It takes skill to write a story you enjoy reading. It takes perhaps even more skill to write a story you don’t enjoy reading but persist with anyway. The first story in Stephen King’s The Dark Tower series is difficult and confusing in places, but you keep reading because you have a feeling it’s eventually going to deliver. And it does, said delivery being book 2, “The Drawing of the Three.”
We meet Roland, a lone traveller who is pursuing his lifelong enemy, The Man in Black. We learn that Roland is a gunslinger, a cross between a Wild West lawman and a medieval knight, and that he is the last defender of the free world. His kingdom is gone, but he is chasing The Man in Black to discover the location of the Dark Tower, a gigantic pylon of energy that supports all the worlds in the universe. Roland believes that the Dark Tower is in jeopardy, and that if it fell all would be lost.
Why he even bothers saving the Dark Tower is beyond me, since the world seems have gone into the shitter anyway. Roland’s Middle Earth is mostly a deserted, empty place, populated by mutants and demons. He encounters a town that has been taken over by a crazy preacher, and he must kill many people there before continuing his journey. Technology seems to have regressed to that of the turn-of-the-century Wild West, although from time to time he encounters relics from a technological past (such as an abandoned shopping mall). Roland reminisces about his idyllic childhood in the green land of Gilead, and hopes that life will once again be like that someday. These themes are developed more in the later books, but they start here.
The book is dreamy and trippy, and can be hard to follow. Nobody has a direct conversation. They talk in stilted and elliptical phrases that sound like they’ve been passed around a Chinese Whispers circle one too many times. King plays tricks with the narrative (the first couple of scenes play out in reverse chronological order), and you get the sense that time and space are decaying in Roland’s world, along with technology. There’s a definite vibe of “man, all this obscurity and symbolism will TOTALLY impress my friends at the book club!” going on (seriously, King admits as much in the foreword to the revised addition), but I don’t mind that too much. The plot is simple. Just a guy chasing another guy.
In its final pages, the book unexpectedly sticks in the knife and twists, as Roland must make a horrible sacrifice to catch up with the Man in Black. It’s described in mute, understated terms, but it is the most powerful part of the book. The characters in The Gunslinger have never been made overly sympathetic, and yet suddenly, somehow, I cared about them as if they were real.
This is a book you read to absorb its vibes. The Gunslinger is very different to later books in the series, almost shockingly different. But in its own way, it’s great.