14 February 2017

Books: The Gunslinger: The Dark Tower I by Stephen King (1982/2003)

For a long while I had been tooling with the idea of re-reading some books. But a part of me had thought this a really dumb idea, mostly because I have way too many unread books to really take this on.  There is a thing, an issue only readers can fully understand, is that while I surround myself with books, and continue to buy books, and take books out of the library, I sometimes think that while I bought those books to read, I  just don’t want to read them now. And as a matter of fact, I need to go out and buy some more.

This has escalated to a point where I now have hundreds of unread books sitting next to my bed, my computer, my living room, and in boxes in the garage that I do want to read, but not just right now. But I should be reading those because time is always running short, because I have less days in front of me than behind and I really should never re-read a book because I have so many other books huddled around me like frightened children.

But my mind is dulled by work related issues and my will is loose like a dead leaf blowing in a angry wind and have decided to do this anyways. So I begin with Stephen King’s epic seven-volume Dark Tower series.

While the original book was released in 1982 by Donald M. Grant, a specialty press anchored in New Hampshire, it was, essentially, a compilation of five short stories King wrote between 1978 and 1981 and published in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. While King was already super popular by then, the mainstream reader was not aware that the book was released until 1983 when Doubleday published Pet Semetary and included The Gunslinger as one of King’s previous works. Of course, by then, the original limited printed book was long out of print. While Grant did reprint more copies, the book would not get a general release –in Trade Paperback by Plume- until 1988. This was the edition I would first read. 

Of course, the series would continue, first through Grant and then through King’s mass publishers. There came The Drawing of the Three (1987), The Waste Lands (1991), Wizards and Glass (1997), The Wolves of Calla (2003), The Song of Susannah (2004), and The Dark Tower (2004). An eighth novel, The Wind Through the Keyhole, was released in 2012. While not wholly part of the original seven books (and King call it book 4.5) it can be read before The Wolves of Calla or just after the last book. Plus there was a short story prequel that took place just before the events of The Gunslinger called The Little Sisters of Eluria, which originally published in 1998 in a collection called Legends: Short Novels by the Masters of Modern Fantasy. In 2002, it was included in King's Everything Eventual, which also featured another story that introduced us to a character that would pop up in later books. But it was a near fatal run in with a van in 1999 that eventually convinced King to really finish his Dark Tower series, which was why the last three came out so rapidly.

Since much of my Stephen Kings books are stored in boxes, I decided to obtain the used versions of the mass market versions of the series, including this 2003 revised version of the first book. While some may quibble that King should leave well enough alone, the reason he felt the book needed to be revised was that by now The Dark Tower novels had become the linchpin that tied together much of King's body of work outside the series. He felt changes were needed to not only make the earlier book more accessible to new readers, but to make the storytelling more linear and consistent with the later book, especially the last one. It also gave him a chance to clear up continuity errors that would introduced in the final books. The changes amounted to 35 new pages. 

I do remember a lot of the book, especially the introduction of John “Jake” Chambers, the boy who “died” in our world, pushed into oncoming traffic by The Man in Black, only to find himself “re-born” in a world that had “moved on.” His horrific death, with the wheels of the car breaking his back, with blood spouting out of his mouth left a deep impression on me. Part of the reason Jake resonated with me was because King, in his writing, did not hesitate to kill kids (‘Salem’s Lot and Pet Semetary come to mind). Up until I became a Constant Reader of his books, most writers avoided killing kids off. Much like in movies and TV then, children were rarely seen dying or being killed, it was considered taboo (though in 1936 Alfred Hitchcock film Sabotage, the legendary director has the camera follow a boy who is carrying a canister with, unbeknown to characters on screen -though the audience knows this- has a bomb implanted in it. The camera follows the boy for several minutes, heightening the tension, before he boards a bus, which eventually blows up killing the child –and which one critic at the time called “brutal and unnecessary.”) 

So King kills off kids, which scared me, yet made sense. While re-reading this, I did notice now the early mention of the Crimson King (called just “the Beast” in the original edition) who’s real first appearance –and first mention- came in King’s 1994 novel Insomnia (the first book outside his Dark Tower series that many noticed really began to connect things). The Crimson King would get fleshed out in 1997’s Wizards and Glass

I still like this book and will always recommend this series, as I find it enjoyable. And being a long-time reader of King I also appreciated that he rewarded us with the Dark Tower universe and the many other novels he released that were –in some obvious and less obvious ways- connected to it.

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