Book Review: Stephen King’s THE WIND THROUGH THE KEYHOLE

Stephen King's latest revisiting of the DARK TOWER universe may not be strictly necessary, but it's a lot of fun. 

It’s been almost a decade since Stephen King wrapped up his Dark Tower series, a collection of seven novels sprawling thousands of pages, hundreds of characters, multiple worlds and at least one buggery-loving pirate. While the rest of us have spent those years arguing over the final book’s massively divisive conclusion, King has apparently spent at least some of that time allowing his mind to drift back to the world of Roland Deschain, Gunslinger of Mid-World. The result? The Wind Through The Keyhole—a Dark Tower novel that elbows its way in between the fourth and fifth books in sai King’s series.

The novel arrives in stores on April 24th, but I—a Dark Tower fan if there ever was one—got my hands on an “Artist’s Edition” of the novel, and as soon as I could, I plopped down in a chair, turned off my phone, poured a huge pot of coffee, and eagerly jumped back into King’s gloriously weird world. 

If you’re a Dark Tower fan—and, let’s face it, if you’re reading this, you probably are—you know that the fourth entry, Wizard and Glass, isn’t just one of the best books in the Dark Tower series: it’s also a flashback-oriented tale, with about 500 of its 700 pages devoted to what amounts to Roland the Gunslinger’s origin story. The first time I read Wizard and Glass, I was pretty jazzed to finally get an ending to the abrupt cliffhanger King had left us with in The Waste Lands, but I was also bummed that the book…well, it didn’t really move the Dark Tower story along all that much.

Sure, there’s that whole “battling Blaine in a riddle-off” sequence at the beginning, and yeah, there’s the whole “Tick-Tock Man gets brought back only to be immediately killed off again” thing at the end, but you know what I mean: I’d been hoping for something that advanced the overall Dark Tower tale much in the way that The Drawing of The Three or The Waste Lands had. I wanted Roland and company to travel a few more miles down the road, not get hung up around a campfire for 500 pages. While the events revealed in Wizard and Glass are absolutely vital to King’s epic, it didn’t necessarily feel that way to me upon my first read-through (I was sixteen and impatient; sue me). As such, it took a few years before I was able to appreciate just how brilliant that fourth Dark Tower book really is.

Perhaps in retaliation for these ungrateful thoughts, karma (or minions of the Crimson King) saw fit to keep King from writing the next Dark Tower installment for another half-dozen years, a period that both redefined the word “interminable” and made the waits in-between seasons of The Sopranos feel like a cakewalk.

The Wind Through The Keyhole—King’s latest foray into the Dark Tower mythos—will arrive in bookstores shortly, and it’s another flashback-oriented tale, structured very similarly to Wizard and Glass. And depending on how much of the Dark Tower series you’ve already read through (and your general tolerance for flashbacks), it’s either going to please you greatly or throw a wrench in your gears - much in the same way that Wizard and Glass threw a wrench in mine back in the mid-90’s.

The Dark Tower series was completed several years ago, so WTTK is actually a flashback itself, meant to take place between books four (Wizard and Glass) and five (Wolves of The Calla). It picks up right where Wizard leaves off: a few miles down the road from the Emerald Palace, Team Roland discovers that an unspeakably dangerous storm called a “Starkblast” is headed their way. We learn that this storm will freeze virtually everything in its path, which inspires the group to take shelter inside a nearby (not to mention conveniently located) stone meeting hall. After boarding up the windows, one of the ka-tet asks Roland to “tell (them) a story”; thus begins the flashback that makes up the first part of Wind Through The Keyhole.

Interestingly enough, this particular flashback is told in the first person, and I’ll admit I found that a tad jarring at first. In short order, though, I forgot all about the sudden change in perspective, and by the time the novel wrapped I had really grown to enjoy this particular tale told through Roland’s voice. Not only does this change things up a bit from the 500-page flashback you (ostensibly) just finished reading in Wizard and Glass, but it also serves to give Wind Through The Keyhole a style all its own: no other Dark Tower book features a first-person stretch this lengthy (if at all). The Wind Through The Keyhole will always be distinct considering its post-finale publication, but it might also come to be remembered as “the one that Roland narrates." That’s pretty cool.

Anyway. As the story begins, Roland’s father sends him and a fellow Gunslinger named Jamie to the neighboring town of Debaria, where they’re ordered to investigate a “skin-man” who’s been terrorizing the local population (a “skin-man” being, in essence, a shapeshifter). According to the local authorities, this skin-man’s been up to all manner of shenanigans: ripping people to pieces, killing livestock, placing children’s heads on poles—that sort of thing. Shortly after their arrival in Debaria, the skin-man strikes again. It’s up to our heroes to put him down for good, and—as always—Roland has a plan.

This stretch of the book is excellent, and very reminiscent of the pre-series stories we’ve seen told in Marvel’s Dark Tower comic series. This is a post-Wizard and Glass Roland, who hasn’t yet become the unstoppable hard-ass with a one-track mind that we meet at the beginning of The Gunslinger; it bridges the character’s overall arc nicely. Additionally, there are a number of really cool touches threaded throughout this portion of the book, like the Gunslingers’ train ride into Debaria, the mountainous woman they meet there (who’s like the “good” Twinner of The Gunslinger’s Sylvia Pittston), and everything related to Roland’s mother (of which there’s a fair amount).

But it turns out this isn’t the only story-within-a-story to be had: halfway through the skin-man tale, Roland tells yet another story, this one called “The Wind Through The Keyhole” (so, really, The Wind Through The Keyhole amounts to a story-within-a-story-within-a-story). This second tale is basically a Mid-World version of a fairy tale, and concerns a young boy named Thomas Stoutheart. We meet Thomas just as his father’s been killed by a dragon (or has he?!), and the events that follow his father’s death will lead Thomas on a quest through some very dangerous Mid-World environs, indeed.

During this journey, Tom encounters mud-people, giant snakes, enormous and deadly poison mushrooms, a many-tentacled monster (that --as described-- appears to be Cthulhu-sized), gadgets made by North Central Positronics, and a few surprise guest stars best left unmentioned in this paragraph. Indeed, I’d love to talk more about the plot, but because the book only runs a scant 335 pages, it feels like the surprises the book does contain should be left for Dark Tower fans to discover on their own*. If you want to remain unspoiled, rest assured that everything here is of a piece with the other DT books.

Because I’ve already finished the Dark Tower cycle about three times over, I didn’t feel any pressing need for the book to wrap up as I read The Wind Through The Keyhole. I was thrilled to be revisiting Mid-World, soaking in the vernacular (one King so clearly loves writing in) and discovering all these new monsters and gadgetry that factor into the tale. As a 335-page postscript, the novel definitely works.

But I couldn’t help but wonder how newcomers might feel, particularly those who are running through the Dark Tower series from beginning to end for the very first time. If I was somewhat annoyed when the action was brought to a halt for a 500-page flashback in Wizard and Glass, what might newbies think upon finishing that installment and realizing that they were in for another 300 pages’ worth of flashback (and, as it happens, a flash-sideways of sorts)? If it were my first read-through, I might feel just a wee bit exasperated. Then again, you might feel totally different about such things, and I might be overthinking this. It does seem worth noting, however, so…there it is: noted.

This leads me to the following recommendation: if you’ve already read the entire Dark Tower series, it’s unquestionable that you should pick up this volume and read it. But if you haven’t already given the series a complete run-through—especially if you haven’t reached volume four yet—I’d strongly recommend that you skip The Wind Through The Keyhole for the time being. Read the other seven volumes first, and then come back for this one. Consider it the bonus that it is. Or, hell, depending on how you react to the conclusion that awaits you at the end of King’s epic, you might just want to consider this one a palate-cleanser.

Overall, I was extremely happy with The Wind Through The Keyhole, and—though the structure of the book makes me wonder how newcomers might receive it—I loved how King pulled off the shoehorning that needed to take place to make the book fit (before reading, I’d wondered how King would pull that off, and because I’d avoided any pre-release information about the book itself I was pleasantly surprised by the literary loophole he utilized here). King’s eye for Mid-World detail remains sharp, the “quest within a larger quest” structure of most of the other books continues, and the new ties King creates (to both his own characters and other literary characters you might be familiar with) are as intriguing as ever.

If you’re a Dark Tower fan, you’re going to love every page, and if you’re not already a Dark Tower fan, I’d strongly recommend that you start reading the series now. Yeah, yeah, the ending pissed off a lot of people (and yes, the fifth, sixth and seventh volumes aren’t as balls-out great as the first four), but this series really is a perfect example of “it’s about the journey, not the destination." Besides, it’s looking more and more like someone in Hollywood’s going to end up filming these things one day, and it’s almost a foregone conclusion that they won’t live up to the source material. Don’t let Ron Howard’s The Gunslinger be your first interaction with Roland of Mid-World: get onboard this fanboy bandwagon now, while it’s still respectable.

*. If you’re really, really determined to know a few more details about the book, I’ll offer them here, but if you’d like to remain unspoiled, please go ahead and just buy the damn book (last chance!): there are no overt references to Eyes of The Dragon, though the secondary tale felt like it was going to spit one out at any minute (I was hoping for a Peter cameo, but I don’t think I got one); Much like he tied the Harry Potter universe to the Dark Tower universe in the series’ later books, King creates ties to the Narnia books in a pretty compelling way here; Maerlyn the Magician appears, and—considering how King writes his dialogue—I definitely want to see more of this-character-as-written-by-King in the future; and, finally, yes, a certain villain in a certain-colored cloak does appear in a handful of scenes**.

**: Two things I want to note here, one to do with the other. First, I felt a profound sense of sadness after finishing this volume, just as I did when I completed the seventh novel in the series. I’ve been such a big fan of this epic for so much of my life, it really does feel tough to say goodbye whenever the time comes. I’d already made my peace with the idea of “no more Dark Tower books”, but with The Wind Through The Keyhole, King both reopens those wounds and shows us that he, too, is still interested in Mid-World and its citizenry. And so, I try to ease my DT depression with the hope that King will return again. This brings me to my second point: if King does return to Mid-World (and I so hope he does), he hasn’t left himself much wiggle room for “inserting” another ka-tet-related installment like he did here. With that in mind, here’s what I’d like to see: a sprawling doorstop of a book, one entirely concerned with the trials, tribulations, and history of Randall Flagg. Considering the importance “RF” has had to King’s body of work over the years, I think it’d be amazing if King were to construct a tell-all of sorts about the character, one that follows Flagg through childhood, through his many interactions with King’s characters, and—finally—to the moment where he finally overestimated his powers. Just imagine an 800-page Randall Flagg “biography” (with a Bango Skank subplot, of course): I’d read three copies of it at once.