The Dark Tower Series by Stephen King
The Black Tower
King Believes He is Guided as He Writes
Stephen King has been one of my favorite authors for many years. He imaginatively conjures up believable characters and takes the time to develop them. I love the way he writes either a foreword or afterword in each book, addressed to his Constant Readers. He explains how he felt about certain features in his book, or why he decided to write his story as he did. He always thanks his wife, Tabitha, urging people to stay married, because he feels marriage has given his life joy and stability. This humble man has not forgotten where he came from, despite his success, and always gives thanks to the Constant Readers whose loyalty made him the recognized and beloved author he is today.
Stephen King freely admits to his drug and drinking problems as he became famous, and the pressures of writing books each year for his publisher. This has been discussed through characters in several of his works, Misery being the most obvious. He finally kicked the bad habits, and was beginning to take exercise seriously, when life threw him a curve ball. King had a terrible brush with death in the 1999 accident where he was badly injured by a drunk driver while taking his daily walk. He was deeply shaken, and that is still evident in his writing. He seems to have come to terms with it though, at first it was only the anger and pain that was expressed in his work. Later, he heals inside and shows a more mature version of himself, and his writing reflects how he has changed.
The Dark Tower Series
Are You Ready to Commit?
Although I am a Constant Reader, I never tackled the massive Dark Tower series until recently. I heard that the first book was hard to get through, but after that the stories greatly improved. So I read the first book, The Gunslinger, first, and put the rest of them on the back burner for a few weeks. I began book two around three weeks later, and became glued to the Dark Tower series, reading like mad. King considers this work his magnum opus, and I can see why. He wrote book one when he was nineteen, (a number which is very important, as is ninety nine) and then continued on to the next three.
The characters in this series have a language of their own, if you ken, but it’s mostly phrases which express social niceties. King was just attracting readers when he wrote the other three Tower books, and was unsure if there was enough interest in these for him to continue writing more. Apparently there was, according to the massive amounts of mail he got begging him to finish the series. So he finished the last three in 2003 and 2004, a more mature man and author than when he began this saga at 19. He revised The Gunslinger by about thirty pages, in order to make it consistent with the last books. The Constant Readers wanted to know if Roland’s quest to reach the Dark Tower succeeded, and if it still stood at the end, because some of the beams it stood upon were broken. They had to be repaired; so many parallel worlds would be saved. Much of civilization and other worlds depended on whether The Tower still stood tall.
Making a commitment to read seven books is a big one, even for someone who reads as much as me. So to help travelers who wish to embark on this wondrous journey, which ties in with many of King’s other works, I shall write a small summary of each book, to help you decide if you wish to take the plunge.
I think it’s a masterpiece of writing, and really enjoyed seeing characters and villains from other books of King’s in the Dark Tower series. King tells readers that the story is inspired by Robert Browning’s narrative poem, “Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came." I loved many of the characters and wanted to see what would happen to them as they joined Roland, not only on his quest to The Dark Tower, but as the last young Gunslinger, or Knight, like those of King Arthur’s Court of the Round Table.
He is honor bound to aid others in danger. So the books begin in a time period where the world has “moved on” in a strange way, and changed almost beyond recognition. In some places, terrible wars or actions destroyed much technology, and the people living had to start life over again, the old fashioned way, before technology became so important in daily life. We also get familiar with Roland’s ka-tet, a very tight knit group of people who would lay down their lives for each other. They will travel through parallel worlds and alternate time planes during their arduous journey. So, let’s get to the story.
The Gunslinger Book 1
Here the reader is introduced to Roland Deschain of Gilead, son of Steven and Gabrielle, the last Gunslinger, and the tale takes on a western flavor. Roland is obsessed with reaching the Dark Tower, and is chasing the Man in Black, a sorcerer named Walter O’Dim, across the desert to get answers. There are flashbacks to Roland’s past, his experiences with his parents, and the test that he passes to prove his manhood; though very early in life, and in a way that causes him great pain.
Along the way he meets a young, blond boy, Jake Chambers, who accompanies Roland for part of the way. Jake vaguely recalls a life in a large city with a green statue, Times Square, taxis, private school, and wealthy, but detached parents. Yet much seems unclear to him, and he is unsure of the time frame. Was this another life? As Roland gets closer to the Man in Black, he parts ways with Jake in a disturbing manner, but Jake’s last comment to Roland is, “There are other worlds than these.”
Roland catches up with the Man in Black, who gives him a bizarre tarot card reading. It begins with The Hanged Man, representing Roland, who is stalled in his quest. The Sailor, who drowns, represents Jake. The next card is The Prisoner. The Lady of the Shadows has two faces, for reasons later discovered. The grinning Man in Black next draws the Death card, but pronounces, “Not for you Gunslinger.” These words will come back to haunt Roland many times.
The Tower card is next, since this is the point of the quest. The last card in the reading shows a beautiful, clear, blue sky, with dancing cupids and sprites. The Tower is surrounded by red. But is it red blood, or beautiful fields of red roses? Or is it both? The Man in Black tells Roland to imagine that all worlds or universes meet in one nexus, or Tower, and that the Godhead is at the top of this Tower. He asks the Gunslinger if he would dare to climb to the top, to see if above all reality, there is a room.
The Man says he is only the emissary of the enchanted Crimson King, who has the power to make this night endless, so the two men can talk, or palaver. He introduces Roland to universes, stars, dark voids, and light so brilliant Roland begs for it to stop. The Man in Black tries to talk Roland out of this quest, and tells him this is not the beginning, only the beginning of its end. But Roland has no intention of giving up. He falls asleep, and awakens to a new day, but is unsure how long he has slept. He walks forward for many miles to find himself on a beach at the ocean.
The Drawing of the Three Book 2
Roland awakens to crashing ocean waves on the shore, and to horrible, crawling creatures who look like giant lobsters. They attack Roland and bite off two fingers of his right hand, and one of his toes, giving him a serious infection. A few days pass, and Roland is faint, feverish and exhausted. When he experiences such weakness he literally crawls on the beach, he sees a door marked The Prisoner. Behind this door is Eddie Dean, a 21 year old junkie on an airplane, who is also feeling ill, but from his need for more drugs. Roland must get medicine or die, so grabs at the door and goes through. Eddie is carrying a large stash of heroin from the Bahamas to New York. Roland realizes he can see through Eddie’s eyes, and is fascinated by the tall buildings and crowds of New York.
Eddie can feel the presence of another person in his head, especially confusing considering his drugged state. Eddie and Roland can feel and think together now, and face a big shootout from thugs waiting for the drugs Eddie carries. In spite of the fact they are thrown into this very strange situation with little time to get used to it, Roland and Eddie act quickly and work well together. Roland also needs to find some antibiotics. Luckily, the door reappears, and Eddie and Roland rush through it together. They end up on the same beach, Eddie, safe and without the drugs, and Roland, with the needed medication.
Roland invites Eddie to be on his quest, and Eddie says yes, as he knows his life is going nowhere. The reader meets the Lady of the Shadows when the next door appears. Odetta Holmes is a black civil rights activist in the 1960s, also from New York. There is another facet of Odetta’s personality, Detta Walker, a shoplifter and foul mouthed woman, who dislikes white people. Odetta has been harmed twice, once causing her to fall on subway tracks and be hit by a train, losing both legs right below the knee. A brick deliberately falls on her head at another time, causing issues in her personality.
Odetta comes through the doorway with Roland and Eddie, but she is unaware of Detta’s presence. Roland finally insists that she face the truth, and when she does, this creates a unified person whom she calls Susannah, though at times of danger or anger, Detta sometimes makes an appearance. So now Roland has drawn the three necessary to begin, as Eddie and Susannah join his quest to face their “ka”, or destiny.
The Waste Lands Book 3
Now Roland, Eddie, and Susannah journey to Mid-World to move onward in their quest. All kinds of adventures await the ka-tet, many of them dangerous and scary. There is an encounter with a 70 foot high mechanical bear named Shardik, left over from a more technological time. But in finding him they discover an important beam which holds the Tower up at this site, so now our friends can begin following “The Path of the Beam.”
The ka-tet must call upon a demon in order to help get Jake Chambers into this world, or this when and where, because Jake is having terrible nightmares back home in New York, and the reader finds that Roland has been having the same dreams. Both of them think they are going crazy, but the dreams stop once they are reunited. However, the demon causes harsh repercussions further in the story. But it is good and necessary to have Jake back, he has strong psychic powers, and his presence helps relieve Roland’s guilt about his earlier departure from Jake. The ka-tet travels through a dying village, battles their way through what seemed like a ghost town, and learns more about Roland’s unusual world.
It obviously was highly technological in the past, but is now in a terrible state of deterioration. King pays homage to other famous science fiction authors, such as Richard Adams’ Shardik and Watership Down, and Isaac Asimov’s “positronic” brains in robot stories. King also mentions some of his own characters in other books he wrote, showing that The Dark Tower and its characters were always on his mind whenever he was writing. Roland and the rest are on a demonic train named Blaine, who is still “alive” enough energy wise to give them a ride to where they next need to go.
But there is a price they will pay if they cannot stump Blaine with a riddle. We are left with a cliffhanger here, so have the next book ready, to see how the ka-tet dealt with Blaine. Jake has brought two books with information they will need, and understands there is a rose in a pocket park in New York which must be saved at all costs. Jake dreamed of this rose, and his strong intuition tells him that the success of the Gunslinger’s quest may very well rest on the life of this single rose in New York.
The Pink Psychic Ball is Found
Wizards and Glass Book 4
This book wraps up the cliffhanger with Blaine, the psychotic, riddle loving monorail, and brings the ka-tet where they can finally rest. Jake has been joined by a billy bumbler, a doglike, furry animal which has a psychic connection and strong will to protect Jake, so Oy becomes part of the ka-tet too.
Roland makes a campfire, and explains more about his past, telling of his tragic love affair with beautiful and strong Susan Delgado, and his great friends Cuthbert and Alain, the ka-tet of his youth. Roland’s family is of the Royal line of Eld, and is very much respected. After Roland passes his manhood test, his father thinks he should lay low for a while, and sends Roland and his friends to another barony, away from danger. They take aliases and go to Mejis, on a pretend mission to count taxable goods, such as animals and produce, for the Affiliation. But the boys find there are more problems and danger here than at home, that these people have gone over to the side of John Farson, a man who pretends to be good, but who wants to make an armed revolution to destroy the world.
They are moving goods and horses all the time to make the boy’s job more difficult, and to hide their huge arsenal of weapons. Everyone in this barony is under the sway of Farson, including the evil witch Rhea. She has come to hold one of the valuable crystal balls, the pink one, in which she can see future events, and makes trouble for the ka-tet. There are thirteen colored balls, called The Wizard’s Rainbow, one for each of the 12 Guardians, and one representing the nexus-point of the beams. These are weakening, and must be fixed, for if the beam breaks, mankind is doomed.
The last one, the black thirteen, stands for the Dark Tower. Some colored balls look into the future, some show demons, and some show doorways into other worlds. Roland’s father warned them that the pink one was rumored to be in Mejis. The boys are working against very evil men, and young and cocky as boys are at that age, are sure they can foil the plot. The first night they arrive in Mejis, Roland meets the beautiful Susan. She has promised to give her virginity to the aging Mayor because he can have no children with his barren wife.
But Susan is beguiled by Roland’s deep blue eyes, and engages in an affair with him before the dreaded date of her assignation with the Mayor. She has no wish to be with the Mayor, but it is a matter of family honor, and blackmail, to get her family’s stolen land back. Rhea’s jealously and hatred for the lovely Susan proves to be a disaster for the ka-tet, as she can see what their future plans are in the pink ball, but only at times. The plot is very intricate, but these characters are so real.
Sheemie is a young man who befriends the young Gunslingers, and meets again with Roland later in life. He seems slow witted, but some of that is an act. He tries his best to cover up Roland and Susan’s affair, and at one point Cuthbert saves Sheemie’s life. Roland longs to lead his Gunslinger friends to victory. Alain is gifted with the sight too, and is very serious. Cuthbert is like Eddie in the later ka-tet, always with a smart and witty humor, and Susan is a brave young woman, who realizes her first dream of love, and also realizes how much she has to lose. This book humanizes Roland, maybe in the way only a true love can. Since he is usually the brains behind any mission and lives by the way of the gun, there are times it is hard to reconcile this young man wildly in love, to the cold hearted Gunslinger who can shoot down any enemy without a regret.
This ends the first four volumes. King did not write the last three until almost thirty years later, so if you need a refresher, it may be best to reread them, as the story picks up right as he left off for the most part. They are also available as books on tape or CD.
Wolves of the Calla Book 5
The residents of Calla Bryn Sturgis need the Gunslingers to help them, because wolves are kidnapping their children, which are usually sets of twins. Roland and the ka-tet are duty bound to help those in need, and live in the Calla to get to know the people, so as to form a workable plan. The village is divided about what needs to be done, so the story deals with town politics, intrigue about who is on which side, and the terrible threat to the children.
King does a great job making the customs, festivals, culture and traditions of the Calla seemingly very real. Roland even dances the Commala at a town fair, to show he is from the Line of Arthur of Eld, to put the people at ease. The issue at stake is that about every twenty years or so, wolves come to steal one twin from certain families. This usually happens before puberty. When the twin is returned, their mental capacity is that of a toddler, and they have a painfully agonizing growth spurt, after which the twin dies.
Andy, the messenger robot, is an interesting character, but it is unclear if he is trustworthy either, although he plays a big role in this part. And as time passes, the ka-tet is unsure who they can really count on to help. Also, the members of the ka-tet are traveling back to New York on a pretty regular basis, to check on the development of the rose, to be sure it is still safe. They take drastic measures to do this. They can travel when doorways psychically open for them to go through, or sometimes by todash, which leaves them feeling bewildered. So there is lots of going back and forth in this part of the story.
Pere Callahan of ‘Salem’s Lot makes a strong re-appearance in this book, if you recall him from the novel. Roland has formulated a plan to try to trap the wolves, because he believes they are really robots or else just evil people in disguise, and not wolves at all. But there is so much to be unsure about. At this point the book has beautiful illustrations, which this reader really appreciated. In another twist, Susannah is acting very strange, and making disappearances during the night. Both Eddie and Roland are aware of it (Oy too)! But they do not want to confront her about what they believe to be wrong.
Will the ka-tet be able to win this fight, when many of the Callas parents seem unwilling to fight for their own children? If they do decide to fight, will they all survive the battle? The women in the Calla throw dishes called Orizas. The stakes keep getting higher and higher, and people in certain time frames in New York are beginning to build on the land near the rose which must be saved, so the ka-tet hatches a scheme to deal with that.
Song of Susannah Book 6
It gets increasingly hard to describe the later books without giving away too much of the story. As soon as Wolves of the Calla is through, a huge “beam quake” hits, which shakes the foundations of all the worlds, putting The Dark Tower in more danger than ever. There was a part of the story where a demon’s help was needed to help bring Jake Chambers into Mid-World for the sake of his sanity, and now it appears that Susannah has been affected in a big way by the demon.
It has brought out yet another facet of her personality. Sometimes the mean Detta still comes out, when Susannah has to be tough, or feels threatened, but now she is “Mia” at times. If you recall how Eddie and Roland could see the world through each other’s eyes, now this is the case with Susannah, during the times she is Mia. She ends up going todash in New York with Mia, who understands little of life there, but has needs, using Susannah’s body to satisfy them.
Apparently Susannah/Mia is pregnant with a demon child, who is also partly Roland’s child. What kind of “baby” will this be? Mia thinks of it as her “chap”, and eats rats and any gross thing she can get her hands on. Susannah is not helpless, as Mia needs her to navigate New York, and for other tasks. But the reader does not know what kind of monster Susannah is carrying, and how badly it will hurt her to give birth to what is likely to be a monster.
King has also written himself into these books, something this reader thought was brilliant. When the Tower is so tilted it may not stand, Roland and Eddie go through a door (they can psychically make these portals together, all of the ka-tet have heightened powers now). Or at times the doorways between worlds are thin enough that they can be more easily seen. They find the writer Stephen King, and approach him. King is slightly drunk at the time, and explains that he was young when he wrote the first book of the series. He was not sure how much interest there would be, since he was a new writer at the time. He has had thoughts of these characters in his imagination for years, but has built up such an epic in his mind, he is afraid of the story. He doesn’t know how to end it. It’s all too much for him.
Roland and Eddie beg King to finish the series, and tell him the Tower will fall, along with civilizations. King promises to work on it. But later they see a newspaper article warning that King would be the victim of an accident where he would be perhaps mortally wounded by a van while taking his daily walk, on June 19, 1999. Those terrible numbers! Mia has her “chap”, a hideous monster named Mordred, who has Roland's bright blue eyes. But he is really the child of the evil Crimson King, who awaits those who dare, at the Dark Tower.
The Dark Tower Book 7 Conclusion
There are still battles to be fought, demons who try to hurt members of the ka-tet, and many other obstacles in the Path of the Beam before any of the characters get to the Dark Tower. And how many members of the ka-tet have lived through all of these terrors? This reader cannot say without spoiling the ending. Having read all seven books, 4,150 pages, it was a long, but fascinating journey.
Jake and Roland find a portal to Maine so they can warn Stephen King before his accident happens. They arrive late, but are able to save King from death, if not grave injury, and Roland hypnotizes King to be sure he finishes the series. But where there is joy, there is also sorrow, and by the time Roland gets to the Dark Tower, he has only a mute boy named Patrick who can sketch to accompany him to the Tower itself, which comes in rather handy.
The reader is unsure where the rest of the ka-tet is. The Dark Tower is surrounded by miles of fields of red roses, as Roland and Jake saw in their dreams. If he wants to enter, Roland still must kill the Crimson King, who is locked out and on a balcony. This is not an impossible task for the Gunslinger. But what awaits Roland inside the Dark Tower? Will it be an accounting of his life? Will it be death? It bears recalling that although Roland lives, mostly anyone who accompanied him on his quests disappeared, may be dead, or stuck in other realms.
Does Roland get to the top of the Dark Tower? It has been his obsession for over one thousand years, and now he’s near enough to taste it. The odd Tarot reading Walter gave Roland in Book I did have the Death card, but the Man in Black said, “But not for you, Gunslinger.” Could Roland be doomed to repeat the journey over and over, to atone for all those lost along the way? Or will he reach the top and finally make peace with all the tragedy and loss he has unwittingly caused many of the people he truly loved?
The whole Robert Browning poem, “Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came,” is printed at the end, and reading it does explain what the true conclusion is. King also gives the reader options. One can read only up to one point, and find out what happened to the other members of the ka-tet, and stop there. King believes his hand unconsciously guides much of his writing, and did not want any readers to be disappointed if Roland got to the top of the Dark Tower and they did not like what he saw there. So it’s up to the Constant Reader to decide if they can face the truth Roland must accept at the top of the Dark Tower.
“Hile, we have been well met. Long days and pleasant nights.”
Some of the Kat-et Skating in New York City
© 2012 Jean Bakula