The Gunslinger

Author: Stephen King

Type: Fiction, novel

Part of series: The Dark Tower (#1)

Published: 1978-1981 (original stories); 2003 (this edition)

I read it: August 2016 (re-read)


I spent plenty of hours wandering the aisles of Hastings in Ames, Iowa. Most of that time was spent combing through the racks of used CDs, but I’d also peek at the books from time to time. One day I was scanning the endcaps with my dad, and I suppose it would have been late 2003 because there was a display with The Dark Tower books—presumably volume five was newly released and bringing the series back to the attention of readers. At that point I had read exactly two Stephen King books I’d borrowed from friends during freshman year: the brutal and fascinating The Long Walk (technically a Bachman title) and Misery, the popular rock-solid thriller.

Two related features probably encouraged me to take a chance on that endcap: the vague fantasy look of the stories (something with a hint of Rings/Potter/Narnia held potential for me) and the fact that it was a series. Because I was primed to try more King, I figured I’d dive into this mysterious sprawl instead of researching which of his other titles were considered the best. Pillars like The Stand and It would come in good time, but at this point, the Tower awaited.

I was probably one of many readers who were coming to the story new. Snagging a paperback of The Gunslinger which was “revised and expanded throughout” and had “a new introduction and foreword by the author” already made the story feel like a dusty relic. The intro was intriguing enough, with SK describing his younger self and his boastful desires: “I wanted to get inside my readers’ defenses, wanted to rip them and ravish them and change them forever with nothing but story. And I felt I could do those things. I felt I had been made to do those things.” (He was.)

The foreword is where he describes the alterations to language and plot he made for this reissue, for the purpose of bringing things more in line with the overarching series. These changes might matter, if at all, to only the original readers. And even so, The Gunslinger is itself cobbled from five independent stories originally published in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. It’s a novel that comes with a host of qualifications. I had been tempted to describe as The Hobbit to the other books’ LOTR, but only for its unique kicking-off feeling of much larger things to come. That’s not an accurate comparison, though. Even if The Gunslinger is a strange and mystical first chapter that feels like its own curious specimen, it’s still a suitable fit alongside the seven other entries, each of which have their own peculiarities and style.

So I bought a copy, burned through the series, read a boatload of other King books, and even picked up a good chunk of the DT comics that Marvel put out. Now the Hollywood version is really happening. The hour is here for a re-read of The Dark Tower, and like a direct blast of ka, the subtitle for the book is RESUMPTION. Spoiler warnings be damned, let’s resume, and begin the journey again now that more than a decade has passed in my particular when.

The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed.

The classic opening sentence sets the thesis that this is a novel of symbols, myths, and a couple of strange men. The man in black is the hook, the desert is the evocation of the American West, and the gunslinger is the reason we’re here. Fittingly, he is alone at the beginning of our tale. One thing (of many) that I had forgotten about was his first meeting with another human, a mellow dweller named Brown who has a raven named Zoltan. But the thing I did remember and looked forward to was the scene at Tull.

Actually, there are multiple scenes at Tull, and it’s some of the best stuff in the book. The town has a lot of the western tropes we’d expect from a book called The Gunslinger, with an added air of decay and unease. The Tull scenes are heavily packed with world-building, such as the references to our own time (Jethro Tull) or the man in black’s request, “Once more, please. Once more with feeling, as they say in the world next door.” There’s also a lot of foreshadowing, as in, a lot. Some of this is poetic musing about the Tower itself, even when the ideas come from an ignorant individual:

Allie watched them and felt a pang of fleeting despair for the sad times of this world. The loss. Things had stretched apart. There was no glue at the center anymore. Somewhere something was tottering, and when it fell, all would end.

She doesn’t know what she’s feeling, but she’s feeling it because of the presence of both Roland and the man in black. Speaking of “Roland,” the first time the gunslinger is referred to by name is on page 80, and the name is spoken by a lover: “Kill me, Roland, kill me!” And he does so (mercifully, one might argue, but kills her just the same). This is a major bug (feature?) in the Roland code. He kills what he loves.

He kills a lot of other people, too. The reason Tull is memorable is because he erases the memory of it—he kills the whole town, around 58 people. (Although the lead-up is better reading than the actual shootout. Or massacre, rather.) So was this self-defense or a holy mission? That question will always flutter around Roland’s skull and remain obstinately answer-less.

Another puzzle piece in Tull is the mention of the Crimson King. Roland goes head to head with Sylvia Pittston, a preacher woman who says “It’s him that will come as the Antichrist, a crimson king with bloody eyes…” And, after Roland defeats her in a mysterious battle of wills: “You’ve killed the child of the Crimson King. But you will be repaid.” We’ll hear plenty more about this Crimson King, and eventually, about the child as well.

The other major flashback sequence is Roland’s transition into becoming a gunslinger. We get a little backstory about his mother, who comes under the sway of the wizard Marten, as well as brief glimpses of Roland’s father, who tells him:

It is not your place to be moral. In fact, morals may always be beyond you. That’s all right, though. It will make you formidable.

This is a nice summary of Roland the person. Extremely stubborn, not always the brightest, sometimes immoral or amoral, but always formidable. Such as when he confronts his teacher Cort in his only chance at winning his father’s guns and the glory of the label attached to them. The battle with Cort is so cool and central to the story that it’s no wonder one of the longest installments of the overall series, Wizard and Glass, is made up of more of this time from Roland’s young manhood.

Finally, the last big piece of this book is the gunslinger meeting Jake Chambers. This unfortunate boy just pops up at the way station with no recollection of how he got there or why (he’s from our world). Roland feels a connection to and responsibility for Jake, yet also a sense of dread that he now has a companion on this dangerous mission. They battle slow mutants and survive a dark journey under the mountains, kind of like their own little Moria sequence. In this place, Roland reflects on the circularity of his path:

How we make large circles in earth for ourselves, he thought. Around we go, back to the start and the start is there again: resumption, which was ever the curse of daylight.

Resumption. Does Roland know what is about to occur because he has done this before?

What occurs: the sacrifice of Jake. This is nuts! Well, it was surprising mostly because I had forgotten about it. This kid has seriously bad luck, and who knows how many worlds and whens he has lived in, and then died in. It’s a harsh underscore to what the reader needs to know about Roland: he is relentless. He needs to catch the man in black, but only because the man in black leads to the Tower. Sacrifices shall happen.

So Roland does catch up to the man in black, who turns out to be a master tarot card reader. He’s also tickled at Roland’s progress: “You are the world’s last adventurer. The last crusader. How that must please you, Roland! Yet you have no idea how close you stand to the Tower now, as you resume your quest. Worlds turn about your head.” Roland answers, “What do you mean, resume? I never left off.” The man in black also foreshadows the overall series, which is perhaps one piece of dialogue that King tweaked to make it all fit: “Everything in the universe denies nothing; to suggest an ending is the one absurdity.” More resumption.

The first book is a beginning, but the reader is reminded over and over to distrust the very idea of beginnings and endings. The Gunslinger feels like a dreamy mishmash, but at least the execution works into the themes of the greater story. A more intriguing book than a great one, it mostly opens a lot of mysterious doors we might walk through.

Mid-World Roundup (brought to you by the former town of Tull):

  • Epigraph: Thomas Wolfe’s Look Homeward, Angel
  • Mid-World travel dictionary: We witness the first use of the call-and-response “Long days and pleasant nights.” “May you have twice the number.” One of the best phrases of the series.
  • Pronunciation station: While underground, Roland notes the “fot-suls” (fossils).
  • The world next door: The man in black says “You can gather wood to remember your Isaac” followed up by Roland having “no understanding of the reference.” So he doesn’t know the story of Abraham and Isaac, but he does know other parts of the Bible. Interesting.
  • Meditations on the Tower: “The Tower. Somewhere ahead, it waited for him—the nexus of Time, the nexus of Size.”
  • Foreshadowing: This book has a ton of it, but while rolling a smoke Roland uses “fingers that would all too soon be gone.” Damn, omniscience!

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