Book Reviews, Novels

Stephen King’s the Dark Tower (1982-2012) — a reflection

a series of seven, sometimes eight, novels

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Tackling the Dark Tower over this last year has been both a pleasant surprise and a disappointment. It’s awakened a love for Stephen King’s writing I never felt before, but it’s also been a constant reminder of all the issues I’ve taken with his work since first picking up Carrie (1974) at 13 years old.

The Dark Tower is Stephen King’s conscious attempt at a magnum opus — at creating a work of art to compete with Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings or Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia, going down in literary history as an adventure with few peers. Published between 1982 and 2004, it’s a seven-book quest — eight if you count 2012’s the Wind Through the Keyhole, a sidestory squeezed in between the fourth and fifth books — spanning roughly 5,000 pages:

From left to right, starting from the top row: the Gunslinger (1982), the Drawing of the Three (1987), the Waste Lands (1991), Wizard and Glass (1997), the Wind Through the Keyhole (2012), Wolves of the Calla (2003), Song of Susannah (2004), & the Dark Tower (2004).

Equal parts horror, sci-fi, western, fantasy, thriller, romance, and post-apocalyptic pulp, it does each genre well, but rarely mixes them with as much success…which is where the novel’s (for it really is one novel) faults come into focus.

Excepting perhaps Song of Susannah and the Dark Tower, the series never feels like a single, overarching story. Each book is largely isolated in its plotting, its genres, its supporting characters, etc., and rarely do they fit together into the big picture. There are references and recurring pieces (and the destination’s always the same), sure, but the myth structure is disregarded between each novel — which means the Dark Tower never naturally flows as a single story, but more akin to seasons of a TV show.

Roland on the lobstrosity-filled shores at the end of the Gunslinger. Artwork by longtime series artist Michael Whelan.

Despite this criticism, I was enthralled with Mid-World and the mythology’s King’s created: I always felt the urge to see what came next, whether I’d recognize any heroes or monsters from the rest of his books, whether we’d uncover more about North Central Positronics or their guardians, the doors between worlds, the meaning of the wolves, or Sayre’s goals in our world(s) — the Dark Tower builds upon its mystery very effectively. (It’s clear shows like Lost owe a lot of Stephen King, beyond just using his novels as physical props.)

Roland and his ka-tet never connected with me much as heroes, however. Their characterization, while holding depth, highlights some of the problems I have with many Stephen King books: He tends to recycle personalities, regardless of how well-drawn they are, regardless of what complex background traumas they’ve undergone. You can tell the baddies from a mile away literally based on their physical descriptions or a few lines of dialogue — they’re fat; they have pimples; are physically repulsive; they’re obnoxiously religious; they fart a lot and are constantly horny; they’re shallow, sexist, racist pigs.

The heroes often fall to similar tropes. His writers are the same writers; his ayuh-spewing geezers the same as any other; his psychic 10-year-old never faltering from the established stereotype.

Roland’s great, but never likable: I never once rooted for him. He’s interesting, though, and the closest to human: full of conflicting ideals and cognitive dissonance. He lumbers around with a superiority complex one minute, then toots out a line about what an idiot he is the next. The sheer weight of his problems and his self-awareness — especially with his backstory in Wizard and Glass — make him fascinating despite his often vile personality.

The rest, however, were harder to appreciate. Eddie remains a shallow joker start to finish. He cracks one-liners constantly, and, in keeping with Stephen King’s usual lack of comedy, he’s dreadfully unfunny. (Perhaps King is funny in real life — probably so, even — but his sense of humor hardly translates to the written word.) In the last few books, we’re occasionally told — literally, via narration — that Eddie’s maturing as a character. But that’s never true; he always reverts.

I loathed Eddie with every line.

Jake, Roland and Oy overlooking Algul Siento in the final novel. Artwork by longtime series artist Michael Whelan.

Susannah is interesting in concept, but never struck me right. I still can’t put my finger on why. She’s wheelchair-bound, her legs cut off at the knees, and she holds three — later four — personalities in her body. One’s a demon, another’s a racist caricature she invented in response to racism. This is a recipe for originality, but in the end she’s mostly boring. Partially, it’s because her lead personalities are too passive, too nice. When Detta Walker, the racist caricature living inside her, isn’t spouting off obscene one-liners about honky mahfahs, Susannah just doesn’t have much to say. She’s a passive housewife, weirdly contradicting the feminist intent.

Jake is every 12-year-old from every other Stephen King novel. He’s impossibly wise beyond his years — easily the sharpest of the gang –, has psychic abilities, is the most thoughtful and empathetic: He’s innocence incarnate by way of Buddha by way of the Man with No Name. He’s not unlikable, just bland and unbelievable.

Oy is amazing, even if he’s largely there to tug at our heartstrings and get us giggling. I love Oy.

I feel like there’s a problem if the pet is the best character. Of the four humans, one’s execrable, another forgettable, and the last two somewhere between interesting and bland. It’s hard to say this crew is worth 5,000 pages, but the world and its stories certainly are.

It’s easy to get sidetracked by the frustrating King-isms that show up in most of his 700-page beasts. His characters often feel cut from the same cloth, and not quite real — like a narrative variation on uncanny valley — but he often devotes absorbing, rich backstories unique to each one. King himself evokes a lot of his personal experiences into those characters he drags through the gutter, which can get uncomfortable. As King famously lived with drug addictions that devoured his family and work life throughout the 1980s, his characters’ forays into substance abuse, and the stupid bullheadedness in which they — Eddie from this series, Paul Sheldon from Misery (1987) — seek to feed those addictions is all too real, too uncomfortable. 

Original cover art for 1982’s the Gunslinger and 2004’s the Dark Tower, both created by artist Michael Whelan.

King’s writing has been pulling readers into his alternative vision of (mostly) Maine for decades. Even under the weight of his many small issues, the towns of Castle Rock, of Derry, of Jerusalem’s Lot et al., have held readers spellbound for decades. Each book’s added to the connected, centuries-long histories — practically a civilization in itself. This is why Stephen King is a bastion of American writing, and why he connects with, well, everyone. We’re all players in the Dark Tower.


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1 thought on “Stephen King’s the Dark Tower (1982-2012) — a reflection”

  1. I’m about 5 years late to this but I thought this was a really excellent read. Thanks for sharing it. I agree with much of what you wrote, though I will say I have more tolerance for Eddie. (Definitely agree about King’s sense of humor not translating well to the page though.)

    “It’s easy to get sidetracked by the frustrating King-isms that show up in most of his 700-page beasts. His characters often feel cut from the same cloth, and not quite real — like a narrative variation on uncanny valley — but he often devotes absorbing, rich backstories unique to each one.” This is about as perfect a distillation of my feelings about King as I could ever hope to find. Very well written.

    Thanks again for the great piece.


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