Sunday, June 13, 2004

Proof that I do, in fact, read...

Here's something rare for Judgment Call: A book review!

Stephen King published the first of the short stories that would eventually become The Gunslinger (the first novel in what would eventually become the mammoth Dark Tower series) in a magazine in 1978. Sometime in the mid-to-late 80s, The Gunslinger was published in an illustrated limited edition. I knew nothing of it at the time, but I had just started reading King myself. I was in sixth grade, and I had also just discovered the joys of Freddy Kreuger and Ellen Ripley (thanks mostly to my friend DAM, whose parents let us watch all sorts of films we were probably too young for). A friend suggested I read The Body, because I had liked Stand By Me so much. I was bored by the novella, and the other non-horror stories in that collection, but then I read Carrie and I was hooked.

By the end of eighth grade I had read maybe ten or twelve of King's novels and his two short story collections (I read much more then than I do now, but I was never very fast, and there was school to deal with too). Conveniently, this was when The Gunslinger came out in a mass-market edition. In retrospect, I think I may have enjoyed it so much because it was so different from all the other King I'd been reading. The Gunslinger is a sort of post-apocalyptic fantasy Western. King was clearly playing, and it was a major leap in subject, though not in writing style. It's a simple story about big things (quests, fate, and dying worlds), so it's natural King would see in it the beginnings of an epic, and also that the original story might not quite support pieces of that epic written 25 years later.

The Dark Tower V: Wolves of the Calla came out a few months ago, many many years after book four. After such a long wait (I heard something about a near-fatal car accident causing the delay, but come on, Steve, where are your priorities?), I was really excited to return to the world of Roland (the Gunslinger) and his traveling companions. Unfortunately, I found them and their world somewhat changed. Not for the worse, necessarily, but certainly for the wordier.

No one would ever call Stephen King a brilliant poet, but in his prime he was a masterful storyteller. He understood that simplicity, especially in horror, was a virtue. A single rabid dog is far scarier than an elaborately contrived army of CGI beasties in, say, Van Helsing. Even in the early novels that topped a thousand pages, it never seemed to me like he was wasting words. These were large stories, long in the telling, but everything in them seemed to belong, and to drive events forward. In his more recent work, he seems to have lost the ability to edit, convinced that everything he puts to paper is genius! when in fact it's just distracting and convoluted. Wolves suffers from this excess in spades. The central story is quite simple and compelling, along the sci-fi-western lines of the first book, but it's surrounded by so much pretension, mediocre writing, and downright stupid ideas that it all seemed to drag. Enough hints of what was to come were dropped (he's still good at that) to make me read on to see how it would end. Plus, after 15 years or so, there's no way I'm not going to finish the series.

Even in his earliest books, King had a habit of dropping in little references to his other work. This made a certain sense, since so many of his stories took place in a cluster of made up towns in Maine. Even though the bulk of The Gunslinger had been written so many years earlier, when I read it, it was hard not to wonder if it tied into the similarly fairy-tale-like Eyes of the Dragon, if the mysterious Man in Black might be the recurring villain Flagg, or if Roland's world, which contained "ancient" relics like an electric water pump and "Hey Jude," might be what sprung up a hundred or a thousand years after the apocalypse of The Stand. I surely wasn't the only reader to think this way, and in the last two books (and almost everything else he's written at the same time), he has decided to make The Dark Tower his "masterwork," clumsily tying together nearly everything he has ever published. He's been dropping references to the Tower in non-Tower books, which is fine, but now all of a sudden he's pulling in completely irrelevant elements of books that weren't very good to begin with into the series as well. It all seems kind of egorific. At best, a winking "Look how clever I am!" At worst, an assumption that anyone reading one of his books has read them all. I've read a lot of them, true, but not many of the recent ones, and most of those were bad and unmemorable, so I don't get the references anyway.

The Dark Tower for which Roland searches stands at the center of the world, or something like that. Now, it seems, the Tower actually contains all of creation. Setting aside the metaphysical quandary of how you can travel to something that you are already inside of, the idea is that parallel worlds exist on different "levels of the Tower," and as the world moves on and the Tower crumbles, those worlds are merging and colliding. Okay, fine. So the characters who came from New York in the '60s, '70s and '80s didn't time-travel, they world-traveled. I'll buy that. And I didn't mind so much when a character from 'Salem's Lot showed up. But when his backstory (filling in the time between that novel and this one) included two hundred pages about three different types of vampires, wandering in and out of various slightly different versions of America, and being chased and nearly killed by ambiguous villains from yet another book I think I've read but didn't like and don't really remember, I lost interest. It all seemed highly irrelevant and made very little sense. Finally, when [spoiler] I simply became irritated at the stupidity.

King usually writes a really good forward in which he summarizes the previous books in the series, so I didn't feel a need to re-read them all before I started Wolves. This time though the forward just confused me, and reading something so mediocre containing all the elements I had loved years ago made me want to go back to the start. So when I finished, irritated at both the lame references to Star Wars and Harry Potter (seriously), and at the cliffhanger just crafty enough to make me anxious for part six, I started The Gunslinger again.

The slip in quality is not just due to the differences between my 13-year-old self and my 28-year-old self. The first book is vastly superior. A lot of the seeds of the series are sown, and in the afterword King claims that he has written a "synopsis of the action to follow [that] suggests a length approaching 3000 pages." I assume he threw that out, since he's now using elements of books only written in the last few years, and also because he's been so sloppy. For instance, in Wolves, Roland doesn't understand the concept of magazines from our world, but in The Gunslinger he spends some time reading through "back issues of magazines." A version of Christianity plays a fairly vital role in the first book, but in the fifth Father Callahan (the one from 'Salem's Lot) brings it with him from our world. These are little quibbles, and it can't be easy to sustain a story so large over 25 years, but the carelessness bugs me. It may be only that both series planned to be seven books long, but I can't help thinking of Harry Potter. JK Rowling is a master of continuity, and one gets the sense that even if she hasn't plotted every detail out, she'll never contradict herself. Even George Lucas, as he busily revises history with the Star Wars prequels, has shown more restraint, and more respect for his viewers' intelligence.

I went to the store today to try to buy volume six (they didn't have it, but that's another rant), and I noticed that The Gunslinger is "now expanded and revised!" I flipped through, and saw that King has gone back and added all kinds of nonsense to match the nonsense in the new book. So he's basically taken a simple and elegant book and added a bunch of pretentious bad writing to it so it will fit in better with what he's writing now? (He also, unless I just missed it in my quick glance, took out the magazine reference.) I'm not entirely sure why this pisses me off so much, but it does. It's almost an acknowledgement of the fact that he has lost track of this story if he felt the need to go back and "fix" the beginning.

Okay, so that was less of a book review and more of a rant. The bottom line? I would strongly recommend the first three books in Dark Tower series, if not for the fact that they all end on cliffhangers that would eventually bring you to the fourth and fifth. I'm in for the long haul myself, so if six and seven make it all worthwhile in the end, I'll let you know.

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