This and the companion pieces are less reviews than they are a sort of reader's diary of my experiences encountering Stephen King's monumental fantasy/western/science fiction tale The Dark Tower. It's made up of seven books, each of which I read at different times in my life. These are some reflections on the separate volumes, and I will be assuming that the reader has already read them or does not care if what he or she reads spoils the books or their endings. That is, of course, assuming that these little exercises have readers to begin with ;-)
Again, and I will stress this so that no one may find the experience of learning Roland's story and reading The Dark Tower lessened by knowing what comes next, THERE BE SPOILERS HERE.
You've been alerted.
In any series of seven items, the fourth item is the middle. Three precede, three follow. And for Stephen King's The Dark Tower series, this fourth novel is easily the nadir of the seven -- a sprawling rotten scrambled egg of a book that runs more than 260,000 words and spends nearly 175,000 of them on a flashback.
King published Wizard and Glass in 1997, well after any editor stopped imposing any storytelling discipline on him. By contrast, the third volume of the series, 1991's The Waste Lands runs nearly 90,000 words less. The first two volumes, published in the 1980s, total 55,000 and 128,000 words respectively.
We begin where we left The Waste Lands, with Roland, the last gunslinger, trapped inside a speeding monorail controlled by an ancient artificial intelligence that has gone insane. Roland and his companions, Eddie, Susannah and Jake, must pose riddles that the AI, named Blaine, can't solve, or else their train will crash full-speed into the endpoint of its track and kill them all.
King's ability to build tension is on fine display in this scene. Roland tries riddle after riddle, but Blaine knows them all. Jake's last-ditch use of a book of riddles is no good, and Susannah has no help to offer. Eventually Eddie is able to defeat the ruthlessly logical mind of Blaine by posing nonsense riddles that overload its circuitry. Its brain fried, the train stops at the town of Topeka, but it is not a place that any of the travelers know. Although Jake, Susannah and Eddie are all from a world like ours that has a Topeka, they don't recognize this one. It's empty, peopled only with desiccated corpses. Only from a newspaper do they realize that they're in a world where most people have died from a genetically enhanced flu virus and that world is headed for its own moment of truth.
Roland understands they've passed through a "thinny," or place where the barrier between alternate worlds has grown so thin no special effort is needed to move from one to another. King readers know that Roland's group is in the world of his novel The Stand. The problem is that in this world, they can no longer see the Beam that will lead them to the Dark Tower. They have to return to Roland's world or their quest for the tower is lost. Ahead is another thinny, as well as a strange glass building sitting on I-70 in eastern Kansas.
BUT...before we can get to that strange building, Roland's encounter with this thinny has reminded him of the first one he ever saw, back when he was just 14. Those events form a large part of beginning Roland's quest for the Tower, and the reader will spend the next 175,000-plus words learning about it.
Roland learns, after having passed his trial of manhood and earned the right to a gunslinger's weapons, that he has been manipulated by those who want to bring down his family. His father sends him away to the Barony of Meijis to keep him out of harm's way and to learn what he can about Meijis' connection to John Farson, a man trying to overthrow The Affiliation, the loose group of governments the gunslingers serve. Roland's friends Alain and Cuthbert accompany him. At Hambry, a town in Meijis, Roland meets Susan Delgado, a 16-year-old girl engaged to be the consort of Hambry's mayor.
The three young men learn that Farson is indeed connected to Hambry, which intends to supply his war machines with the oil they need to attack the gunslingers. Roland, Alain and Cuthbert have been framed for the murder of Hambry's mayor and are in jail, but Susan helps them escape, as she and Roland have fallen in love. The trio destroys the oil supplies and lures many of Farson's forces to their deaths when they ride into a thinny near Hambry. But Susan's role is discovered and she is burned at the stake.
Roland discovers this when he sees it in a Wizard's Glass known as Maerlyn's Grapefruit he captured from Farson -- and he realizes that when he chose a path that would take him towards the Dark Tower he abandoned Susan to her death. Like J.R.R. Tolkien's palantíri seeing stones that it closely resembles, this wizard's glass exacts a price for its visions and Roland is comatose. Alain and Cuthbert have to carry him back to his home in Gilead.
And then finally we return to Roland, Susannah, Eddie and Jake outside a dead Topeka. As they approach the glass building, which resembles the wizard's palace in The Wizard of Oz movie, they find blood-red shoes for each of them, including the billy-bumbler animal Oy that has attached itself to Jake. Tapping them together as Dorothy did in the movie, they are taken inside the palace, where they confront what at first appears to be a resurrected Blaine but turns out to be a disfigured Tick-Tock Man, rescued from death by Roland's nemesis Marten Broadcloak. Broadcloak is also The Ageless Stranger, Richard Fannin, and at his roots he is none other other than Randall Flagg, a villain not only from The Stand, but from a number of King's other books.
The Tick-Tock Man is killed and Flagg flees when Roland confronts him, not with his own guns that Flagg can enchant, but with a gun from Eddie's world that is beyond the wizard's power. The group leaves the glass palace and finds themselves back in a world with a visible Beam, able to continue their quest for the Tower. But as they go, Roland reveals that, deceived by another vision he saw in the Wizard's Glass, he shot and killed his mother. Flagg taunts Eddie, Susannah and Jake that everyone who befriends or tries to help Roland has died in the gunslinger's quest for the Tower. Despite this, the others choose not to leave Roland but now consider his quest theirs as well.
I came to Wizard and Glass a Kingophile and a devoted Tower-head. I even ordered the Donald M. Grant limited edition through Amazon, the first Amazon order I'd ever placed and the second of the Dark Tower books I owned in Grant editions. I'd waited for six years for King to move this fascinating story along, six years with the cliffhanger of Roland's group stuck inside the insane and suicidal Blaine the monorail.
I left Wizard and Glass completely disinterested in the story and feeling a real disenchantment with King's work that's had only intermittent lulls. Yes, we do meet some of the people arrayed against Roland's quest for the Tower when the quartet encounters Broadcloak/Flagg. Yes, we do get a hint that the Tower is a sort of axis of many parallel worlds, not only those of Roland and of Jake, Susannah and Eddie. And yes, we do learn that Roland's single-minded quest will cause him to sacrifice much and that he will not be the only one to pay the price for it.
But it takes so frickin' long, much longer than it needs to. Is the story of Roland and Susan a necessary one to show us something about the gunslinger? Perhaps, but essentially it's a kind of love/adventure story that writers like L'Amour, Burroughs or Sabatini did many times over. Those old adventure writers, though, had a focus that kept the story on a laser-straight line from "Once upon a time" to "The End" and kept their readers hooked. King drags the story of Roland and Susan everywhere he can think of it going and doesn't hurry on the way.
Maybe it is important to learn about the Baronies of Mid-World and Farson's rebellion against them. Maybe it is important to learn about Susan Delgado as Roland's "one true love" and his scary willingness to sacrifice anything and maybe even anyone in his quest for the Tower. But it's almost impossible to justify the effort expended on them here. A six-year wait to learn how the ka-tet escaped Blaine's insane suicide run and renewed its search for the tower, and almost immediately that story grinds to a halt for a flashback that all by itself is as long as the first two books of the series.
The resolution to the quartet being stranded in The Stand's world feels rushed and cramped. It's almost as if it's tacked on to prevent the reader mutiny that might have followed if the immense detour to Hambry kept us from learning whether or not the ka-tet escaped that world and returned to Roland's. During the six years it took before Wolves of the Calla, the next volume of the series, was published, most of the charity this reader extended towards someone who was once one of his favorite authors dried up and blew away.
Wizard and Glass made me unwilling to indulge King's indulgences. Editors had long since stopped reining him in, apparently careful to avoid a potentially publisher-changing dispute by telling their cash machine to spend some more time mining for the storytelling diamonds in the dust. Publishers make more money selling immense books than they do small ones. An author like King, whose hardcore fan base seemed never to balk at his longer and longer books, will find no enemies among them.
There was It: Long, as well as a little creepy in the not-good way. Then a second edition of The Stand, restoring thousands of words edited out of the original. It was about as necessary as sunblock for Noah, but it did offer a broader view of King's vision of that novel. The Desperation/Regulators two-fer, with one book published under King's Richard Bachman pseudonym, was pretty clearly a case of a publisher stroking its cash cow. But at least gave us one good novel (Desperation) and some interesting meditations on God from an author who's never been shy about taking religion seriously.
Wizard and Glass, though, did me in. It came to my house sometime in late November of 1997 and I finished it in early December of that year. It took King six years to return to the world of the Dark Tower; it would take me a dozen.