Leaning Tower

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

That’s the first line of the first entry in Stephen King’s ambitious seven-part fantasy series – The Dark Tower. A simple, crisp statement which when first glimpsed by my adolescent eyes, so many years ago, carried such weight and promise.

There are seven novels in the series. To sum it all up, in a world that has ‘moved on’, a lone gunslinger tracks a powerful wizard across a dusty sandscape. The wizard is a central figure in a plot to take down the titular Dark Tower – a massive edifice that stands as a spindle for all the interconnected worlds and universes that exist. If the tower falls, then reality ends. That’s Book 1 – The Gunslinger.

The second book, The Drawing of the Three, finds an ailing Gunslinger pulling two people from our ‘real world’ into his dimension to help aid him in his quest. This leads to The Waste Lands, where the trio (the gunslinger Roland, the former addict Eddie and the schizophrenic Susannah/Odetta) learn of the evil plan to break the ‘beams’ that hold together the fabric of existence. These beams emanate from the Dark Tower and if they fall, then all is lost. In this novel, Roland resurrects a boy, Jake, whom he sacrificed in the first novel. Jake also comes from the ‘real world’ and stands as Roland’s surrogate son. With the quartet fully assembled, the group continues their journey to the Dark Tower. The fourth installment, Wizard and Glass, relays a major flashback that details Roland’s formative years and colors in the corners of Mid-World while dropping some clues as to the true conspiracy aimed at destroying the tower. And then, the final three books just get crazy.

The series is now complete. The Dark Tower has been found. King wrapped things up in breakneck fashion in 2004 with the release of the final novel in The Dark Tower series, fittingly titled, The Dark Tower. Yet, here I sit, three years removed from that final installment’s publication and I have yet to finish the novel. I started reading it a full year ago (having borrowed it from my buddy Joe) and in that full 365 day expanse of time, I have managed to meander through roughly 327 pages. That’s not even a page a day.

I fear the tower is falling.

This series saddens me like no other work of entertainment ever has before. I now know what those Star Wars geeks were crying about when Jar Jar slipped in that ‘poodoo’. There’s something profoundly sad about getting so lost in another world, buying so completely into its magic and then spying that man behind the curtain. With that first sentence (which King initially penned sometime around 1970 – even before his first novel Carrie was published) he had his hooks in me. That obsession deepened through successive installments which were released in a frequency one can only describe as middling.

So where did it all go wrong? One glimpse at the publication schedule screams it loud and clear.

The Gunslinger (1981)
The Drawing of the Three (1987)
The Waste Lands (1991)
Wizard and Glass (1997)
Wolves of the Calla (2003)
Song of Susannah (2004)
The Dark Tower (2004)

Early on, King let his Constant Readers know that this story would take seven books to tell. It took sixteen years for the first four installments of the series to release. I remember that upon completing Wizard and Glass (a massive novel which dedicated close to 600 of its pages telling Roland’s flashback), I thought that we might never see the end of this series. At the slow speed that King was gifting us with new installments, he’d likely be dead before he could produce that final volume.

On June 19, 1999 King was smashed by a van while walking alongside a road near Lewiston, Maine. Early reports from that accident were dire. King was in bad shape and there was real concern that the situation would turn grave. He did eventually pull through and began the long process of rehabilitation. While his physical wounds may have since healed, I feel that the specters unleashed by that trauma have dogged his days since, making his post-accident works their prime haunting ground.

King released four Dark Tower books in sixteen years. Following that accident, he dropped the remaining three novels in the span of one calendar year. Of course, that’s all a product of publisher’s schedules. We all know that unpublished novels collect dust until the time is right for publication. As I mentioned earlier, he wrote The Gunslinger in 1970 yet it didn’t see publication until well over a decade later. If the quality of the last three books kept par with the first four, I wouldn’t bat an eyelash but starting with Calla, it was clear that something was dreadfully wrong.

I blame Harry Potter.

Readers of Calla know that later in the novel, as Roland and his band make plans to defend an outpost farming town against the mysterious marauders who return ever few years to steal their children, they discover a hidden cache of unusual weapons. These weapons are the same instruments wielded by their assailants. Roland pours through various crates and finds laser sword devices which resemble Star Wars’ light sabers as well as strange buzzing balls which hover on their own power and can accelerate and turn on a dime as they seek their quarry. Roland discovers that these curious instruments are called ‘Golden Snitches’. Into this bizarre melting pot of Star Wars and Harry Potter comes the ‘Wolves’ disguises, which makes the robotic assailants resemble Doctor Doom from the Fantastic Four comics. It’s a twist right out of left-field and a harbinger of more bizarre things to come.

The Harry Potter reference is telling. Like King, Potter scribe J.K. Rowling announced in advance that her series would run seven novels. As the series continued to pick up steam, Rowling kept the quality and continuity of each successive release in lock step. I have no doubt that if writing a short story can seem daunting, recording a seven part series and creating a brave, new world from scratch must be an undiscovered circle of Hell. But somehow, Rowling has been able to keep it all together and although each subsequent novel grows more inventive, she is able to keep one constant thread unifying the entire series. Harry Potter grows with the series, aging one year per book. He is the center and Rowling understands well that to maintain order, the center must hold.

I think King looked at Rowling’s universe, saw a reflection of his own ambitious gambit and realized that when that van hit him, he’d lost his way. I don’t begrudge the guy. I get a paper cut and I’m out of commission. King was shattered by that van – his legs a mosaic of splintered bone. He was inches from Death. Getting to live another day is one thing. Living to write another day is something else.

While the latter novels have been competent in their execution (the trademark King style is there with a flourish), the tale has been haunted by King’s real life horror. Where his Mid-World has often intersected with the ‘real world’, it was always the ‘real world’ of his fictional universe – meaning it was never out of place for Ted Brautigan to drop in or for Roland to come across Randall Flagg in some twisted Superflu scarred version of Kansas. In the latter books, starting with Song of Susannah, King makes the uncomfortable decision of writing our ‘real world’ into his fictional world. Beginning with the discovery of a tattered copy of Salem’s Lot, Roland and his group cross into 1999 Maine seeking an audience with their creator, Stephen King. The moment he wrote himself into the story, he lost me.

And of course, the Dark Tower’s existence now hinges upon Stephen King’s survival. Somewhere out there, in King’s alternate version of 1999, an Astrovan is speeding towards destiny and ruining the story.

As if it weren’t abundantly clear by now, I consider myself a die-hard Stephen King fan. I’ve read almost everything he has published, with his work occupying a good chunk of my adolescent real estate.

While his earlier work gloried in the gory things that go bump in the night, his later work (underscored by signing with esteemed publishing house Scribner) boasted a fine literary maturity. His first release under new management, 1998’s Bag of Bones, was a well-crafted romance gussied up in the guise of a traditional ghost story. The next novel, Hearts in Atlantis was haunting and sad, the closest I’ve come to crying while reading a book. King’s career trajectory appeared to be traveling the same road as this boy’s real life.

Between the publication of Hearts in Atlantis and Dreamcatcher, that’s where King suffered his own real world horror when he found himself on the receiving end of that runaway van, steered by a man with a long, sad history of driving difficulty. As mentioned, initial media reports pegged King close to death – a fact the author backed up in numerous interviews since (most notably in the liner notes for Dreamcatcher).

Along with the network of fractures and fissures that spider-webbed his legs, there was great fear in the early days that he had suffered a neural catastrophe as well. So it was a few months later, as I rounded the halfway point of Dreamcatcher, that I realized with mounting horror that the work was a pale pastiche of King’s greatest hits. Like an AC-DC cover band, this author knew the lyrics, but lacked the rhythm. Had King suffered an injury more grievous than his rehabilitation hinted at?

The questions that Dreamcatcher planted in my mind have been answered by the last three Dark Tower books. Stephen King started the series. A ghost writer finished it. Surely those last three books are the product of some trickster, some devilish phantasm looking to close out the tale with a decidedly unhappy ending.

All of this is rambling preamble for the encouraging news I read this morning. The Hollywood Reporter states that King is currently working with JJ Abrams (Lost) to film The Dark Tower series. The project is in its infancy so no word yet on whether this will see life as a televised mini-series or a series of films. Back when New Line Cinema began reaping the success of The Lord of the Rings series, I wrote that some enterprising executive would be wise to snap up the rights to DT. Of course, I wrote that before I read the final three novels but I still firmly believe in the sentiment. A filmed version of this series could set right the elements that went wrong. With a story as large and ambitious as this series has produced, cuts are required to mold this story into shape. That’s the cardinal rule of adaptation. If any series could benefit from some outside tinkering, Dark Tower is it.

Abrams has long professed his adoration of King’s works. Several characters on Lost are based on archetypes laid out by King in The Stand. King, himself, is a self-avowed fan of Lost and seems to groove on the little cross-references Abrams and his writing staff plant in that show’s episodes as Easter Eggs for fans of both works. Back in December, Entertainment Weekly documented a visit by Abrams, Carleton Cuse and Damon Lindelof to King’s Bangor digs where the four jawed on all manner of subjects and capped the day off with a journey to the local Cineplex to screen The Descent. What appeared to be a random fluff piece – a meeting of the Mutual Admiration Society – may in fact have been a little smokescreen for today’s announcement. Either way, the idea may have been born out of that visit.

I hope this comes true. I hope Abrams is given the lease (by both King and whatever studio decides to pony up for the project) to bring his own interpretation to the work. As long as he maintains the heart of the story, as long as the center holds, Abrams should be free to trim some of the fat and hopefully prop up that leaning Tower. Stay reasonably faithful to the first four books. After that, JJ, go hog wild.

Between this potential project and the forthcoming Marvel Comics series (which revisits Roland’s Wizard and Glass flashback), my hopes are rising for a happy ending. It’s a tale worth retelling, if for the only reason to get it right this time. Let’s hope these new projects bear fruit.

At the rate I’m currently reading this last installment, I may never reach that Tower.

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Comments now closed (9)

  • Was not impressed by Cell – honestly, it was lacking like most of the stuff he’s written lately. Actually, to be blunt – didn’t like it.
    I received Lisey’s Story for X-mas, and I figure I’ll start it when I’m in the hospital w/ Jenn when the little one arrives. But it’s supposedly a supernatural romance novel – so we’ll see how it goes.

    Lately King’s writings have been much like another writer I used to love reading – Michael Crichton. Got “Next” for X-mas as well, and to quote Roger Ebert.. I hated, hated, hated, hated it. Essentially he’s on the same downward spiral that King is on.

  • I’ve started The Gunslinger a few times, but never really got into it. Maybe one of these days.

    As for Cell, I’d have to agree it was disappointing. It’s really more of a science fiction novel than a horror novel. There’s not much horror, i.e., gore and mayhem, after the first fifty pages.

    My favorite King book remains Different Seasons, his collection of novellas which includes Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption and The Body (a.k.a., Stand By Me).

  • @Ed – I pretty much agree with you. As we’ve discussed in the past, my biggest peeve of the series is when he inserted himself into the story. I think he lost his way towards the end. And then there was his after accident realization that Life Is Fleeting – so he seems to have tried to finish out the story quickly so his legacy wasn’t an unfinished story.
    And as for how it all ended… well, it was disappointing – regardless if you ended it where he told you to end it, or if you continued on and followed to it’s conclusion.
    (I know you know the ending already anyway due to someone spoiling it for you. Not sure who it was, but luckily for the first time, it wasn’t me 😉 )
    I’m really looking forward to the DT comic, but knowing the ending of the story, I’m not sure how it’s “possible”.
    As for other recent books, I’ve kinda been disappointed. I guess I tend to compare them to others he’s written in the past that I’ve loved (The Stand, The Dead Zone, Different Seasons, Hearts in Atlantis, I could go on…) , and they don’t reach my expectations (Desperation, Dreamcatcher, From a Buick 8, Cell). I think it all started to go downhill when he blew up the town of Castle Rock in “Needful Things” because he’d grown tired of going there. Maybe he’d grown tired of going to Mid-World, and just wanted to be done with it as well.

    @Jen – Don’t forget that the kid’s mother – Tabitha King is also a writer…

  • @Joe – All I know is Randall Flagg – the ever present menace who has conspired from the shadows in many of King’s works (beginning with The Stand) – who seems all powerful and omniscient… ends up getting chomped by a spider baby roughly 80 pages into the last book.

    Randall Flagg? Going out like a punk???

    You’ve gotta’ be kidding me.

  • The Marvel first issue of the seven issue Dark Tower mini-series actually came out last week. The store I usually go to had an obscene amount of them on the shelf when I went by on Saturday. I’ll be interested to see how many are there when I go later today, but methinks they over-ordered.