Sunday, November 14, 2010

The Dark Tower Volume 3: The Waste Lands by Stephen King

The Dark Tower Book 3:
The Waste Lands

by Stephen King
Copyright 1991

As the third volume in King’s epic western/fantasy mix, Roland, Eddie and Susannah make their way from the beach into a great forest. While Odetta and Detta, cohabitating in the mind of Susannah, have become one, Roland of Gilead has developed a divided personality that is driving him insane.

One Roland insists that there was no boy who was Jake Chambers. The other Roland insists that there was a boy at the way station and that he let him drop under the mountain as he pursued the Man in Black. The two realities argue inside of Roland’s head constantly.

As Roland and Susannah forage, Eddie encounters a 30 foot tall bear roaming the woods. It is intent upon killing him. A shootout ensues and Susannah is able to drop the creature with her gun. It is a hybrid mix of machine and animal and is one of the 12 Guardians of the portals. These portals lie at either end of six beams. At the intersection of these six beams rests the Dark Tower. Roland tells the ka-tet that if they follow the beam, the will find the Dark Tower.

Meanwhile, in New York of 1977, Jake Chambers, like Roland, is going insane. His mind is tormented by a nightmare that always ends in him saying, “There are other worlds than these!” as he falls into a chasm. He turns in a seemingly nonsensical term paper on the meaning of truth where he babbles about an evil train, a dark tower, and a gunslinger. After turning the paper in, he decides to play hooky and try to sort out his discombobulated mind.

He wanders the streets of New York and finds a used bookstore operated by none other than a man named Mr. Tower. Two books draw his attention for no apparent reason. One is a children’s book about Charlie the Choo Choo whose gay days of transporting people from St. Louis to Topeka to cheering crowds are cut short by a new, more modern diesel locomotive. All ends well for Charlie and his pal Engineer Bob and they spend their final days taking children on tours of a zoo. However, Jake sees the illustrations and knows that Charlie is evil and the seemingly joyful faces of the children in Charlie’s cars are actually masking fear. He also acquires a riddle book which has the “answers in the back” section ripped out.

As he continues his afternoon wanderings, he encounters a vacant lot where, in the midst of the rubble and garbage, he finds a single rose, dazzling in its beauty, but also corrupted with a malevolence that threatens its existence. Contained within that rose growing in a dilapidated lot are the heavens, the universe, and the Dark Tower.

Jake passes out whilst staring into the rose and has a dream where he encounters two brothers playing basketball in a schoolyard. These two brothers are none other than Henry and Eddie Dean of 1977. The next day he once again skips school, convinced that these two brothers are going to lead him to wherever or whatever it is that will release him from his growing insanity.

He follows them to a deserted house in a New York neighborhood. Eddie and Henry gawk at the house, which is feared by all in the neighborhood, and finally move on. But Jake, quickly sliding toward permanent insanity, recognizes the house as his means of escape. He enters.

He knows he’s searching for a door. As he does, the house begins to reshape itself into a horrible monster – a monster whose only reason for existence is to stop Jake from reaching that door.

On the other side of that door await Roland and his nearly completed ka-tet. They must find the doorway that will allow Jake to enter their world. Roland spots an oracle and tells the others that oracles are often thin spots between worlds. They enter the circle surrounded by upright stones and begin the battle to bring Jake back to Roland’s world. Detta Walker steps forward in Susannah and uses her feminine wiles to occupy the demon within the oracle. Eddie draws the door and uses a wooden key he has fashioned. The battle is on to bring Jake back to Roland’s world so that both he and Roland can be mentally whole again.

Jake is brought into the world. Roland is overcome with emotion and promises Jake he will protect him with his life. That oath is quickly tested.

Jake tells the ka-tet that they must find a train and that train’s name is Blaine, and that train that is Blaine is insane! As the companions prepare to set off on the path of the beam, they are joined by a creature known as a Billy Bumbler. They are a semi-intelligent raccoons. The billy bumbler forms a strong relationship with Jake. It is also clear that the ka-tet was not truly complete until Oy the billy bumbler joins them.

As the ka-tet follows the beam toward a city known as Lud (which I think we can assume was once St. Louis) a lecherous, disease infested pirate gets the drop on Roland and his companions with a grenade. He promises to spare the others if they’ll hand over the boy. Having no choice, Roland surrenders Jake to the pirate with the promise to come after him.

Gasher the pirate runs Jake through the ruins of the city that was once Lud. As they run, the city is filled with the sounds of drums (which Eddie recognizes as a drum track from a ZZ Top song). The ka-tet splits. Roland instructs Eddie and Susannah to find Blaine the train and wait for them there. Roland sets out to find Jake.

Gasher delivers Jake, beaten and exhausted, to the lair of the Tick Tock Man where Jake suffers more pain and indignity as the Tick Tock Man, a powerful figure in the sub terrain Lud, interrogates him about how to operate the dipolar computers that control Lud. Roland, with the help of Oy, tracks Jake and Gasher’s path through the city and into the sewers that lie beneath the city. Roland arrives at Tick Tock’s lair and the bullets start to fly.

Eddie and Susannah make their way along the path of the beam. As they walk, they see the decaying bodies of men, women, and children hanged on utility poles. They encounter some of the surface dwellers of Lud. They are forced to slay several of their attackers before two “Pubes” as surface dwellers are known, agree to show Eddie and Susannah to the Cradle of Blaine.

When Eddie and Susannah arrive at the train station, they find a pink monorail car at rest in its berth. They find out that Blaine is not only the monorail, but the omnipotent computer that runs Lud – and Jake was right! Blaine is quite insane.

Blaine has a taste for riddles and cannot resist Eddie’s promise of a riddling contest if Blaine provides passage through the Waste Lands to Topeka.

Roland and Jake waylay the Tick Tock man and his crew and make their way out of the sewers of Lud. The omniscient Blaine guides them to his platform where Roland, Jake, and Oy join Eddie and Susannah and Eddie to board Blaine. As they leave the city, the ka-tet watches, horrified, as the pitiful masses commit suicide or try to flee from the poison gas that Blaine has set loose over the city.

Blaine the monorail takes the companions out of the city and into the Waste Lands. There, they see a blasted land inhabited by huge, mutant creatures resembling flying dinosaurs and other abominations. The book ends as Blaine and Roland prepare to square off in a riddling contest. If Roland can fool Blaine, Blaine must deliver the companions safely to Topeka. If Blaine fools Roland, Blaine will take them to their deaths as he makes a kamikaze dive. The games begin. . .

As Roland and his friends make their way out of the city, the badly wounded Tick Tock Man encounters a stranger dressed in rough work boots and a denim jacket. He is the Ageless Stranger, he is Merlin or Maerlin, he is the Magician. He is the Wizard. But, in human terms, he is Richard Fannin. He demands an oath from the Tick Tock Man: “My life for you!” The Dark Man of The Stand has returned to our story.

The pursuit of the Dark Tower is now underway.

In the first book, The Gunslinger, we are introduced to Roland and learn of his quest. In book two, the primary characters are brought into the story, In the third book, Roland resolves the inconsistency in time he created when he prevented Jack Mort from killing Jake, brings Jake into his own world to complete his ka-tet and sets out on the path of the beam, riding Blaine the Mono.

Jake and Eddie are developed more in this volume. We learn a great deal about the relationship between Eddie and his late brother, Henry which is formative in Eddie’s character. We are introduced to Jake as he was in New York 1977 and his non-existent family life and pervasive loneliness.

King really shows us his writing chops in the scene where Jake desperately tries to unlock the door in the haunted house to get to Roland’s world. The scene is frantically paced. The house is literally collapsing in on itself as it reshapes itself into the evil guardian of this door. Detta desperately hangs on to the demon upon which she is forcing copulation. Eddie scrambles to make his homemade key function as rain pounds down upon him and thunder rocks the world around him. When this scene is brought to resolution, the reader almost needs to pause for a breath before moving on. You’ll seldom read writing better than this.

I also detected a major flaw in King’s timeline regarding Eddie and Henry Dean. Perhaps it can be explained away as some anomaly of time within the Dark Tower, but I’m confident it is author error.

In The Drawing of the Three, King tells us that Henry Dean returned from Vietnam with a heroin addiction. American forces withdrew completely from Vietnam in 1975. However, when Jake of 1977 New York encounters Henry and Eddie on the playground, Henry is still a youth. Eddie recollects that his encounter with Jake occurred shortly before Henry entered the Army. Unless Henry Dean was part of some covert operation in communist Vietnam, he could not have come back from Vietnam to introduce Eddie to heroin.

In introducing the Guardians, King provides the link to It. Roland tells the legend of the Guardians to his companions. He tells them that the Guardian opposite the bear on their beam is the turtle. The turtle is the creator of our universe, having vomited it up while sick. While the bear continues to inhabit Roland’s world, his counterpart is living in the caverns under Derry, Maine.

By cheating and reading Black House out of order of publication, we already know something about the nature of the beams and the effort of the Dark Tower’s chief inhabitant to break those beams. We shall learn a little more about “The Breakers” in Hearts in Atlantis.

King provides a postscript to this book. He promises that the next in the series is to come soon, but confides that he has trouble finding his way into Roland’s world. King had no idea just how long it would be before he and the Constant Reader visited Roland’s world. It would be six years before we were able to read the account of the riddling contest between Roland and Blaine as the next book, Wizard and Glass, would not be published until 1997. That is an awfully long time to hang on a cliff. . . I recall those years of anticipation as I, and hundreds of thousands of other King fans wondered if he would ever be able to visit the Dark Tower.

Between the publication of The Waste Lands in 1991 and Wizard and Glass in 1997, King did some of his worst work. He got into social commentary on feminism with Gerald’s Game, Deloris Claiborne, and Rose Madder – all substandard works.

He also published Insomnia which is the next novel that continues the story Roland’s quest. Insomnia is a tedious, overlong novel that does not stand on its own very well. However, we readers are given substantially more insight into the place of the Dark Tower and its inhabitants in the cosmos.

The Waste Lands was an excellent book and really picks up the pace of King’s story. I’m pleased to have Wizard and Glass on my bookshelf, ready to read because that six year wait was too long! However, I know now that Wizard and Glass will do little to move our story forward. Instead, we learn of Roland’s past and the events that shaped his character.

But Wizard and Glass must wait. First, we must take in Insomnia.

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