Saturday, January 1, 2011

The Dark Tower: Book 4 Wizard and Glass by Stephen King

The Dark Tower: Book 4
Wizard and Glass
By Stephen King
Copyright 1997

Wizard and Glass is the fourth of seven books that comprise the Dark Tower series. Book one, The Gunslinger, introduces us to Roland Deschain , the last Gunslinger, and his quest his quest to find the Dark Tower.

Book two, The Drawing of the Three, brings in four new characters who will comprise Roland’s Ka-Tet (individuals bound by purpose and destiny). Eddie Dean, a heroin junky from 1987 New York, Oddetta/Detta Walker, a schizophrenic civil rights activist from 1962 New York whose personalities eventually mesh into Susannah Dean, bound to Eddie by love if not formal marriage. Jake Chambers, who Roland finds in The Gunsliger and allows to die, re-emerges as part of Roland’s Ka-Tet. He is of 1977 New York. Finally, there is the raccoon-like creature known in Roland’s world as a billy bumbler named Oy who plays a hero’s role in rescuing Jake in the third book.

The third book, The Wastelands, sees the Ka-Tet off on its quest for the Dark Tower. They find the path of the beam – one of the beams upon which the Dark Tower and all of existence rests. They follow it to the wrecked city of Lud where Jake is kidnapped by a henchman of the crazy Tick Tock Man who rules part of the city. Roland rescues Jake and the group boards a monorail to take them out of Lud. That train, Blaine the Mono has a personality. He is devious, cunning, homicidal, and suicidal. The only thing that motivates Blaine to take them out of Lud along the path of the beam to Topeka is the promise of an intellectual duel of riddling.

It is in the not so comfy confines of Blaine that the fourth book picks up. . .

Blaine takes the Ka-Tet out of the city and into the Waste Lands. These blasted and barren lands are inhabited by horrible monsters and a few unfortunate humans. They very closely resemble the blasted lands traveled by Jack Sawyer and his cousin in The Talisman. Geographically, this locates them between California and Kansas, headed east.

The party is able to observe when Blaine demonstrates the ability to make himself completely transparent. After some small talk and arguing over rules, the riddling contest begins.

Roland does his best with his the fair day riddles he remembers from the contests he observed as a child. Jake begin’s reading aloud from the book of riddles he acquired at the mysterious bookstore in New York operated by one Calvin Tower. Blaine solves them all with nary an effort. The deal is, if the party can stump Blaine, he will deliver them safely to Topeka. If Blaine solves all of their riddles before they arrive in Topeka, the party gets to join Blaine in an 800 MPH suicide run.

After solving Roland’s arcane riddles of Gilead fair days and those of the publisher’s of Jake’s book, it is Eddie who comes up with a simple, childish riddle that frustrates Blaine: When is a door not a door? When it’s ajar! Blaine delivers them safely to Topeka and then rushes along to his death.

They find themselves in Topeka of 1986. It seems to be Topeka of our world with a few variations. The Kansas City baseball team is not the Royals, but the Monarchs. In our world and our timeline, the Monarch’s were a Negro League team in Kansas City. There are also trade names not known in our world such as a car called a Takuro and Nozz-A-La Cola.

This is not our world, but one very close to ours.

They find a newspaper that tells of the harrowing final days of Topeka and the world as the flu bug known as Captain Trips, Tubeneck, and Super Flu, rages across the world, wiping out humanity just as it would in our world in 1990. It seems that Randall Flagg does get around.

Having departed Blaine’s cabin, they have lost the path of the beam. They set out east on Interstate 70 to find it again. As they travel, Roland decides that his friends have the whole story of what set him upon the quest for the Dark Tower. They hunker down on the median strip of I-70 and Roland tells the tale of the premature end of his childhood; a tale of heroism and tragedy.

Roland’s narrative picks up right after he defeated his teacher, Cort, in a test to earn his guns and the right to be called Gunslinger as told in the first book. Roland leaves the arena, eschewing the cheers of his friends and heads for a seedy part of Gilead to find a prostitute to properly consecrate his manhood.

Roland is lying in afterglow in a whorehouse when his father bursts into the room and tells him he must leave town for his own safety. He commands him to head east to the Barony of Megis to stay out of harm’s way. Their cover story is they are there to take inventory of supplies that had potential to be put to use in The Affiliation – the faction served by the Gunslingers – and a formidable group of rebels led by John Farson, known as the Good Man.

Roland sets out east in the company of his friend and Gunslinger apprentices Cuthbert Algood and Alain Johns. After several days of riding, they enter Mejis and set up camp just outside of town.

A chance meeting one evening between Roland and a young woman named Susan Delgado leaves both smitten with each other. It’s a love certain to end in tragedy for the 14 year old Roland and the 16 year old Susan. Roland is an adolescent boy on his own and far from home. Susan is an orphan in the care of her cold and greedy aunt. She has been promised to the mayor as his “gilly” ostensibly with the purpose of impregnating her with a son and heir, his own wife not able to bear children.

The three boys introduce themselves to the local constabulary with aliases and there stated purpose of inventory. Mejis is a coastal city as well as ranch country, so they intend to stay busy. The sheriff and the leadership of the local ranching association promise complete cooperation and total loyalty to the cause of The Affiliation in their war against the Good Man.

Day after day, the boys engage in the mental drudgery of counting nets and boats. While they work, they make observations and mental inventories and soon discern that the men of Mejis may not be the loyal Affiliation men they claim to be. Of particular interest to Roland and his friends is the old Citgo refinery on the edge of town. Nineteen of its derricks were still operating and tanker trucks were parked nearby.

Meanwhile, Roland is sneaking off to be with Susan. Susan is reluctant at first because she was promised to the mayor as a virgin and had been certified as such by the local witch – Rhea of the Cöos after an invasive and humiliating exam. But her love for Roland and the despair of her oath to the mayor drives her to him. Roland is driven to distraction – a fatal blunder for a Gunslinger.

Roland and Susan’s lovemaking does not go unobserved. Rhea, using a glass orb entrusted to her keeping by a group of men known as the Big Coffin Hunters. Rhea is irresistibly drawn to the glowing pink orb that allows her to glimpse the lives of the people of Mejis when they are acting at their very worst. Rhea knows that Susan is no longer a virgin. Susan’s aunt also begins to suspect after having seen Susan in Roland’s company on more than one occasion.

Roland and his friends soon run afoul of the Big Coffin Hunters in a barroom showdown. Two innocent bystanders are casualties. However, the sheriff tells the two parties to let the grudge go and promise to be civil. Both parties apologize and promise to be civil. The two groups have taken each other’s measure and now start plotting against the other.

Roland and his friends soon discover the Big Coffin Hunter’s duel purpose in Mejis. First, they deposited the piece of Maerlyn’s Rainbow known as the Wizard Glass with Rhea for safekeeping. Seldom do people snoop around Rhea’s shack outside of town because people are frightened of her. Secondly, they are there to gather petroleum and horses for the use of John Farson’s forces. In league with them are the sheriff and the local ranchers.

Roland hatches a plan to destroy the oil tankers and trap and kill Farson’s forces in Mejis. But before they can execute their plan, Roland, Cuthbert, and Alain are arrested for the murder of the mayor and his chancellor who were in fact murdered by the Big Coffin Hunters. Susan learns of their arrest and is able to enter the mayor’s residence and set them free. They set off to take care of Farson’s men.

Susan is arrested for helping them escape and is imprisoned. Rhea and her aunt are set upon revenge for her betrayal of their plans. They seize her and parade her through town to a growing frenzy as they plan to carry out the ritual of Charyou Tree – a ritual of burning one at the stake under the Demon Moon to ensure healthy crops for all.

Roland and his friends set their trap and are able to destroy the oil tankers and kill the Good Man’s soldiers. They also acquire the Wizard Glass from Jonas, the leader of the Big Coffin Hunters and a fallen Gunslinger. Roland is drawn to the Wizard Glass and like Rhea, is captured by its glam. He cannot look away as he observes hateful and hurtful events from his past and ultimately, watching Susan being burned alive by the people who had been her friends and neighbors, now driven into a mindless frenzy of grief and rage. Finally, he glimpses the Dark Tower. In that seeing, he comes to know his life’s purpose.

Cuthbert and Alain are eventually able to wrest the Wizard Glass away from Roland and they flee Mejis. Roland is unconscious for days, but eventually regains his sanity. They return to Gilead and turn the Wizard Glass over to Roland’s father. Roland tells his friends he used the Wizard Glass one last time, and it was there he learned of a plot to poison his father. He was able to thwart that plot.

It is here that Roland stops his tale and the travelers move on. They see, many miles ahead of them, a large tower standing in the road. As they approach, Eddie, Jake, and Susannah are reminded of Emerald City in the Wizard of Oz.

They approach Emerald City and there, seated upon a huge throne, is the denim clad man who calls himself Randall Flagg. Flagg tells Roland to swear off his quest and he will be allowed to live. Roland will not be dissuaded. Flagg disappears, Telling Eddie, Susannah, and Jake that Roland’s friends always come to a bad end while Roland moves on. He leaves behind the Wizard Glass through which Roland allows his Ka-Tet to view the closing chapter of his story where he accidentally shoots his own mother.

Dark Tower fans were forced to wait seven years between installments. We were all eager for the next chapter in the adventure. Instead, we got a book that was 90 percent flashback. It advanced the story just a little, but we got no closer to the Dark Tower. It would be another six years before the adventure got underway. That makes for frustrating reading.

King is the master of backstory in character development and he gluttonly indulges his penchant for backstory by using an entire book to tell it. Because of that, it was the book I enjoyed the least. It was better written than The Gunslinger and I really enjoyed Roland’s story. But it was not what I wanted at that stage of the story’s telling. With the whole story now published and my need for instant gratification instantly sateable, those feelings of frustration have abated some. But they are impossible to forget and even in an unbroken stream of reading the volumes, this stopping of the action in the fourth of seven installments is distracting.

What sets this apart from the other books in a positive way is how King draws in various components of western culture and epic fantasies. Mejis is a town straight out of a Spaghetti Western where the bars all have batwing doors, the town badasses always carry a sidearm, and there’s a bar fight or a shoot out every night. The tension and rivalry between Roland’s gang and the aptly named Big Coffin Hunters is the stuff of typical westerns.

He folds in elements of the Arthur legend with Arthur Eld being the founder of their civilization and the first Gunslinger. Roland is reputed to be a direct descendant of Arthur Eld.

We see shades of Tolkien’s Rings of Power in Maerlyn’s Rainbow. The 13 orbs were created by the wizard to bring chaos to the world and we see a direct use of L. Frank Baum’s beautiful Emerald City.

Once upon a time, I thought that the Talisman that Jacky Sawyer needs to obtain is one part of Maerlyn’s Rainbow. However, the knowledge provided to us in Wizard and Glass shows that all thirteen components – one designated for each of the twelve beams and a thirteenth for the Dark Tower (One ring to rule them all and in the darkness bind them) were entirely evil. We got no hint that Jacky’s Talisman was evil.

King reaches back to The Stand to tie Roland’s world to ours. We learn that the black eye sigul given to Flagg’s top followers is the one borne by the Good Man and his forces. King also reveals that this is the symbol of the Crimson King, about whom we learn nothing more. Then there is Randall Flagg who was present in Roland’s home town when the forces of the Good Man eventually toppled Gilead and eventually all of Mid World. The Kansas City newspaper tells us that Flagg has inflicted his wrath on other worlds than ours.

In the afterword, King writes a backhanded apology for the delay in publishing the volume. He states that he wrote the final scene of Roland’s showdown with Cort and his departure from the arena to the whorehouse 26 years apart and how that tale begun so many years ago has bedeviled him and why he procrastinated in that writing. King is aware of how popular and powerful the story is and the demands of his readers to take the epic quest to an epic conclusion. The reader can tell that King is feeling the pressure.

He also tells us that he has come to know that the story of the Dark Tower encompasses all of the worlds of all of his books. He promises us that Father Callahan from Salem’s Lot will soon be joining Roland’s group. He promises us three more volumes to tell the story and he hopes to get them done soon. It’s not a hope that would be realized because it would be another six years before King’s Constant Reader moved on with Roland and his Ka-Tet when The Wolves of Calla was published in 2003.

Next in the Dark Tower saga is Hearts in Atlantis. Just a few chapters of the book relate to the Dark Tower and a breaker, much like the young boy in Black House, has escaped and the agents of the Crimson King are looking for him. I’ve read this novel twice before and it ranks among King’s finest.

1 comment:

  1. I have to agree that Wizards and Glass was disappointing. I felt that the Wizard of Oz section bordered on ridiculous and the story of Susan could have been told in maybe 2 chapters. If I recall the time he spent with her was perhaps 2 months long and almost nothing really happens. After the build up throughout the books of how important she was to him I would have hoped that their relationship lasted more than 2 months. I had to take a break before I went on the Wolves of Calla which was much better.