Author: Stephen King
Type: Fiction, novel
Part of series: The Dark Tower (#5)
I read it: May 2017 (re-read)
Book five is where things start to fold inward at a noticeable clip. Famously, it’s the first Dark Tower book that came out after a driver struck King while he was walking along a road and put him in the hospital for serious injuries. Reader speculation has long been in the vein of wondering if King was frightened enough from his near-death experience that he rushed to finish this series just in case he was forced to enter the clearing before he was ready.
Early in the book, the ka-tet is discussing stories over a fire. Eddie explains genres to Roland, and Roland is bemused that people can’t handle more than one “flavor” at a time. This feels uncomfortably like King justifying the style of his own series through the mouths of his characters. But you can’t be too bugged at that, or else you’re really going to resist the moment when Eddie and Jake are in New York and see the name “Stephen King” on the sidewalk billboard alongside other author names. Let the metafictional madness begin.
I actually don’t mind this attempt all that much: the worlds in this story do overlap, after all, and Stephen King is a popular icon from ours. What annoys me more is the dang recurring trips the characters make to New York in the first place. Going “todash” is a means of physically traveling between worlds; sometimes this can be done intentionally (by using the ball known as Black Thirteen) or sometimes it’s just ka doing it while you dream. While I do like the concept of todash (the word was the background text on my cell phone when I first read this book), the destination is a big snooze for me. Generally, I have something against books set in New York. Here, the plot doesn’t help bring me around much. There’s a mysterious rose in an abandoned lot, and the rose is a protector or even a miniature version of the tower itself. The gunslingers feel the need to protect it at all costs, so they re-engage with the owner of the lot, bookseller Calvin Tower. Jake had met him previously before being pulled into Roland’s when. Now the group must protect him from other characters we’ve already met: the drug thugs that were chasing Eddie back in book two. This little time-traveling cat-and-mouse game doesn’t quite deliver the feeling that the stakes are high enough to justify spending so much time on it.
What takes up far more page space than that storyline, however, is the long flashback of Father Callahan. The gunslingers come across him because he is a respected resident of Calla Bryn Sturgis, a local town in trouble. He’s also one of the main characters from ‘Salem’s Lot, and much of this book is a “Where Are They Now?” for Pere Callahan. It fills in all of his post-Lot backstory, telling how he lost himself to alcoholism, continued to fight vampires, and was chased around the country by low men. I did read ‘Salem’s Lot at one point, in a hardback collection that also included Carrie (excellent) and The Shining (pretty alright). Of these three, ‘Salem’s Lot was the least memorable. Perhaps some longtime readers were excited to hear more about Father Callahan’s adventures, but the longer that tale drew out the more I found myself doing a mental version of Roland’s twirling finger gesture: get on with it.
It’s a shame the book gets hung up on Callahan so much, because the main story is quite a good one. It’s a version of Seven Samurai/The Magnificent Seven, in which Roland’s crew has to defend a farming village from the Wolves, who come out of the east every couple decades to steal children. The children come back “roont,” as in “ruined,” turned into giant impaired versions of their former selves, doomed to die early and painfully. Some brave members of the Calla folken have had enough, and enlist the help of the gunslingers.
Much of this storyline is a display of diplomacy and the subtle moves needed to become part of local custom and gain a people’s trust. The strength is how much the plot underlines the non-shooting parts of a gunslinger’s duties. After all, as the Browning poem states: “Think first, fight afterwards—the soldier’s art.” Roland does a lot in this book, such as strategizing, talking, planning, instinctualizing… not to mention public dancing and a having a romantic dalliance. He constantly weighs the risks and benefits of keeping secrets from his own ka-tet, a dangerous game. (Sadly, he also has symptoms of the “dry twist,” a creeping form of arthritis.) This deep into the series, every time Roland speaks my eyes are glued to the page, and his sharp skills are always a treat to witness.
This book packs in a bunch of other stuff. Callahan is in possession of Black Thirteen, the worst ball of Maerlyn’s rainbow, but one that the group can use to deliberately go todash. They do this by entering a door in a cave (it’s in Doorway Cave, of course), and that’s how most of the New York interactions occur. I wonder if the whole Callahan piece of this story—King even goes so far as to write him as being a new member of the ka-tet!—is really just to put the mechanics in place of Black Thirteen and this doorway. If so, it seems a bit unnecessary. If there’s anything we’re giving King leeway for in this series, it would the arbitrary presence of tokens and travelways. You’re a good man, Callahan, but I just don’t care about your past that much.
Anyway, Susannah is pregnant, which has caused a fourth personality to sprout up inside her. This is Mia, the mother of the “chap” who is definitely not just a regular human-in-progress. Mia sneaks off for nasty midnight feasts of live animals, and the other members of the group are aware of this before Susannah is. This is an odd distraction from the main storyline, but mostly serves to set up the next book. Susannah also gets instructed in the use of a unique weapon that the women of the Calla have perfected: throwing a bladed plate called the Oriza (or ‘Riza). The actions of throwing this weapon are a lot like disc golf, which I was playing plenty of when I first read this book—these women could ace a basket on your local course, no problem. This subplot is a lot of fun to read (and explains the cover art). Riza!
Speaking of weapons, those of the Wolves open the floodgates of just how far this story reaches. Early in the book we hear of “light-sticks that kill at a touch” and “flying metal buzz-balls called drones or sneetches.” Another hint is dropped when a small religious sect gives a nod to The Force. Finally, the Wolves come on their horses. Jake and Eddie both eventually realize that their robotic faces paired with their green hoods and cloaks make them look like Dr. Doom. Eddie can identify the light-sticks as lightsabers from Star Wars, although Jake hadn’t seen the movie yet. And neither are familiar with Harry Potter, though of course that’s where the sneetches (as in snitches) originate. I remember the first time reading this book I thought all this was super neat… and I still do. These details are not belabored but wrapped up only during the climax, and given the mixture of old technologies and overlapping mythologies that the series has built upon until now, it all works for me.
(A note about the HP reference. One of the first things I noticed on this re-read was the Harry Potter font used for section and chapter titles. This struck me as incredibly silly. Only just now, in writing this review, did I realize the HP connection to the plot and consider that the font choice may actually have been deliberate. But still. It looks so stupid in this context. I guess it kind of aligns with the artwork in the book, about which I don’t have anything nice to say, so I should probably not say anything at all. [It leaves one wanting, do ye ken it.])
While I am a big fan of blatantly taking portions of other stories and mixing them into one’s work, there are some other aspects of the mythology-building that feel strained. Eddie proclaims that “coincidence has been cancelled” when they start noticing all sorts of strange occurrences and mirrorings. A small example would be the similarity of names like “Calla” and “Callahan.” The number nineteen also explodes as a presence unto itself, appearing in a dizzying array of situations and even spawning a spinoff, the number ninety-nine. The ka-tet recognizes and even pokes fun at this number, in a sense of superstitious trepidation. The numerology, time-traveling, and overall sense of puzzle-box mystery now reminds me of Lost, and I’m thinking about the parallels of that show to this book series more and more. The first time reading through The Dark Tower, I think book five still had me swept up in its crazy pursuit of revealing the spinning cogs humming underneath the wild machine. This time around, every other mention of nineteen has me suppressing a rolled eye.
But my, how the final confrontation of this book holds it all together. After about a month of planning, Roland tells his fellow defenders that “the shooting will happen so fast and be over so quick that you’ll wonder what all the planning and palaver was for, when in the end it always comes down to the same five minutes’ worth of blood, pain, and stupidity.” The Wolves come riding into town, and indeed the pages over which the action unfolds are incredibly few in comparison to the book as a whole. But this is a strength, once again underlining the fact that the gunslingers do a lot more than just deal death. And after the long setup, I’ll admit I got shivers when Roland leapt up from his ambush spot and shouted, “For Gilead and the Calla! Now, gunslingers! Now, you Sisters of Oriza!” It’s often said that King stumbles in his endings, but not this time.
So ends another unique, intriguing, sometimes frustrating, finally exciting, and wholly Tower-ish installment of the sprawling series. Some of the side quests left me cold (how much drama are we supposed to wring out of what is essentially a real estate transaction?) while the core forward momentum of the standalone mission of saving the Calla was done in fine form. The book ends with Mia hijacking Susannah’s body so she can have the demonic chap in solitude. Onward and eastward, gunslingers!
Mid-World Round-Up (brought to you by The Dogan):
- 19: RESISTANCE
- Epigraphs: The Magnificent Seven, Rodney Crowell (songwriter), Roland himself
- Mid-World travel dictionary: A lot of the new phrases in this book are Calla speak, from “If it do ya fine” to repeating a final word for emphasis, as in “Say thanky! Big-big!” They also try to articulate the names of remnant technologies they barely comprehend, such as “ant-nomic” and “bayderies,” not to mention the cousins of books called “magda-seens.” Then of course there’s “commala,” a word with at least 70 meanings, mostly having to do with harvest and reproduction. Finally, there’s a Roland word that sneaks in toward the end that I believe comes up again, one that means either things going south, or simply a large quantity: “delah.”
- Ka like a wind:
- Margaret Eisenhart doesn’t accept the ka excuse: “Ka! Every troublemaker’s excuse! Put it up your bum with the rest of the dirt!”
- Roland “found himself thinking of ka, which he rarely did. … Its only rule was Stand aside and let me work.”
- Know your gunslinger:
- Shortly after Roland’s “five minutes” speech, he admits that “I always feel sick afterward. Like I did when Bert and I went to see the hanged man.” I really like this puncturing of the badass mercenary image…
- …although later, this gets another layer of qualification: “He’d also told them he always felt sick afterward, and while that was true enough, he never felt so fine as he did at this moment of beginning; never felt so completely and truly himself. Here were the tag ends of glory’s old cloud.” Poetic, at least!
- Meditations on the Tower:
- Roland: “Unless we stand true, we’ll never get within a thousand miles of the Tower.”
- “Eddie had an idea that when the rose died, the Dark Tower would simply fall like the one in Babel when God had gotten tired of it and wiggled His finger. No waiting around another hundred or thousand years for the machinery running the Beams to quit. Just ashes, ashes, we all fall down. And then? Hail the Crimson King, lord of todash darkness.”
- Gettin’ meta: Like the Wizard of Oz instance in Wizard and Glass (just now noticed how similar those two titles are… nice—very nineteen), this book has plenty of the aforementioned overlap with other popular works of fantasy. And not only does the name Stephen King pop up at the beginning, but the other shoe drops toward the end. The crew is in contact with rare books owned by Calvin Tower, and one they pull off the shelf is ‘Salem’s Lot. For real. Father Callahan gets the rare experience of flipping through the pages and seeing his own life described in print. Reader be warned, there’s a lot more where this came from.
- Foreshadowing: I suppose it’s not subtle enough to technically be foreshadowing, but the entire Susannah storyline is setting up the next book, which is named after her specifically.