Looking Back on: The Dark Tower 1: The Gunslinger (Book Review)

The Dark Tower 1: The Gunslinger
Written by Stephen King
Genre: Western/Horror/Science Fiction. (I reviewed this some time toward the end of routinely updating YHCOR for the second time, once again due to general apathy and an inability to focus on the site due to an inability to update it on my own power. These days it’s super easy to maintain a site because of services like WordPress, but at the time if you didn’t understand a lot of things I really didn’t, you’d end up with a shitty looking website that you couldn’t update, or else you’d hire a webmaster. I chose the latter option, and it didn’t work out as well as it could have for either of us. Oh well.)

Review note: For reference, I am reviewing the “edited” version of the Gunslinger, which came out in June of 2003, and not the original version, which came out in 1982. There are those that feel as though the book was re-written to force readers to purchase both books, as the re-issued version creates certain plot points which may elude the reader later on down the road, and that Stephen King is a whore in general. (Basically, he released the original book in the 80’s, when he probably had no fucking clue where he really wanted the series to go, then decided twenty years later, hey, maybe I should add in some stuff now that I have a clearer plan for this series. People were kind of butthurt about that, which I would absolutely understand if it wasn’t a medium where you can buy the product for $10 or take it out from the public library, both of which were generally options at the time. I completely understand being upset about doing this with a $25 movie that adds fifteen minutes of content, or a $50 video game, but there’s a certain anguish to dollar value ratio that makes it hard for me to really understand annoyances when the object in question is below the $20 range, which I’ve honestly held since I was eighteen and working at shit retail jobs, mostly because I just can’t get that mad about something that insignificant to my life, I guess.) To those people I say two things. First, King, to the best of my knowledge, owns two homes, has written fifty or so books, almost all of which are New York Times bestsellers, has been involved in over forty movies, and has no eccentric spending habits of note. Do you THINK he needs the fucking money? He most likely has enough money to live out the rest of his life in the lap of luxury, people, so get bent. (King’s general argument seems to have always been that he’s just that prolific of a writer that he’s basically willing to write anything and put it out in the world, because even if you don’t enjoy it, what if you do? That’s also his reason for writing two page descriptions of tablecloths, of course, so it’s not a great strategy in the grand scheme of things, but I can at least kind of empathize with it.) Second, the re-issue reads a lot smoother, flows cleaner, and is generally easier to understand (I gave up on the original halfway through, BTW). (Two decades of writing practice and a shitload of drugs and alcohol will do that to your style, I suppose.) Oh yeah, and the original came out in what, 1982? A lot of new readers might not even HAVE the first book, so re-issuing a better version of the book was, frankly, a damn good idea. (Though the original was still in print at the time, as most King books are, so the argument has some merit if you’d, for instance, bought it recently only to find out you had to buy another one, but still, yeah, not a great argument.)

Ahem.

So, the Gunslinger. Stephen King’s first chapter in his Dark Tower series, which he intends to be his magnum opus before he retires. (Yeah, this was a really weird period for King, in retrospect; he’d just been hit by a van in 1999, and was suffering lingering effects from the accident that made it difficult to write normally, so he was of the mindset that it was time to retire, but he wanted to finish The Dark Tower series first. The first four books came out in 1982, 1987, 1991 and 1997, but he rushed to push out the last three between 2003 and 2004, and the end result was, bluntly, one of the worst endings I’ve ever seen to what was, until 2003, an outstanding series of work until that point. He then didn’t retire after all, and has written another twelve books since that point. Let this be a lesson to you kids: George R.R. Martin might take a decade between books, but the alternative is inserting yourself into your own book and having your characters fight Harry Potter.) A seven book series which King hopes will encapsulate every point ever made in any of his works, so that we may understand that everything in all of existence is connected, at least as far as his works are concerned. (It does connect to a lot of his works in various fashions, most notably The Eyes of the Dragon, It, Insomnia, and the two books he wrote with Peter Straub, The Talisman and Black House, though there are a whole lot more connections, which you can read about right here.) In short, this series is to be King’s masterpiece, bar none.

And to be fair, this is one of the best starting points I could ever imagine someone creating. (The end, less so.)

The book itself is the story of Roland of Gilead, the Gunslinger the title speaks of. He’s in search of the Man in Black, who he feels will lead him to the Dark Tower, so he may hopefully fix the decline of his world. Along the way he meets other characters, some trivial, like the farmer in the desert, others not, like Jake of New York. But this story isn’t about them, it’s about Roland, and his single minded pursuit of one man who he hopes can set him on the path to saving the world. (I wasn’t a big fan of allusions twelve years ago, clearly.)

Even so, King develops every last character to the detail, and leaves you with a distinct impression of every person in this story. The farmer, for example, is a simple man of the desert, who aims for nothing greater than to survive. Jake is a young boy who remembers a past from another when, if not another where, and struggles to deal with being uprooted from a life he can barely remember, while trying to deal with his new life with a man he doesn’t completely trust. (Well I mean, not without reason…) The Man in Black is a reprehensible bastard who offers truth cloaked in lies, and reports to a higher power that would rather see Roland depart from his chosen path. (Well I mean, not without reason on both sides…) And the residents of Tull, from Sheb to Alice to Nort to Sylvia Pittson, are all represented as unique personalities, which are all distinct and interesting in their own rights. (Though King, even twenty years after the first writing of this book, still isn’t great at writing female characters, which we see later on.)

But the main character is ultimately Roland, and King handles him like a true pro. Roland is essentially presented as a man of conviction, who has desires and goals far beyond our scope of perception. He is dedicated to one purpose, finding the Dark Tower, and all other things in this life be damned. He radiates depression and self loathing, and is presented as a man who would kill his own family to get to his damnable Tower, if need be. He’s not quite Clint Eastwood, but one can certainly appreciate his conviction, and how it ultimately forces him to make choices no man should have to make, ever. (Well, Clint Eastwood’s characters, generally speaking, were men driven to protect others in one form or fashion; the comparison is certainly qualified, but Eastwood’s characters, especially those of the Spaghetti Western type, would have been more noble in their behavior than Roland often is, choosing small victories at the stake of the larger goal because to do otherwise is to become the monster. Roland, by comparison, starts as the driven monster, and while he learns much, he’s kind of still there by the end, for one reason or another.)

In short, the book is well written, offers a strong glimpse into the lives and personalities of the characters, and resolves itself well enough that one can feel as though they are satisfied when the story draws to a close. (It’s almost entirely Roland’s story, though, which is, I think, a big part of why it works so well; once we get to the later books, where we know the characters and have to deal with the things that happen to them, the books get a little harder to work with.)

If I could offer any criticisms of this book at all, I would have to say that we are never really given an exact look into why Roland feels the way he does… hints are dropped here and there, but beyond that, only the idea of being a paladin on a quest to save the world gives us any indication of why he is so single-mindedly devoted to his quest. King fixes this in later books, but it’s still confusing during this book, to be fair. (Well, that’s not really needed per say; the point is to give us questions that need to be answered in later books, though yeah, I can kind of see wanting a bit more of a clue in retrospect as to why he does what he does since we have to follow this dude for six more books.)

Otherwise, King has crafted an excellent piece, one I can readily recommend to anyone as a good read. It is well written, well developed, and easily one of the most solid books I’ve read in a good, long time. Though only time will tell if the remainder of the story will compare to this first act, it is indeed an excellent starting point, and I can promise that if you do choose to read this, you won’t be disappointed. (I stopped reviewing these after the fourth book, but speaking from long-term experience after the fact, not so much.)

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