This is the seventh full entry in my re-read of Stephen King’s Dark Tower series, following my reviews of The Gunslinger, The Drawing of the Three, The Waste Lands, Wizard and Glass, Wolves of the Calla, and Song of Susannah (with a side stop into “The Little Sisters of Eluria”).
In past entries, I’ve done my best to set series spoilers until the end of the review, in their own section. But it’s going to be hard to talk about the final book in an epic series without spoiling some aspects of the books that led up to this. There aren’t any direct spoilers from the other books, but I may end up alluding to or mentioning aspects in them simply as I discuss. So read ahead at your own peril; I’ll have my standard section of book spoilers at the end (in a section entitled “All Things Serve the Beam”), but the other books in the series (save The Wind in the Keyhole) are fair game.
It is hard to think of a major series that ends as bleakly, or with as bitter and elegiac of a tone, as The Dark Tower. In a genre so often defined by epic showdowns, haunting sacrificial losses, or heroic final moments, The Dark Tower, in keeping with so much of the series, defies expectations, giving us brutal, pointless deaths, pyrrhic victories, and a sense of loss and weariness so palpable that it’s hard not to find yourself shaken by the experience of reading. None of which should be surprising; after all, this is a book that opens with a quote from Trent Reznor’s “Hurt” (though, if I were a betting man, I would lay no small amount of money that it’s Johnny Cash’s version of the song that inspired the epitaph; that song’s weariness and pain resonates so deeply in this novel, especially in the final chapters). But even with the way that readers have become accustomed to “shocking,” painful deaths in final entries in epic series, there’s little denying the awful, crushing weight of The Dark Tower‘s deaths – a weight that ends up just feeling awful, ugly, and painful, and very far from heroic.
And yet, that all feels somehow right for The Dark Tower, a series that has long defied any sort of norms, restrictions, or rules, to say nothing of easy classification. Much as King would later do with Mr. Mercedes, where he wrote a thriller that was undeniably more of a King book than a standard thriller, The Dark Tower series is a fantasy series written by a man who wants to do his own thing, and to hell with expectations or rules. Yes, there’s no denying that we had expectations for this book – that the Beams would be saved, and that Roland would at last see the Tower which had been his obsession for so long – and King handily resolves both of those stories for us. But more than that, The Dark Tower (the novel here, not the series) also serves as a meditation on endings, on legacies, and on the dangerous cost of obsession.
That, in of itself, isn’t necessarily something wholly new for a final book in a series; what makes The Dark Tower so painful and heartfelt is the way that King turns that look inwards to himself. There’s little denying that this book would be different had King not almost died after being hit by a car, but few of us might have expected that King would write the accident into his own series, letting the books become a window into fears of his own mortality and legacy had he left these books undone. It’s the voice of an author who fears that they haven’t accomplished everything they’ve wanted to, and a man scolding himself for not living up to his potential – and that gives The Dark Tower a rawness that’s hard to look away from. (That King makes his characters hate him so is a fascinating choice, and one that you could write books unpacking.)
But as The Dark Tower draws into its second half, King’s subtext becomes text. The book’s climax is, for all intents and purposes, halfway through the novel. And though the cost is undeniably high, there’s a sense that Roland and his ka-tet have won…and yet, they, like us, feel like the job isn’t complete without seeing the Tower itself. But is there a need to do so? Is there a point in this need for glory and for obsession…or is the journey, and those we meet along the way, the important aspect? That’s a complex idea, and becomes woven into the book’s second half, as Roland pushes through stubbornly and dangerously towards a goal that may not need to be met. And even in this spoiler space, I don’t want to give away the book’s final, vicious turn, which gives us a sense of where King falls on this question…but not without leaving one chance for hope deep down, and a chance for redemption.
Like the rest of the series, The Dark Tower isn’t without its flaws. It’s overstuffed at times, and suffers from the weight of all of King’s foreshadowing and hints along the way (the way it handles the question of Insomnia is particularly…well, “cheaty”, even if it’s acknowledged in the book). But really, I don’t come away from the book thinking about the plot. I think of that heartbreaking, painful tone that echoes throughout. Yes, the final battles are woefully anticlimactic…but that’s because they don’t matter, and the villains are not the true threats. The quest was to save the Tower, and those who fight against the forces of good, in King’s universe, are necessarily weaker and more fallible than the pure-hearted. But it’s the heartbreaking futility of those battles that sticks with me – not the carnage or the awfulness, but the pointlessness of it all, the sense that all of this violence and loss is so often for naught other than glory or selfishness or sheer stubborn pride. And that’s a fascinating, difficult tone to end a series with…but one that haunts. It haunts with the deaths which seem so arbitrary and needless (and brutal emotionally more than physically). It haunts with the loneliness our characters are left in, and the doubts they have about their goals. And it haunts in an author who’s been forced to re-examine his life and wonder if he lived it right.
For me, it’s the emotional impact that makes The Dark Tower such a worthy conclusion for this series. Yes, I love the refusal to give easy answers or placate us with incredible victories; this is a book about loss, grief, obsession, and reflecting on our lives. But the fact that King pulls off this powerful, haunting tone throughout, all while still concluding his story, is no small accomplishment, and gives us one of his best books he’s ever written, in my opinion.
All Things Serve the Beam (MAJOR book spoilers follow) Continue reading “The Dark Tower, by Stephen King / *****”