Author: Stephen King
Type: Fiction, novel
Part of series: The Dark Tower (#7)
I read it: July 2017 (re-read)
This is a review of the final book in The Dark Tower series, and contains plot details. For a summary of each book up until now (including spoilers), start back at The Gunslinger, may it do ya fine.
And so it ends as it began.
The final brick in the DT wall sits at a full 845 pages, and contains multitudes. It’s the final statement in the seven-book (eight-book?) series. It’s also the end of the trilogy that makes up the last three installments, and reads of a piece with those books in particular. And within itself, as you’d expect in any King novel, it has a full five parts of its own. Each of these parts has not one, but two, titles. The former title is colloquial or poetic (“Blue Heaven,” “In This Haze of Green and Gold”) while the latter is in the language of Mid-World (“Dan-Tete,” “Ves-Ka Gan”). The final part just swirls it all together, calling itself “The Scarlet Field of Can’-Ka No Rey” (which translates into “The Red Fields of None”) with the secondary title not even in English, but rather the curlicue symbols that spell out “UNFOUND.”
This may sound like full nerd territory, and it is. Those evocative names are some of my favorite things about this book, and because we’re deep into the metafiction, the concept gets commented upon by the character of Stephen King (the author, incidentally, hates the term “metafiction”). He had hesitated to fill his fantasy series with a bunch of made-up words, wondering, “Can Tolkien’s Cirith Ungol and H.P. Lovecraft’s Great Blind Fiddler, Nyarlathotep, be far behind?” I love that with each book in the series he ramped up the wild vocabulary, and he doubles down in this last volume. Calling his influences makes sense in this series, from the Isaac Asimov robots (one of which is a “house-elf” type called Dobbie) to a mention of a prophecy about a Bleeding Lion reappearing in the north. homage to Lovecraft. One set piece I had no recollection of was Susannah and Roland adventuring against a creature from the todash darkness, presumably one who shares a dimensional home with the beasts from “The Mist.” (The monster filled Susannah “with a horror that was unreasoning and private and almost powerful enough to undo her mind.” Lovecraft all the way.) Of course, there are nods to King’s own works, such as It and Carrie.
And King invites us into the tale as far as he can. “Look, if you would,” he writes. He foreshadows a deus ex machina and mentions that he can’t be a writer who is “patiently working to keep the characters safe so his tale wouldn’t end with an unsatisfying line like ‘And so the ka-tet was wiped out on Jericho Hill and the bad guys won, rule Discordia, so sorry, better luck next time.'” King comes across as apologetic that his characters will have to die. First there’s Father Callahan, who dies fighting for the White against the pack of low men and vampires at The Dixie Pig. Jake and Oy slip through the defenses and find their way to Fedic, where they meet up with everyone else. The group has one final mission to free or stop the breakers who are somewhat willingly enslaved in an outpost run by Crimson King lackeys. King warns that here we will see the ka-tet whole for the last time. He slides in more direct lines, warning us that we are “moving a step closer to what you will not want to hear and I will not want to tell.”
And it’s a nice little mission, one last opportunity for Roland to draw out information from trustworthy people they meet, including Ted Brautigan (from Hearts in Atlantis) and an aging Sheemie, an old pal from the days in Mejis. They set up a plan to cause chaos using a few sneetches and a lot of deception, and they prepare to take over the campus where the beam is being broken by the mental powers of those who have been selected and dragged to this outpost. Leading up to this we get inside the heads of a human and taheen who run the place, which is, if not strictly necessary, an effective way to illustrate the bureaucratic nature of the world-ending evil at play. You don’t really feel like you hate these guys, and if anything there are interesting ethical implications: is it really so bad to bring down the beam? One guy from upper management thinks it will get him into heaven, but the general consensus is that it would end all time and space. Is that terrible when compared to the daily suffering of the people in existing worlds? Or is the chance that neutrality wouldn’t be the outcome, but instead a negative todash darkness, enough to crusade to stop the effort? Regardless, Roland doesn’t have to worry much about this. He’s only partially concerned about preventing the end of all worlds—he mostly wants to enter the Tower for himself.
The battle goes to the good guys, but it’s a Pyrrhic victory. Right at the halfway point of book seven, the ka-tet splinters when Eddie falls to a bullet in the head. We’ve known, along with Roland, the inevitability of this. The ka-tet felt the weight of it leading up to the events, and Roland instructs that this is ka-shume, which means roughly the breaking of a ka-tet, and also death. And it’s hard to say which character we’ve been expecting to go first. Eddie gets a few deathbed hours and Susannah grieves hard. then Roland and Jake have to split for a while to go save the writer, Stephen King. His survival is equally as important as that of the beam, and if they can go two for two in their missions, things bode well for the big picture. But once again, a massive sacrifice is needed. The fateful day in 1999 comes around when Stephen King is walking along a road in Maine, and in a fascinating section, he writes from the point-of-view of not only himself, but the man who drove the truck and hit him. It’s a last-second thing, and Jake does a superhero leap to push King out of a fatal collision. Jake gets run over entirely.
And wow, Roland really hates King for his strange godly meddling in this tale. He has no patience for “tale-spinners,” and calls King lazy and distrusts him. King (the character anyway), is definitely afraid of finishing the Tower stories, because “Going back to the tale of the Tower means swimming in deep water. Maybe drowning there.” King (the author) definitely had retirement on the mind while writing this book, and it really does feel like he’s writing his final story. (Little did he know he’d go on to publish 18 books and counting. Though I don’t think many fans bought the retirement idea to begin with.) Through the lens of various characters, King remains amusingly self-deprecating. He claims he has a “tin ear for language,” which is underscored when Roland humorously says to Susannah, “Can you make Detta go away?” This is long needed by this point in the series, and you can almost imagine Tabitha standing over ol’ Stevie’s shoulder and saying, you gotta stop with that Detta dialogue. But King doesn’t follow through! Susannah says yes for a moment, but Detta pops up long into the final chapters. It’s continually jarring and one of the serially sore spots in the whole journey.
In the end, Susannah is the only one to escape a violent death, and she finds a way to enter a sort of glistening afterlife steeped in traditional religious, Christmasy feelings. Oy has to go the way of a gunslinger and die fighting, when he is able to fend off Mordred for a few moments. Oh yes, Mordred the spider boy has alive for only one book. I don’t think any reader is convinced he’s going to change the endgame much. And he does cause the end of a famous King character, Randall Flagg—a shoehorned ending for this mischievous foe, and in the big picture, a really bad decision. Again, perhaps it was just King considering a retirement. But to know that Flagg could have had many more adventures instead of just popping up like a fool to be murdered by a character who himself will die within the same book…it’s flat. Another tricky inclusion is Patrick Danville, who was introduced in Insomnia. King has a troubled relationship with that book, awkwardly evidenced when a copy is gifted to Roland but then Roland doesn’t trust the tale and just leaves it behind. On the flipside, the crazy clown bug who is Dandelo makes for a great scene, bringing to life several stanzas of the Browning poem (“Dandelo” is anagrammed in the story, and I realized that the letters are also included within “Childe Roland”). This is some classic King craziness and a joy to read, but it’s all setup to force Danville into the arena. Roland is as annoyed with him as a character as the rest of us are, and it feels unsatisfying to let him be involved with the gunslinger so close to the end.
Of Roland himself, we get our final glimpses into his life and character. One woman describes his looks as “a mixture of Quaker and Cherokee.” Susannah contemplates the man and gets a long, touching final stretch of adventure with him that brings her ever closer to the mysterious person, though he remains a mystery. She notes that she has known him in most ways (except as a lover) and that she still can find “no bottom” to him. He is described as a killer, a diplomat, and an envoy. He has been traveling for months, years, ages. For delah, for “many and many a.” He is cursed to the end, both a slave to his mission and an active participant in the deaths of those around him. That’s one way in which this book satisfies: it delivers on the promise that Roland will kill all those he loves. He stands at the field of roses alone, as he (and we) knew he would. His confrontation with the Crimson King is of little meaning compared to his confrontation with the Tower, where “there may be renewal, there may be death, or there may be both.” He approaches while naming the names of his dead, collecting his friends around him like the Roland of old did upon the battlefield after everyone had fallen due to his actions.
Does he enter? He lays down his gun and he does.
I believe the author when he implores us to appreciate the journey over the ending. After all, what is life but perpetual journey? What is our road but one of false starts and abrupt endings, of seeking and seeking? All the guns, monsters, and portals are just colorful backdrop to a story about pushing onward. I do not have weapons; my ka-tet is simply my family. I walk a metaphorical road in pursuit of figurative Towers. There is something simple, powerful, mundane, and mysterious about the way that grand stories like these shape my life: I can imagine myself as a fated protagonist who must go forward. The end is too wildly black to contemplate. Death is not okay. People around me will fall, and I will grieve, and I barely have a say. There is something that compels me to stay standing, something just out of reach. Ka is “a wheel, and all it knows how to do is roll.” It’s also an “old and patient demon,” “a vast, hurtling mono, maybe sane, maybe not.” I can turn to a story for structure, for a glimpse at the cosmic, for the poetic dream of a life that goes on past all endings.
In this story, Roland does not find his road’s end. He emerges for another spin of ka’s wheel, perchance to try again. We hope for his success, for his steady onward march. He starts in the desert once more, but this time we say, “Companion Roland, you should sound your horn.” You should step out of these pages and find your final rest. Both character and read know: eventually it must all return to dust. Because things end as they begin.