This is the third entry in my re-read of Stephen King’s Dark Tower series, following my reviews of The Gunslinger and The Drawing of the Three. As a reminder, I’ll be reviewing the book on its own terms in the review; after the review concludes, I will be discussing the book’s connections to the rest of the series to come in the section entitled “All Things Serve the Beam.”
In a lot of ways, I’m glad The Waste Lands was already out when I started reading The Dark Tower. Yes, the strange, alien nature of The Gunslinger is intriguing, and yes, The Drawing of the Three immerses us into its cast of characters incredibly well. But for my money, it’s really here, in the third volume of the series, that it feels like the quest for the Tower truly begins. The players have assembled; the ka-tet is formed; and now, the march to the Tower truly begins in earnest.
That makes it sound as though nothing has really happened in the past two books, and that’s not the case at all; it’s just that the first two books are largely about immersing us in this world and letting us get to know our cast of heroes (maybe “protagonists” is a better term). But in The Waste Lands, we finally begin moving along the path of the Beam, and we begin to see what’s left of Roland’s world – and what he means when he says that it’s “moved on”.
The Waste Lands, more than either of the previous two novels, taps into King’s strengths as a horror writer, whether in a harrowing sequence set in a malevolent house or introducing us to a machine that’s lost its mind somewhere in the past centuries. The book absolutely pulses with unease and tension, pushing our heroes more closely together and making the threats more palpable. In The Gunslinger, we felt that Roland could pretty well take care of himself, and we had few worries. But now, there are bonds of friendship and love, and even Roland has been wounded by this world – and we’re early on. King uses that tension and unease masterfully, forcing our heroes to fight for their survival and become active participants in this quest and the fight to survive this mad, broken world that they find themselves in.
More than that, though, The Waste Lands is King’s best effort at world-building to date in the series. It’s the first time we get a sense of what this world is truly like, with discussions of some of its mythology, people reacting to the sight of the last gunslinger with awe and unease, and a sense of some of what’s happened to this world since its peak. We see huddled colonies of elderly, marauding gangs of bandits, and desolate, horrifying wastes warped by some unimaginable conflict. It’s the book that truly began to build what I think of as The Dark Tower for me, and in many ways, it’s the one that made me truly love the series.
But it’s also the first book in which King starts to build the complex cosmology and mythology of the Tower, establishing not only the links to “our” world in more explicit ways, but introducing some of the threats that are pursuing Roland on behalf of darker forces. It’s here that we learn the importance of the Rose, or start realizing who the Ageless Stranger may be, or realize just how important this quest is going to be.
Mind you, The Waste Lands does all this while telling an exciting, rocket-paced story. The first half largely revolves around the completion of the ka-tet and the rescue of a lost friend; the second finds the group moving along the path of the Beam into the broken city of Lud and into the Wastes beyond. There’s a lot that happens here, and it’s a welcome reminder of how well King writes action/suspense pieces, especially as he cuts back and forth between different parties, using their perspectives off of each other masterfully and leaving us in doubt sometimes about the accuracy of their beliefs. The Lud section especially is absolutely fantastic, giving a sense of dread and insanity that leaves you uneasy for chapters at a time, even before you meet the chief villains of this place.
And of course, no discussion of the book would be complete without mentioning the introduction here of Blaine the Mono, one of my favorite characters of the series – the mad train whose insanity and malice makes him instantly horrifying, even without a true physical presence in the book. That King uses Blaine to set up the infamous cliffhanger at the end of the book works only because Blaine has instantly solidified himself as a threat, both mentally and physically, to our characters; the fact that the cliffhanger is so maddening is even better, even though I would have disagreed with it while I was waiting for the next volume.
In short, it’s one of my favorite entries in the series – it’s exciting, engrossing, moves the story along, and deepens both the world and the mythology of the series. And more than anything else, it’s the one that truly hooked me into the world of the Dark Tower.
“All Things Serve the Beam” (series spoilers follow)
- I remember people being irritated when Wolves of the Calla introduces the Snitches from the Harry Potter series, but really, the metafictional touches start here, with the name of the Bear coming from Richard Adams’ books. There’s little difference between the two, really, other than one being “popular,” and just speaks to people’s snobbery. Really, it sets up the idea that this world pulls from different places, including the worlds of fiction. (And, apparently, from the world of The Stand, something that becomes more pronounced in later books.)
- While on the subject of metafiction, it’s notable that there are dreams of not only opening books, but of opening The Gunslinger, as the first line is read to us. A hint, perhaps, of King’s role in the series to come, and the fact that they are characters in a book.
- Love how subtly King introduces Eddie’s affinity for dumb jokes in the guise of riddles. In hindsight, it’s such an obvious way to beat Blaine, and in keeping with some of King’s other books. But I never even thought about it before reading Wizard and Glass.
- I had forgotten that Susannah knows about the pregnancy so early in the series. I saw King making some subtle comments about it early in the story (Susannah thinking indirectly about it), but he pretty much comes out and confirms it by the end. That being said, it’s not clear this early who the father is, although it’s never mentioned until after the confrontation with the demon.
- Tick-Tock Man’s survival really bothered me the first time – well, less the survival and more the fact that he survives only to die so quickly and pointlessly in the next book. But again, it’s a sign of things to come – there’s more than one villain in this series who is built up and then dies anticlimactically and pointlessly.
- Man, that cliffhanger really is a bitch, isn’t it? Although, having read the rest of the series, King’s right; it’s a great transition point for the series and for the book. It’s just a mean place to leave us for that many years.