Though the man has written the source material for several of my all time favorite films (of any genre), my experience with King’s work has always been foolishly self-limited. To be honest, I always just assumed he would be a junk novelist like Dean Koontz, considering the man is on par with the efficiency of Ford’s original assembly line when it comes to churning out new novels. Save for a random book of his I picked up in 6th grade (of which I have absolutely no memory), I hadn’t touched anything he’d written until someone left a copy of The Gunslinger in the can at Crosby’s. I only had to read the first line to realize I had been missing out on the publishing giant that is Stephen King:
The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed.
A truly perfect opening line if there ever was one. Written over 30 years ago, that single sentence introduces the world of Roland, the gunslinger, and his relentless search for the Dark Tower. A world – and a truly epic story – that I can’t get enough of. The first entry in the seven part series is a fantasy wrapped, post-apocalyptic tale of survival, death, honor and commitment. We learn that Roland of Gilead is the last of a rare breed of true man; the gunslingers. He is defiantly human while simultaneously representing all of the ideals of a time gone by. He is the embodiment of dedication and will stop at nothing to catch up to the man in black, who is just a stepping stone on his way to the mysterious Dark Tower. He is the only character in any medium that has reminded me so much of my other favorite character of all time, Gats of the unrivaled Berserk. The Gunslinger establishes the legendary man and his quest, but it isn’t until the second installment, The Drawing of the Three, that Stephen King really knocked me on my ass.
King’s imagination is astonishingly complex. There is nothing at all formulaic about his story or his narrative structure. In the first few pages of Drawing he permanently cripples Roland, taking away a few of his fingers as well as a couple other chunks of his flesh. He firmly grounds Roland and the reader in a very mortal reality by putting him immediately in such dire circumstances. On top of that shockingly antithetical twist, Roland reaches a door on the beach on which he is dying. A door that leads into the mind of one of the three people we know he is destined to draw, as foretold by the man in black; The Prisoner, The Lady in the Shadows, and The Pusher. It is here that King’s imagination really starts to spin at thousands of revolutions per second. The people inside each door are startling original and light-years away from anyone you’d expect to find in a novel set in a futuristic (?), dying world. The pages race by as you crave to see what King is going to come up with next. And yet nothing in the book feels out of place, no matter how truly unique it is. Everything reads natural thanks to an innate talent King has for honest, realistic dialogue as well as wishful fantasy. Plus, the man has got a gift for narrative structure, constantly jumping not only between the universe of the Dark Tower and our own world, but constant shifts forwards and backwards in time; all without ever confusing the reader. That’s skill. It is this ability to weave the products of his own fantastically morbid imagination into the culture of our world, while simultaneously bringing our world into his that really elevates his writing to a level I never expected (simply because I’d never experienced any of his books). And when he wants to amp up the intensity of it all, he deftly does just that. His seemingly wanton disregard for the safety of his own characters (as seen by the dismemberment of several of Roland’s extremities mere pages into the book two) leaves no person safe and only fuels the guessing game as to what is going to happen next. And I have no clue what is going to happen next in the Dark Tower series. I’m only on The Wastelands (book 3), but given my complete admiration of everything King has done in the series so far, this is shaping up to be one of my favorite literary experiences ever. I can’t recommend it enough. It is a perfect concoction of fantasy horror – my favorite blend – that goes down smoother than a slow drink of wiskey. And at $20 for a set of the first 4, you’re out of excuses. Oh, and if anyone who has read all seven installments reveals anything to me of what is to come, I will pop off your knee caps.