The Dark Tower Series Review: The Road to Nowhere
Spoilers lie ahead; you have been warned.
Stephen King and I have had a long, tumultuous relationship, going back nearly four decades. I’ve loved him, loathed him, evangelized his brilliance and cursed his name in vain. And still, there is no other author who has sung so completely to my soul, vibrated within my being and resonated so perfectly with my imagination as sai King. All of this is why I feel so utterly abused by his Dark Tower series.
The first Stephen King book I read from cover-to-cover was The Shining. I was far too young, merely 10-years-old, to be reading such material. Much of it went over my head, while other parts kept me up at night — if only because part of me somehow recognized the dark spaces he was writing about, even if my human mind could not yet grasp all of its horrific concepts. I was hooked. By the time I was 16 I had read everything up through IT, which I eventually wrote about for my senior English thesis two years later. I got an “A”.
The Gunslinger was purchased for me by my mother for a teen-age birthday, which one in particular I do not recall. It was a lovely edition, a tall paperback with luscious illustrations. I tried to read it, but instead tossed it aside with a shudder after 30-or-some odd pages. Like The Eye of the Dragon, I dismissed it as one of King’s fever dreams. It might as well have been written in cyrillic; I couldn’t penetrate its narrative. We all have bad days; King is allowed to have a bad book. I would not revisit this novel for another 30 years.
Throughout the years I kept up with King’s work. I read all of it, skipping The Dark Tower novels as they were released at odd and sputtering intervals. I saw the high praise they received from its smaller but fervent fanbase. Yet some door in my mind was closed to its possibility. I do not like reading fantasy. I never have.
I enjoy my fiction grounded in reality. Not in a Dean Koontz Scooby Doo “It was Old Man Withers all along!” sort of way. I never cared for Koontz. He always felt like a cheat. He would tempt you with metaphysics and magic, only to make a sharp 90-degree turn at the end and explain it away with some sort of pseudo-science — like the worst kind of magician, the one where you can see the wires.
King? He goes there. And he goes all the way, baby. He plays in the arena of gods and monsters. He bends reality to his will, shuffling dimensions like a deck of cards. David Blaine might have a trick quarter he’s folding before your eyes. King actually bends the quarter, melts it in his palm and licks his hands clean, the silver metal shining on his teeth and tongue.
I’ve always admired King for going to the ends of sanity and back, and I’ve thanked him for taking me with him.
Why do so many people love Stephen King so passionately? It’s because of his characters, not just his monsters. He paints pictures of a world which we recognize, and then he slices it wide open and lets loose the Cthulhu. He finds the most minute details and sprinkles them on his reality salad, like parmesan cheese. He listens to our music, watches our sports, reads our newspapers and magazines. He loves our television and movies. He is one of us — only, with a titanic-sized imagination and a 700-horsepower writing motor. It only makes sense that he would write himself into The Dark Tower series. Who else would have the cajones and the dexterity to do so? And to whom else would we give such license.
But I’m getting ahead of myself.
Why did I finally submit and read The Dark Tower series? I’m glad you asked. The simplest answer is “boredom”.
I spent 13 months unemployed; I had some free time. After reading the last few King books which eluded me during my professional career, I decided to consult a ranked list of “the best books by Stephen King.” I saw some interesting things written about The Dark Tower series, and. . .well, I was bored; I was caught up on my King. So back to The Gunslinger I went.
It was an easy read, finished within a day. I enjoyed it. It piqued my curiosity. It wasn’t the fantasy dreck I had dismissed it as decades earlier, but I couldn’t see how six more volumes could be milked out of this dry, dusty cow.
I next picked up The Drawing of the Three. It took its time at first — and then it had me, like one of the lobstrosities on the beach. Wow that book gets going and never lets up. I was dizzy and breathless. I felt like I just found a $20 bill in my pants pocket on laundry day — a fortunate discovery. And there were five more of these suckers? Why had I been so stubborn, so turned off to the thought of being one of those King fans? I couldn’t even remember anymore.
And then I discovered that the series got even better. I read The Waste Lands. Holy shit, that is an amazing book all on its own, one of the finest novels to ever come forth from King’s imagination, regardless of it being a Dark Tower volume. It’s fascinating, terrifying, heartbreaking, salty, with a hint of sweet. It ends breathlessly on a cliffhanger. I couldn’t imagine how the readers felt in 1993, when it was first released. I would have lost my mind waiting for the next one. But this was 2015 and Wizard and Glass was sitting right beside me. I shed a tear of joy. I had this amazing, richly woven tapestry of worlds and adventure unfolding before my feeble brain. I was rediscovering my favorite author. There was another level to my worship I never knew possible. King was truly the gift that kept on giving.
After Wizard and Glass I was a bit burned out. I needed a palate-cleanser. I started reading Jack Reacher novels because King said I should (this is true, he’s a huge fan). I enjoyed the diversion and change of pace. They’re a fun read, and highly recommended. They’re disposable, light and airy. They’ll never be confused for great literature, but not all books need to be. There’s a place for fun. Jack Reacher books are fun.
Anyway, after some time away from The Dark Tower’s multiverse, the glamour wore off. It’s not that I had changed my opinion. I hadn’t; but there was mounting trepidation all the same.
I had read some reviews of the last three books, all written after King suffered a nightmarish accident in 1999. They weren’t of the same quality as the initial four, according to many fans and reviewers alike. The general consensus was that King must have felt some sort of obligation to finish his magnum opus. Fans were mortified by the thought that King might have gone to his grave without finishing The Dark Tower saga. Who cares that King could have died? Like Annie Wilkes in Misery, fans were demanding a resolution to Roland’s quest for the Dark Tower!
I know now that King felt such a pressure; he’s admitted as much in several interviews as well as in his own writing. And so, after recovering from a near-fatal accident in which he was laid-up for nearly a year, he went back to Mid-World and quickly knocked out volumes five, six and seven.
Unfortunately, the desperation is there on the page for all the world to see.
I do believe that King had an idea of how his tale would end, which stories were left to tell, but the roadmap was fuzzy and vague. It’s a writer at work who is known for his long-winded prose and tendency to ramble indulging in his weaknesses. He’s needed a good editor for decades, but his success somehow injured the eye which allows one to see their writing through a neutral filter. King’s literary vomit can occasionally be endearing, but it often exhausts one’s patience.
And so, with an urgency born from facing his own mortality, King wrote Wolves of the Calla, Song of Susannah, and The Dark Tower. Nothing good ever comes from fear. These books reek of it. They feel like someone begrudgingly paying a debt. “Here’s your goddamn Dark Tower! Now leave me alone!”
Which is a shame, really, because the world King created is so exotically lovely, like the rose that grows in an empty lot in New York City, singing its heartsong that cures acne and calms the insane.
I was patent with Wolves of the Calla because I knew it was part of the journey, and I was enjoying my companions’ company. Yes, it largely feels like King paying homage to The Magnificent Seven, but there are important developments as well. We meet Pere Callahan, and learn what happened post Salems’ Lot. And it’s when King first writes himself into his own masterpiece — the volume of work for which he’ll be remembered beyond all others. And he handles the reveal beautifully.
I tried to ignore the lightsabers and golden snitches. They seemed at odds with all that came before, but I dismissed them as a quirk, a flight of fancy from a writer whose only rule now was, “There are no rules.” Little did I suspect that, later, the homage would become a crutch.
No, when Wolves of the Calla ended, I wasn’t disappointed. Sure, it wasn’t on par with the previous four books, but I saw it as a bridge, its own sort of palate-cleanser for this oddessy. Wolves gives way to Song of Susannah, which is really one long chase scene. Again, I wasn’t hard on this work. It kept me interested and I knew we were building up to the grand finale. After all, The Dark Tower — the final volume — is more than 800 pages long. We would finally reach our destination, air our grievances, and get the tasty dessert we worked so hard for after eating all those greens and meats. We earned it.
And so, like Roland standing before the Dark Tower, I had finally arrived. I savored the moment before cracking open the final volume. When it was all over, I wept — not tears of joy, but of sorrow.
I wondered at what point did this master author, master craftsman, far and away the greatest of his generation — a man who wrote such tomes as the 1138-paged IT, the equally as long The Stand, Insomnia and 11/22/63 — this author who has never shied away from the epic novel, begin to buckle and crumble under the weight of The Dark Tower? Did the accident do far more damage than he would have us believe?
The final novel is so oddly paced, spending far too much time in its first half with characters who play small roles and then disappear. Hundreds of pages are spent on parts that could have easily been digested into much smaller, yet still substantial episodes. The back half is a confused, boggling concoction of interludes that feel as lost and wandering as Roland and his ka tet. The author who is famous for long, rambling passages describing the most trivial of details is suddenly painting in broad strokes, dismissing key antagonists and fascinating creatures within mere paragraphs.
And when we get to the Dark Tower itself, it’s all resolved within a few short chapters. The grand villain who has haunted us for thousands of pages is defeated in a most trivial manner, after tossing golden snitches at Roland.
Really? In the climactic battle of a seven-volume epic story you bite off a piece of JK Rowling and spit it into your stew? Could you think of nothing else, sai King? No other way for your main protagonist and main antagonist to play out their final conflict? In the end, Harry Potter was all you had?
And then the story ends. That’s it. Thanks for coming. Make sure to turn out the lights when you leave.
Who was The Crimson King? We never really find out beyond the vague passages and throw-away teasers that promise more to come, but fail to deliver. We learned so much more about some of King’s most infamous creatures, like Pennywise in the novel IT, or even Randall Flagg in The Stand and The Dark Tower, than we ever do about The Crimson King. We had a more satisfying encounter with this demon in Insomnia than we did in all of The Dark Tower series.
Roland’s only true interaction with The Crimson King is a shouting match near the end, and then it’s over. Who was he? Where did he come from? Why do so many fear him? What was his motivation? How did Randall Flagg come to be in his employ?
We’ll never know.
And it’s with this empty feeling that I closed The Dark Tower and stared off into space, feeling cheated and sad. I wasn’t disappointed in Roland’s grand revelation, that his journey is one he had made before and will make again. That, actually, is quite brilliant, and at one point in King’s life he might have handled it far more gracefully. Here, it was juggled, fumbled, and fell to the floor like a stray egg, cracking and spilling its goo on the linoleum.
Here’s your ending. Thank you. Goodbye.
And to add insult to injury, in the afterward, King acknowledges that we, the constant reader, might not be happy with the ending. But none of it was about the ending; it was about the journey, he writes glibly. To me, that feels like a cop-out. He knows it isn’t the resolution that this saga deserved, but he didn’t quite know how to untangle the knot — so he simply cut the ball of string into shreds and tossed the odds and ends back at us.
I could have lived with Wolves of the Calla and Song of Susannah had The Dark Tower concluded in some sort satisfactory manner. But in the light that the final novel sheds on its previous two installments, I have to say they look worse for wear. It’s with this hindsight that I see them for what they truly are — a means to an end. The glamour has worn off. They are not brilliant bodies of work, they are baskets of snakes and rotted meat, much like what Roland and Susannah find on the bridge at The Crimson King’s castle.
I love Stephen King. I always have. I always will. He’s written far too much and influenced me and generations of readers and writers. He’s given us so much joy and fulfillment over the years. He’s a brilliant man, kind and generous. He has style to spare and an imagination as warm and bright as our own sun.
And yet, his Dark Tower series, to me, will always be a stain on that legacy. Someone once told me that potential is a cruel word. The Dark Tower is the definition of that word. Its foundation is flawless, drawn from lovable, memorable characters, with, literally, its own language and physics. There is potential there for a classic epic high-fantasy that could sit confidently upon a shelf alongside other literary classics. But the master fumbled the ball as he neared the end zone. The last three books are the work of a tired, older man who tried to take on a younger man’s load and found it too heavy.
Many will disagree with me vehemently. I’m sure I’m in the minority with my opinion. After all, the sales and fan-base speak for itself. There are movies and television series on the horizon. There are comic books, graphic novels — an entire cottage industry based upon The Dark Tower series.
But I suspect we’re all celebrating the former glory, the first four volumes which came from a pre-near-fatal accident mind, not a post, fearful one. We’re not being honest with King by calling The Dark Tower series King’s lasting legacy. But maybe he’s earned that blindspot from us. And to that I have two things to say, and then I shall say no more.
You say true. I say thankya.