The Dark Tower series is unarguably Stephen King's magnum opus, spanning eight volumes and thousands of pages. Each book opens with the same introduction, 'On Being Nineteen (And A Few Other Things)', which gives the reader some insight into how the series came into being and discusses the motivations involved in continuing (and eventually completing) the series. Charmed by Tolkein's The Lord of the Rings - obviously the touchstone for a great many writers - the 19-year-old King understood enough to wait a while before he started work on his own epic, and here he makes much of the ambition and self-belief of youth, and the importance of writers allowing themselves the time to mature - essentially to let a story develop. It was only when he caught a screening of The Good, The Bad and The Ugly aged 22 that lightning struck: "I realised that what I wanted to write was a novel that contained Tolkein's sense of quest and magic but set against Leone's almost absurdly majestic Western backdrop." Later the same year (1970), King started work on The Gunslinger; it would be more than a decade before it was published in book form. Subsequent volumes appeared at irregular intervals, and the series slowly took shape.
Of course, the trouble with writing a complicated, expansive story over many years is (as George R. R. Martin has also discovered) audience investment - people need to you finish; you have a responsibility to do so. King was finally prompted to complete the Dark Tower series after being struck and almost killed by a van in 1999 (as detailed in On Writing); his brush with death persuaded him to push aside all other projects in favour of delivering the final books to a desperate fanbase. At the same time, King began revising the first volume. As he explains in a foreword specific to the revised 2003 edition of The Gunslinger, he considers the series to be one long novel - and after multiple volumes and 33 years, "the beginning was out of sync with the ending". Thus, various false starts and continuity errors have now been removed from this "young man's book", a few new scenes have been inserted for clarification, and the authorial voice has been tightened up to match that of the later work. So, bearing all this in mind, how does the novel measure up?
The Gunslinger opens with two cryptic subtitles, one reading '19' and the other 'Resumption'. We'll return to those later. For the time being, it's probably better to focus on the first line of the book proper - "The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed" - which effectively sums up the deceptively simple plot. King quickly highlights the scope of the landscape, a hard-baked alkali wasteland that prompts dizziness and a sense of dislocation in the titular gunslinger, Roland of Gilead. He's been tracking the man in black (hereafter MiB) for (as far as we know) years. Three weeks out of the last town, Tull, the gunslinger has been reduced by the harshness of his surroundings to his basic essence: his impassive nature and his guns, each carefully weighted to his hands. The only thing driving him on is the prospect of running the MiB to ground. But why? Who is this mystery man? And what could possibly be important enough to merit Roland's determined vendetta? Well, that's really the point of the book, so what answers there are will have to wait a little.
As discussed above, The Gunslinger is a kind of western-fantasy hybrid, and King does some intriguing world-building here. This is, we soon gather, either a parallel or future version of our world, in which animals can sometimes talk, demons are real and mutation is rife. So far, so fantasy. But King muddies our preconceptions by throwing in incongruous overlaps from our world here and there (see, for example, the fact that 'Hey Jude' is an old ballad here or the long-dead overhead "sparklights" which run along the roads). Roland's world appears to be slowly decaying - it "has moved on", fallen from its peak. His homeland is gone, as are the other gunslingers. He's the last of his kind, a deadly killer hundreds of years old, clothed in some kind of nobility. He has nothing left but his ongoing quest.
Spoilers ahead! The structure of the book sees King alternating between the gunslinger's progress and flashbacks which fill in details about various key moments from his youth and his journey so far. The first of these comes as Roland happens upon a shack deep in the desert. He shares information with the farmer who scratches a living there, telling him about what happened back in Tull - a dilapidated, dying town in which he found clues, brief solace and finally danger and death. As becomes clear, the MiB has moved various players into fatal alignment in Tull, making the whole town into a trap to ensnare Roland. After the rather bare early desert scenes, this flashback - introducing an array of characters - sees King sketching in the township, establishing that something is wrong, and ramping up to Roland's blazing destruction of the raddled population in short order. Tull is also where the '19' subtitle comes into play. After displaying an uncanny knack for necromancy, the MiB has left a terrible note for one of the characters, giving her the trigger word "nineteen" and pointing her towards the baffled town junkie that he's resurrected; if she says the word, Nort will tell her what lies beyond death. The note promises that such knowledge will drive her insane, but that she will not be able to stop herself from speaking "nineteen" aloud. It's a sinister little sidebar, and one which appears to exist solely to give us some insight into the MiB - King makes clear that he's a trickster, openly derisive of the people he's toying with, full of mirth at the trouble that Roland is stoically walking into.
Indeed, the MiB's traps come to play a central role in The Gunslinger. Sixteen days further into the desert, going glareblind and on the verge of physical collapse, Roland meets the next one - Jake Chambers, a confused 10-year-old who appears to come from New York. Or at least that's where the MiB shoved him in front of a bus to die, before he woke up in this world. The companionship and responsibility that he represents awaken something in the gunslinger. As they travel into the mountains together, Roland comes to identify with this lost lad, sharing tales (of his childhood apprenticeship under the brutal Cort, of the machinations of sly advisor Marten against Roland's father) and, almost against his will, coming to love the boy.
Major spoilers ahead! It is this love that is the MiB's (and King's) most painful ploy. After various travails, Roland is faced with a pivotal choice: to save Jake from death, or to finally get his hands on the MiB. He chooses the latter, letting his vulnerable young friend plummet to his death in a scene that King makes cruelly swift. Having given the reader a sweet, troubled foil to Roland's measured determination, he snatches the character away from us in a moment. "Go then," Jake says as he falls. "There are other worlds than these." Roland is about to discover how close those final words are to the truth.
His reward for sacrificing his erstwhile companion (and it clearly is intended as a sacrifice by King) is a conversation with the MiB. And yet, because this book is the first chapter of an extended story, the answers he gets are murky and mixed with misdirection. Still, King dripfeeds us a great deal of information during their discussion; and while clearly unable to give the reader the resolution they might want at this early stage, he instead boldly expands the parameters of his tale to include... everything. Roland has been chasing the MiB so that he will lead him to the Tower, which is revealed to be a nexus in time and size, a fixed point that links an infinity of universes. The Tower contains a malevolent being, the MiB's master, who Roland must, in time, face. But not before he defeats an "Ageless Stranger", another minion of the Tower who walks in all universes and times. A tarot reading gives hints about future companions and events, while the MiB makes reference to a past that sounds suspiciously like our present, as well as to the fact that he has been a presence in Roland's life since childhood; he is Marten, the venomous adviser (among other personas). And what of the 'Resumption' I mentioned earlier? Marten explicitly states that Roland is resuming his quest, later explaining, "This is not the beginning but the beginning's end. You'd do well to remember that... but you never do." The implication is clear: this whole story has played out before. Roland wakes the next morning to find himself ten years older and Marten a skeleton. The MiB has played his part, and the next phase of the journey towards the Dark Tower can begin.
As a standalone novel, The Gunslinger sometimes feels like a minor oddity, especially at this point in King's career - it's an episodic fantasy tale that hints at much while delivering a relatively straightforward plot. There are sequences where 'traditional' King holds the reins (examples include the breathless massacre in Tull; Roland's rite of passage to become a gunslinger; the succubus oracle; the creepy horror of the slow mutants) which sit alongside a more controlled, pared down type of writing when we're with Roland, who is something of an enigma at this point. As always, King is great with the detail that makes this world seem like a real, inhabited place, and manages to present the climactic foreshadowing and revelation in a way that is both incredibly frustrating and remarkably successful as a pay-off. As the beginning of a monumental series, the book is certainly strong enough to hook the reader into the world(s) of the Dark Tower. And I am now itching to get to The Drawing of the Three.
Notes: While the metaphysical intrigue of the novel's final section will clearly be explored in later Dark Tower volumes, King would also revisit themes raised here in both The Talisman and The Eyes of the Dragon. Indeed, the talisman in The Talisman is a nexus between parallel worlds, a portable Tower of sorts. And could Jake be a version of Jack? We're through the looking glass here, people.
Next: Different Seasons.