Posted December 30, 2004
Talk about a long journey. Stephen King wrote the first line of a short story called “The Gunslinger” in 1970, at the beginning of his career, and the first volume of the Dark Tower series was published in 1982. Nearly 35 years after its humble beginnings, the series has come to its conclusion with the nearly 900 pages of the seventh volume, simply called The Dark Tower. Fans have been waiting for this book for a long time, and you’d think they’d trust King to wrap things up properly. Some readers like the ending, but an equally large proportion detest it.
What’s the fuss?
The first and most straightforward reason is that King puts himself in the story. He first shows up as a character in the previous book – King is a writer, and many of his stories are coming true in the alternate versions of reality that the other characters come from. These characters are angry that King has given up on writing the Dark Tower series because that means they won’t complete their quest. He’s a bit of a loser and a drunk, but his writing is also the crucial difference between the end of the universe and its rejuvenation. Many bits of his other books show up in these last two Dark Tower books. Overall, it’s a strange mix of massively swollen ego and a self-critical examination.
Including yourself in your story is a perfectly legitimate narrative strategy, but it’s incredibly difficult to pull off, and it will simply never work for a large number of people (see: the typical reaction to a massively swollen ego). I don’t care much for it myself, mostly because it smacks too much of a writer running out of ideas and then looking in the mirror. Metafiction like this just seems like too much of an easy temptation. A writer has to work hard to convince me otherwise, and King doesn’t quite pull it off.
The second main reason for the fan hysteria is that the seventh book seems to be written by a different person. Simply put, King has undergone huge changes in his thinking about the series. The easiest way to explain it is by analogy. Michael Whelan, noted sf illustrator, provided the cover and interior illustrations for the very first Dark Tower book and now the very last one. It’s no accident that the main character of the Dark Tower, Roland, looks a lot like Clint Eastwood in Whelan’s illustrations (especially in this book) – the hero was clearly drawn from Eastwood’s persona when King first started writing. That was back in the early 1970s, when Eastwood had made his mark in spaghetti westerns and was moving into the era of Dirty Harry and even more violent revenge fantasies.
While the comparison is not a strictly accurate one (and I don’t want to give away much about the ending), King’s version of the hero six books later is like what Eastwood did with his own persona in the revisionist Unforgiven. Unforgiven ruthlessly cuts down everything about the way that most such stories use an ultaviolent antihero, essentially a psychotic killer, as an engine of the story. In one sense, Eastwood was punishing Dirty Harry. The problem for King is that Unforgiven is a different movie than The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly or Dirty Harry. People who hate Unforgiven can go back to enjoying the days when Clint looked down the barrel of his gun and said, “Are you feeling lucky, punk?” King has put this revised hero in the same series. If you like the driven, amoral Roland of the first few Dark Tower books, you might not be happy with what happens to him later.
While I applaud this change, and I appreciated the ending of the series, consider this: you’re reading an epic fantasy, you’ve been looking forward to the ending for (perhaps literally) your whole life as a reader, you love the characters, you hiss at the villains, and so forth. Can you demand a happy ending? What are your rights as a reader? I have no answer to these questions, but I can understand the point of someone who has gotten deeply into the story and feels let down by the ending.
Ironically, King’s slow pace at completing the series likely made things worse for his most compulsive readers. I think that someone who picks up the first book and reads all seven in a row, now that all are available, might be mystified by the big fuss. If you’ve been building expectations in your head for twenty years, any conclusion could be a let-down.
See the user comments on Amazon for a sampling of the bitter feelings about this book (warning: spoilers galore!).