Sunday, March 20, 2011

The Dark Tower Book 5: The Wolves of the Calla

The Dark Tower Book 5: The Wolves of the Calla
By Stephen King
Copyright 2003

It had been six years since the publication of the last Dark Tower novel, Wizard and Glass. Instead of picking up where we left off with our ka-tet headed west, we instead start the next chapter of our tale in Calla Bryn Sturgis, a farming community far from the center of anything.

In Calla Bryn Sturgis, children are almost always born as twins. Once every 23 years or so, the wolves come from neighboring Thunderclap to take one of every pair. Resistance is met with swift and harsh retribution. The children are taken and disappear for weeks. They are then returned, via train, “roont” (ruined) – completely lacking in intellect and willpower. They are little more than mildly sentient animals.

The people of Calla Bryn Sturgis receive a warning from their resident robot, Andy, that the time of the wolves is near. The ranchers and farmers of the town brace themselves for parents’ worst nightmare. However, their spiritual leader, none other than Father Callahan – late of Jerusalem’s Lot – tells them that Gunslingers approach from the east and may be of service.

The ka-tet is indeed on the road west, but they have no idea for how long they have been traveling. As the world and universe break down. Time moves in fits and jumps. Compass points become meaningless. The simply follow the path of the beam.

One night, while camped, Roland serves the ka –tet mushrooms that are supposed to give one strange dreams – or dreams that are really more than dreams. Eddie and Jake travel together back to New York of 1977 – back to the Manhattan Restaurant of the mind – the bookstore where Jake acquired his riddle book. Among the books advertised on the sign are those of none other than Stephen King.

Jake and Eddie watch, unobserved by the shop’s proprietor, Calvin Tower, as Jake of another time purchases his riddle book. Jake notices something strikingly different about the book. The author’s name has changed. In the first go-around, the book was written by a lady named Beryl Evans. The book Jake observes himself lay on the counter for purchase is the same book written by Claudia Y Inez Bachman.. The name has 19 letters in it. The number 19 has taken on a talismanic property for the ka-tet as every event in their life seems to add up to 19.

Jake and Eddie watch Jake of 1977 depart from the book store. They stand near Tower of Power Records and watch as a gray town car pulls up. Eddie recognizes its occupants right away. It’s his old nemesis from 1986 – none other than Enrico Balazar – the drug dealer with whom Eddie and Roland shot it out as Roland pulled Eddie into his world in The Drawing of the Three. Enrico and his goons go into the bookstore. Eddie has a hunch that Balazar is not the reading type.

Able to watch events unobserved, Eddie and Jake return to the bookstore as Enrico reminds Mr. Tower that they have a business deal. It seems that Mr. Tower owns the corner lot – the corner lot where Jake discovered the magical rose growing amidst the garbage and debris. Balazar reminds Tower that he has promised Balazar’s partners – the Sombra Corporation – first rights of purchase of the lot and that agreement is due to expire. Balazar wants that transaction transacted. Tower doesn’t want to sell, but assures Balazar he has no plans to sell it to anyone else. Balazar assures him that he will indeed sell and that he will return to complete the transaction.

Meanwhile, Susannah is off on her own trip – except it isn’t Susannah inhabiting Susannah’s body anymore. Once divided into split personalities, the wily Detta Walker and the passive Odetta Holmes, she was fused into one. Now, a new personality has emerged. Mia, Daughter of None, takes off into the wilderness. Mia is with child, but it’s not husband Eddie’s brood. It is the child of the demon who Susannah captured with her feminine wiles to assure Jake’s safe passage into Roland’s world.

Mia dreams that she is feasting at tables filled with great meat and delicacies. Roland follows and observes Susannah as she eats frogs and other wilderness dwellers. Roland knows that this situation is going to complicate matters, but keeps the secret from the rest of the ka-tet – including Susannah who is unaware that Mia exists much the way that Detta and Odetta did not know of each other.

As Father Callahan prophesized, the Gunslingers arrive in Calla Bryn Sturgis. The folk of the village are divided on what to do about their problem. Many want to employ the services of Gunslingers to kill the wolves and stop the generational kidnapping. Others – mostly those without kids – don’t want any interference for fear that the wolves will destroy the town and take the kids anyway as has happened with past resistance.

Roland agrees to survey the situation and determine whether or not he and his fellow Gunslingers can be of assistance. They meet with Father Callahan who serves as the spiritual guide and representative of the “Man Jesus” for the people of the hamlet. Eddie and Jake are shocked to learn that Father Callahan is of their “when” and of there “where” as well, having gone from ‘Salem’s Lot after fleeing the vampire Kurt Barlow to New York.

Callahan tells them his tale. Having been forced to suckle at Barlow’s neck in the Glick kitchen during his fateful encounter in ‘Salem’s Lot, Callahan fled to New York and started work in a shelter and soup kitchen for alcoholics. An alcoholic himself, he fit in. Now marked by Barlow, he is no longer a priest, but tries to carry on with good works in helping at the shelter. He soon finds out that vampires are not confined to small Maine towns. There are vampires in New York as well – although not as powerful as Kurt Barlow who is what Callahan calls a “Type 1” vampire – a powerful being capable of creating vampires with his bite.

Observing his closest friend in New York fall victim to one of the lower “Type 3” vampires, Callahan kills it and sets out to kill all the vampires he can find. His activities soon register with the agents of the Crimson King – the notorious Low Men – who make it their mission to hunt him down and kill him for Type 3 vampires do the bidding of the Low Men who are the Crimson King’s agents in our world. Callahan travels the country, in and out of sobriety and finally ends up in Detroit where he is lured into a trap and seemingly killed in 1983. Instead of dying forever, he arrives in Roland’s world. He arrives in a cave near Calla Bryn Sturgis and with him arrives a black sphere – part of Maerlyn’s Rainbow known as Black 13 – the most evil of all of the talismans that compose the Rainbow.

Roland has his ka-tet spread out among the people to get the lay of the land and to ascertain who is for them and who is against them. After several days of reconnoitering, Roland gathers the people and tells them as Gunslingers, the last of the Line of Eld, they will honor their duty and help the people.

Roland and his ka-tet have several problems to solve. First, they must devise a plan to defeat the wolves about which little is known. Only one living person has actually killed a wolf and observed its dead body up close. Also, there is the matter of Enrico Balazar and the Sombra Corporation back in New York 1977 acquiring the land upon which the rose grows. For if that rose is destroyed, the Tower will certainly fall. Thirdly, Susannah, now aware that someone else is living inside her head and another life form is gestating in her belly, must determine how to deal with the eminent birth of the unholy infant she carries.

Using Black 13, Eddie is able to pass through a door (nearly an exact replica of the doors Roland encountered on the beach in the Drawing of the Three) to return to New York of 1977. There, he is able to rescue Calvin Tower from Balazar’s thugs who are torturing him. Eddie tells Tower that he wants to purchase that lot himself and has the vast financial resources of the Holmes Dental Co. (the company owned by Odetta’s father) to back up the purchase.

Tower is a packrat and hoarder and is reluctant to give up the property – the last piece of a larger plot owned by his family for generations. Faced with having to deal with Balazar, who will certainly be back seeking retribution for Eddie’s handiwork on his henchmen, Tower agrees. However, he forces Eddie to take back to Roland’s world for safekeeping, his shelf of his most treasured books. Eddie agrees and transports the shelf full of books back to the doorway cave. He instructs Tower to make himself scarce somewhere in rural New England where Balazar will not find him. Tower is to have a friend write the ZIP code as graffito on the fence surrounding the vacant lot. Eddie plans to return later and get that ZIP code so he can find Tower when the time comes to consummate the land transaction.

Jake and his billy bumbler, Oy stay on one of the larger ranches with the ranch’s foreman and his son. Jake and the foreman’s son Benny Slightman become fast friends and spend many days playing as ten year old boys are wont to do. But Jake has not forgotten the face of his father and is still a Gunslinger. While playing the days away, Jake is also carefully observing the terrain and the people around him. He is confident that Benny Slightman’s father is a spy for whomever controls the wolves after seeing the elder Slightman and Andy the robot journey off toward Thunderclap together.

One night, Jake sneaks out to do a little recon and finds a military installation built by the old people. He enters it to find a vast array of computers – some built by IBM and Microsoft. There are also many monitors that show various parts of Calla Bryn Sturgis – including Father Callahan’s living room. While searching the building, he hears the approach of Andy and Slightman. He hides and listens as Slightman and Andy communicate with another person through the computers, telling them of the plan that Roland has devised to hide the children and annihilate the wolves. Slightman has turned traitor to protect his son who was born a twin, but whose sister died in an accident.

On the eve of the battle, Eddie goes back to New York 1977 one more time to get that ZIP code. He finds that Balazar’s thugs have taken care of the Restaurant of the Mind by burning it to the ground. But he also finds that someone has scrawled a Maine ZIP code on the fence, just as planned. He then travels to that rural Maine town and leaves a message for Tower’s buddy Aaron Deepneau to tell him to sit tight, that he is coming soon.

The ka-tet, which now includes Father Callahan, meets one final time on the eve of battle. Roland lays out the real plan to secure the children far away from battle and to draw the wolves he knows to be robots into a trap. Eddie lures Andy the robot into a trap and kills him. Susannah convinces herself, if not the others, that she is no longer carrying a gestating being in her womb, pointing out the reduced size of her hips and breasts. She convinces them she is ready to fight.

Roland deploys his forces. He has the women of Calla Bryn Sturgis, who specialize in throwing sharp edged plates and his ka-tet lined up as the wolves approach on the day predicted. As they await the approach, Roland confronts the elder Slightman with his treachery. Roland promises not to out him or kill him if he fights with honor. Slightman tells him that the twins have an organic compound in them that those who command the wolves extract from them to use for "mind food" for people called, "Breakers." They are those who have strong mental powers put to work in the service of the Crimson King to break the remaining beams that support the Dark Tower. We have already encountered two of these breakers in Ted Brautigan in Hearts in Atlantis and the young boy from Black House.

The wolves approach on horseback, bearing lightsabers and devices called sneetches with are little gold, explosive balls they hurl to track their prey. The battle ensues, is fought, and won, but at a price. Young Benny Slightman is among the dead, having been hit by a sneetch.

As they celebrate their victory, Eddie and Roland notice that Susannah has disappeared. Just as the battle is to start, Mia/Susannah goes into labor. For the first time, they speak with each other and strike a deal. Susannah agrees to birth the being in exchange for being allowed to fight with her ka-tet. Mia agrees to the terms and even agrees to help in the battle if it will preserve their lives.

After the battle, she flees to the doorway cave. Having no legs, she uses her wheel chair to take her as far as it can. Then, she finds an ATV left there for her by Andy the Robot. She gets to the cave, grabs Black 13, safely stored in its protective box, and passes through the door, effectively sealing it for Roland and the others.

Roland and the ka-tet arrive at the cave too late. As Eddie bemoans the loss of his beloved, Roland turns to study Tower’s bookshelf. He notices that the fastidious Tower has deposited one volume in the shelf upside down. He removes it and immediately notes the resemblance between the church drawn on the black cover and the church in Calla Bryn Sturgis. He asks Eddie to read the title and the author. Eddie says the book is called ‘Salem’s Lot by Stephen King. Neither Jake nor Eddie can ever recall having heard of Stephen King, but note the title is the same as the New England town that Father Callahan fled. He flips through the book and stops at page 119 where he reads aloud how Father Callahan presided over the funeral of Danny Glick – Barlow’s first victim in ‘Salem’s Lot.

Callahan seizes the book and begins reading an account of his life in ‘Salem’s Lot as if it were a work of fiction. He declares that he is not a fictional character, but a real man who has lived a real life. The book ends with the broken ka-tet pondering how they will get to New York and save Susannah as well as finding their way to Maine to save Calvin Tower and acquire the most valuable piece of real estate in Manhattan and the entire universe.

I recall reeling from the revelations in this book as they unfolded. First, there was the appearance of the lightsabers which are lightsabers exactly as those contrived by George Lucas in Star Wars. The sneetches are embossed with the manufacturing stamp of the Sombra Corporation and are denoted as being the “Harry Potter” model. Then there was the insertion of a Stephen King novel into a Stephen King novel and having a character from that novel read parts of that novel. Never before have I read anything resembling this.

Those who are uninitiated into the world of the Dark Tower are wont to dismiss this as either foolish tripe or unfettered hubris on the part of the author. It is neither. King is a masterful writer and his introduction of these items and events are melded perfectly into the story, even if they are as of yet unexplained.

Nor is this the first time King has mentioned himself or his works in one of his own works of fiction. He pokes a little fun at himself early in The Tommyknockers when one of the residents of Haven, Maine is reflecting on the quality of the work of western writer, Bobbi Anderson who is the primary character in that novel. He thinks that she writes real books, not like that guy up in Bangor who writes that trashy horror stuff. Note that he even gets his alter ego, Richard Bachman, into the mix by giving the authorship of Charley the Choo Choo to Claudia Inez Bachman which is the fictional wife of King's pen name.

As noted earlier, King has sprinkled elements of some of the greatest western, fantasy, and science fiction into the body of the Dark Tower. The Arthur legend, the Wizard of Oz, Star Wars, and Harry Potter all appear, unabashedly utilized by King without alteration. This is part homage and part . . .well the other reason for its appearance is fleshed out just a little more in the next book, The Song of Susannah.

Much like Wizard and Glass, The Wolves of the Calla almost stands alone as a story unto itself. While the stage is set for the final pursuit of the Dark Tower, most of the action in the novel reads like a western with good guys riding into town to save the day for the hapless residents; bad guys on the move to take the town, shootouts, etc. The story is about defeating the wolves that come from Thunderclap. The end sets up the story that King, in the afterword, assures us has already been written and is in rough draft form. Dark Tower fans were grateful for this reassurance because King remarked on several occasions that the story had become too big for him and he didn’t know where he was going to take it. The next novel was but one year away. We would know Roland’s ultimate fate before the end of the decade.

This book was better than Wizard and Glass because it took place in real time as opposed to flasback, but is still weaker than Drawing of the Three, The Wastelands, or the two that followed. Nonetheless, King startled his audience with brilliant and original storytelling at the end and authored one of the finest, if not the finest, cliffhanger ending of a novel ever.

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