Author: Stephen King
Type: Fiction, novel
Part of series: The Dark Tower (#6)
I read it: June 2017 (re-read)
As Roland tells Eddie (and as King tells the reader): “It’s the end-game now. All I’ve worked for and waited for all the long years. The end is coming. I feel it. Don’t you?”
So on toward the end we march. Although all are part of the longer saga, the final three Dark Tower books all feel akin to each other. Wolves of the Calla came out six years after Wizard and Glass, which was a pretty standard gap between King’s DT entries. It was published in 2003 and then bam, six and seven followed in 2004. At the time, this was thrilling for me because that was exactly when I was ramping up my King interest. The whole story was right there for the reading.
This time through, though, I’m keenly aware of any seams showing. As the magnum opus approaches its crescendo, I find myself holding King to a pretty high standard. Small slips tend to stand out, like the sentence “She found that extremely scary.” There’s also the entire chapter “Trudy and Mia,” which spends time inside the POV of a woman named Trudy… a character we will never hear from again and who has absolutely no impact on the story, other than as a witness to a weird occurrence. I do still try to go with the flow of the story despite the details, and speaking of story: early in the book Father Callahan protests internally, “It’s not a story. It’s not a story, it’s my life!” As a returning reader, I know what that sentiment means in relation to the plot. My reviews have disregarded spoiler warnings, but if you’re reading this far and aren’t familiar with Song of Susannah, just know that I’ll go into details about one of the most ambitious (and to some, rage-invoking) aspects of the entire series.
But first, what is this song we’re hearing? This installment is cleverly laid out in 13 stanzas plus a coda, each ending with a snippet of ominous call-and-response lyrics done in the Calla fashion. I’m a fan of this little device, along with the dreamy artwork of Darrel Anderson. (Although that cover image of Susannah is marred by the font choice. Is that Papyrus?) This is also one of the shortest books in the series, not to mention perhaps the strangest in a pile of strange ones. The chapters with Susannah as the focus, which make up about half the book, test the limits of the character’s psychology, the story’s reality, and the reader’s willingness to suspend more disbelief than usual.
So here’s the setup: Susannah knew she was pregnant throughout Act V, and at the tail end of that tale she hauled away and dove through the cave door into one of the New Yorks. But this wasn’t entirely Susannah; it was Mia, daughter of none, mother of one. Mia is an ancient demon who is sort of, but not really, but pretty much, the demon who raped Roland in the speaking circle back in The Gunslinger. A version of this same demon then switched genders (kind of like the amphibians in Jurassic Park) and also raped Susannah in The Waste Lands. That means Susannah/Mia is carrying a demon baby who is Roland’s son, and is also the son of the Crimson King (somehow? I kind of forget already). This is intriguing, if a bit of a forced plot device. At one point Mia simply explains to Susannah that the child (or rather, the “chap”) will be Mordred Deschain, named after the Mordred of legend who was the illegitimate son of Arthur himself, and who rose up to fight his father.
Really, the demon stuff doesn’t bother me so much. It does seem like a lost opportunity to not have Roland actually father a child under more natural circumstances, legitimate or no. But what rankles more is the entire concept of Mia herself. She has her roots as a demon, sure, but she’s also another personality (the fourth!) inside poor Susannah’s mind. She’s the manifestation of a twisted motherhood, and becomes a physical character not only when she takes over Susannah’s body in the travels, but in other planes as well, such as the (admittedly intriguing) roads outside the Castle Discordia or the decaying town of Fedic. There is a lot of page space lent to Mia being led along by the agents of the Crimson King, and Susannah arguing and fighting against her, but what does this gain us in the end? Couldn’t Susannah have been impregnated with the demon baby, come to the realization of what it meant and who the chap is via some small slice of mystical knowledge she finds along the way, and then undergo similar trials and get us to the point of it all? Do we really need Mia for any of this?
Susannah sings her woeful song within a hijacked body, as if having a regular baby wasn’t bad enough. Of course, this being the ongoing saga, she still doesn’t actually have the chap by the end of the book. The cliffhanger is that she enters a vile den of low men (the can toi) who are best known from Hearts in Atlantis, as well as Richard Sayre, the old vampire from ‘Salem’s Lot. Their meeting spot is a restaurant called The Dixie Pig, a creepy supernatural King joint that is a highlight to read about because you can feel its presence seeping off the page. Thankfully, she is being tracked by Jake and Callahan, who are preparing to enter a battle as the underdogs and are saying their last rites before diving into the lair of the enemies. Where are Eddie and Roland? That’s another storyline entirely.
Eddie and Roland’s entry into one of our worlds lands them in Maine, where they are presumably meant to find and protect the careless Calvin Tower yet again. But Mia tipped off some of the bad folks, who have hired Jack Andolini to intercept the gunslingers and mow them down. All this is a big yawn. The shootout is half-hearted, not nearly as electric as Roland’s various adventures in The Drawing of the Three. Plus, we’ve seen these thugs before, Eddie having faced down Andolini at least twice already (three times? it’s hard to keep track), and it’s just so tiresome by this point. We want to get to the real enemies and grand battles. No more convenience store shootouts with halfwits, thanks!
Anyway, they get through that non-issue and find their real task: confront a local author who goes by Stephen King, a name that rings a bell from the book that Father Callahan found. Eddie and Roland actually do this: they go to Stephen King’s house, back when he only has a couple books under his belt and his kids are still toddlers. They find him home alone and although The Gunslinger hadn’t been officially published yet, the author knows exactly who Roland is when he sees his own creations walk up the drive. Of course, it takes a long time for him to believe it, and it’s only when in a trance state that the gunslingers can really tap what this man knows about the Tower and its sway.
Think what you will about this literary device, but I have to say that the scene is done incredibly well. It’s self-indulgent, sure, but then again, so is the entire enterprise of writing dozens of novels. And it’s not like it came out of nowhere: the breadcrumbs leading to this moment of supreme world-crossing have been steadily dropped from book one. The juiciest parts are the mythological tidbits we get from the character Stephen King. He speaks of the great force of Gan being responsible for this tale, and the need to repudiate Dis (in other words, Discordia). He admits being afraid of writing the story, and of Roland in particular, and that he feels the need to continue the tale whenever he hears the song of the Turtle (the turtle’s name is Maturin). Eddie and Roland actually have to convince him to keep writing, to pick up the tale where Roland wakes up on the beach after palavering with the man in black. They remind him that “you’ll write many stories, but every one will be to some greater or lesser degree about this story,” which is “the only real story you have to tell.”
One argument is that King overdoes it a bit in having the character of himself proclaim that he is not acting of his own volition in writing these stories, and he acts as a vessel as they are pulled from his navel. The coda of the book is a writer’s journal of King getting back into the groove in resuming the Dark Tower stories, and he talks about the fact that when inspiration strikes for these books in particular, everything flows out without him even trying. This could be a get-out-of-jail-free card for anything that the reader finds lacking in the stories, but it’s also possible that it’s something close to the truth. I understand that the writer’s journal is a fictionalized piece and yet another literary trick, but it at least reads as plausible in spirit. You hear of artists like Neil Young saying much the same thing, of being open to a wavelength and then translating into song the material that the universe has gifted him. It’s probably as close to “supernatural” as humans can ever come.
I suppose this book will remain an odd one, doomed to be the precursor to the finale, and perhaps I’ll once again forget most of its details as time goes on. But it’s still an enticing read because it feels like the last chance for set-ups, and also because it’s bittersweet to now turn to the final installment. Roland, Stephen King, and the reader all share this sentiment simultaneously (one that can be applied to all stories in both life and fiction):
It’s as if, after all these years, the quest itself has become the point for me, and the end is frightening.
Mid-World Round-Up (brought to you by Maturin, the turtle of enormous girth):
- 19: REPRODUCTION (but not really, not until next book!)
- Epigraphs: Author Leif Enger, the traditional song “Maid of Constant Sorrow,” and Jake Chambers’ “Go, then. There are other worlds than these.”
- Ka like a wind:
- At the beginning of the book, Roland states that they may not be able to help Susannah much: “It’s in the hands of ka, and there used to be a saying in my country: ‘Ka has no heart or mind.'”
- Susannah, with the incisive blow: “It’s wonderful how everyone seems to think they know just what ka means for them. Don’t you think that’s wonderful?”
- King himself complains that “ka is never satisfied, greedy old ka,” and recalls that he made Susan Delgado say the same: “Greedy old ka, how I hate it.”
- Know your gunslinger:
- “I hold to no God. I hold to the Tower, and won’t pray to that.”
- Once upon a bye, we learned Roland’s grandma’s name. Here we find out that his grandfather is Alaric, “he of the red hair.”
- Callahan reflects: “Roland dancing the commala in the lights, the colored lights. Roland dancing in the white. Always Roland; and in the end, after the others had fallen, murdered away one by one in these bloody motions, Roland would remain.”
- Meditations on the Tower: This is a long but juicy chunk of world-building exposition that somehow Mia has on hand: “The Beams rose from the Prim on the airs of magic, the true magic which passed long ago. … Once upon a time all was Discordia and from it, strong and all crossing at a single unifying point, came the six Beams. There was magic to hold them steady for eternity, but when the magic left from all there is but the Dark Tower, which some have called Can Calyx, the Hall of Resumption, men despaired. When the Age of Magic passed, the Age of Machines came.”
- Gettin’ meta: This whole novel is an exercise in extreme metafiction. But aside from the major examples, there are several other asides, such as these thoughts from Eddie:
- “When you came right down to it, how did anyone know they weren’t a character in some writer’s story?”
- “But of course we have to remove the bullet. No story of this type would be complete without at least one scene where–” and then he has the sudden realization that in the previous story, they acted out The Magnificent Seven. (And I have to admit, it does feel satisfying to read a good ol’ belt-biting, bullet-pulling scene in this crazy western.)
- When Mia still has her confidence, she boasts of some knowledge: “[Roland] will be destroyed, aye, and all those who stand with him. I carry his doom in my own belly, and I care not.”
- Stephen King ponders the trickiness of needing to bring back Jake Chambers after killing the character off in The Gunslinger. He reflects that fortunately, in supernatural tales, “nobody had to really die.”
- The are some hints about the state of the big bad residing in the Tower. What if the Crimson King turns out to be only “feeble-minded and malicious”?