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Not So Happy Ending

James Schellenberg
Posted December 30, 2004

King puts himself in the story; he also screws with the happy ending formula.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.

King puts himself in the story; he also screws with the happy ending formula.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!).

Comments

23 Responses to “Not So Happy Ending”

  1. Adamus
    October 10th, 2005 @ 10:38 am

    Stephen King has never been good at writing endings. He can build up a tale quite expertly, but the majority of his endings have been disappointing.

  2. kkoz
    February 16th, 2006 @ 4:23 pm

    i dont think the endings of his books are the point, and i think that is his big comment on life in general. it is the journey, and not the ending, that really matters

  3. Not Happy at Sai King
    March 14th, 2006 @ 2:24 pm

    The gunslinger for me was something I started so long ago that it was just not a long journey for the characters but for the reader as well. That’s quite a bit of time to become intimate with the story and the characters. The Dark Tower series for me was one of the greatest stories that I had ever read; right up until the ending which left so much open to interpretation; left no closure for the main character or reader and had me so PO’d that only a man as talented and quirky as stephen king could take his reader’s on a 24 year journey to leave them hanging at the end or not the end. Who knows?

  4. James Schellenberg
    March 14th, 2006 @ 11:10 pm

    I think it’s pretty clear what happened at the end, if you take the time to work through the clues. But you’re right, it’s open to interpretation.
    I guess my own mindset is unusual, in that I feel burned by so many crappy endings (like most books have) that when there’s a unique and/or interesting one, like King has here, I give more credit than might be necessary.
    (And the twist at the very end does fit in with the typical view of history found in the fantasy genre – seldom used in such an in-your-face way of course!).

  5. Profoundly disappointed
    April 30th, 2006 @ 8:32 pm

    Warning-spoiler ahead
    King’s ending seemed ridiculous and cruel. What was up with the warning ahead? He made it seem like he only ended it the way he did to focus on the fact that the means are more important than the end. Well, what about those of us who never really wanted the series to end at all? I think that we deserved a better ending.
    I have several theories on why he decided to put Roland on the never-ending loop: 1)Maybe he lived with this character so long he just couldn’t bare to end him. Who knows? Maybe he wants to write other Roland stories-he certainly leaves that as a viable option (although a stupid one) 2)Punishment for those that complained this book was too long and asked for an ending 3)He is known for being a horror/sci-fi writer and maybe it was just too inescapable to end this series any other way but in that fashion 4)Perhaps King holds the religious belief that there is a God but he’s cruel (like a bully) and wanted to show that in the ending.
    Just a few thoughts.

  6. James Schellenberg
    April 30th, 2006 @ 11:45 pm

    Hey there, Profoundly Disappointed,
    I can understand your sense of discouragement, but if you read the ending again (along with the reprint of the poem Childe Roland), you’ll see that it’s not exactly a loop. If my memory serves, King makes it pretty obvious that it’s going to be different this time around…
    Don’t know if this makes it less disappointing for you, but I found that it made all the difference for me.

  7. Ken of Dinwiddie
    June 20th, 2006 @ 12:08 am

    -Profoundly Disappointed,
    James is right. The poem says that he will blow the horn at the base of the tower. He didn’t have the horn this time.
    This is his final loop, the one where he is finally redeemed and learns for good that there’s more than the tower.
    He says true to the fact that Ka is a wheel. We should have seen it coming.

  8. TYE OF WHITE BEAR
    September 20th, 2006 @ 10:10 am

    I JUST FINISHED THE DARK TOWER SERIES.
    THIS HAS BEEN THE BEST STORY,HANDS DOWN THAT I HAVE EVER READ OR SEEN FOR THAT MATTER. THE ENDING DID PUZZLE ME A BIT BUT AFTER I READ IT AGAIN IT MAKES SENCE THAT NOW ROLAND WITH HIS NEW SIGUL (ELD’S HORN) HE MAY FINNALY BE LET OUT OF HIS OWN PRISON
    COMPARED TO OTHER STEPHEN KING ENDINGS THIS ONE TAKES THE CAKE
    THANK YOU STEPHEN KING FOR GIVING US THIS RIDE OF A LIFETIME

  9. TYE OF WHITE BEAR
    September 21st, 2006 @ 9:31 am

    I FORGOT TO MENTION TO SAY IN MY PREVIOUS POST THAT I THOUGHT THAT THE WAY STEPHEN KING KILLED OF THE MAN IN BLACK (WALTER O DIM)WAS ENTIRELY WEAK
    OR I WAS JUST HOPING THAT THERE WAS GOING TO BE A SHOWDOWN BETWEEN THE TWO.
    BUT BY BEING KILLED BY A SPYDER/BABY
    WAS ENITRELY DISSAPOINTING BUT WHAT CAN YOU SAY IT WAS STILL A GREAT STORY

  10. john
    January 20th, 2007 @ 7:44 am

    The ending was perfect..after all Ka is a wheel

  11. Mitch
    June 29th, 2007 @ 4:40 am

    I reckon 6.95 of the 7 books were some of the most absorbing fiction I have ever read. King managed one the one hand to create a compelling new world, while intertwining it with some of his previous masterworks.
    On so many levels I believe it was/is a work of true genius. While occasionally I could glimpse the mechanics King was employing, these were for the most part submerged in the hands of a master craftsman. He even managed to get himself into the story and IMO opinion get away with it.
    I was totally mesmerised by the books and had the weird sensation of desperately wanting to keep reading while getting sadder and sadder as I knew I was getting closer to the end.
    But…….and this is a huge “but…….I find it hard to put into words how I felt when I read the last .05 (ie the ending). Words like disappointed do not even come close.
    I was furious, distraught and felt as though I had been robbed and cheated. King makes a point of referring to his “Constant Reader”. In my view, with his ending he totally reneged on his responsibility to his “Constant Reader(s)”.
    I think he has forgotten (or never understood) that by the time a reader gets to the end of a significant work, the characters belong as much to them as they do to the author. I invested a huge amount of emotion in Roland, Jake et al.
    While I have no right to demand an ending that I want, I feel bitter that King either a) ran out of steam or b) decided to turn the whole thing into a practical joke.
    I know there are many who view the ending as a fitting conclusion but in my view King is a far, far better writer than that. I was left with the feeling that he simply ended it that way because he could – arrogantly, but very effectively pointing out that he is capable of manipulating his readers to an extraordinary degree.
    Of course authors manipulate the the emotions of their readers, but my view is that King oversteps the mark here and wanders into hubris of unspeakable proportion.

  12. SMT
    August 10th, 2007 @ 7:49 am

    Critical for critical sakes?!
    For me the ending says the one thing about life thats constant, there will always be someone/thing trying to push the opposite way to the majority of humanity. In other words, Roland is the constant protector of the universe. No matter how many times the beam is saved, along come the next lot of breakers and vamps. So…. along comes Roland again!!!!!! Whats interest me would be (for us) journey number two. Who would be drawn and how, what and would the tet come up agaisnt this time?!?!?!?

  13. Givenup
    September 16th, 2007 @ 2:55 pm

    I would just like to say about the ending of the Dark Tower series. I liked it as I really did not feel that Roland was deserving of success, I didn’t like the character and thought his fate to be entirely fitting to the story.

  14. Sam
    December 19th, 2007 @ 9:06 am

    Why did the book end the way it did… because King doens’t KNOW what is at the top of the dark tower… authors never do when they set up something like this.
    There is a book of short stories called ‘Diamond Dogs, Turquoise Days’ and it includes a short about a tower with something fantastical at the top. Of course, that writer (I forget who) also doesn’t know what that fantastical thing is – so never lets his characters get to the top. King let them get there, but had no idea what was there so took the ‘easy way out’.
    That said, I loved the Dark Tower series and I guess at least the ending means I can read them over and over again…
    … and to those who said ‘well it fits because now he has Eld’s horn *this* is the last time’… WHY couldn’t WE read the last time?? Why are we treated to the penultimate journey???

  15. Steve
    February 12th, 2008 @ 6:07 am

    I think that King knows precisely what is at the top of the Dark Tower for him. What I mean is a person who is journey minded like King, and myself (although I claim no such genius), knows that the journey would irrevicably shape what lies in that room at the top of the dark tower.
    For Roland it is perhaps his only fear, that despite his efforts, nothing will change, nothing will matter, and that he will never be free to rest. Picking up the horn is his new reality is a relivant change in that it represents a new hope, a stronger hope than King was willing to show us with Roland the first time around.
    So you tell me, what lies in that final room at the top of the Dark Tower?

  16. Rick
    June 29th, 2008 @ 1:22 am

    It should be obvious to most anyone that in book 4, King took the story in a direction that he never originally intended.
    I think he completed the series only because he felt it was something he had to do. It’s pretty hard for me to believe that King had the story worked out fully in advance.
    Some might think this is petty, but my opinion is supported by his use of current culture in the later books.
    For me, it became very clear that something was wrong when I read book 4.

  17. READER
    September 22nd, 2008 @ 11:25 pm

    To be honest I was coming to the last hundred pages or so of the book and found myself not wanting it to end. Or at least for all of Roland’s suffering to have a purpose. Now he’s back at the start but things are different now there might be a chance to change, to reach the tower and still have a heart. The ending is up to us.

  18. VinceLHarts
    December 9th, 2009 @ 6:13 pm

    You are absolutely wrong about King changing Roland in the last book. the point of the ending was to show how he had changed from the inward and lonely wanderer to a caring individual. He will never finish his quest until he learns to open up his heart. if he hadn’t let Jake die iin the first book, he still would have found the doors on the beach and maybe still have had his whole hand. Susanah would never have been raped trying to get Jake into Mid-World, therefore Mordred would never be. He must learn to love in order to finally finish his quest for good. Throughout his journey he finds that there are things more important than the Tower: love, friendship, etc. Great series, been reading King since I was the boy Jake’s age.

  19. Carol Borden
    December 11th, 2009 @ 5:09 pm

    Vince– sorry if you were waiting for this to go up. It slipped past us somehow.

  20. RD
    April 30th, 2012 @ 5:21 pm

    “WHY couldn’t WE read the last time?? Why are we treated to the penultimate journey???”

    Because it’s Ka … and Ka is always served.

  21. Ryan
    July 2nd, 2012 @ 11:16 am

    I agree in part with vince, I believe that Roland was being punished for his selfishness and single tracked mind, all he ever wanted was to climb the dark tower and cared not for anything or anyone else, so he is on an ever repeating journey until he learns the error of his ways, the horn could solve all his problems on the next trip round or just provide some bg music to the start of his next rotation, who knows, if he wanted to he could have settled down in the callas with his brief love after ending the breakers work, he didn’t HAVE to go to the tower, it is his own punishment and he is walking towards it by himself every time, no one even has to push.

  22. Oy
    July 5th, 2012 @ 8:19 pm

    I just finished reading the series last night. Part of me wishes I would have heeded King’s warning about wanting an ending much like people have sex just for the orgasm. After reading what Roland finds at the top of the tower I think King should have just ended with Roland walking to the tower shouting the names of all he has known and loved and with the door shutting behind him. I think this is a perfect ending. However, I understand the need, the desire, to see what Roland finds at the top of the tower. Unfortunately, I feel King wrote what he found just to give an ending. I think he could have put more time and effort into what Roland finds and drawn everything occurring in the story more together; i.e., how artists such as writers like King and drawers like Danville can create alternate realities or adjust current reality. I think King should have brought himself back into the story at the top of the tower somehow and touched more on the metaphysical concept of how our imagination possibly can be a tower that is the center of nexus and time. Nonetheless, people have been trying to answer the question King pursued with Roland since the beginning of humanity; no one has come up with a satisfactory answer. I was hoping King could have done that for me, but that is unrealistic. And would I really want an answer to a question like that? I don’t think so. I think, like King says, the journey is more important, and perhaps this gives me a partial answer to the question, but if I start the journey again, like Roland, I can possibly improve from my last journey and find a more satisfactory conclusion to the question that has long plagued the minds of men, ‘What holds it all together? How does it hold it all togeher?’ And most important, ‘Why does it hold it all together?’

  23. aj
    August 12th, 2012 @ 3:44 am

    I find the again-but-now-with-a-horn ending to be ok. We can rewrite the whole series ourselves and maybe this time skip the part where callahan describes hobo vampire AIDS prevention for 85 pages. I love the series and i particularly love the comic book prequels, but there are some bigger problems with the series than the very end. It basically went to shit for me when i realized we were supposed to care about a rose in new york city and an alcoholic plot device writing a book as much as we were supposed to care about the tower. Yes, the rose is the tower, but i came here for a quest, not to read about calvin tower’s property debacle. GET YOUR ASSES BACK TO MID-WORLD!! The villians were all killed in the lamest ways possible too. Was anyone satisfied with the way Marten, the crimson king, or even the worthless tick tock man were dispatched? Erasing the crimson king? From a picture some guy drew? Really? Patrick was a worthless dope and Roland was right about Oy being worth a hundred of him. Books 5-7 were incredibly difficult to read as i watched the series unravel into clunky harry potter references and booger-eating weirdos.

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