I think the key to Stephen King’s The Dark Tower series is at the very end of the very last book. More importantly, I kind of feel like most of the world got completely ripped off with this series, and I’ll tell you why in a minute. One of the things that King says in the “Coda” for the penultimate book in the Dark Tower series (up until very recently, the seventh book in the series, The Dark Tower was considered to be the last book, but another one is slated to be released in 2012):
I can close my eyes to Midworld and to all that lies beyond Midworld, yet some of you who have provided the ears without which no tale can survive a single day are likely not so willing. You are the grim, goal-oriented ones who will not believe that the joy is in the journey, not in the destination, no matter how many times it has been proven to you. You are the unfortunate ones who still get the lovemaking all confused with the paltry squirt that comes to end the lovemaking…you are the cruel ones who deny the grey havens where tired characters go to rest. You say you want to know how it all comes out. You say you want to follow Roland into the tower. You say that’s what you’ve paid your money for – the show you came to see.
I hope most of you know better. Want better. I hope you came to hear the tale, and not just munch your way through the pages to the ending. For an ending, you only have to turn to the last page and see what is there writ upon. But endings are heartless. An ending is a closed door no man or Manni can open.
I tell you this. Should you go on, you will surely be disappointed. Perhaps even heartbroken … There’s no such thing as a happy ending. I never met a single one to equal “Once Upon a Time”. Endings are heartless. An ending is just another word for goodbye.*
– Stephen King, The Dark Tower
I want to tell you this: I stopped reading Stephen King’s books sometime in the late 80s/early 90s. I started getting really tired of reading the same phrases over and over. I got tired of reading the same scare tactics, the same drudgery, the same town, over and over. But what I *loved* were his fantasy stories: The Talisman (written with Peter Straub), The Eyes of the Dragon, the original 1980s EDITED version of The Stand, and the Dark Tower series. Well. I stopped reading after The Drawing of the Three because I made the mistake of a) reading another of his ‘regular’ books and I got pissed off at his formulaic crap, and b) I *hated* one of the three main characters in that book, and so decided the rest of the series would not be worth my rage. I’ve been over how much Detta/Odetta/Susannah bites the wax tadpole, so I won’t revisit it.
But let me tell you this: the rest of the series is SO WORTH all of the shite. These will be hours of your life you won’t WANT to get back. And you can always just flip past all the stupid bad bits with Detta/Odetta/Susannah/Mia, most of the crap with Pere Callahan, almost all of the drivel about Mordred (Worst. Plot device. EVAR), and a goodly chunk of the business with the villain at the very end.
I think in truth, this series ought to have been three books long. Maybe four at the outside. When I remember this series, I will remember it as three or four books long, and I will remember it well. Because the truth is, the good bits stay with us even after the details of the chaff have been blown away by, as King would say (AT LEAST SEVEN TIMES IN ONE BOOK ALONE), “the sough of the wind”. This is also the idea behind a writing technique known as a blank page rewrite, which is terrifying but is also often quite effective.
I don’t want to review the last book in the series. There were good bits in it, and some things happened that had to happen, and there were plenty of bits that ought to have been edited out, or at the very least edited way far down. In fact, I agree with the author that everything after Roland entering the dark tower itself ought to have been left out.
I’ve told you rather an awful lot of what I *don’t* like about this series, and what I don’t like in the last book really mirrors what I didn’t like in the last five books, period. I don’t need to name names. So I want to focus on what I *do* like about this series.
Wait. I’ve talked about that, too. Instead, I’m going to tell you what I think this story is really about.
One of the questions that writers get when people ask them about their work is “where do you get your ideas?”, and another question is, “is your work autobiographical?” The answer to the first is pretty straightforward (the same place you get yours, except I listen to the unbelievable) and the answer to the second is usually “not really”, but I think the answer is really closer to “you can’t get away from being at least somewhat autobiographical, because art is an extension of the self, at least to some degree.”
In this series, King does more than that. He writes himself into the story. I was told I would hate this, and at the beginning, I did. I thought it was self-serving, egomaniacal crap. But then I started really listening to how King characterised himself: lazy; frightened; unwilling; reluctant; disbelieving; self-absorbed. At first, I thought, ‘well, yeah. You are. Anyone who casts himself as God in his book is being more than a little pretentious’. But then I really focused on what King was saying about writing. About storytelling. And therein, I found something beautiful.
In the story, Stephen King finds himself almost taken hostage in his kitchen, when two characters out of a novel he wrote fifteen years earlier show up and tell him that he has to finish the story. He (the character Stephen King) reacts about as you would expect a newly-famous writer to react, particularly one with substance abuse problems. But then, through the course of the story, it becomes clear that Stephen King is *not* God, nor *a* god, nor even really a prophet. He’s just a mouthpiece. And he’s being used.
When you write, or paint, or compose, or dance, or *create*, it’s as if a force flows through you. When you hit a really good stride, you cannot ignore this creative force; you cannot will it away. You fall before it, and it takes hold of you and fills you with such ideas, such feelings, that to keep it all in check would drive you mad. You become a mouthpiece, and although you are the creator, that which you create is something *other* than you. It’s bigger than you. When it’s good…when it’s *really* good, it becomes…real. And this is difficult to explain, but I’m sure that even as a reader, you know when something is *good*, because you smell the dust in the air, and you hear the train whistle blowing across the prairie, and you feel the heat bearing down on you even after the sun has dipped below the horizon. You can taste your own sweat, and imagine what a drink of cold water would feel like on your parched throat. You *live* it, when it’s good. When it’s really good.
And that, I think is what this series is about. It’s about being a writer. It’s about telling a story. Because even though Roland is a gunslinger, he’s a storyteller. And he’s more than a storyteller. He’s a god. And he’s less than a god; he’s a man. He’s a Christ-figure, and he’s a King-figure, if that makes any sense at all. And I see where King has written aspects of himself into the *good* characters in this series.
He’s there as Jake. I certainly see the author in Eddie and in Cuthbert. He’s in John Cullum, and of course, as Stephen King. I don’t think as much, though, in Roland. I think Roland is someone very dear to King, though. And I think the whole point of this series is to talk about what it means to tell a story. About what it means to be a writer. Particularly considering the ending of the soon-to-be-penultimate book.
And this is why I’m willing to forgive King his many, many, ma-hany peccadilloes (some of which are far greater, I think, than small indiscretions); because the *nub* of this story is important, and brilliant, and enduring, and heart-rendingly beautiful. Stephen King has created *entire worlds*, as do all writers, and Roland gets to explore them. If King is a mouthpiece for the god of creative exploits, then Roland is his prophet, his messiah. It makes sense.
In this manner, I don’t think King writing himself into the series is “deus ex machina” as he claims it is when Roland and Eddie first visit him in Song of Susannah. I think it’s much more of a commentary on the creative process, on what it’s like to be so compelled by characters you meet during the course of writing a story.
When I used to host a radio show about books and writing, I often heard writers talking about what it’s like to hear voices in their heads, and to find out that they didn’t know anything about such-and-such a character when they started out, or that the character they pictured or dreamed of turned out so vastly different that it was essentially a completely different person. Psychiatrists *medicate* people for this shite! But as writers, we give rise to characters, places, scenes, and entire worlds that we have no control over.
So ultimately, to borrow a form of usage from this series, Stephen King, you say true; I say thankya. If you want to know what it’s like to be a writer, read the Dark Tower series. I know that King has written a book about writing; I think it’s called On Writing, and from all accounts, it’s a good read. That one *is* autobiographical as well, and it comes at things from more of an historical perspective. But I think the Dark Tower is really about what it is to BE a storyteller; a writer. It’s also just a hell of a good story.