First of all: SPOILERS
Second of all: I realize we’re just a little past ten years along the beam. But just a little!
It only requires mild exaggeration to claim that I grew up with Stephen King’s The Dark Tower series. I can remember reading the third book, The Waste Lands, almost as soon as it was released (I had to wait until my mom finished it before I could get there), and that was when I was ten. Probably that same year, or maybe late the year before, I must have read the first two.
I’m not sure how much business a ten year old has reading these books. Not because of their adult content really, but because they grow so complicated so quickly and push so far past what a kid that young can comprehend. Speaking just for myself, I understood very little of what was going on. But something had me hooked enough to ignore what I didn’t get or pretend I was on top of things and push on regardless. That is the right of every little dumbass.
Wizard and Glass came out in 1997. A little math tells me I was sixteen. By that time, I had reread the first three Dark Tower books numerous times and loved them deeply, particularly The Waste Lands, which filled me with a yearning to be Jake Chambers that I doubt any piece of fiction has matched. I was mature enough to get the story particulars but still too immature to accept Wizard and Glass as the wonderful, tragic backstory it is instead of the Waste Lands sequel it mostly isn’t.
Then there was a six year wait. In that time I reread the books again and learned to appreciate Wizard and Glass more. But also in that time, Stephen King nearly died, and the idea that he’d never finish this series became a real possibility. Awful as that sounds, it would have an interesting end. Because I started this series so young, Roland’s Dark Tower never really stopped being the same hazy, incomprehensible goal it was when I first started learning about it. His world remained endless and filled with mystery. If we never got to the bottom of it, maybe that was just as well.
But that’s not what happened. In 2003, King delivered Wolves of the Calla, followed closely in 2004 by Song of Susannah and later that year, the series’ final book, The Dark Tower. The anticipation was ridiculous.
Something was off with these books, however. In a way that wasn’t even present in Wizard and Glass’ flashback narrative, this trilogy of novels felt different. It was an unpleasant sensation, as though the magic I longed for really had ended six years before with the fourth volume.
And so, in my mind anyway, the Dark Tower series became not one epic thing but a segmented journey - the first three and the last three, divided by the great but narratively removed Wizard and Glass. Or to put it a more pointed way - the ones I read a lot, the one I read a few times, and the ones I only read once.
For ten years this is how I viewed them. It occurred to me recently that maybe I was full of shit. Certainly this last decade has shown me enough things I was full of shit about for me to question my Dark Tower stance as at least full of shit-possible. How glorious it would be to discover that with the passage of time, everything actually worked out far better than I initially understood?
So I reread the last three Dark Tower books. And guess what! They are way better than I realized. I have my beef with 2014, but this is one case where it really had my back.
There are disappointing aspects to the end of The Dark Tower that cannot be controlled. The closer we get to an end game, specificity becomes inevitable and necessary. Blaine the Mono’s journey over the strange and unknowable Waste Lands filled me with both dread and wonder because everything was still so open and unknown. Starting with Wolves of the Calla, King has no choice but to start pinning things down. This applies to everything from his universe’s rules to villains to mere geography. While Roland’s crew comes across a wide variety of conflicts in the last three books, the specific Wolves story at play in Wolves of the Calla remains a broader threat until they destroy it two books later. Susannah’s pregnancy, another big issue in this book, also does not come to fruition for two more novels. We very much trade wonder for knowledge and it shrinks the potential for awe significantly.
But that’s a necessity of storytelling I’m don’t see how King was expected to avoid. At some point, Sam and Frodo have to climb Mount Doom. It can be a far-off goal for a while, but eventually this legendary thing has to become pedestrian enough to walk upon. Instead of being disappointed that Roland’s enemies and goals narrow to something that can actually be known, counted, and defeated, marvel instead at the fact that this Arthurian Cowboy story requires the good guys to start a gigantic, billion dollar corporation to fight the enemy in modern New York while they shoot the shit out of them in a far more broken down world. We have to settle for the literal, but it’s not so bad when the facts are so fucking badass and weird.
The point being, if this sort of thing keeps you from liking these books, there may not be much help for you. Some writers are better at this than King, who has a pretty poor reputation for endings. Sometimes the fault is his and his alone. Other times I believe he suffers from being so exceptionally great at starting stories that he has nowhere to go but down, just as a force of narrative gravity. To offer just one example, I don’t hate the alien resolution to Under the Dome. I hate the way King flippantly murders nearly all the characters at the end as though I were a fool for being interested in them in the first place. The Dark Tower suffers from both issues but the former type plagues it far more than the latter, which is something I don’t have a problem accepting.
Some less forgivable Stephen King problems do exist, however. I lose a lot of patience with King’s insistence on having older characters from his body of work show up for large chunks of the narrative. The shared-universe idea behind it is cool, and I don’t even mind the huge backstories we have to traverse before getting back to the real narrative at hand. The problem is their inflated importance to and within the core group of characters we’ve come to love and see as a family.
Roland, Eddie, Susannah, Jake, and Oy are a unit, and that unit - more than anything - is what I love about these books. When 'Salem’s Lot’s Father Callahan enters this precious circle in Wolves of the Calla, it just doesn’t feel right. Their welcoming of and love for him seems unearned and diminishes the strength of that core unit. Callahan’s the most egregious example, but the sudden importance of outside players like Song of Susannah’s John Cullum (not from a previous novel as far as I know), and The Dark Tower’s Ted Brautigan bother me a lot. Very late in the last book we meet up with Insomnia’s Patrick Danville, a character we know neither from this series nor his own novel, really, since he was a child then and now appears as a mute adult. The role he plays is absolutely crucial, which is somehow even more annoying because his participation just doesn’t feel as epic as it should, especially this late in the game.
I also have problems with the complicated issue of Ka in these last three books. Acting both as a sort of unwavering fate and a manifestation of the fact that the story is being transmitted through an author named Stephen King, Ka dictates not only everything that happens in this story but the heavy reliance on coincidence and repeated elements we come across with increased frequency in this last trilogy. I suppose fate was always present in the story, but here King relies on it to the extent that it robs the characters of agency. In a sense, they can’t make a wrong move. King brings up interesting elements - such as the Crimson King’s anti-Ka or the notion that once Roland’s crew frees the Breakers in The Dark Tower, they outrun Ka’s influence - but neither of these end up meaning anything real.
This isn’t quite as simple as bad or lazy storytelling. King wants to make the storytelling itself part of the story and therefore makes a show of the narrative conventions at work rather than silently adhering to them. Ka’s only real trump card lies with its willingness to kill beloved characters. When it comes to Roland’s pursuit of the Dark Tower or whether the universe will fall to the Crimson King’s plans for utter destruction, its certainty robs the plot of suspense.
My last big problem is a kind of combination of both these issues. I don’t like Mordred, Roland and the Crimson King’s spider-human son. I liked him more upon this reread, but his presence and ultimate role - especially considering the time we invest in him - still disappoints me.
Mordred’s actually kind of amazing in a way. We spend two books waiting for him. Once he arrives, King displays his threat almost immediately by having him murder Randal Flagg (an act that perfectly represents how new characters we barely know end up playing a bigger part than we can be satisfied with. Flagg’s demise at the hands of a relative stranger is a bummer). He is as evil and dangerous as he needs to be to eventually supply a villain of interest. Instead, King turns him into a wholly pathetic character, born into a world of constant starvation that diminishes his full threat more and more with each passing page. By the time Mordred finally makes his move against Roland, he’s a shadow of his potential and doesn’t stand a chance. Yes, he kills Oy, but by that point in The Dark Tower, we’re so mired in sorrow and death that Oy’s departure feels more like a blessing than anything. (And what a neat trick THAT is. Killing the dog is usually a lazy writer’s way of stabbing emotions. Here King has us too numbed by tragedy for it to even register much.)
This is such a strange and interesting choice on King’s part that I am loathe to complain about it. But I must given the almost three whole books we spend getting ready for Mordred to play his part in the story. After biding his time for nearly all of The Dark Tower, he emerges from the shadows sick with starvation and food poisoning, kills Oy, and dies almost instantly at Roland’s hand. Mordred doesn’t matter. For all his supposed importance, he is little more than an extra long digression. His actions don’t add up to much. Neither does his stance as a Gollum-like figure of tragedy. The one thing he does do robs us of a final showdown between Roland and Flagg, a figure that actually is large in our minds and Roland's history.
Oh wait, there’s one more thing I don’t like! Take everything I just said about Mordred, ignore any of the good parts, multiply what’s left by a hundred, and apply that to the Crimson King. I try no to, but I guess I have a problem with him too.
These things have been on my mind for a decade. I’ve said them out loud to plenty of people. Now they’re also written down, and I’m ready to move on to much newer territory: Why I actually still love these books.
Let’s start Wolves of the Calla, the one detractors are usually pretty okay with. Wolves of the Calla is fucking awesome. Particularly when you view it after reading the last two novels, it feels a little like a gift, a hefty story of family, friendship, and mostly unambiguous heroism against bad odds. There are digressions (trips to our world, Father Callahan’s story, anything involving Mia), but it is surprisingly concentrated on the task at hand. Most Dark Tower books utilize narratives built around constant travel. This one stays put and as a result has a greater focus on the unity of Roland’s ka-tet and how far they’ve come.
The plot is a little more than a Seven Samurai/Magnificent Seven riff. A group of villagers needs help and as a storybook hero, Roland has a duty to help them if they ask. Sometimes you just want to see these gunslingers in a western, and Stephen King gives us one.
That their enemies end up being closely involved with the destruction of the Dark Tower should come as no surprise. This isn’t a one-off, after all. I have heard a lot of people complain about the wolves and their reliance on outfits and weaponry from our popular culture. They look like Doctor Doom. They carry Star Wars lightsabers and Harry Potter sneetches. This stuff doesn’t really bother me so much, though I think King’s reimagining of sneetches into homing grenades is a bit of a stretch.
The best bits of Wolves of the Calla involve the ka-tet itself and how lies and secrets threaten to poison their precious bond of kinship. I tend to hate secrets as a plot device (the bane of television storytelling), but here King introduces some not to destroy anything but instead to illustrate the ka-tet’s ultimate trust. Secrets last just long enough to create the tension of possible disaster and personal strife, but not long enough for either of those things to actually cause harm. And once everyone comes clean, we end up with a stronger ka-tet than the one we had before. Roland’s gunslingers simply have their own individual hunches and investigations to do before putting all their cards on the table. They are no longer novices in Roland’s world, and it’s exciting to see how much they’ve grown. together and as individuals.
This is all very important because once Wolves of the Calla ends, King gives us precious little time with the ka-tet as a united group. Therefore it’s extra nice to have this one last unified adventure with them.
Song of Susannah is a different beast altogether. Split mainly between Eddie and Roland’s quest to protect a rose, the Dark Tower’s twin in our world, and Susannah/Mia’s journey to deliver their baby, the book divides the ka-tet almost from its opening pages. King doesn’t reunite them until well into The Dark Tower.
This is very much a transitional book, totally lacking its own beginning and end. Susannah and Mia disappear at the conclusion of Calla and don’t actually deliver their baby until the start of The Dark Tower. For years I actively resented this entry, not just for its lack of real narrative identity, but also for splitting up the team I love so much in service of an eventual villain who lacks narrative impact worth all this trouble. The stuff with Roland and Eddie is great. The stuff with Mia and Susannah felt mostly like a waste of time. Meanwhile Jake and Oy hardly appear in the book at all.
But that was also when I had to wait a painful number of months before I could finally read the final book, The Dark Tower. Now that I can jump effortlessly from the end of one novel to the beginning of the next, Song of Susannah’s ampersand nature has a lot less sting to it. For one thing, it’s shorter than I remember - about three hundred pages shorter than Calla and around four hundred pages shorter than The Dark Tower. It also moves. I reread it in under twenty-four hours, so regardless of any negativity I might have had toward the novel, it was obviously enthralling enough that I refused to put it down.
This is also where we finally run into one of The Dark Tower’s more controversial elements, Stephen King himself. Even ten years ago, I had little problem with this. King serves an interesting but not totally unwelcome purpose, and the way King writes himself into the story goes far beyond mere meta cuteness. He also makes himself out to be a coward, one Roland and Eddie end up actually hating a little, which I enjoy. On the other hand, I can’t help throwing a little side-eye at his insistence that he and Roland could almost be twins. I get what he’s going for there, but c’mon. Don’t do that.
This brings us to The Dark Tower. When this book was first released, I was on tour with a band and didn’t have enough money to actually buy it. So I read it, little by little, in bookstores across the country. It feels sort of romantic. But it was also sort of stealing. In any case, each time I got picked up, my buddies commented on how sad I looked. That’s The Dark Tower in a nutshell: It’s fucking sad. Even when it’s all done with sad events, it makes us trudge through the muck of depression for a punishing amount of time. It’s a bummer.
It’s also amazing. The Dark Tower is something special, something standing slightly outside of the end of this series and even the end of this very unified last trilogy. It’s almost a trilogy in and of itself. It is a monolithic, weird-ass book.
The Dark Tower has a lot of business to conduct. First King must finally conclude this plot with Susannah, Mia, and Mordred. After that, he brings his ka-tet together for one final act of exciting heroism - “freeing” the breakers from their work mentally bringing down the Dark Tower. This is where we lose Eddie Dean and the ka-tet finally breaks.
It was a wonderful ride, but from this point on The Dark Tower becomes a story of loss. King makes us feel every inch. Eddie doesn’t just get shot in the head; he lingers for a whole day. When Jake gives his life to save Stephen King, Roland has to miss the last living moments with perhaps his closest ally to instead deal with King’s injuries. Oddly the most painful bit of all, Ka grants Susannah a doorway out of Roland’s story, and she takes it, abandoning him to his business right when he’s closest to being swallowed up by physical fatigue and emotional despair.
But it is his business. In terms of saving and ensuring the extended safety of the universe, Roland accomplishes his mission fairly early in the book. Excluding the weak and poisoned Mordred, who seems already on his way out with or without Roland’s aid, nothing really stands against the White. The Crimson King still exists, but he’s incapacitated, harmlessly locked forever on one of the Tower’s balconies. Roland wins. But it is not enough for him. He must see his Tower. And, of course, we must see it as well.
So we get a book of adventure, followed by a brutal whirlwind of tragedy, which then gives way to a slow meditation on misery. King doesn’t just have Roland travel leagues with loss on his mind. He has him travel across leagues of bitter cold and desolation, and he forces us to feel almost every step. Oy’s still around, but he’s joyless and muted by sorrow. Only Roland’s kinship with Susannah can provide warmth, but even before she leaves him, her and Oy’s presence only reminds us of what we and Roland have lost. It’s rough.
All this unpleasantness feels true, however. We’ve long been told of Roland’s obsession for the Tower and penchant for seeing those close to him perish. But until The Dark Tower, we never really have a feel for that, not like this anyway. Of his ka-tet, not his first ka-tet either, only Susannah survives. Roland started alone, and he must finish alone regardless of the love he finds along the way. That’s always been his deal, just not in the books we have to read.
I am not totally clear on the didactic nature of Roland’s need to climb the tower, whether we are meant to see it as an act of greed or a preordained and natural aspect of his legend. He has the key to get inside, indicating that it is his fate to enter regardless of whether or not he actually needs to. But so did the Crimson King.
Either way, the Tower is not kind to Roland. Every floor shows him a year of his history, most of it unpleasant and filled with death. After a while, he simply runs up the remaining stairs, thereby skipping each floor’s memory, even more recent ones of Eddie, Susannah, Jake, and Oy. Upon reaching the top, Roland realizes this is far from his first visit to the Tower; he’s been living this journey on a constant loop thanks to his failure to possess and blow the legendary Horn of Eld. So he gets shoved through the door for one more go. This time the Tower is a little kinder (though I honestly have no idea why): When he wakes up in the desert with no memory of what just happened, he finds the Horn of Eld in his possession once again, leading us to believe he will finally get his happy ending after all (seven books later).
It’s big and dark and incredible and while filled with tons of little Stephen King annoyances, actually concludes this epic tale in a way that feels right and true. Ultimately, I think the same can be said of this last trilogy overall. They do not as well with the other books as we’d probably like, but Wolves of the Calla offers probably the smoothest transition possible. I still can’t see the entire series as one tight unit. Perhaps that’s my fault, however, for not reading the whole thing over from the beginning.
Nevertheless, I can now say with certainty that I truly do love The Dark Tower, warts and all. It really is a grand achievement from beginning to end, far from the compromised epic I spent a decade a decade feeling ambivalent about. I’m so glad I got that figured out.