I’ve always refrained from novels of fantasy because their creators make up rules and facts to suit the needs of their stories, rather than vice versa. There are some writers for whom the creation of those rules becomes part of the ingenuity of their novels. Examples are Neil Gaiman’s American Gods and The Ocean at the End of the Lane. Often I’ve felt that Stephen King’s ingenuity outstripped his narrative ability. In Dr. Sleep, for instance, a tribe of senior citizens ride around the country in travel vans kidnapping people off the streets. I thought the concept was funny and wonderful at the same time, but, as in a number of his novels, King was unable to create a narrative that lived up to the strength of the concept. The denouement fell flat. But I credit King’s ingenuity.
With these caveats in mind, I began the first volume of The Dark Tower series, entitled The Dark Tower: The Gunslinger (Grant, 1982). Relatively short compared to the other books of the series, it sets up a story whose ambitions are immense. I’ve sometimes felt that King could be a sloppy writer, but in this book his prose is strong and forward moving. It avoids clichés. The scenario of a Gunslinger travelling through a post-apocalyptic world (if that is what it is) in search of a Tower that may be, metaphorically or literally, the key to the meaning of life, or the abode of God, or something else, is at least tantalizing. The novel is full of foreboding and menace. The Gunslinger is a complicated, conflicted character. The landscapes are compelling. There may be too many cheesy monsters (the Slow Mutants) and unlikely characters (Sister Sylvia Pittston). It’s unclear what sort of world this narrative rests in—is it religious allegory, a supernatural tale that wrangles its own rules, or what?
With these caveats in mind, I beganThis first volume of a 7-volume series may prove to be an ingenious setup that King cannot ultimately make good on, but I’m convinced enough to move to volume 2.