In recent weeks, I have written a couple of times about Stephen King’s Dark Tower series of books. First here and then here. I am now pages away from finishing the fourth book in the series and I plan on continuing on. Why? Well, I’m curious about the thing and how my knowledge of the ending colors my view of the story as it progresses.
Here’s the thing …
PROCEED NO FURTHER IF YOU PLAN ON READING THE SERIES AND DO NOT WANT IT SPOILED
You’ve been warned.
PROCEED NO FURTHER
Hold on a sec … I’ve got a waiver in my pocket for you to sign should you wish to proceed. Thou shalt not hold me responsible for ruining it for you if thou shalt decide to read further.
Sign here ___________________.
Are you still with me?
This long … over both time and books and words … series ends with a recognition that the story is just a figment of the imagination of the author. Which is understood. We readers are kind of smart that way, you know. It’s fiction. It’s imagination. But, you know, while we’re reading we want to believe that this is a world of its own. Whether it is a romance or a detective novel or literary fiction, while we wallow in the thousands of words that fill page 1 to page XXX, we want to believe this is a world. Of its own. Of something. But a world. And for those moments we read, we are there. The best fiction transports to another place we can occupy in the quiet moments we read. And Stephen King at his best was a master of this.
The ending of the Dark Tower series flashes this in big bright lights, but in a way that I think most readers don’t want to see it. And then there is this unsettling feeling I have as I read through the series again.
The main character is Roland, the last gunslinger in a world that has moved on. At some point in his life he began a quest for the Dark Tower, which I can only describe as the center of all things. My recollection of the end of the series is that once he finally reaches the Dark Tower, after many of his friends have died and he has committed many wrongs in pursuit of his quest, we that we, and Roland, are just in the author’s mind and upon reaching the tower, Roland must … well, start over and repeat the whole thing. Again and again and again.
As I read today, I began to realize that Roland may represent one of two things. The more favorable interpretation is that he represents an author who never stops searching for his or her Dark Tower. In this interpretation, the tower represents the story. THE STORY! The one. Where everything comes out. Perfection is obtained and one can finally rest. The voices can be silenced. And life can go on. But we writers realize something. That’ll never happen. Once a writer, always a writer. And with every completed story, the recognition that it is time to start over again. In that quest. For the tower. For perfection.
My more cynical thought is this. Roland represents us. The readers of Mr. King’s stories over the last 20 years or so. And the joke is on us. I came to this thought because of my frustration with much of what he has written during that time frame — which oddly enough coincides somewhat with the devolution of the Dark Tower series. My frustration stems from the idea that King’s creativity and ability to write new and unique stories has withered quite a bit. What he really is doing with the Dark Tower series and Roland’s neverending quest that must be repeated over and over and over is to point out to us, his “beloved” Constant Reader, is that we are engaged in the same endeavor.
With every book King publishes, he puts us through the same drill. The hope that he has found the magic again. He has produced a story that brings us back to The Shining or The Stand or name your favorite early King story. My favorite was the short story in The Night Shift in which a box of plastic Army men came to life and attacked. Anyway, maybe, just maybe, the end of Dark Tower was King’s acknowledgement that he had lost the magic and he was just going to keep sending us out — to read his latest work, the product of his failing imagination — only to do it all over again, dissatisfied and hopeful of finding the magic he had produced once upon a time.
My belief in the more cynical interpretation is buttressed by the fact that the series pulls in a number of characters and story lines from other King stories. Like Randall Flagg and Captain Trips. It also pulls in other ideas from non-King stories. Like The Wizard of Oz. It’s like this grand trip in which King does everything he can to make this long, epic, monstrosity of a tale as convoluted and meandering as he possibly can, pulling in whatever pops into his head and then making it work in telling the tale, to demonstrate just how hooked we are on what he does. I can’t help but feeling like he is the Man in Black, he is Marten. And he is laughing at us. All the way to the bank.
Three more books to go. Three more books in which I can’t help but to feel massively manipulated.