After a debate about betrayal and the ultimate goal last week for Chapter 3, we step into the darkness of the mountain and into the hands of the slow mutants for Chapter 4…
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!
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! This chapter is dark in more ways than one—so let's shed some light on Chapter 4 of The Gunslinger:
Chapter 4: The Slow Mutants
Into the mountain, Roland Deschain treks, shadowing the man in black with a reluctant, fated Jake Chambers following. The passageway is a seemingly endless, exhausting labyrinth that’s steadily ascending.
Roland begins telling a chapter of his life to the young boy to help distract Jake from what he (and we) are sure is impending doom. In one of the more revealing pieces (The Gunslinger can be a wordy bastard when it comes to flashbacks) of Roland’s history, we learn that when he was 14-years-old, he witnessed Marten and his mother carrying on a relationship. This was a trick of Marten’s—making sure Roland found out—propelling Roland to prematurely request his trial to be a gunslinger. To succeed in the trial, he must best his teacher Cort in a duel, thereby winning his guns and the ability to exact revenge against Marten.
The “weapon” Roland chooses for his trial is his hawk, David. The bird is old, but using the animal is such a surprise for Cort that David is able to tear at the unsuspecting opponent’s face with its first attack.
Then Cort made a thick grunting. His body shuddered. Faintly, the boy saw one hand flailing for the dropped stick, and with a jackknifing lunge, he kicked it out of reach. David had hooked one talon into Cort’s right ear. The other battered mercilessly at the teacher’s cheek, making it a ruin. Warm blood splattered the boy’s face, smelling of sheared copper.
Cort’s fist struck the bird once, breaking its back. Again, and the neck snapped away at a crooked angle. And still the talon clutched.
Roland ultimately triumphs (though David dies), and Cort declares the boy a gunslinger but cautions about heading down the revenge trail too quickly.
Eventually, Roland and Jake run into—literally—an old-fashioned railroad handcar, making the journey a little easier. That is until the slow mutants of this chapter’s title begin pursuing them like zombies. These undernourished creatures move in droves, and maybe it’s me, but these are some of the eeriest creeps I’ve ever read about:
The mutant made a sighing, sobbing noise and began to grin. Its hands were limp and fish-like, dead; the fingers clove to one another like the fingers of a glove long immersed in drying mud.
That imagery coupled with Roland and Jake practically entombed underground beats the hell out of anything on The Walking Dead.
Roland blasts many of the mutants into oblivion before they finally escape on their railroad handcar, leaving the last of the beasts behind. They travel onward for what could be days, coming to a point where the trestle is as much decayed as the ground beneath it has been eroded away. On foot, they carefully pass over the decrepit rail spanning the gorge, the roar of water rushing below, when Jake slips.
The boy plunged, and one hand flew up like a gull in the darkness, up, up, and then he hung over the pit; he dangled there, his dark eyes staring up at the gunslinger in final blind lost knowledge.
Booming, racketing: “No more games. Come now, gunslinger. Or catch me never.”
All the chips on the table. Every card up but one. The boy dangled, a living Tarot card, the Hanged Man, the Phoenician sailor, innocent lost and barely above the wave of a stygian sea.
In what’s no surprise, the gunslinger lets the boy fall to his death. We were prepared for this when we learned that Roland had sacrificed David for what we must accept as the bigger cause—the Dark Tower. Still, I had come to like Jake, and without the kid’s help, Roland would have been the one feeding the worms.
I like that Jake didn’t give out a scream on the way down. The boy had become a man in the short time he had spent with Roland (though I’m wondering, might we see him again?). And what of Roland’s forsaking of Jake? For the greater good or just plain heinous?
After, the man in black leads Roland to a place of counseling, and turning the page to the next chapter header, I read: The Gunslinger and the Man in Black. Finally, we should have some answers…right?
What do YOU think about Chapter 4, the slow mutants, and Roland's decision to sacrifice Jake to finally catch the man in black? 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 is the publisher and editor of BEAT to a PULP. Latest books from this indie powerhouse include the alternate history novella Leviathan and sci-fi adventure Pale Mars. David lives in New York with his wife and daughter.