Tue
Sep 6 2016 12:00pm

The Dark Tower: The Gunslinger, Chapter 1

Thank you for joining me on a reread of what Stephen King has called his magnum opus, The Dark Tower series featuring Roland of Gilead, the gunslinger. It’s been 38 years since Roland’s quest began in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction and four years since the last Dark Tower: The Wind Through the Keyhole (2012). Let’s see if this equal parts Western, mystery, horror, science fiction, and fantasy epic still packs a punch.

*Remember: While this is a reread, please avoid spoilers in the comments. The point is to get there together!

Long before avid readers were signing up with Hogwarts or wandering about the countryside walking off cliffs for Pokémon Go, there was an obsession to reach the Dark Tower. Either devoted enthusiasts were on the path or knew someone so engaged.

I first enjoyed The Gunslinger (1982) and The Drawing of the Three (1987) in the late 1980s, but admittedly didn’t have the stamina then needed to finish the Dark Tower journey. I would say college, girls, and looking for employment interfered with my search, whereas Roland would say I was weak and undisciplined. Nevertheless, I only remember bits and pieces of the debut entry so this will be quite a refresher.

The plan is to read a chapter a week, and each Tuesday we will meet to discuss major themes, motifs, and reactions. Make sure to bookmark the HQ page for the schedule and links to all of the chapter discussions as they go live! Let's get into the Book 1—The Gunslinger (1982):
 


CrimeHQ's The Dark Tower Reread



Chapter 1: The Gunslinger

“The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed.” 

The Gunslinger features one of the most famous openings in all of literature—like a bullet from a Peacemaker, we are in the middle of a cat and mouse game. But where? What desert? What world?

Apparently, “the world had moved on” and the gunslinger’s hunt is in an alternative version of the American Old West but set in the future. He encounters a species called the Taheen, humanoid bodies with the heads of animals, and they are fully within this world's realm of normalcy. The music he hears is familiar—tunes like The Beatles “Hey Jude”—and common nursery rhymes are still sung. Hamburgers are being consumed with a wary eye because it’s doubtful the meat is from pure stock, and what little rainfall occurs is quickly lapped up by the dying earth. Almost every creature has the thousand-yard stare. Desolate, hopeless beings.

The gunslinger stops at the home of a farmer named Brown, who has a talking crow named Zoltan who either squawks something dire like, “Lead us not into temptation,” or jokey, “The more you eat, the more you toot.” He stays the night at Brown’s invitation and feels the urge to unburden himself of his recent horrific visit to Tull.

A fool's chorus of half-stoned voices was rising in the final protracted lyric of “Hey Jude”—“Naa-naa-naa naa-na-na-na ... hey, Jude ...”—as he entered the town proper. It was a dead sound, like the wind in the hollow of a rotted tree. Only the prosaic thump and pound of the honky-tonk piano saved him from seriously wondering if the man in black might not have raised ghosts to inhabit a deserted town. He smiled a little at the thought.

If the world he roams is nearly depleted of humanity, then the town of Tull is all the way down the rabbit hole of nightmarish oblivion, where a host of lost souls and demons exist. He finds comfort in the comely Allie who runs the bar—classic Western setting with batwing doors—and, instead of a brief layover, stays for many days, eventually learning that the man in black had been through Tull earlier.

How much earlier? No one seems to be able to contemplate time in this void. Two weeks could be two months, two years. Still, the man in black resided long enough to bring a dead man back to life and impregnate a preacher who spews hatred that an Interloper, aka Antichrist, is in their presence. And, the man in black left the mysterious word “nineteen” with Allie, who is fixated with life-after-death. If she speaks the number to the newly resurrected man, he will open her eyes to the world to come. In a nutshell, he had primed the entire town, one way or another, against the gunslinger.

His reaction was automatic, instantaneous, inbred. He whirled on his heels while his hands pulled the guns from his holsters, the butts heavy and sure in his hands. It was Allie, and of course it had to be Allie, coming at him with her face distorted, the scar a hellish purple in the lowering light. He saw that she was held hostage; the distorted, grimacing face of Sheb peered over her shoulder like a witch’s familiar. She was his shield and sacrifice. He saw it all, clear and shadowless in the frozen, deathless light of the sterile calm, and heard her: 

“Kill me, Roland, kill me! I said the word, nineteen, I said, and he told me … I can’t bear it—“

The ending is cinematic slaughter, like The Wild Bunch clearing out that Mexican town. Only here it’s Roland, the gunslinger shooting fish in a barrel. Most come at him with sticks or other crudely made weapons. End tally: Roland kills thirty-nine men, fourteen women, and five children. He stays one more night, filling up on meat and beer before leaving.

Besides The Stand, which is a colossal masterpiece, the best King novels are where he goes pithy on word count, like The Green Mile serial novel, The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon, and The Colorado Kid. The opening chapter of The Gunslinger was originally a short story and works best because of its sharp execution—opening up this fantastical world in minimalist fashion. It packs a helluva punch.

Notes:

  • I stumbled on words like Khef, Ka, Manni holy man, and Taheen, finding myself referring to a Dark Tower online guide (guess that makes me a bit of an impatient reader).
  • First time readers who are not aware that the gunslinger’s first name is Roland may not feel the full impact of Allie pleading to that particular name to kill her.
  • The flashback within a flashback in lesser hands would have suffered, but King is a maestro.
  • Interesting that I immediately assume, from that first sentence, that the gunslinger is good and the man in black is evil? 


What do YOU think? How was the first chapter of The Dark Tower I: The Gunslinger? Head to the comments and start/join the conversation!

*Remember: Be careful with your comments—NO SPOILERS! We will be moderating the comments and deleting anything we feel is a spoiler, so pause before you post and make sure you're not ruining it for someone else.


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David Cranmer aka Edward A. Grainger is the publisher and editor of BEAT to a PULP books and author of The Drifter Detective #7: Torn and Frayed. He lives in New York with his wife and daughter.

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23 comments
Adam Wagner
1. AdamCWagner88
I think the most mysterious thing about the first chapter is the gunslinger's constant fear that everything he encounters is something the man in black has left for him--whether a trick or a trap, he can't be sure it's even real.

This is further exemplified by the fact that no one seems to have a grasp on time, which for most of us is a key aspect of our perception of reality.

But, that shootout was brilliant. It's like King's fingers did their reloading typing trick, and I felt the echo and fire of every bullet. Great 1st chapter!
David Cranmer
2. DavidCranmer
Adam, I had the vibe I was in a Salvador Dali painting with the hanging, almost dripping, clocks.
Charles Gramlich
3. cgramlic
I had read this many, many years ago as well. So my thoughts on the reread of Chapter 1 are these: 1). I'd forgotten how brutal and desolate the world of the Gunfighter is. Hopelessness is the name of the game, although, realistically, the people keep going through the motions.

2). I didn't think the flashback worked or was needed. The interaction with Brown as basically a frame around the tale of the Gunfighter in Tull. I found the switch from sections I to II confusing . I was thinking, where the heck did the mule come from? Although I figured it out pretty quickly.

3) I'm torn about King just dropping the words like "Khef" and "Manni" into the story with no explanation. I suppose that would be realistically how a character from that time would speak and think, but it seems to me that the words still could have been explained via context. He did that with "Taheen." He also used such words less and less over the first chapter it seemed to me.

4) the section in Tull was effectively described. I thought the characterizations were well done, although I didn't like 'any' of these people, particularly not the incestuous Kennerly. I'd forgotten that aspect of the tale as well.

5) I never realized before that the female preacher, "Syliva Pittston," is very similar to Mrs. Carmody in The Mist. Both are full of fire and brimstone and prophecy and strive to get their followers to attack the unbelievers. As near as I can see, The Mist appeared first, in 1980, while The Gunslinger came out in 1982. That would make Carmody the model for Pittston.
Adam Wagner
5. AdamCWagner88
@cgramlic In regards to your #3, I don't mind when authors use unusual or made-up words in their books--especially epic tales. I tend to put those words in my back pocket and search for clues as to their meanings as I go through the story.

I feel like if they wanted us to know what that word meant immediately, they would have explained it better through context clues. I think, most of the time, their intention is to present us with a word that is mysterious to remind us that this world isn't ours, it's an unfamiliar one, and to let that meaning unfold over time as we immerse ourselves into that world.
David Cranmer
6. DavidCranmer
Adam, I'm with Charles on his #3, I prefer to know in short order foreign words. Though once I know this is the approach I settle back and wait.

Charles, concerning your 4th observation I found every one including the gunslinger unlikable in this first chapter. I feel like Roland uses Allie and then stores up on her food and drink after she's dead. He's defintely an antihero.
David Cranmer
7. DavidCranmer
Kinda sorta an obvious statement here but I find it interesting that we automatically assume as first time readers that Roland is good and the man in black is evil from just the opening sentence. Of course, later on in the chapter its quite obvious but that opening line, “The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed." We just know the gunslinger ain't-a-chasing a Johnny Cash or Paladin/Have Gun, Will Travel style man in black.
8. Heath Lowrance
Good assessment. I enjoyed The Gunslinger myself, but I'm anxious to read your thoughts once it comes to the third or fourth books.
Bill Cameron
9. bcmystery
I just read The Gunslinger for the first time about a month ago (and have now read through Wizard and Glass). Given how significant Stephen King is to the cultural history of the last 40+ years, I wonder how many readers will come to this book without any preconceptions as to what "the man in black" means.

When I read, "The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed," my first thought was "Flagg or his proxy is the man in black." There was no way for me to think anything else—and compared to many, I'm not as deeply versed in Kingiana as many folks are. So if it's Flagg or his proxy, then evil goes without saying.

As for the gunslinger, well, once again, I've been primed to not think of him as "good" so much as "in opposition." King provides part of that priming through his own work, of course, but also archetypically "gunslinger" suggests antihero at best. A gunslinger may or may not be on the side of good, or justice. While King does write characters who are Good® at times, he is more likely to spend time on how more nuanced characters respond or relate to the Good, rather than on the Good itself.

And in this chapter, King quickly makes clear that while the gunslinger may be the protagonist, he's not exactly a good guy. That's good (heh) though, because it leads me to wonder why. Which kept me reading.

As for the flashback within a flashback, I thought it was almost brilliant, and yet also a bit of King winking at himself. As you suggest, not many writers could pull it off, and I think King does. But why? Because he can. A case can be made that he needed to set up some foundational world building before he got to the Tull story, but the flashback could have been handled less, well, cleverly and still been effective.

Shortly after I started The Gunslinger, a friend and I were exchanging book recommendations, and I described this chapter—but not what happened in the chapter. Rather, I talked about the structure, and how seemlessly I felt King had constructed it. As a piece of writing, it's amazing, but that amazingness is a point against it from the standpoint of storytelling. Shouldn't I have been talking about how great the story was first?
10. Kristie Rounds
@egramlic, #5 The Gunslinger was first published in 1978, and King has stated that he wrote the first book when he was 19. That would put the character of Pittston as being created first. I think both characters are a study in religion gone wrong; a theme King likes to revisit often.
David Cranmer
11. DavidCranmer
Thanks, Heath. Appreciate you stopping and am looking forward to discussing future installments with you.
Charles Gramlich
12. cgramlic
Kristie, thanks for that update. Since there have been revisions of both it's a little hard to tell. Glad to get the skinny on it. And yes, it does seem a theme that King plays around with a lot.
David Cranmer
13. DavidCranmer
bcmystery, King definitely works in the grey area when it comes to his characters and other than maybe Stand By Me I can't really recall any truly good (that's like saying normal. What is that, right?) characters–maybe John Coffey in The Green Mile–that were not seriously conflicted. The gunslinger is 'good' in the way Eastwood's Man With No Name was good or the real life Wyatt Earp.
Charles Gramlich
14. cgramlic
AdamCWagner88, that's why I feel torn on the issue. I like the 'realism' it adds to a fantasy story when this kind of thing is done, but I also like to get some sense of the meaning from the context. My memory is not as good as it used to be so holding it in my head until later may no longer be an option.
15. Craig
I agree this is an excellent opening chapter. It sets a very unique tone, I think. This particular blend of dark fantasy and western has rarely ever been done, and probably never this well.
David Cranmer
16. DavidCranmer
Craig, Mr. King draws from many inspirational wells but yet somehow makes the whole plot seem original to his keyboard.
Adam Wagner
17. AdamCWagner88
@cgramlic: I totally understand. I found that my partner got hung up on those words she didn't understand and weren't in the dictionary. I tried to tell her to just glance over them--they exact meaning might not necessarily be immediately important right now. I guess it's just different minds approaching things in different ways.
18. Garnett Elliott
What I remember first about The Gunslinger is Steve-O saying that he'd "dug something out of the dirt" (or a similar expression), e.g. the stories had symbolism in them, and he was going for some deeper, more archetypal meaning with the series.

The other part I remember is when Roland is having to reload his guns while shooting down the citizens of Tull. He reloads with one hand, "walking" the bullets up his fingers like a magician with a coin. This image really stuck out in my mind, and hints at just how disciplined Roland is.
19. Doreen Queen
How cool! I just finished this book last night, and to find a discussion on it today is amazing.
This first chapter is so terse compared to some of King's later works. I have to admit, I never assume one of his characters is necessarily good or bad until I have read a chapter or two.
I agree with bcmystery that I knew "the man in black" had to be related to Flagg in some fashion -I can't identify why or how I know it.
I find it remarkable that King was only 19 when he wrote this.
Alan Williams
20. tontowilliams
I read this originally, probably around the late 1980's or early '90s and although I think I still have that copy I had to buy a new one for this reread because I couldn't find it. As with many new editions it's been updated, and this time it seemed to be an easier read than it was originally (or at least how I remember it being).

The Gunslinger comes across to me as a driven character, perhaps not one that has what would be regarded as "morals" as such, but certainly one who seems to live by his own code. The first part of the book works for me, the flashbacks and scene setting of The Gunslinger's quest and the pursuit of The Man In Black are laid out, but not revealed in their entirity which draws the reader on into the subsequent parts of this book, and the later volumes.
David Cranmer
21. DavidCranmer
Garnett, the gunslinger moves with such agility and speed I can almost see a slow motion sequence in the upcoming movie to catch every orchestrated nuance. I’m looking forward to Idris Elba’s take and handling. As a fan of the British TV series Luther, I’m fairly certain they landed the definitive Roland Deschain.

Doreen, Thanks for joining us. Yes, I do believe that ‘terse’ style is because King was a young writer at the time and these chapters were originally short stories—and it works stunningly. And I always viewed the man in black as not seeing himself as evil but simply his ends justify the means. What I meant by the 'good' vs. 'evil' observation was way back in the day when I read that opening line, and had no idea where the story was going, I automatically threw in with Roland—viewing him as the better of the two. Knowing King as I did at that point (The Stand, Carrie, etc.), I should have known better.

tontowilliams, it has been so many years since I read that original copy and according to some online source the 2003 update by King was “significantly revised.” I kinda sorta remember the original being a bit of a choppy read—certainly a smooth ride now. And that code that you speak of is definitely in keeping with the Old West inspired landscape that King has placed these characters. (By the way, thanks for joining us on this reread.)
Adam Wagner
22. AdamCWagner88
@Garnett: I absolutely love the repetition of the fingers and hands doing what they do, the tricks they learned, as he has to continuously reload and take out the villagers with accuracy and speed.

It's like the gunslinger thinks of his hands and fingers in a secondary, almost removed sense--like a consciousness regarding itself from afar. Instead of thinking of reloading and shooting and the task at hand, he thinks of the mechanistic repetition of his body just doing what it was trained to do.
23. Prashant C. Trikannad
David, I enjoyed reading your deeply insightful review of the first chapter of "The Gunslinger." It made me want to read the book right away. I'm already curious to know what happens in the next chapter. I'm not familiar with this book or the series but it sounds like an intensely powerful mystery to me. The Western setting adds to its overall appeal. Unfortunately, I couldn't get hold of a copy in time and I wasn't too keen on reading it in digital format.
David Cranmer
24. DavidCranmer
Why, thank you, Prashant! And I'm sorry to hear you couldn't find a print copy—I will miss your keen commentary.
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