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Finishing Business

I wrote here about how I had decided to … well, slog through Stephen King’s Dark Tower series.  That was two months and ten days ago.  Today, I finally finished … the slog.  And slog it was.  Particularly with the final book in the seven book series.

As I wrote back then, King has acknowledged that the first book in the series is “out of sync” with the end of the series.  I think this is what bothers me the most about the whole enterprise.

So, before I go further, as I’ve done with each chapter in my report on Dark Tower, read no further if you don’t want any spoilers.  If you don’t want any idea of how the thing progresses and ends.  Leave now.

LEAVE

NOW

LEAVE!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

As I made my way through books six and seven in the series, my memory was refreshed about an element of the series I had forgotten.  It wasn’t just that Roland, the last gunslinger got to the Dark Tower, only to find out that he would simply have to start over.  In other words, there was no real end to this slog through seven books.  The joke at the end, as Roland finally reaches the top level of the Dark Tower is that he will wake with his memory erased, but with one imperative.  To find the Dark Tower.  Again.  As he has done repeatedly through the cycle of time and worlds.

What I re-discovered in this reading is that King makes himself the center of the story as it winds towards the end.

There was this thing I started noticing as I read King stories over the years.  Every once in awhile, you’d find a sly reference in one story to a character or an event from another story.  As though, somehow the worlds of King’s stories were connected in some way.  I thought it was an intriguing idea and played well to me as a fan of his writing — to see those connections and references to prior stories.

What he does with The Dark Tower series is attempt to slam all of it, everything he has written, every character, every event, every location somehow into one world.  And the reality is, it’s the world that exists in his brain, within his storytelling.  On some level, I get it.  On another level, I don’t.

Besides cribbing from his own stories, as he winds through The Dark Tower, he also cribs from many others — the Lord of the Rings, Star Wars, Wizard of Oz, and who knows what else that I didn’t even recognize.  He even steals from the tragedy of 9/11.

But let me go back to that whole the beginning is “out of sync” with the ending concept. The first book, The Gunslinger, promised me something as a reader.  It was, to me at least, a clean story.  Almost pure.  I was first exposed to it when a portion of it showed up in one of King’s short story collections, and then when I found a copy of the book — with a longer version.  He wrote it back in 1970.  The final two books in the series were published in 2004.  All those years later, the story goes in a direction that clearly was never contemplated when he first wrote The Gunslinger.  King even alludes to this when he inserts himself into the story in book six.

What I want is the story promised in that first book.  What I got instead is a thing that became as bloated as King’s ego.  There’s just so much wrong with how this story winds towards its end.  First, book seven very possibly is the worst book I’ve read in a long time.  Second, there are continuity problems.  An example — Roland, the last gunslinger, loses several fingers on his right hand in book two.  Until then he was an ambidextrous gunslinger, unleashing bullets from guns held by both hands.  But once he loses those fingers on his right hand, he can only shoot with his left.  Which makes one wonder why, in book seven, when he pulled his gun and approached a dangerous situation, he rested the gun in the hollow of his right shoulder.

There are other problems like this.

And did I mention how he steals all sorts of ideas from other stories?

Third, what I think the first book promised and what King intended all of those years ago was to write an epic tale of good versus evil.  Kind of like Lord of the Rings.  What he wrote instead was a seven book tale covering thousands of pages filled with symbolism — obvious, contrived, obtuse, and confused — that reflects that fiction is just a figment of the author’s imagination.  Well guess what?  We already know that!

The best movies and plays I see are the ones where the story is so good and the acting is so good that I forget I’m watching actors perform.  The same is the case with a book.  The more I forget that I am reading an author’s words, the better the story is.  What King did with The Dark Tower is kill the epic tale he promised with The Gunslinger and replace it with a tale that demands that I wallow in the idea that I was reading his brilliance.

Only it wasn’t brilliant.  The whole thing gets worse and worse as each book bleeds into the next.  It bleeds with his arrogance.  With his ego.  With his inability to tell a story in a manageable number of words and pages if he can stretch it out far beyond the needed length.  It’s just so crappy in the end.

So, yeah, I read it again.  I won’t read it a third time.  Anybody want my copies of the books?

I Continued On

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 ___________________.

So …

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.

 

Maybe I Shouldn’t Waste My Time

A week ago, I posted about getting sucked back into Stephen King’s Dark Tower series. After publishing that post, I sat down with the first book in the series and had it finished twenty-four hours later. I decided to move on to the second book.

There’s an intriguing thing going on. Now that I know how the series ends, I can see things he’s doing …

well …

I guess I have to do this.

[Spoiler Alert]

If you don’t want to know the ending to the Dark Tower series, read no further.

You’ve been warned.

Last chance.

So, after seven books and thousands of pages, the Dark Tower series ends in a reveal that the entire thing, the whole story, the whole universe created in the books, is entirely in the writer’s head. Which I get — that’s the truth of any piece of fiction. But after seven books of the gunslinger looking for the Dark Tower, he reaches it only for the creator of the story to snatch it away from him and … start the quest for the Dark Tower all over again.

The fascinating thing about this is what it says about the writer’s curse. I think that’s really what the series is about. We writers never stop our own search for the Dark Tower. We never stop sending our characters out there in search of that something. That answer to everything.

The thing is when I read somebody else’s story, particularly one that goes on for seven books, that cannot possibly be the ending. Roland needed to find the Dark Tower and the story needed to end.

The problem now is that I’m halfway through book two and it is just plodding along with so much detail, so much back story (I mean seriously, there’s more back story than there is actual story going on). I don’t know how much more I can take.

A Brilliant Beginning, A Horrible Ending

I’ve written about this before.  I’ll write about it again.

Decades ago, in one of his first collections of short stories, Stephen King published a story called The Gunslinger, or something like that.  I think it was actually a bit of a variation on that.  It turned out that story was a small piece of a larger piece that was released in book form as The Gunslinger.  It turned out that larger piece was the first book in what turned out to be an eight book monstrosity.

I loved The Gunslinger.  It was simple and brutal and intriguing.  It took years for King to finish the entire epic and every time another book came out, I would go back and start from the beginning, reading The Gunslinger and then The Drawing of the Three and then The Waste Lands and on and on.  Until The Dark Tower was released and the series was complete.  So, somewhere in there I read The Gunslinger at least seven times, The Drewing of the Three at least six times.  You get the idea.  (And, yes, the math doesn’t quite add up.  The seventh and “final” book, The Dark Tower, was released in 2004.  Then suddenly, eight years later, King published an eighth book in the series which he described as being placed somewhere between the fourth and fifth book of the series.  I never bothered with that book.)

I spent a lot of time reading these books.  Devouring them.  Years and years waiting for the conclusion and when I got there it was the single most disappointing moment in my reading life.  The ending was a huge, lazy, cop-out. HUGE!  It was the beginning of the end of my fandom of Mr. King.  It is when he officially jumped the shark.

I’m starting to feel the pull again, however.  There is a movie coming out based on the last book, which seems kind of odd to me given that it is the last book in an eight book story.  How do you start at the end?

I was poking around Amazon today, looking at their new Top 20 list of the most read books this week.  The Dark Tower I: The Gunslinger is on it.  The pull got a little stronger. Maybe I’ll find my copy and give it a go.  I can stop there and not lose myself in the rest of the books.  I know I don’t want to get to the seventh book and that horrid ending.

I started reading the Amazon review of the book and learned that King has revised the opening book in the series.  According to the reviewer:  “To King, The Gunslinger demanded revision because once the series was complete it became obvious that ‘the beginning was out of sync with the ending.'”

No frickin’ kidding!

The review goes on to explain that the revision only adds 35 pages to the original version of The Gunslinger and both old and new readers will just love the additional detail!!!

I get it.  When dealing with a series that goes on as long as this one did — both in volume and in time — it is likely difficult to be entirely consistent from book to book.  King likes to talk about his “constant reader” and how much he appreciates those who are. But to blow the ending so remarkably shows a complete disdain for storytelling and for the reader, particularly with something as epic as this series was.  That’s just my humble opinion.

Here’s what I think I’m going to do. Dig out my copy of the original The Gunslinger.  Read that and see if I want to continue.  I really don’t want to see how he has revised the opening book more than 30 years later because he finally realized he had screwed the pooch.  Maybe knowing how the entire thing ends will change my perspective as I read it again.  I haven’t gone anywhere near these books since I first read the final book in the series.

(I’m pretty sure I still have all of the books in the series.  I have been reluctant to throw out my King books. But I may have been so disgusted way back when that these went into the trash heap.  We’ll see.)

Thank you for reading, my constant reader.

A Book Review — Revival by Stephen King

Regular readers will know that I have no love for Stephen King’s recent efforts.  And by recent, I mean most of what he has written for the past 10-15 years.  To me, he has written far too many versions of the same story.  The same general cast of characters facing the same general threat of some unknown evil.  Frequently, that cast is divided into the good guys and the bad guys.  There’s an old guy and a kid.  The narrative voice always seems to be that of teenage boy who is wise beyond his years, but still thinks farts are cool.

There was a time when King wrote some incredible stories.  The Shining will go down as one of three books that actually scared me.  Pet Sematary is the second.  Ghost Story by Peter Straub is the third.  King has some other really good books, but hasn’t really written a good one for a long time.  I have sworn off him more times than I count, but I keep getting drawn in by reviewers that promise his latest effort is different, better King.  And I keep getting disappointed.  11/22/63 may just be the greatest disappointment I’ve had when reading.

A few months ago I re-discovered the library and have been checking books out like crazy.  Last week, I was walking through the current release section and I saw Revival by Stephen King.  It didn’t cost me anything so I decided to give it a try.

Is it a great story?  No.  I wouldn’t give it five stars, but …  It’s basically about a man who believes he has found the secret to learning what the afterlife is all about.  It’s a slowly developing idea that spans a lifetime.  But finally King has written a different story.  It’s not the same set of characters and the narrative isn’t in that obnoxious teenage boy voice.  Some of the story takes place in areas of Maine you may find familiar if you’re a regular reader of King, but that’s not a fatal flaw.  Unlike the last few King novels I have read, I didn’t want to throw this one against the wall when I was done.  I didn’t want to fly to Maine, find the man, and beg and plead with him to write a new story instead of continuing to trot out retreads.

So, if you like King but are like me and grew tired of what he was doing, give Revival a try.

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