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):
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.
- 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.