing a Man in Black, sometimes called “Walter o’Dim.” Roland new him in his youth as “Marten,” who seduced his mother and caused his father’s death. And the Man in Black has just passed through, grinning madly and leaving a couple of traps for Roland.

His presence eventually forces Roland to slaughter the entire town after he kills the preacher woman’s unborn child, who is the offspring of a being known as the Crimson King. (One assumes this, like a lot of Stephen King, was written with classic rock pounding through the speakers.)

Crossing the desert, which takes days and no one knows what lies beyond, Roland encounters a boy, Jake, swept from our world into Roland’s by the Man in Black. He is apparently the key to catching the Man in Black. They will cross the desert, chase the man up a high mountain range, and crawl through the belly of those mountains to reach him. In the process, Roland encounters two demons, one of whom he makes love to.

King has described this work as a cross between King Arthur, Lord of the Rings, and The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. And it shows. The gunslingers are shown in flashbacks to be knightly warriors, the defenders of a civilization that’s evaporated by the time the story begin. Roland and Jake’s journey is not all that different from the hobbits trek to Rivendell in The Fellowship of the Ring, though it ends nowhere near as pleasantly. And Roland, of course, is a superhuman shootist.

This book was a little hard to get into at the start. King himself says in the intro that it took until the second Dark Tower book to find this story’s voice. Since King used his other work to inform this story, a sort of Stephen King fanfic tale written by King himself, it should come as no surprise that the Man in Black is noneother than The Walking Dude, Randall Flagg from The Stand. Like most of King’s work, one does not have to read the Dark Tower to get the most out of the other stories. It barely ties in to his Castle Rock stories until Dreamcatcher, written two decades later. Cujo has ties to the later Dark Tower books, but itself is not a supernatural story. Skip the series, and you’re left feeling sorry for a very doomed St. Bernard dying of rabies and forced by the disease to become a monster.

But read the series…

It was a slow start joining Roland on his quest to find the mysterious Dark Tower. And the Man in Black is, as one suspects reading The Stand, where he is The Walking Dude, simply a toady of a greater evil.