‘The Gunslinger’ by Stephen King is the first volume, in a much longer work, called ‘The Dark Tower’.
Many Constant Readers regard ‘The Dark Tower’ cycle as his magnum opus. If so, how is it that so many cannot get past volume one or even miss it out altogether?
I am presently engaged in a year long readathon of the Dark Tower, so January means a focus on ‘The Gunslinger.’
As I read it, I took on board the group chat comments which ranged from ‘It’s struggling to get going’, ‘I’m having trouble with the genre’, ‘What do these words mean?’ and so forth.
The revised edition comes with an introduction and foreword by Stephen King to contextualise this awkward book which is essentially 5 short stories with a narrow over arching thread.
This gives the reader a volume of 238 pages, so why is it, that when readers are chomping into 4-500 page toe breakers, that ‘The Gunslinger’ is a problem?
It’s a different genre that’s for sure, and it was written by a much younger man than the one who became famed for such horror classics as ‘The Shining’.
It’s a cowboy/fantasy anthology featuring an unlikeable character who does morally ambiguous things, and yet… ‘The Gunslinger’ is , in this Constant Reader’s opinion, a really, really good book.
I have read this book as a teen, a 20 something, a parent and now a grandparent, and I have noticed that the book I dashed through first is now more richly deserving of a return read, not merely step one on a readathon path.
It contains some of the most quotable King-
‘The man in black fled across the desert ,and the gunslinger followed’
‘Go then, there are other worlds than this’.
‘Time’s the thief of memory’
‘Long days and pleasant nights’
And of course, the famous gunslinger mantra-
“I do not aim with my hand; he who aims with his hand has forgotten the face of his father.
I aim with my eye.
I do not shoot with my hand; he who shoots with his hand has forgotten the face of his father.
I shoot with my mind.
I do not kill with my gun; he who kills with his gun has forgotten the face of his father.
I kill with my heart.”
This, to me, has quintessential King written all over it. The stripped back story telling has no signs of the bloat that was to come-even his most fervent fans would admit he needs a stronger edit on some of his novels-the characterisation is sharp and he teases you into Mid World,
Enough information is given in the stories to tell you that Roland is a survivor of a terrible event. His family and friends are all gone, he does not trust others and is on a quest to avenge his family-to do this he is chasing the man in black, for answers as much as to kill him.
His encounters in the town of Tull make him seem like a portent of death. Roland chases a man who can bring the dead back to life -the man in black, Walter O’Dim-yet leaves the dead in his wake.
He can be seen as unlikeable yet he takes care of Jake, the displaced child he finds in the mountains and takes him on his quest to find Walter and get to The Dark Tower which lies at the centre of all things.
We, the readers, are never really sure of where Roland is, it is not our world yet the use of rhymes and songs such as ‘Hey Jude’,suggest that this is a future version of our world, or yet, a parallel one, similar to the other King creation, The Territories.
Throughout the course of ‘The Gunslinger’, Roland is constantly tested and made to decide what he is prepared to do to get to the Dark Tower.
It ends not so much on a cliff hanger, as a solid end. I somehow mixed it up with ‘‘The Drawing Of The Three’ and presumed that it did-no spoilers being given here!
This gives the impression that the book could have ended here, that Roland could have continued on his quest to the Dark Tower in the imagination of the reader.
The other Dark Tower novels explicitly lead into each other whereas this feels like it’s own beast, a stand alone. It has more richness of language and resonance that I remember it having, and I think patience rewards the reader of these introductory stories. The tale and characters in The Dark Tower reach out and link across many of the Stephen King stories and I would contend that they form the heart of the King literary universe.
Onward , to ‘The Drawing Of The Three’, in February!
Thank you for joining me on the path to the Dark Tower….we all serve the beam