The Dark Tower
The Dark Tower
Donald M. Grant/Scribner • 2004 • 864 pages
A Novel Critique
The eponymous Dark Tower in Stephen King's canon represents the binding force of all worlds and universes in existence. Likewise, the Dark Towernovels represent the binding force of all of King's worlds and universes, forging his fiction (and, to some degree, his non-fiction) into a somewhat cohesive whole. The Dark Tower, the final book in the sequence, attempts a culmination - not only of the seven main Dark Tower books, but of all of King's writing until that point. It is a wildly ambitious effort, and to a degree, King succeeds.
The unfortunate predicament The Dark Tower finds itself in is that it is not content simply to function as the final piece in a career-long puzzle. Like the other books in the sequence - indeed, like all of King's books - it must also work as a novel, its own individual work. These dual purposes occasionally become cross-purposes, as the things that make it an individual work sometimes get lost in Stephen King's grand scheme, and the larger ideas and concepts King attempts sometimes get bogged down in the details.
Further, the final three Dark Tower novels are, in part, mammoth experiments in metafiction, breaking the understood barrier between story and reader by commenting directly on itself as a story. Starting with Wolves of the Calla, King systematically reminds readers in-story that the Dark Tower series is a work of fiction. In Song of Susannah, King pushes this self-conscious device further, making himself a character and positioning his character as a writer integral to the continuation of the story/the Dark Tower reality. That book also included a pseudo-history of the writing and publication of the Dark Tower novels, in the form of semi-autobiographical journal entries. In The Dark Tower, we revisit King the character, who provides explanations as to why he hadn't resumed his work on the series after the fourth novel (reflecting the real-life gap in between Wizard & Glass and Wolves of the Calla). He also has some internal dialogues about creating a fantasy-world full of made-up words, seemingly apologizing for the new terms and language loaded into the latter books of the series. These ruminations, along with The Dark Tower's many other thoughts on storytelling, bring this book in line with the thematic thread running through much of King's work, especially in novels like Misery, The Dark Half, and Bag of Bones, not to mention King's immesurably important nonfiction book, On Writing: the importance of fiction on writers, readers, and the characters who inhabit it.
In another connection to On Writing, we find that Stephen King is in trouble in the year 1999, fated to become the victim of a deadly car accident. This accident - based on King's real-life brush with death - is one of the central sequences in The Dark Tower, as Roland and Jake (characters King created) save King from certain death, Jake himself dying in the process. Thematically, this binds The Dark Tower with the first book in the series, The Gunslinger, in which Roland the gunslinger let young Jake Chambers fall to his death in order to draw closer to the Tower. In The Waste Lands, Jake - having continued to live in a parallel world - had returned to Roland, underscoring one of the more persistent motifs in the series: ka like a wheel, indicating that fate is cyclical. Jake's death here underscores that motif further, directly connecting the first book in the series to the final book.
These connections surface beyond the story itself. In preparation for the release of the final three books in the series, King went back to The Gunslinger and heavily revised it, bringing it tonally in line with the rest of the series. Additionally, he fleshed out certain sequences (like the shootout in Tull), and incorporated some elements that connect it more intimately with the other books in the series, notably the initial appearance of the recurring numeral 19. The appearance of the final three books introduced new subtitles to each of the books: RENEWAL (The Drawing of the Three), REDEMPTION (The Waste Lands), REGARD (Wizard & Glass), RESISTANCE (Wolves of the Calla), and REPRODUCTION (Song of Susannah). The Gunslinger and The Dark Tower share a subtitle, RESUMPTION, offering further clues as to the final book's connection with the first, and to the cyclical nature of the series. Beyond King's words, artist Michael Whelan, who illustrated The Gunslinger, returns here in top form. Twelve full-color illustrations accompany The Dark Tower, along with many black-and-white drawings that serve to enhance the story. Most fascinating about these illustrations (in addition to binding the beginning and end of the series together) is Whelan's interpretation of the people, places, and things King has added to the series following The Gunslinger. Seeing Eddie, Susannah, a more mature Jake, and Oy through Whelan's eyes is one of the most compelling aspects of this book.
At the end of The Gunslinger, the Man in Black predicted "Death … but not for you, Gunslinger." Death abounds in The Dark Tower. Eddie Dean, perhaps Roland's best friend in these books and an integral aid to the quest for the Tower since The Drawing of the Three, is shot to death mere chapters before Jake dies. Eddie's death follows a successful raid on Devar-Toi, a facility that houses/imprisons "Breakers," humans possessed of "wild talents," whose sole mission is to break the Beams that hold the Dark Tower in place. The presence of the Breakers ties The Dark Tower to much of King's early work: Carrie, The Shining, The Dead Zone, Firestarter, and even Pet Sematary largely concerned wild talents and those gifted/afflicted. While much of King's 1990s work moved away from psychic phenomena (isolated moments such as the visions connecting Gerald's Game and Dolores Claiborne notwithstanding), 1999's Hearts In Atlantis (featuring the character Ted Brautigan, who becomes an important secondary character in The Dark Tower) indicated a new beginning for this type of story. Later novels, like Dreamcatcher and Cell, continued this resurgence, thematically marrying King's earliest and most recent books, further cementing the notion that The Dark Tower is in part a meta-commentary on King's career.
Father Callahan, similarly important to King's early career as a primary character in 'Salem's Lot, finishes his journey here, as well. His death scene early in The Dark Tower mirrors his stand-off with Barlow in that earlier book. Here, he is again set upon by vampires, and is once again able to save the life of a young boy (Jake Chambers here is an analogue of Mark Petrie; later, Ted Brautigan sees him as remarkably similar to Bobby Garfield, of Hearts In Atlantis. These similarities don't appear to be coincidences: in another moment of meta-commentary, Jake states, "It's the way things work over here, somehow. Everything … um … fits.") Here, Callahan finds redemption in both faith and death, allowing King to bring closure to a loose end from the very start of his career.
King's most important recurring villain, Randall Flagg (introduced in prose form in the 1978 version of The Stand; the fact that that novel was revisited and expanded in 1990 is yet another indicator of the circular nature of King's career) also receives a death scene here, though his is not nearly as satisfying. It may be easy to chalk up Flagg's demise as falling short of expectations in the same way that The Dark Tower does: simply because there may be no singularly appropriate way to do it. If King's intention here is to provide closure to this path of his career, it feels woefully anticlimactic. In 1985, King (at least temporarily) closed the book on his children-under-threat-from-monsters motif with It, a singular work. In the early 1991's, Needful Things, King bade goodbye to his overly familiar town of Castle Rock with much bombast. It's not as if King hasn't offered subtle finales or that he can't employ them successfully (The Dead Zone and Dolores Claiborne are terrific examples), it's just that Randall Flagg demands an ending more substantial than simply being devoured by Roland's half-spider pseudo-child, Mordred. The fact that Mordred is an entirely new character and that Flagg's death occurs early in The Dark Tower further diminishes the impact a scene of this nature requires.
Mordred as a character never quite becomes a compelling adversary. By both killing Randall Flagg and, much later, Oy, Mordred should feel like a far more lethal threat, but Roland dispatches him fairly easily. A confrontation between Roland and his son (however misbegotten) should attain an epic feel. However, like Randall Flagg's death (and, to a degree, Eddie's), Mordred's end is too quick, too much like an afterthought. Only Roland's moment of introspection - I only kill my family, he thinks - lend this moment the resonance it needs.
The ending of this book is difficult to assess. King provides three distinct conclusions: a happy ending for most of his characters, the ending the previous books in the series have pointed to, and the ending that fits into King's obsession with the cyclical nature of stories in general, and his work in particular. Near the end of the book, the Susannah we have always known is united in an alternate New York with versions of Eddie, Jake, and Oy. While this finale plays by the rule of the series - "there are other worlds than these" has been a constant since The Gunslinger - this conclusion still manages to feel like an equivocation. While Eddie's death seemed a little too quick, both Jake's and Oy's held weight. Having them re-appear so soon robs their deaths of much of their importance.
Roland actually reaching the Dark Tower is one of the book's most satisfying sequences. It is in this moment that readers have invested since the beginning of the series, and King does not disappoint. His method of defeating the insane Crimson King - who has taken up residence in the Tower - is clever. At the base of the Tower itself, Roland cries out the names of those who have fallen or been lost in the name of his journey, fulfilling his hero's role. For those fully invested in Roland's quest, this scene is incredibly moving. Whatever flaws The Dark Tower suffers from, these moments rise above them, near-perfect in their execution.
However, the book goes several steps further. After a disclaimer by King himself (though his role as a character ends after the car accident resulting in Jake's death, Stephen King's role as a narrator remains present throughout, providing an intentional deus ex machina at one point) that readers may want to stop here, or else be disappointed by what is to come, Roland enters the Dark Tower. His climb to the top is flanked by rooms looking in on moments from Roland's long past; at the top is a door simply reading ROLAND. Now, King's intentions come clear: the insistence on the cyclical nature of stories, the subtitle RESUMPTION, his efforts to connect this final Dark Tower book to his first. Roland steps through the door only to realize that he has reached this goal time and time again, forgetting his journey to the Tower each time. The last sentence of this book is the first sentence of The Gunslinger: "The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed."
The effectiveness of this finale is dependent upon the reader. King seems to be indicating here that the journey is far more important than the destination. Conversely, in his earlier story, "That Feeling, You Can Only Say What It Is In French," King states, "Hell is repetition," perhaps signifying that Roland is living out his personal version of Hell (though not without possible redemption; there are indications that this next journey may be his last). By concluding the series in this matter, King is both able to underscore the importance of quest above conclusion (and further explore the concept of ambiguous endings, which began with From a Buick 8 and continue through The Colorado Kid and Cell) and avoid the disappointment of a possibly unfulfilling conventional ending. However, readers may view this sort of ending as a prevarication, not caring about what King views as his larger concerns to his fiction or to the series. That King, in-story, concedes that this is a controversial choice for an ending - that it, indeed, is not an ending at all - is fascinating, seeming to blame readers for having to write it. The tone in his disclaimer is almost bitter: "Endings are heartless," he states. "Ending is just another word for goodbye."
In the wake of this, one is forced to wonder how the Dark Tower series could have concluded differently. King's accident became a primary focus of this final book; if not for the real-world accident, would Stephen King have become a character in this story? How differently might the series have been shaped if King had not chosen to engage in metafiction? Much of the latter novels seem focused on storytelling and King's approach to it: in addition to King's larger concepts, he explores the minutiae of writing fiction here, as well (more than once, tertiary characters are instantly important to the fate of the Dark Tower. While that type of thing doesn't generally happen in stories, King states, "In life, I'm sure it happens all the time.") In these final three books - but especially in The Dark Tower - the main thrust of the series seems to have shifted from an epic quest to a thematic exploration of the power of fiction, and the attendant effect fiction has on readers, characters, and creators.
Whether this shift in intent is good or bad is ultimately up for the reader to decide. One wonders if any concluding volume to a series this central to a writer's vast career could be entirely successful. Though The Dark Tower is occasionally bogged down in the lives of minor characters, King's invented language, and thematic concerns, it remains an appropriate end to the series, and an intriguing look back at Stephen King's canon to this point.