Introductory note: It’s been a little over a decade since the release of the last novels in Stephen King’s Dark Tower series, and every bit as long since I’ve read them. In fact, setting aside my reading of the revised edition of The Gunslinger, it’s been probably 15-20 years since I’ve read some of the Dark Tower books, despite my deep love for the series. So, with the release of the film later this year, I’ve decided to do a re-read of the entire series, as well as The Wind through the Keyhole after I read the original seven. It’s an undertaking I’m looking forward to, even though I’m worried that the series won’t live up to my love and affection for it.
One more key note: after each main review, I’ll do a section headed “All Things Serve the Beam,” in which I’ll discuss some spoilers for the series as a whole for those like me who’ve read it all or know how things turn out. I’ll mark it pretty clearly, but don’t read that section if you’re not wanting the series beyond this book spoiled for you.
The Gunslinger is a strange book, by any standards. That goes doubly if you’re reading the original version (which I recommend), but even if you’re reading King’s revised version that came out, The Gunslinger doesn’t quite feel…well, like a Stephen King book, yes, but really, it doesn’t feel like much else.
But for me, that’s much of what drew me into the world of The Dark Tower, and that goes doubly for King’s original version of the book, which is starker, less polished, and less familiar. It’s undeniably the work of a younger author, one who hadn’t honed his craft yet, and yet whose imagination and mind are truly like little else out there. Mixing together Sergio Leone, King Arthur tales, horror novels, and post-apocalyptic fiction, The Gunslinger puts us into a world that, as so many characters repeat, “has moved on.” This is not a vivid or rich world; it is a world that is dying, and dying rapidly.
And yet, the gunslinger – Roland Deschain – exists, and stays true to his quest. Despite the death of the world, despite the fact that he’s a forgotten relic of a bygone time, he clings to his quest – and there’s something primal and archetypal in that for me, a story of a knight on a pointless quest that has echoed into modern books I love like The Last Policeman or The Devil’s Detective, and no doubt, some of it started here.
Except, of course, that Roland isn’t a typical hero. It’s something I hadn’t considered entirely until this read, but King didn’t just borrow the style and grandeur of Leone’s spaghetti Westerns; he borrowed the amorality of its hero, giving us a hero who cares about his quest first and foremost, and finds all other attachments ultimately expendable. Roland is not the brightest character, not the warmest, not the most noble – but he is dedicated, and there is something fascinating about that, to no small degree. (King’s revised version seems to make Roland a little softer around the edges, and it’s my least favorite aspect of the revisions; Roland is a cold-blooded son of a bitch, and I think the original version of the novel stays true to that more clearly.)
The Gunslinger is a short book; it’s a foray into a strange world, an introduction more than a true entry in the series. And yet, there’s something so strange, so alien, so haunting about it that I still love it, all these years later. And while I understand King’s desire to revise the book (more on that in a moment), I love the stilted, uncomfortable nature of the original, and its rawness. It’s a magnificent first entry in a unique series, and a microcosm of what’s to come: not always perfect, but always unique and off-kilter, and the product of a mind incapable of doing the expected.
The Revised Edition: After reading the original draft, my plan had been just to check out some of the edits, but I ended up reading the revised version the day after I finished the original. King’s choice to revise the novel is entirely a sensible one; his argument, that he always goes back and revises the openings of his novels to fit the work entire, is a logical one, and there’s little denying that the revised version of the book better fits the tone of the series as a whole. More than that, setting aside the numerous continuity fixes, the revised version feels more like the author we know, and the author who concluded the series – for better and for worse. There’s a better sense of where the story is going, and how it fits together, and who Roland is. More to the point, there’s a far better sense of who Jake Chambers is; his portrayal in the revised version is far richer and more interesting, turning the character into someone who feels out of place in Roland’s world and not just of a piece with the strangeness.
For all of that, though, and even though I’ll concede that the revised Gunslinger is no doubt a better sell for the series for new readers, I can’t deny my preference for the unpolished, rough edges of the original novel. The Dark Tower is as much a snapshot of where King was as an author and a person over the course of the many years that went into the pieces, and there’s something magical about seeing King’s talent in its original form. More than that, the strange, alien feeling of the original text is more haunting in many ways than the more fully-realized version that we get in the revised. Is the revised more true to the series…but it’s the original that made me a fan.
Amazon: Original Version | Revised Edition
All Things Serve the Beam (series spoilers follow)
- One of the reasons, of course, that Roland’s cruelty is so much more evident on a re-read is knowing how brutal and costly his quest for the Tower will ultimately be. It’s one reason that I think the original draft is so much truer to Roland; by the end of the series, he’s still the man who would drop Jake Chambers a million times just to get one step closer to the Tower.
- For as long as King took to write The Drawing of the Three, the scenes of the Oracle and Walter’s tarot reading certainly both imply that he had most of the next novel plotted out. Also, the Tower card covering Roland’s card certainly feels like it’s a clue to the themes of the series, as he’s subsumed by his quest to the point where he barely matters anymore.
- As mentioned above, the revised version does a far greater job of introducing us to Jake Chambers. In the original version, Jake feels like he’s neither of Roland’s world nor ours; he feels like a hollow human being, one with little left of his original self. The revised version clearly sets up Jake’s importance to the rest of the series, and gives us a better sense of how the series will blend worlds as soon as the next entry.
- While we’re on the topic of the revised version, man, does King heavily foreshadow the very end of the final book. It’s not as obvious for a first time reader – I remember reading the revised version before book 5 came out, and I don’t think I noticed it – but between the new subtitle, the constant reminders that all of this is familiar, and Walter’s references to Roland’s resumption of his quest, he lays it on a bit thick at times.