Saturday, October 16, 2010
The Dark Tower: Book 1 The Gunslinger By Stephen King
The Dark Tower: Book 1
By Stephen King
Copyright 1987 (trade paperback)
The Man in Black fled across the desert and the Gunslinger followed.
The first volume of King’s magnum opus introduces us to Roland of Gilead, last of the Gunslingers and his pursuit of the enigmatic Dark Tower.
Roland Deschain travels across the desert, pursuing the Man in Black. We know scarcely anything about Roland’s quarry or why he pursues him. The desert west of the town of Tull is barely inhabited. As he runs low on water and his mule is at the brink of death, Roland finds a homestead inhabited by a man named Brown and his pet bird Zoltan.
Brown encourages Roland to tell him of his unfortunate experience in Tull and the trap the Man in Black left for him. Roland partakes of the man’s food and water, shares his tobacco and recounts the events in Tull that left almost 60 of its residents dead by his hand.
It is Roland’s time in Tull that we can use to link the world of Roland with our own. The Beatles “Hey Jude” plays on a jukebox. The town preacher is a devout Christian. The residents of Tull and other places say the world is “moving on” meaning it is moving toward its end. It’s always been my belief that this is the world, several hundred, perhaps thousands of years removed from The Stand.
Further along in the desert, as he is nearly dead of dehydration, Roland happens across a way station inhabited by a young boy named Jake Chambers. Jake is just 10 years old and last remembers meeting a bad end under the wheels of a car as he walked to school. He was pushed into traffic. This is the first link to our time. Jake Chambers, 10 years old, is of 1977 New York.
He relates to Jake the story of his coming of age. He talks of his best friend, Cuthbert Allgood with whom he underwent his Gunslinger training at the hands of the merciless Cort, trainer of gunslingers in Roland’s native land of Gilead. Cuthbert and Roland, apprentice Gunslingers, expose a traitor in the midst of the school. Roland, who had always appreciated the man’s mercy to counter Cort’s abuse, watched him hang.
Roland quickly develops a strong affection for the boy. He learns from a demon trapped in the basement of the building that he must ultimately betray the boy to his death if he is to continue his pursuit of the Man in Black and the answers to Roland’s questions about his destiny. Roland’s heart is rent.
Roland and Jake manage to cross the desert into a more temperate climate with lush grass and trees. While camped there, Jake is seduced by an oracle whose lust is so great that she would kill the boy through sexual intercourse. Roland intercedes, wielding the jawbone of a demon he took from the demon in the basement He holds her at bay and, in a mescaline induced stupor, has sex with her in exchange for information about his quest. He learns that he will soon be joined by two companions.
Jake and Roland pass through a mountain on a hand cart. As they travel, Roland relates to Jake the childhood trauma that led him to demand the test of a Gunslinger at the age of 14. Roland learned that his mother was having an affair with the court magician, Marten. In his anger and desire to get revenge upon Marten for putting his family asunder. He approaches Cort and demands to be allowed to take the test.
Cort is unwilling to oblige. Roland is a promising student, but not prepared for the test, he argues. Roland won’t relent. Cort agrees to meet him in battle. Roland will either defeat his teacher and become a Gunslinger or be sent west to live alone in shame – which is Marten’s design.
Roland meets Cort in combat, using his pet hawk as his weapon. He defeats Cort and earns his guns and the title of Gunslinger.
While traveling and talking, they encounter Slow Mutants, humanoid monsters who dwell in dark passages. As Roland battles them with his guns, Jake falls into a cavern and holds on for his life. As Roland goes to rescue him, the Man in Black appears and taunts him to let the boy go and continue the chase. Reluctantly, Roland lets him fall and follows the Man in Black.
On the other side of the mountain, Roland catches up to his quarry. He finds the Man in Black, Walter by name, to have been an magician in Marten’s employ in his home. Walter performs a Tarot Card reading for Roland. Roland is given vague clues to the three other beings who will form his ka-tet in pursuit of the Dark Tower.
Roland goes to sleep and wakes up seemingly years later. Bones are all that remain of Walter. Roland proceeds to a nearby beach and ponders what he has learned and what he must do next in his quest. Soon, he will set out on his search for The Sailor, The Prisoner, and The Lady of the Shadows.
The Gunslinger stands apart from the rest of King’s work. Most of it was written before King was an accomplished writer. He has not yet developed his signature narrative style. He has not mastered character development as he would come to do. The story was originally introduced to the public as a serialized account, published in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction in 1978. While more seamless than Ray Bradbury’s series of linked stories like The Martian Chronicles or Dandelion Wine, each chapter works as a stand alone story.
Because it was written so early in King’s development as a writer, it is the weakest of the books. The characters are thinner than we are used to from King. The backstories that King sometimes takes dozens of pages to weave are absent. Nonetheless, it is compelling fantasy writing and kicks of a tale as epic as any ever produced in the genre.