I read an interview once with R.L. Stine wherein he was asked about a criticism that stuck with him and he replied that a magazine called him a “training bra for Stephen King.” As derogatory as that sounds, and as little as Stine appreciated the comment at the time, I can potentially confirm the basic idea. The analogy is a fairly crude illustration of my early reading life. First I read Little Golden Books, then I read Goosebumps, then I read Stephen King.
King was my first literary idol. When I wanted to learn to write fiction, I could have read any book on the subject, but I read “On Writing.” My relationship with King’s novels is perhaps the longest one of my life. I don’t think I’ve gone a year without reading one of his works since I was ten, which puts it past twenty years, and yet there is still so much I haven’t read. The man must be a machine.
The Gunslinger is a book that, despite its presence on shelves of a hundred family members and friends throughout my life, I never gathered the courage to try until now. The impulse to pick up the book came at the end of a long, self-imposed King hiatus. I got it in my head recently, and rightly so, that I needed to read wider. I do have a destructive tendency to silo my reading habits, and horror is the genre that I fall into like a cart wheel into a rut in a dirt road. So I read some Bradbury, some McCarthy, some Lovecraft (still horror, but I learned where King got his ideas) and some Asimov among others. Then, as I casually browsed the book section at Goodwill, the Gunslinger winked at me. “Come back,” he said. “You can’t stay away forever.”
He was right, of course. It had been too long since I had fallen into that familiar King linguistic rhythm that is my literary equivalent of coming home. Contrary to what I was told to expect from people who had read the Dark Tower series before, the book felt simple, stripped clean, at least at first. King is the long-ruling monarch of the opening line and this one pulled me in violently. I could see the shot as the camera swept down from the blue-yellow cloudless sky toward the sand and the dusty black speck that would become the Gunslinger, Roland. There was great peril and yet from the first moment I could not believe that the desert would take him. This man was strength incarnate, and he was obsession. The world that produced Roland has begun to fall apart and, for reasons he keeps to himself, he seeks the Dark Tower. The Man in Black holds his first clue and so he must follow.
There’s a short story in one of King’s collections called “The Moving Finger.” To me, this story has always embodied King’s central thesis which I always thought was: sometimes bad things happen to basically good people at random. I learned from “The Gunslinger” that I was wrong. King’s hypothesis has never been that bad things happen to good people. It is that there is no such thing as a good person or a bad person, not really. There are only people, and the situation coupled with experience dictates the action. “Good” and “bad” are just labels that are applied after the fact so other people can play Monday morning quarterback. I knew, from my distance and place of relative safety what I wanted Roland to do. He never did it. He was vicious in his pursuit. He could be cold. He made decisions that would tear the heart out of me. I wanted to hate him. I could not. Throughout it all I could not help but feel that I was watching a hero, and that sometimes heroes are not the star-spangled, spandex-clad Christ analogues of comic books. Sometimes heroes, in pursuit of the good they seek, must sacrifice their own souls to see it, and I was watching Roland’s fall away piece by agonizing piece.
One must read this, however, in the mind that it merely provides setup for the series that follows – a series I have not read. There are loose threads, and they make this book fall just short of the greatness I sensed in it, but I have hope. I hope that we learn more about the Man in Black and that he does not remain a slightly goofy, impish wizard stereotype. I hope that in the ensuing books King will create fewer characters whose sole role it is to allow Roland to dump exposition on the page. The exposition is good, but the time spent on characters like the wasteland squatter near the beginning of the book feels wasted. This is a flaw, but it is a forgivable one. Even King’s most ancillary characters are so interesting that I want more.
I will read the rest of this series because I feel like I have to, now. I cannot leave the Gunslinger alone, sitting next to the rotted remains of an ancient campfire and a pile of bones, about to start the next leg of his journey. King has roped me in with the tools of his masterful trade. I will find the Dark Tower at the center of all time. Like the Gunslinger, I am sworn.