The Wind Through the Keyhole
By Stephen King
Stephen King revisits the Ka-Tet of Roland of Gilead for a story within a story, within a story. Roland, Eddie, Susannah, Jake, and Oy have left Lud in ruins. Blaine the Mono has met his doom. They are once again following the path of the Beam en route to the Dark Tower.
Along the way, they meet an old ferryman who invites them to sup with him. As they dine, Roland notes the peculiar weather and tells the old man he suspects a storm – a rare killer storm called a starkblast. Starkblasts are like the opposite of the Santa Ana winds. In Roland’s world, unseasonably hot weather is sometimes followed by killer cold winds. The cold and the wind come on so suddenly they trap people outside and they freeze in their tracks. Trees freeze instantly and explode. One does not stay outside in a Starkblast.
The ferryman agrees to take Roland and his ka-tet across the river where they can seek shelter in an abandoned village before they storm. They safely cross the river and find an old stone building that appears sturdy enough to survive the storm. They gather firewood and settle in. The storm hits and they gather around the fire to try to stay warm. To pass the time, Roland agrees to tell the group another story of his youth.
Shortly after the death of Roland’s mother (at Roland’s hand), his father, a Gunslinger from the direct line of Arthur Eld, summons him to his study. He tells Roland he has a mission for him in a barony town of Debaria. There, several residents have been killed by a “Skin Man” which is a human who changes shape into various vicious animals to kill them. Roland’s father wants Roland and his friend Jamie to identify and bring this evil being to justice.
The pair of newly minted gunslingers, still in their teens, arrive in Dabaria and meet the local sheriff, an old friend of Roland’s father. He tells all that he knows about the Skin Man attacks. More than two dozen have died. All were slaughtered viciously. Whole families have been torn to pieces and the city, whose chief commerce is a salt mine, is frightened.
During their second night in town, the Skin Man hits again. A ranch just outside of town is the scene of the slaughter and the entire family and all of their hands and animals have been killed. The tracks of a giant bear are found at the scene. Jamie notices that the tracks slowly turn back into human form as they leave the ranch, and the killer left on a horse that was waiting for him, indicating the Skin Man is not the innocent victim of a curse. He knows who and what he is and plans his attacks.
When the Gunslingers and the sheriff’s men return to the ranch, Roland hears movement in the tack shed. He investigates and finds a small boy hiding under saddle blankets. He is the lone survivor of the Skin Man’s latest foray. This boy named Bill saw the creature transform from animal to human. He didn’t see the face, but he saw the tattooed ring around the man’s ankle. The tattoo had a white defect or scar in it.
Roland takes Bill back to town. The boy is distraught because his father and everyone he knows was slaughtered at the ranch. He’s also scared because Roland tells him he is going to identify the Skin Man for him.
Roland locks the boy in jail (to keep him safe) and then sees to the fashioning a silver bullet – the only device that can kill a Skin Man.
Upon Roland’s return, he tells Bill a story told to him by his mother when he was a child. This is the story within the story and takes up approximately half the book.
Tim Ross lives with his mother and father in a logging town. His father, Big Ross and his business partner, Bern Kells make a comfortable living harvesting ironwood trees from the forest nearby.
But Big Ross meets with misfortune. He is attacked by a dragon and incinerated into oblivion. His wife and small child are left to fend for themselves.
Bern Kells, a widower and former drunken brawler, comes to call on Tim’s mother, asking for her hand in marriage. Seeing no other way to makes ends meet and fearing the Barony’s tax collector who will seize their home when they can’t pay, she says yes. Bern Kell and Tim’s mother are wed.
Shortly after they are married, Bern Kells returns to his cups. He comes home drunk and beats Tim’s mother. He can’t find a business partner to help him harvest ironwood because nobody wants to be associated with him. Tim is miserable and fearful for his mother.
On the appointed day, the tax collector bearing the title, the Covenant Man, comes to call. He’s a wicked, evil man. He takes Kells’ coin and summons Tim to his horse for a private conversation. The Covenant Man tells him to meet him in the forest that night to hear an interesting tale. He slips into Tim’s hand a magic key that will open any lock, but will work just once. Tim uses it to open his stepfather’s footlocker. There, Tim finds his father’s lucky coin – a coin that should have been destroyed had his father really been attacked by a dragon.
Wanting more information on how Bern acquired his father's lucky coin, Tim sneaks out and travels into the forest. He finds the Covenant Man camped out alongside the road. The Covenant Man prepares a bowl of stew for Tim, then tells him to go to the stream and get water. When Tim does, he finds the body of his father, submerged in the stream. The Covenant Man tells Tim to retrieve his father’s hatchet from the body and carry it home with him.
Tim returns home to find that Kells has beaten his mother badly. She is blind and bedridden. Tim’s school teacher is there to tend his mother and the men of the town have been dispatched to find Kells and bring him to justice and to retrieve Big Ross’ body. As he sleeps that night, The Covenant Man enters Tim’s dreams and tells him to find him in the forest. He will supply Tim with the magic he needs to help his mother.
Tim takes off for the forest, packing a gun provided to him by his teacher. Once deep into the forest, he encounters a fairy who seems to guide him. But the fairy is evil and duplicitous and guides him into a swamp. There, he finds a real dragon who rises from the water and spews fire. Tim begs for his life and with a reproachful look, the dragon settles back into her nest. He then finds some “muties” in the swamp who help him by providing him with a device to help him find his way. The device is a product of the ever helpful North Central Positronics Corp.
The device guides Tim to a Dogan (which King fans will recognize as one of North Central Positronics’ computer centers) deep in the forest. Before self destructing, the device warns Tim that a storm is coming; a starkblast just like the one Roland and his ka-tet are enduring. Resting near the Dogan is a tiger in a cage.
Tim desperately tries to get into the Quonset hut that is the Dogan, but can’t. The door is locked. Attached to the lock is a note from the Covenant Man telling him that his salvation lies inside the tiger’s cage. To get it, he will have to open the tiger cage, and the tiger is hungry, having been penned for a long time.
Knowing that he will die in the starkblast, Tim risks opening the cage. The tiger steps out and settles peacefully on the ground, watching Tim. Inside Tim finds a small napkin. Terrified of the approaching storm, Tim unfolds the napkin which is magical. It continues to unfold until it forms a large tarp. Tim goes to the leeward side of the Dogan to shelter himself from the wind and covers himself with the tarp, hoping it is enough shelter. He invites the tiger to join him. Together, Tim and the Tiger ride out the starkblast under the protection of the magical tarp.
After the storm is over, Tim and the tiger climb from beneath their magical shelter. The Tiger then transforms himself into a man and proclaims that he is Maerlyn, the white wizard. He says he was imprisoned in the cage by the Covenant Man when he caught Maerlyn drunk one evening. For rescuing him, the tiger instructs him on how to use some magical eye drops to save his mother’s sight. Tim uses the tarp as a magic carpet and returns home.
His mother is still blind, but overjoyed to see him. Tim puts the drops in her eyes and restores his sight. As instructed by the tiger, he gives his father’s hatchet to his mother. He then goes downstairs to awaken his teacher who is sleeping in a chair.
When he gets downstairs, he tries to wake his teacher and she won’t wake up. He then notices that that her dress is soaked in blood and that her throat has been cut. Just has he makes these observations, he is grabbed from behind by the throat. His stepfather is strangling him. Just as he’s about to pass out, the hands release him. He looks up to find that his mother has planted the hatchet in the back of Kells’ head.
With Bern Kells dead, Tim and his mother live happily ever after.
Roland concludes telling his tale to young Bill and tells him to rest. Tomorrow will be a big day when the suspects are marched before him so he can identify the Skin Man.
The next day, the salt miners are rounded up, relieved of their boots, and made to parade through the jail. The tattoo, Roland has learned is somewhat common among the miners for it is an identifying mark of a local prison. Several of the miners bear the tattoo, but only one has the telltale scar deforming it.
The miners parade through, one by one as the terrified Bill watches from the safety of his cell. Finally, he sees the miner with the scar and points him out. Once identified, the miner transforms into a giant snake and strikes, killing two of the sheriff’s deputies. Roland, equipped with his enchanted bullet, shoots and kills the Skin Man.
Roland and Jamie receive the thanks of the sheriff and leave town. On the way out, they stop at a small village called Serenity. It is there that his mother sojourned to try to regain her sanity after being seduced by her husband’s wizard, Marten. He drops Bill off with the proprietor of a brothel who has a gift for Roland. She places in his hand an envelope that contains a letter written by his mother. In it, she apologizes to him for allowing herself to be seduced by Martin and seems to predict that she will die by Roland’s hand. She forgives him for what she knows he will do.
There, Roland concludes his tale. The ka-tet pack up their belongings and resume their journey, headed toward Calla Bryn Sturgis where they will meet Andy the Robot, Father Callahan, and the Wolves of the Calla.
Those looking for depth to be added to Roland’s character through another chapter of his early life won’t find it in this story. It adds nothing to Roland’s backstory. I think we were supposed to feel some heartwarming catharsis on Roland’s behalf when he received the letter from his mother, but that part of the story was really under written. It could have been told with greater depth.
Both stories contained in Roland’s narrative were straightforward tales with no subplots. There were no red herrings or anything to throw us off the trail of the Skin Man. Roland and Jamie identified the suspect early on as one of the salt miners and a salt miner it was. There were no conflicts or subplots in that part of the story.
The second story was told with the same narrative voice as The Eyes of the Dragon. In that story, I thought that King was trying to imitate Tolkien’s style of childish story telling he employed in The Hobbit. As with the other story, it was a linear tale with nary a subplot or red herring. The reader is again allowed the pleasure of experiencing King’s Dark Man as the Covenant Man identifies himself as Randall Flagg by initialing his note to Tim with “R.F.”
Fans of Roland and the Dark Tower will no doubt enjoy a new edition to King’s expansive tale of a world encompassing all worlds. King classifies the book as “Dark Tower, book 4.5” to be shelved between Wizard and Glass (which contains extensive Roland backstory) and Wolves of the Calla which is the book that starts the story toward its climax.
Were this story read in order with the other books, I think it would have been an annoying distraction. Read on its own, it’s a fun, stand alone story of Roland telling story within a story.