The King, the Gunslinger, and the Dark Tower
The Dark Tower I: The Gunslinger is the first book in acclaimed writer Stephen King’s The Dark Tower series. King calls the books his magnum opus, but the series is a little difficult to categorize. It has the elements of a Western, fantasy, sci-fi, and, of course, horror. It also features staples in the author’s body of work: well-developed characters, plot twists, gore (so much death and maiming), and jump scares.
The Gunslinger was first published from 1978 to 1981 as five short stories which were published in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. In 1982, the stories were then published in the first edition of the book. In 2003 (one year before The Dark Tower, the last book in the series, was released), King published a revised version of The Gunslinger, which is the version I’ll be talking about in this review.
In The Gunslinger, the first part of the book, Roland comes across several characters that help the readers get a clearer picture of why he is following Walter, “the man in black.” We find out that Roland believes Walter will bring him one step closer to his ultimate goal, the mysterious Dark Tower. In flashbacks, Roland tells a man called Brown of what happened to him when he caught up to Walter’s trail in a city called Tull. His experience involves a dead man brought to life, a demon, gunfire, and death once again.
In The Waystation, we are introduced to a precocious boy called Jake Chambers, who doesn’t seem to come from Roland’s world of gunslingers and magic. The boy claims that he has lost all sense of time. Jake tells Roland that he comes from a place with televisions and skyscrapers. Roland is confused because Jake is describing something similar to Lud, which only existed before the world “moved on.”
In The Oracle and the Mountains, Roland and Jake finally leave the desert behind in pursuit of the man in black. Roland meets a succubus who reveals more about his fate, which seems tied to his tireless pursuit of the Dark Tower. Via flashbacks, we learn more about Roland’s boyhood and how he came to be a ruthless gunslinger.
In The Slow Mutants, we find out just how far Roland is willing to go to reach his destination. As Jake and Roland journey through tunnels in a mountain, they meet the “Slow Mutants,” who pursue the pair as they try to escape. The prophecy from the succubus gnaws at the gunslinger, but he puts everything aside to finally face the man in black.
In The Gunslinger and the Man in Black, Roland and Walter finally palaver. The latter even offers to read Roland’s fate. Walter echoes the succubus’ predictions: Roland will soon meet “the three” who will be part of his long journey to the Tower.
King introduces a grade-A anti-hero in this book, and Roland’s motives are very clear from the first few pages of The Dark Tower I: The Gunslinger. But if you stick with the series, you will see him eventually turn into a defrosting ice king. Keep reading to find out how a cold-blooded selfish killing machine like Roland learns the value of compassion and family.
Hoo boy. Stephen King is one of my favorite authors but in the foreword, even the author admits that the 1982 version of the first book is a little hard to read. He wrote it as a young man, and he “had been exposed to far too many writing seminars.” When I read that first version, it was a meandering book held together by bizarre metaphors. (But I still read it even after I finished the revised edition because I am a dork).
You might struggle through this book, especially if you have a short attention span or a very low tolerance for flowery language. The pace can also be horrendous at times.
At 300 pages, book 1 of the series is the shortest but it took me five days to finish it. The disjointed feel of The Dark Tower I: The Gunslinger could be because of the fact that it was originally released as a five-part story, but King does get props for tying together the whole thing as neatly as he can.
I go where I have to go, do what I have to do.
In the introduction to the revised edition of The Dark Tower I: The Gunslinger, King shares that J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings books and Sergio Leone’s film The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly (note to self: watch this) inspired him to create The Dark Tower. The series also takes cues from the legend of King Arthur and the poem Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came by Robert Browning.
If you’re a fan of either Western fiction or fantasy, you will find a lot to like in this book. You have your eponymous gunslinger, but he exists alongside magicians, demons, and monsters. There’s something for everyone in The Gunslinger.
I’ve been a Constant Reader (the collective term for SK fans) since I was a teenager, and The Gunslinger was a wild card compared to his other books. It was a strange mishmash of genres, but it worked. The book was quotable, and even though I had a problem with the pace, there’s no hiding the fact that King is an incredible writer.
If you’re also rereading the series, you’ll find foreshadowing that references a lot of events in almost all the books, which is amazing. If you’re reading the book for the first time, please don’t stop with The Gunslinger. The series only gets even better starting with The Drawing of Three, the second book. Don’t you want to find out what lobstrosities are?
Roland is enigmatic and haunted by his violent past, and the story starts with one of the best opening lines I’ve ever read: “The man in black fled across the desert and the gunslinger followed.” It’s been a decade since I first read this book, and while I am rereading it to “review” for The Dark Tower movie, I’ve forgotten so many details but I can quote the opening line word for word because it just stuck to me.
The Little Sisters of Eluria
If you want to know more about Roland’s past, I suggest getting a copy of King’s short story collection Everything’s Eventual. Read the story The Little Sisters of Eluria, which features a much younger gunslinger, an abandoned village called Eluria, and some strange beings. Ka (destiny, fate) tries Roland once again when he is torn between his quest and coming to the aid of people he meets along the way. While “time is funny” in the setting of The Dark Tower books, this novella is set in the beginning of Roland’s journey to the Tower.
The End of the Beginning
Go then. There are other worlds than these.
While there are those who are reading The Dark Tower I: The Gunslinger in order to prepare for The Dark Tower starring Idris Elba and Matthew McConaughey, it’s not necessary to read all the books in the series to enjoy the upcoming movie. However, doing so might help you understand the film more, especially since based on the trailers, it will be featuring a lot of references to things that happened in the books. (Long days and pleasant nights, stranger.)
Did you (re)read The Dark Tower books when you heard the movie was finally going to be released? Did you like/hate The Gunslinger? Let us know in the comments!