And still I’m talking about that series of books that I actually quite enjoy even though you can’t tell because it sounds like all I do is bitch about them

In the course of re-reading (or re-listening to) The Dark Tower series of books by heavy-hitting writer Stephen King, I’ve been finding some really persnickety little things that I’ve found bothersome. It could be because when I first read the series, I was a fledgling editor (read snot-nosed teenager who knew the difference between ‘there’, ‘their’, and ‘they’re’), and now that I am more …seasoned? May I say seasoned here? Of *course* I can; this is my bournal, for Pete’s sake…now that I am a more *seasoned* editor, getting closer and closer to ‘professional’ designation, I notice little things like this that I would flag (if you’ll pardon the Dark Tower pun there) for the writer to revisit and/or explain because it seems incongruous.

I’ve come across some “continuity errors” that for some reason are really sticking out in my mind. Some of them seem like the sort of mistakes that an editor would catch if they weren’t tasked with the job of editing a big-name writer like Stephen King. Some of them seem like the sorts of things that might pop up after, as we say in the gaming world, “retconning” something (which means, in short, changing the original narrative to make subsequent stories more cohesive). Some of them, I think, are just me and my overactive thinker causing problems.

I do know that the original version of The Gunslinger, which was published in 1982, was changed in subsequent publications so that it would “fit” with the rest of the series. This pisses me off on many levels, the least of which is that parts of The Dark Tower series is about *time travel*. So you’d think that, for example, something like Jake Chambers being 9 years old in the original Gunslinger book would be fairly easy to explain his then being 11 in subsequent books. References to the fall of Gilead having taken place in the last generation were changed because later in the series, it’s revealed that Roland is “extremely old”, “hundreds of years old”, and “maybe as many as a thousand years old”; again, in a series in which time travel is possible…and in fact, is a fairly major part of the plot…it doesn’t make sense that he didn’t just use the concept of the world having ‘moved on’ or time having ‘softened’ or any number of time-travel/parallel worlds explanations for these phenomena.

Did King think his readers wouldn’t *get it*? Did he think that we would find it *less* mysterious if two different “bad guys” were actually the same guy, even though at least one of those bad guys had been killed in a previous book? In these books, *people change the past*. Numerous times, we’re told about all of these multiple worlds, and parallel universes, but for some reason, although King provides this sort of information for his readers, he doesn’t seem to trust that we could suspend our disbelief *just as far* in this regard.

When I began listening to the audiobooks, I was frustrated because some of these details were different. I thought I was simply misremembering them, but then I looked it up, and sure enough, Stephen King pooped around and made the ridiculous decision to change stuff in The Gunslinger. You might not much care about stuff like this, but it seems to me that if you’re a writer, and you’ve a story to tell, and that story should take place over the course of multiple novels, you should figure out a way to work with what you’ve already done rather than go back and muck about with what was *already really good*. And stop underestimating your audience.

Then there’s this really brilliant opening to The Drawing of the Three, where Roland gets attacked and munched upon by some local fauna. In this scuffle, he loses one of his boots. Well. He knows where it is; it’s in the belly of a monster. I may have just missed it, but somehow, this issue becomes less of a problem. And by ‘less of a problem’, I mean either his boots magically reappear or he managed to find new ones. On a beach. In the middle of nowhere.

Later in the same book, he has ripped his shirt to threads. But somehow, he is not shirtless later in the same story, although he has not had the opportunity to reshirtify. Again, maybe I missed the Great Reshirtification of Roland of Gilead. The boots bother me much more than the shirt, for some reason. ALSO stemming from the third book is that Roland names the monsters who et his boots (and most of one of his hands) “lobstrosities”. The passage says something like, “the creatures Roland had come to think of as lobstrosities”…but later, characters who had never been on that beach, characters to whom Roland had never previously spoken, either refer to “lobstrosities” or they immediately seem to understand what “lobstrosities” are, even though they’ve never seen them, or even been to the Western Sea. And I’m not talking about the Bad Guy, who seems to be somewhat omnisicent; I’m talking about other characters….characters who really should have no reason to know this word or what it means somehow do. That, to me, is just lazy.

Granted, ‘lobstrosity’ is a fabulous word, and it is *absolutely perfect* for what the creatures are. And if the explanation for this is that somehow, the things that Roland thinks up somehow mysteriously become canon, that would be REALLY COOL. But instead, it just kind of comes off as something that has happened for no reason, with no explanation…which is the sort of thing that beginning writers sometimes stumble with; particularly if their editors miss things. Like a really cool word being mystically adopted into everyone’s lexicon for no reason.

I think ultimately what’s really bunching my knickers is that in being careless like this, in revising the first book, in missing little big things like the boots and the shirt, King underestimates, and therefore undervalues, his audience. On the one hand, he’s taken us by the hand and has said, “look! See? This is magic I have made. This is something wonderful.” But on the other hand, he’s saying, “just don’t invest yourself in it too much because it’s just a veneer”. If I thought that he’d done that *on purpose* as some kind of allegory, I might be impressed. But I really don’t think that’s the case. I’d be extremely surprised if that was the case.

  12 comments for “And still I’m talking about that series of books that I actually quite enjoy even though you can’t tell because it sounds like all I do is bitch about them

  1. 25 January 2011 at 9:38 am

    I forgot about the lobstrosities. I loved them! As the violent creatures they were. They were brilliant. Now I have to read these again.

    • 25 January 2011 at 9:41 am

      They are some of the best monsters in any fantasy/adventure story. Very Lovecraftian. In re-“reading” the series, I giggled like a schoolgirl and clapped my hands when they showed up, with their “did-a-chick?” and their “dud-a-chum?”

  2. Ernst Bitterman
    25 January 2011 at 9:59 am

    I’ve never attempted the series, and this doesn’t forgive the retconning, but one should keep in mind that King was right off his head on the booze and the drugs while writing that. It might at least explain the thing with the boots and the magic vocabulary.

    • 25 January 2011 at 11:19 am

      No, he doesn’t get a free ride because he was messed up. Know why? He’s published by a major publisher. At least one; maybe more. Know what that means? Editors who get paid more than my mortgage annually are hired to make sure that stupid mistakes like this don’t make it into the finished product.

      I cannot forgive the retconning, because it’s insulting. But the continuity errors are at least partially the responsibility of someone who, at least in theory, was *not* messed up on coke. And really, when you read Hunter Thompson, you expect continuity to…well…not really exist. But it does. To a point. When you read Stephen King, even though you know he was messed up, you still expect his *stories* to be somewhat bizarre, but his *telling of them* to be cohesive.

      When you read an epic fantasy, what separates the truly excellent from the ‘really good’ are things like the little details and the acceptance that one’s audience will follow along with you through the big things.
      Which he hasn’t done, here.

      Even the Tommyknockers, the book through which King has admitted he was out of his gourd on whatever he could be out of his gourd on, and then later claimed the book was ‘a metaphor’ for his addiction (I don’t buy that, either)…even The Tommyknockers is relatively logical in construction and presentation. Granted, The Tommyknockers is *just one book*, whereas The Dark Tower is a seven-or-eight book series. But there are just some things I think are lazy, and the vocab/boots/shirts stuff smacks of laziness to me.

    • 25 January 2011 at 11:20 am

      And, that being said, the series is worth attempting. It really is a lovely fantasy story. Relatively unique and can be somewhat addictive.

  3. 25 January 2011 at 11:12 am

    !AND!

    Would “lobstrosity” be as universal a word if, say, you had never seen a lobster? Or if you had no idea of what a lobster looked like? That’s what bothered me; there was no reason to assume that some of Roland’s audiences would have any understanding of bugs from the sea. Yet they all seemed to understand it when Roland, or Eddie used the word “lobstrosity”. Maybe I just missed all of the passages where either or both painstakingly described the beasties, with much gesticulation and a shudder or two.

  4. Dan
    25 January 2011 at 11:40 am

    I have one word that excuses all of those continuity errors: ka.

    There, now you can go back to enjoying the Dark Tower.

    • 25 January 2011 at 12:20 pm

      DAMN YOU, DAN! DAMN YOU TO HELL!

      In fact, I kind of wish King *had* just left it all to “ka”. But he *didn’t*. He just did this whole “oh, Roland has no boots!” and then forgot about it. Had he put even one throwaway line in there about how what is needed will be provided through Ka, from faith to boots (but not food), I’d be happier.

      • mrgod2u
        25 January 2011 at 3:40 pm

        I think the problem comes from reading books one after another that were written 20 or so years apart. Just enjoy them and shut off that part of your brain. King is to be enjoyed viscerally. If you are after a thinking person’s book, then get reading that Neal Stephenson book that you’ve been putting off.

        • 25 January 2011 at 4:05 pm

          In fact, my problem stems primarily from a single book (The Drawing of the Three), and from edits that were done ten years after the first book was published.

          This isn’t even about thinking, Mr. God. I find it very difficult to enjoy something, viscerally or otherwise, when it’s broken.

  5. Séamus
    25 January 2011 at 3:30 pm

    My only comment on why these errors would/could have slipped passed an editor is because it’s Stephen EFF’N King. The man is a #1 Best Selling Author. You gonna be the editor of his publishing house who has the gutz to tell him to edit these little errors? Okay, YOU probably would, Cenobyte. Most editors would just check his spelling and grammar a bit and go, “Great job Stephen, another best-seller”. This type of slack editing isn’t exclusive to King either. It seems the more money an author brings to their publishing house, the more I think editors are affraid of scrutinizing their work.

    • 25 January 2011 at 4:01 pm

      Yes. I would be that kind of editor.

      And any other editor, proofreader, or copy editor worth their spit would be too.

i make squee noises when you tell me stuff.

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