April A-to-Z: must-read books
The Dark Tower Series (1982-2012)
By Steven King
The man in black fled across the desert and the gunslinger followed.
Steven King wrote these twelve words in response to Robert Browning’s nineteenth century poem, Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came. At the time he had very little idea where he was going with it, except that, in his own words: “it was time to stop goofing around with a pick and shovel and get behind the controls of one big great god a’mighty steamshovel, a sense that it was time to try and dig something big out of the sand…” And so begins the novel, The Gunslinger.
More than twenty years later, after publishing more than two dozen books; seven from the Dark Tower series spaced patiently among them, King brought that project to resolution with the series’ title novel, The Dark Tower (2004), satisfied that it indeed would suffice as his personal magnum opus.
That initial ambition surprises me though, as it came on the heels of his epic Lord of the Rings-inspired novel, The Stand, which remains one of my favourite reading experiences of all time. But King was ambitious. His earliest works swiftly progress in scope, complexity and impact. He knew the Gunslinger idea was special and I think he didn’t want to conclude it before he’d realized more of his potential as a storyteller.
Somehow, as a reader, I attended the same wavelength. While The Stand hooked me as a constant King reader, I knew to leave the Dark Tower stuff alone for the time being. And in fact The Stand reading experience was never repeated, and as the things I cherished; King’s particular sensibilities, sense of humour and courageous imagination were no longer enough to defeat the slightly formulaic familiarity which his novels began to impart on me, I turned to The Gunslinger and the Dark Tower series as my fond farewell to the Steven King experience and my last attempt to re-experience the epic wonder of The Stand. Appropriately, I have not read them in succession but over the course of four years, interspersed with other (non-King) books and series of books. It's a delightful reading experience which I'm in no hurry to leave behind.
Though King is hailed as a horror writer, and purveyor of particularly creepy offerings (mostly by non-King-readers, it seems to me), I think you’ll find that fantasy, sci-fi and western elements are all more prevalent here than horror. The story's landscapes transcend time and space, and span the physical and metaphysical, thus different books have different flavours, but are strongly unified by hero characters of great depth.
I’m about to begin book seven, The Dark Tower, after which, I will decide whether to append the experience with his late and presumably optional addition, The Wind Through the Keyhole (2012).
These books are a must-read for any speculative fiction lover. And don’t fret; they’re not too scary!
A passage from The Gunslinger (1982):
“You asleep?” the gunslinger asked.
“Did you understand what I told you?”
“Understand it?” the boy asked, with cautious scorn. “Understand it? Are you kidding?”
“No.” But the gunslinger felt defensive. He had never told anyone about his coming of age before. Of course, the hawk had been a perfectly acceptable weapon, yet it had been a trick too. And a betrayal. The first of many: Am I ready to throw this boy at the man in black?
“I understood it,” the boy said. “It was a game, wasn’t it? Do grown men always have to play games? Does everything have to be an excuse for another kind of game? Do any men grow up or do they only come of age?”
“You don’t know everything,” the gunslinger said, trying to hold his slow anger.
“No. But I know what I am to you.”
“And what is that?” the gunslinger asked tightly.
“A poker chip.”
The gunslinger felt an urge to find a rock and brain the boy. Instead, he held his tongue.
“Go to sleep,” he said. “Boys need their sleep.”
And in his mind he heard Marten’s echo: Go and find your hand.
He sat stiffly in the darkness, stunned with horror and terrified (for the first time in his existence; of anything) of the self-loathing that might come.
The Gunslinger (1982)
The Drawing of the Three (1987)
The Waste Lands (1991)
Wizard and Glass (1997)
Wolves of the Calla (2003)
Song of Susannah (2004)
The Dark Tower (2004)
The Wind Through the Keyhole (2012)