I’ve been reading through Stephen King’s The Dark Tower books again recently. I remember picking them up for the first time shortly after Wolves of the Calla was released in 2003; I was working in a bookstore at the time and (don’t tell anyone!) we were allowed to “check out” books on the shelves for free so long as we returned them in undamaged condition. So I read through the first four at a pretty rapid clip before taking my time with the last three. I say “taking my time” in a relative sense, of course; I’m not sure anyone but King could manage to turn out almost 2,000 pages of fiction in under a year (!!!) if the publication dates on Wikipedia are accurate.
One can only imagine the kind of frenetic, locked-in sensibility that must’ve been going through King during the composition of these last few novels. It’s the kind of tale that you hear about every so often in fiction, or composition of art in general, where someone will bang their head against their own imagination and take aim at a frustratingly elusive muse, only to finally see the floodgates burst open, allowing them to put everything down on paper at a rate they could’ve only dreamed about before. Rilke, for instance, started his 30 pages or so of the Duino Elegies in 1912, and only managed to complete them with the sudden influx of creativity a decade later. It’s not hard to imagine King acting like one of the poor travelers who cut through Haven in The Tommyknockers and find themselves flooded with ideas and insight.
Regardless, the last three novels of the Dark Tower series feel different than the first four do. The oddball of them all is obviously still The Gunslinger, which feels like it has an almost abstract, non-narrative quality to it, as if it were some kind of fable rather than a telling of events; part of that is no doubt due to the constraint placed on the reader by observing only Roland, who is routinely conveyed as being almost devoid of anything approximating an imagination. It’s not a novel that feels compelled to explain much about what transpires, or even the world that Roland inhabits. There are simple incantations (“the world has moved on”), but few specifics.
In that sense, it still feels like a one-off novel, despite the somewhat abrupt ending; there’s little in the way of world-building or character development. Still, for its faults, it feels right, somehow. One of King’s major themes across all his work is the interaction of Ultimate Good with Ultimate Evil (which can be a bit tiring, honestly, especially in works like Under The Dome), and while his heroes often have flaws, few seem as flawed as Roland in this first novel, as he massacres an entire township and drops Jake to his death rather than give up his chase of the Man In Black.
Considering the quarter-decade that elapsed between the creation of the character and the publication of the final novel (in the continuity of the series, at least), it’s no surprise to see King attempting to flesh out his world as he continued to write/create it. It becomes clear, over time, that he considers this his most important creation, with the books acting like the axis for all of his other fiction, much like the Dark Tower itself is the axis around which all of the multiverses spin in the novels themselves. It’s a bit of an audacious move on King’s part, but in retrospect it feels inevitable, given that interest in Ultimate Evil. You can feel King drawing his threads in the early parts of Wizard And Glass, where he makes it clear that the Man In Black is really Randall Flagg, the villain of The Stand (arguably his best novel), in addition to holding any number of other personas, and when he starts bringing characters from his other fictions into Roland’s world.
Things get a bit sillier when he begins talking about the Crimson King, effectively his world’s Sauron, complete with disembodied red eyes floating in the darkness. Like Sauron, the King is kept at a remove in all of the books, never encountered or described directly, save for the very end of Book 7, where he appears as something less than an all-powerful being. There are plenty of references to him somehow being insane and imprisoned, while still retaining the power to direct events so that the Dark Tower falls, effectively either pushing the reset button on all creation or sending all of the worlds off into some enervated darkness. (It’s never clear quite what the end result of the Dark Tower’s destruction would be, only that it would be Bad.)
The King’s inclusion feels unnecessary; I kind of liked the idea of Roland’s world better when it was simply running down like a cheap car with bad shocks and no brakes. Entropy is, after all, in the physics sense, the ultimate ruination of our universe; if the theories of dark energy and our universe’s accelerated expansion are to be believed, every proton in every atom in our body will one day decay in 10^40 years, leaving behind a universe with nothing but black holes. That’s scary enough to imagine happening even if we don’t have some kind of Devil behind the scenes, pushing buttons and speeding us along the path towards disintegration. But while the Crimson King might be a bit of a stereotypical fantasy character, he at least doesn’t feel silly. That’s reserved for the inclusion of another kind of King.
There have been plenty of novelists who’ve played around with themselves as characters in their own books (or at least characters that share a name with themselves), either as some kind of post-modernist experiment intended to blur the line between fiction and reality (see Everything Is Illuminated or The Pale King, for example), or as a wink-wink-nudge-nudge breaking of the fourth wall. King’s inclusion of “Stephen King,” writer from Maine who happens to be writing Gunslinger novels when Roland and Eddie come across him, feels like neither of these, and is almost certainly the greatest weakness in the series. It feels oddly selfish.
The sheer scope of the novels, and the seepage of King’s other creations into the Dark Tower universe, already speaks to the primacy of the series in King’s view of his own legacy. King’s inclusion of himself, on the other hand, feels variably either like a reflection of the need for the author to immortalize himself in his fiction beyond merely being the name on the cover of the book, or as a kind of meta deus ex machina, a character that’s portrayed as creating the rest of the world in a sense that allows for other deus ex machinas to occur without logical explanations for them. (Not that Roland’s world is ever quite bound by anything we’d recognize as logic.) In the former case, his inclusion is prideful to the point of arrogance; in the latter, it’s a monumental cheat, and not a very necessary one at that.
I get that King probably wanted to work out some mental issues related to the aftermath of his near-death experience in 1999. I’ve never been in an accident as bad as the one that befell him, so for all I know I might want to ascribe some kind of cosmic significance to something like that myself. And there is an undeniable aspect of the postmodern to the sub-plot, but it’s a relatively blunt one; King seems to have taken the notion of intertextuality a bit literally and recursively, favoring the referencing of other texts outright (e.g. Shardik, the Harry Potter sneetches, the Wizard of Oz bit in Wizard and Glass, etc.) over merely alluding to them. Things get a fair bit creepier when he includes the real-life driver that hit him as a character, apparently under some subconscious thrall to the Crimson King, working as a tool to kill King and prevent him from finishing the novels.
It takes a fair amount of ego to imply that your death would result in the destruction of all possible universes. Of course, assuming a postmodern interpretation to King’s curveball (and the more I think about it, the more this seems to be the most profitable way to analyze things), that outcome is “literally” true (if you’ll excuse a pun!); King’s death in 1999 would’ve prevented Roland’s journey from being completed, and I suppose King invites us to imagine what would’ve happened to Roland had King (or “King”) died.
Still, literary wrangling aside, King’s inclusion of himself is one of the most bizarre detours in modern popular fiction, perhaps especially because it comes so late in the series. The ka-tet bounce back and forth between New York and Mid-World enough for us to realize that our reality is somehow important and perhaps even twinned with Roland’s, but the character of “Stephen King” feels like an embarrassingly blunt way of reinforcing that theme. (Although I am amazingly curious as to how an eventual film or television adaptation of these books would deal with this whole issue.)
But then, this is also a series that, on second reading, feels like it becomes suspiciously unmoored in the last three novels from anything resembling narrative tension. Again, those deus ex machinas start popping up with disappointing regularity, and while the characters’ ability to teleport anywhere and anywhen rarely works precisely the way they want it to, it’s still effectively the textual equivalent of an “I Win” button in most occasions, perhaps especially when Sheemie’s introduced in The Dark Tower and is able to overwrite some of Mid-World’s most basic physical laws (and there aren’t many of those) solely for the sake of convenience.
Speaking of deus ex machinas, if the King character is tough to swallow, then the Patrick Danville character is almost indefensible, and his inclusion feels like a true nuke-the-fridge type creative mistake. I completely understand that Roland’s ka-tet was destined to fall apart as he made his way to the Dark Tower; it was pretty plainly stated very early in the series that Roland would place his journey above the lives of anyone, enemy or companion. That attitude was obviously softened as the books played out, but in the end he made the trip to the Tower alone. You know, except for a character that could literally rewrite reality to overcome any obstacle that Roland might face.
Danville again seems to be a way for King to explore an author’s interaction with and control over his characters and world, given that he can simply make things appear or disappear without caring about the universe’s consistency or physical laws (such as they are). His abilities seem to rob every other character in Book 7 of their own volition, though: the problems that are encountered are not opportunities for us to discover more about Roland and his friends (e.g., would he really be willing to sacrifice (or kill) a friend, again, to reach the Dark Tower?), but are instead simple storytelling hurdles, jumped over with a few pencil strokes on Danville’s part.
I consider King and Danville to both be severely problematic characters, but at the same time, I recognize that they’re interesting problems, and their inclusion is far more bold than I would expect from a mainstream author that’s expected to hit the bestseller list every time he puts out a book. Still, even though I love a good literary experiment as much as the next guy, I think that both King and Danville weaken the series’ narrative flow considerably, with Danville’s presence being almost laughable from a storytelling perspective.
There’s a lot of brilliance in the Dark Tower series. Wizard and Glass is a fantastic work of fantasy, and Wolves of the Calla is one of the best riffs on Seven Samurai that I’ve come across. It’s a shame, then, that everything starts falling apart during the last couple of books. King had an opportunity to create a keystone of modern fantasy, but in the end I’d say that he suffered from an advanced case of reach-exceeding-his-grasp-itis.