Author: Stephen King
Type: Fiction, novel
Part of series: The Dark Tower (#4.5)
I read it: March 2017 (re-read)
We have to back up just a bit. I love Wizard and Glass, but my recap of it stuck to the core story. Other stuff was going on though. The first 100+ or so pages had to do with the present-day crew getting away from Blaine the Mono. Then, after the long flashback, there are pages at the end where everyone is still on that Kansas highway near a thinny. They eventually come to a version of the Emerald City, put on their ruby slippers (“All God’s Chilluns Got Shoes”), and confront the Tick-Tock Man. He is easily taken care of, but the true baddie at the scene is the Walkin’ Dude himself, mister RF. He taunts, teases, and takes off. Roland can’t shoot him fast enough, or there is some magical trickery at play, but either way the showdown is inconclusive.
Then after that, Roland has to tell yet another part of his story. He relays the final tragedy that finished off his youth and turned him into a grim loner: he killed his mom. This was all due to deceit on the part of Rhea of the Cöos, who tricked him into seeing visions of the witch in his mom’s bedchambers. Roland turns, fires, and regrets. He then gets sucked into the pink grapefruit itself, having mad visions and prophecies (including hints about his future travelers). So the tale is told, and if they didn’t know it before, his companions now know for sure that Roland kills those he loves. Even if by accident.
I remember getting The Wind Through the Keyhole when it came out, and sitting outdoors at a coffee shop with Laura and cracking into it. Around that time I had been slowly collecting the Dark Tower comics series, which chronicle even more side adventures from the young Roland era. Installment 4.5 promised yet more of the same from this fertile ground. And the book actually works like Russian nesting dolls, a little Cloud Atlas set in Mid-World. The opening finds the characters still on that damn highway, heading into the great unknown and noticing strange movements from Oy. Turns out a storm is coming. So the opening section is about what to do in a…
A storm’s a-brewin’. Roland and co. have to make a short ferry crossing, and they are able to do so because of the kindly Bix. Bix knows what’s up, and also notices Oy’s behavior. Billy-bumblers are also called “throcken,” and when the throcken sit with their snouts raised peculiarly, they know the starkblast is near. (This talent is their “bright.”) Also, it’s very humid right before it gets very cold. After they part ways from Bix, the travelers find a sturdy hall in a deserted village and hole up. Crippling winter descends in a rush, so they have to pass the time. “There’s nothing like stories on a windy night when folks have found a warm place in a cold world…”
We meet Roland as a young man, post-matricide. He is sent on a regular errand with Jamie DeCurry, to do the type of stuff gunslingers of old were asked to do: keep order, protect the weak, make things right. Jamie is a sturdy partner to have at one’s side but also a sort of non-character. In comparison to Cuthbert and Alain, who we know much better, all three are best summed up here:
Jamie was thrown right off his makeshift bed and onto the floor. Cuthbert would have laughed and Alain would have cursed, but Jamie Red-Hand only picked himself up, stretched out again, and went back to sleep.
The two of them come to Debaria, where dark things are afoot. There is a skin-changer, someone who morphs into vicious animals and then goes about killing villagers. This is too wild for the sheriff and other locals to handle, so they are grateful for Roland’s assistance. It’s a tight little mystery: can they expose the culprit before the next brutal killing? How, if by day he walks as a normal man? Turns out that a young one, Bill, was able to hide during one of the slaughters and spy a tattoo around the creature’s ankle when he was in human form. These tattoos are often on ex-cons who become salt miners in the area. Round up the miners, then try to lure out the beast—that’s the plan. To keep Bill safe, Roland decides the kid should be locked into one of the jail cells (he’s also using Bill as bait, of course… using people is right up Roland’s alley). But he also agrees to spend the night with the boy to keep him calm. And I bet you can guess what the best thing is for passing the time. Perhaps a story that begins “Once upon a bye…”
The Wind Through the Keyhole
“The Wind Through the Keyhole” is a story from Roland’s youth youth, when his mother would read to him from Magic Tales of the Eld. It was a story “both terrible and wonderful,” a fantasy, a fable, and also a semi-history of a time and place in Mid-World when things were more or less stable and the only evils were the traveling ones that came into town on a black horse.
(Small break to praise the page, I beg: Here at the center of the multi-story fold there are no chapters, but after each section break the next part begins with the first clause printed in bold with a slightly larger font. This is a brilliantly simple formatting choice that sets apart this tale from the other two in the book, and also serves as a nod to old children’s storybooks where the initial words in a story or paragraph may have been elaborately decorated. I love it.)
Tim, age 11, lives in the town of Tree with his mother, Nell. His father was a woodcutter in the Endless Forest but was killed by a dragon. The father’s former business partner steps in to marry Tim’s mother. (Is this yet another King story about daddy issues and the dark reality of male violence? Yes it is! You win a gold star.) A large part of the widow’s decision is based on practicality: it’s tax time, and the Covenant Man cometh. As soon as Tim’s mother remarries, the household falls into his new step-father’s hands, because “the law can be cruel to a woman.”
The Covenant Man represents the crux of fantastical tales: someone who offers you a chance at agency, but whose magic will illuminate both tantalizing possibility and dark repercussion. He specifically taps Tim for private conversation and lets him in on secrets that his step-father keeps. The Covenant Man essentially persuades Tim to grow up quickly and harshly, and promises adventure on the side. Tim’s no-bullshit schoolteacher, the Widow Smack, is aware of the trickery: “[The Covenant Man] knows what levers move folk… He has magic keys to unlock their hearts.”
Tim gets all that he is promised. He also indirectly causes his mother more physical harm, which is why the tale rings so true in Roland’s telling of it. And constant readers will probably suspect: the Covenant Man is Marten Broadcloak/Randall Flagg, as explicitly evidenced by the way he signs a note to Tim after Tim survives his trials (and in the course of doing so, also meets the real Maerlyn along the way). To navigate the dark forest, Tim gets accompanied by a small device called DARIA, manufactured by North Central Positronics. DARIA has full knowledge of the locations of the various beams. Eventually, she panics and shuts down due to violating “Directive Nineteen.” Here is a point where the myth that Roland is telling hairpins directly back toward his present quest: the name of this company, not to mention the number 19, will feature prominently from here on out. Is Roland adding these strange details subconsciously? Or is he just now realizing that these seeds were in the story all along, and he is now living out their parallels in his own journey?
But to get right to it: King absolutely nails it with “The Wind Through the Keyhole.” It’s tangible in its details, the small village setting is fully realized even though the story is narrow, and it has just the right amount of purely classic fairytale denizens, including wizards, dragons, fairies, and bog dwellers. The language here is excellent, from local adages (“Pray for rain all you like, but dig a well as you do it”) to the sense of a pre-scientific world (the kids are taught “how to read and practice the slightly questionable art known as mathmatica“). There is a huge amount of new phrases, even for a novel already set within the Dark Tower universe. It’s the quintessential example of King’s ear for lyricism and where it serves him best (the familiarly fantastical), throwing in harsh relief the scenarios where it serves him worst (any American character mouthing the off-kilter King slang, aka Eddie Dean).
Tim’s adventure is sad and heartening and wonderful and mysterious and so very old and new. Toward the end, in another satisfying stroke of narrative symmetry, he finds shelter to hide from an incoming starkblast.
When Roland finishes his tale for young Bill, it’s time for the local authorities to march the salt miners in to see if one of them will change into the beast out of fear of being trapped. It happens, the monster colorfully bursts onto the scene and is subdued, and the gunslingers win the day. Blood was spilled in Debaria, but the evil is finally rooted out and overcome. We get the feeling that this was probably the last straightforward (and achievable) mission that Roland was given. As he grows up, everything will continue to fall down around him.
Panning all the way back out, we get just a few more pages of the present-day crew. Susannah, who has to shoulder a few too many female burdens in this series, asks Roland to confide in her and to tell her the final puzzle piece of his story: the contents of a note his mother wrote him before she died. Turns out it was a note of forgiveness, and now Roland can go soldiering on with a bit less guilt. This also illuminates King’s reason for writing this book after the original series had ended: he must have felt that Roland’s relationship with his mom had been unresolved. Here he could poetically put things in place, though it took a flashback-within-a-flashback format to get all the themes right.
So overall, does this peculiar entry deserve its place in the series? It’s certainly enjoyable, and when it was released as a postscript it brought back some fun memories of reading The Dark Tower. While reading it in sequence, it sort of feels like yet another false start because it moves Roland only a couple miles along his current path. But then again, book four is just so good, and I would gladly stay in that flashback time frame for several volumes. Because as painful as it is to admit it, we start a rocky decline from here, “along the Path of the Beam—to Calla Bryn Sturgis, and the borderlands, and Thunderclap, and the Dark Tower beyond.”
Mid-World Roundup (brought to you by the tyger, burning bright):
- Mid-World travel dictionary: Swallows to Roland are “bin-rusties.” The leader of the ka-tet is the “dinh.” The general collection stuff you carry along is your “gunna.” The swamp men know the word “hile,” which was “the first word, the one that set the world spinning.”
- More great phrases: “All my gods on the hill”; “Never in life”—as in, the type of response Roland gives when someone asks, “Can I hold one of your guns for a minute?”
- Widow Smack again on the Covenant Man: “He’s made of lies from boots to crown, and his gospels bring nothing but tears.”
- The world next door: Tim sits on a tussock and likens it to “Sma’ Lady Muffin on her tuffin”; there’s a faded John 3:16 notation on a rock; Tim’s navigation device informs him that the Guardian of the Beam at their location is Aslan (“if he still lives, he is far from here, in the land of endless snows”); the Covenant Man uses a magic wand that “started life as the gearshift of a Dodge Dart. America’s economy car.” Tim asks what America is. “A kingdom filled with toy-loving idiots.” That’s harsh, Covenant Man. (But fair.)
- Beams of the King: Miners speak of seeing a strange “green light” down deep in the mines, and the skin-man was likely formed when a regular guy wandered in there too far and came back changed. Whatever could be hiding so deep?
- Gettin’ meta: The closing of the book reads, “These are things that happened, once upon a bye.” The reader is already being signaled that the author is aware of the story-ness of his story.
- Foreshadowing: When the company is befriending the Bix, the local man wonders if they’ve run into a certain individual who goes by the name of Andy.