The Waste Lands

Author: Stephen King

Type: Fiction, novel

Part of series: The Dark Tower (#3)

Published: 1991

I read it: November 2016 (re-read)


Book three feels like the point where the journey properly begins. The crew is healing and eating better. The gunslinger “had done more smiling these last five weeks than he had done in the five years which had come before them.” While Roland heals, he gives Eddie and Susannah their shooting lessons.

Susannah finds herself confronting the dark pull of the gun, whispering as a voice inside her: “That voice suggested that she could not wait to do something like that again. And it was cold, that voice. Cold.” Eddie has a similar realization as he comes to embrace his new dangerous role:

Part of him liked the coldness that fell over him when he spoke the words of the old, old catechism the gunslinger had taught them; the coldness and the way things seemed to stand forth with their own breathless clarity. There was another part of him which understood that this was just another deadly drug…but that did not alter the thin, tight pleasure of the moment.

The new gunslingers are quickly put to the test when they are confronted by an old decaying cyborg robot bear, who was once a guardian of the beam. Shardik almost makes mincemeat of Eddie, but the team brings him down. The bear has a funny radar poking out of his head, which apparently was the origin of where the phrase “thinking cap” came from: the myth that each of the Guardians had an extra brain on the outside of its head.

This myth is an example of one of the great rising pleasures at this point in the adventure: the overlap of Roland’s world and ours. This is made literal whenever a door opens between the worlds, but there are other similarities that intrigue. When the group comes across old folks clinging to live in River Crossing, they know the story of Icarus, “he of the beeswax wings.” (They also believe that “no man ever flew, not even the Great Old Ones.” Such is the state of their lost knowledge.) An old Nazi fighter plane holds a skeleton pilot long dead, which has given birth to its own swirl of myths to the nearby populations. “Shardik” is the bear from a Richard Adams novel of the same name, and other references include Peter Pan and The Wizard of Oz.

But before the group meets more characters, they have to pull Jake. This was a point that had become fuzzy to me since the initial read. It seems that in The Drawing of the Three the “three” should be Eddie, Susannah, and Jake. But that’s not quite right. That’s what should have happened, but because it didn’t, Jake exists as both dead and alive. And because part of Roland knows this, he’s slowly going mad. So the first big task is to somehow get Jake into Roland’s world and resolve the paradox.

A young Jake drifts through New York going mad himself, while dealing with his overbearing father. He’s also writing a crazed essay which references T.S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land” (of course) and Robert Browning’s “Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came” (of course!), as well as a mysterious danger: “Blaine is a pain, and that is the truth.” One of Jake’s teachers enthusiastically praises the essay, and includes this aside: “Your use of incremental repetition (‘…and that is the truth’) is inspired, but of course incremental repetition is really just a trick. The real worth of the composition is in its symbolic quality.” The point about “incremental repetition” being a trick is great, because that’s one of King’s own tricks. It also happens to be a primary method used throughout The Song of Roland, in stanzas known as laisses similaires. Robert Harrison had this to say about their effectiveness:

Like a set of musical variations, they weave their way back and forth through a central image, momentarily suspending the progress of the narrative. Their effect, however, is neither to enrich nor comment on the story, but to release it entirely from the bonds of time, to bring the action to a momentary standstill, so that the audience may have ample leisure to contemplate its true significance.

Obviously King is not writing overlapping stanzas, nor is his tendency toward repeated phrases strictly something he employs in this particular saga. But I think he’d be proud that the trick may temporarily “release the story from the bonds of time.” It doesn’t get much more appropriate to The Dark Tower than that.

I’d forgotten how Jake actually does join the team. He enters a house that is haunted in the most literal sense. The floorboards rise to grasp him and the old wood itself opens its maw to pull him down. This is some incredible imagery, the perfect snapshot of King weirdness that somehow works despite its superficial goofiness. On the other side of things, the gunslingers are trying to fend off a demon’s sexual hunger, and Susannah’s congress with this creature will have big implications. In another neat detail, the Mid-Worlders are opening the portal door as it lies flat on the ground, while Jake is entering a traditionally vertical door that opens into a wall of dirt. This flipping of the physical landscape drives home the tilted worlds that the characters encounter.

When Jake finally joins, the team is almost complete. They just need Oy! This fan favorite is an animal known as a billy bumbler: part dog, part raccoon, part, um, parrot? It can mimic speech to a limited degree and is highly social. The group can finally become ka-tet.

Each member of a ka-tet is like a piece in a puzzle. Taken by itself, each piece is a mystery, but when they are put together, they make a picture…or part of a picture. It may take a great many ka-tets to finish one picture.

Strangely, thanks to the workings of ka, Roland is not actually a full member of this ka-tet. The core trio consists of Eddie, Susannah, and Jake, and even Oy forms a part of it (moreso than Roland at least). These core people also share khef, a “closeness and sharing of minds” that also means water, birth, and life in an Old World language. They basically have low-level mental and emotional telepathy, with Roland sometimes able to tap into it or feel its aftereffects.

With the regular cast cemented, King can carry us through their perceptions of each other. Characterization of Roland is what the reader really hungers for at this point, and Susannah realizes that he used to be “a diplomat; a mediator; perhaps even a teacher,” as well as a soldier of “the White” and “more wandering knight-errant than bounty hunter.” For her part, Susannah still keeps Detta Walker pushed down deep inside, and when the alter ego emerges in glimpses she slides into the “bogus Southern plantation drawl.” Susannah, we learn, is only 26 years old. I remember her seeming way older than Eddie, or at least old enough to make it a unique relationship with a large age difference. Re-reading the book now, she’s seven years younger than me. (Why do characters seem so much older in books? They must come across as wise and worldly.)

Eddie is the first to become a full convert of the Tower mission. He’s led along by strange dreams, such as this vision of the Tower which is one of our most exciting descriptions yet:

The field stretched on for miles, climbing a gentle slope of land, and standing at the horizon was the Dark Tower. It was a pillar of dumb stone rising so high into the sky that he could barely discern its tip. Its base, surrounded by red, shouting roses, was formidable, titanic with weight and size, yet the Tower became oddly graceful as it rose and tapered. The stone of which it had been made was not black, as he had imagined it would be, but soot-colored. Narrow, slitted windows marched about it in a rising spiral; below the windows ran an almost endless flight of stone stairs, circling up and up. The Tower was a dark gray exclamation point planted in the earth and rising above the field of blood-red roses. The sky arched above it was blue, but filled with puffy white clouds like sailing ships. They flowed above and around the top of the Dark Tower in an endless stream.

The game is properly afoot, and the leader keeps them on track. Roland is always focused on the big picture, warning others of the temptation to pause even for virtuous ends. For example, it’s not wise to stay even a few nights to help common folk with their daily tasks, even if that action seems right: “Right is what this is all about. But if you look too long at the small rights—the ones that lie close at hand—it’s easy to lose sight of the big ones that stand farther off.” It’s a religious mindset at its core. The travelers also see proof of a decaying civilization as they approach the once-great city of Lud. Roland explains: “The world has moved on, we say. When it did, it went like a great receding wave, leaving only wreckage behind…wreckage that sometimes looks like a map.”

He leads them along the path of the beam, an almost-tangible stream of vitality that runs above them in the sky. It’s barely perceptible but it’s there. In Lud they encounter some real crazy: two gangs, the Grays and the Pubes, locked in conflict and reduced to wasting away and making human sacrifices. They march to the beat of their own drum—specifically, the drum track to ZZ Top’s “Velcro Fly,” which erupts in a randomly timed loop from deep within the city’s core computer. When the drums start, someone gets the noose. It’s simple, folks! Humans are fun. Eddie has a pointed realization about the state of affairs: “He thought he was at least beginning to fully understand what that innocuous phrase—the world has moved on—really meant. What a breadth of ignorance and evil it covered.” The loss of knowledge intimately tied with the loss of morality.

There are some minor villains in this tale, colorfully nasty and weird. Gasher is a diseased pirate who has nothing to lose but still has enough fearful respect for his boss to not outright murder Roland’s group. The boss is Tick-Tock Man, a tribal king descended from the downed Nazi pilot who spends his time trying to learn what he can about computers and all things mechanical so that he can stay in control of what’s left of the city. The skirmishes with these guys are adventurous, but the real test here is Blaine.

Blaine is a pain, as all DT readers know well. It turns out that back in New York, Jake came across a used book called Charlie the Choo-Choo. It features a creepy little retired train who would give children rides and you couldn’t tell from the cover art whether the kids were laughing or screaming. And wouldn’t you know it, in Roland’s world the word char means “death.” In Lud, Blaine is a pink high-speed monorail train that hasn’t run for ages but still operates after the protagonists learn to boot him up. Come to think of it, Blaine looks nothing like any of the trains I’ve seen on various covers of this book. I guess a monorail isn’t as iconic as an old-fashioned steam locomotive, and really, this “character” is almost too weird to represent outside the page.

Because the moment that Roland & Co. step aboard Blaine, the reader is in full Dark Tower WTF territory. And that is a fun place to be. Throughout the book we get bits and pieces of the mythology while learning more about Roland, and the world(s) is (are) wide open with possibility. There’s no way to predict what’s going to happen with Blaine, or that King would decide that the way to fight past this particular baddie is to have the good guys challenge him with a riddling contest. That’s right, riddling. It’s presumably a conscious reference to “Riddles in the Dark” (and traversing the waste lands is at one point described as being like a trek through Mordor).

Even after the strange escalating drama aboard the train (which is heading to Topeka, no less), we don’t even get to know the outcome of the competition. The Dark Tower is one long book, after all, and if there’s a downside to both The Drawing of the Three and The Waste Lands, it’s that they both feel a bit uncontained. But on the other hand, the travelers cover a lot of physical ground along their beam in this book, and uncontained is what we should come to expect (and want) from this experience.

Our merry band has been through a lot, and Roland’s mind still won’t let him rest. He’s realizing the cost that comes with training others and being their reluctant leader. They try to pull information and biography out of him, and Eddie says: “I’d like to hear your whole story, from beginning to end, starting with Gilead. How you grew up there and what happened to end it all. … I want to know about your first bunch of friends, too. And what happened to them.” To which Roland replies, “I’ll tell them to you…but not now. It’s a very long story. I never expected to tell it to anyone, and I’ll only tell it once.”

He’s about to tell them the best story in the Dark Tower canon.

Mid-World Roundup (brought to you by David Quick):

  • Epigraphs: T.S. Eliot “The Waste Land,” Robert Browning “Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came,” Robert Aickman, “Hand in Glove”
  • Mid-World travel dictionary: This book kicked off a bunch of the great phrases: “set my watch and warrant on it,” “the clearing where the path ends,” and the ever-important “thankee-sai.”
  • Ka like a wind: “Ka was a wheel, its one purpose to turn, and in the end it always came back to the place where it had started.”
  • Know your gunslinger:
    • “He had never been a man who understood himself deeply or cared to; the concept of self-consciousness (let alone self-analysis) was alien to him. His way was to act—to quickly consult his own interior, utterly mysterious workings, and then act. Of them all, he had been the most perfectly made, a man whose deeply romantic core was encased in a brutally simple box which consisted of instinct and pragmatism.”
    • Roland’s grandmother is Deidre the Mad. Hmm.
  • Meditations on the Tower: Roland explains that where the beams meet, “at this nexus lies the Great Portal, the so-called Thirteenth Gate which rules not just this world but all worlds.”
  • Gettin’ meta: Throughout the saga of The Dark Tower, each little slide into metafiction is more amusing and interesting, at least to this reader. Aside from the ones already mentioned, there’s the moment when New York Jake sees a sign for a Sergio Leone classic at the cinema, featuring the gunslinger prototype himself, Clint Eastwood. Also, Eddie dreams of You Can’t Go Home Again by Thomas Wolfe. The book is emblazoned with key images (rose, key, door) and the first line is “The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed.”
  • Foreshadowing: Roland is intrigued by Oz, which will feature later in the overall tale. I love his insight that “The quickest way to learn about a new place is to know what it dreams of. I would hear of this Oz.”

2 thoughts on “The Waste Lands

  1. Fantastic review. I completely agree that this book really helps cement the central characters together, uniting them in their mission and establishing the foundations for what is to come. I also loved the way that King makes use of so many intertextual references (such as Peter Pan and the Wizard of Oz as you have mentioned), as well as the references to our own reality. There was something extremely unsettling about the group finding that Nazi Plane!

    • Thanks for reading the review! Yep, things really ramp up in this book, and everything is crazy and fun and fascinating at this point.

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