Well, went into this knowing that Stephen King considers it his magnum opus (the Dark Tower that is, of which The Gunslinger is #1). Also, with a predisposition to not be very keen on Stephen King. I read a lot of his stuff as a teenager – Carrie, The Shining, Salem’s Lot, Christine, Tommyknockers, the list goes on – then suddenly didn’t like them any more, for whatever reason. Partly, they seemed inordinately long with a lot of waffle. Mainly, I realized I don’t like horror.
But – he is a great storyteller. And, I love his book on writing – unpretentious, clear, and thoughtful: snippets and thoughts and advice come back to me all the time. It lives in my head.
So, I decided to give The Gunslinger a go, especially as it seemed to be a departure from the horror tales that put me off. BTW THIS DOES CONTAIN SPOILERS.
It’s definitely an interesting read. The writing is unlike anything else (that I’ve read anyway) by Stephen King, far more poetic and descriptive – apparently too much so, he thought: he wrote it young and high on creative writing seminars, and later decided the prose was too purple, going through and scything out adjectives and images. Well, either I got an old version or he didn’t scythe them all by a long shot.
The sense of place is terrific – the desert, followed by a very long tunnel into a mountain. The descriptions are hugely atmospheric and moody, and the reader develops a real sense of this vast broken desert world.
The first line is of course iconic:
“The man in black fled into the desert, and the gunslinger followed.”
Simple, yet incredibly powerful (the power of short words – read a piece on that somewhere) and also a kind of summing up of the story – because that’s pretty well what it’s all about. A long pursuit. The reader gets the feeling that this pursuit is not the usual, one guy (good/lawman) after another (bad/criminal). These two figures, the gunslinger and the man in black, are symbolic of the two basic forces in their universe – good and evil, and the aims of the pursuit are – well, vague. There’s a dark tower involved. I think the gunslinger needs the man in black to help him find it. What for? Uh… read book two to find out (maybe). And yet for all the vague symbolism of his role, the gunslinger does develop a very specific personality – courageous, profoundly tough, with a conscience and some empathy (not enough), and a deep lack of imagination. He’s not even that smart, apparently, compared to the others of his tribe whom he’s outlived.
It does have the feel of a prequel. There are odd unexplained connections to our own world in the person of Jake, a boy that the man in black killed in more or less contemporary New York. The plot is thin. The gunslinger’s history is explained to some extent through lengthy flashbacks/tales of his past: the burning of a woman he loved, the massacre of the township of Tull, his upbringing in Gilead under the harsh tutelage of a man named Cort.
Two things struck me, neither of which would prevent me reading the next volume. One is, King said somewhere that that he loved LOTR but knew his own opus would have to be firmly American, fertilized by his own cultural roots. Which is fine – the western – but then the flashbacks to Roland’s upbringing could quite easily have been lifted from some medieval castle where the knights’ sons are being raised as warriors, and the liege lord’s wife is being seduced by some nasty courtier… It seemed strangely traditional and not quite consistent with the new world vibe.
Secondly, I didn’t quite see why Jake had to die. At some point the gunslinger understands Jake will have to be sacrificed, if he is to continue his hunt for the man in black. Uh – why? This was not even close to being explained, neither rationally or magically. It was just random – and out of character for the gunslinger to go along with some vaguely implied request from the man in black.
But, as I said, neither of these two issues were huge, or would stop me reading the next volume in the series. Only thing is – from here on in they get a lot longer. Just hope it doesn’t slip back into excess word count and waffle.
Also – the movie’s just come out and the poster’s brilliant.
What Works And Why?
We read to escape, enjoy, engage, and find out more about our world. So reading is great - but what makes a great read? A page dedicated to short analyses of how writers engage readers.