The wheel of fate is turning.
Dad kept his Stephen King collection in the dining room. It was a cold, unwelcoming place, rarely used for its designated purpose, still dark and freezing even now as the spare bedroom I use when I visit home. The horror books made it a place that genuinely frightened me as a child. I hating going into that room to retrieve food from storage, hate hate hated it. The faces of Cujo and IT watched me from the spines of the hardback horrors. There were also paperback copies of the first three Dark Tower books: the cover of The Waste Lands was enticing, daring me to unleash the (presumed) horror within. I dared not.
One summer, after my parents had separated and the King collection had been dumped in the garage to rot, I was vacationing with dad and my stepmum at a caravan site on the Causeway Coast. Dad had brought The Gunslinger, the first book in the Dark Tower series. I borrowed it, and it was like nothing I had ever read: a curious, delightful mix of fantasy, science-fiction, western, and a pinch of horror. I devoured it in a weekend. And then… that was it, really. Roland of Gilead and his adventures stuck in memory, but it wasn’t the right time to continue the quest for the Tower.
Do you ever think that there’s a right time in your life to appreciate a certain book? I’m not saying it’s fate – or as Roland would put it, ka – but sometimes your knowledge and understanding needs to catch up to the book to properly do it justice, and that can take many years, but you know when you’re ready.
Many years later in Edinburgh, I bought my own copy of The Gunslinger, fell in love all over again, wrote about it in the style of a videogame review and began to read through the series. Five years later – or over a decade, if you count from the first reading – I finished the seventh book, The Dark Tower, during an interval at an Elvis Costello gig. I was almost scared to begin it, my unfounded childhood fears now replaced by a real one: with most of my adult life spent reading or ruminating on these books, I’d lose my literary compass once it was finished. I squinted at the final pages in the dim lights of Oxford’s New Theatre, a world away from where I had started. I had come as far as the ka-tet had, far beyond what seemed possible. The world has moved on since Roland’s introduction in the “apotheosis of deserts”, all those years ago.
The Dark Tower is a divisive work, for good reasons. I loved the ending: King remarks that good stories are about the journey rather than the destination (which is what you’d expect from the author of The Stand, do ya kennit) and I agree. The final book isn’t just a great novel: it’s a powerful insight into fiction itself: what part of a story is under a writer’s control, and what’s the product of accumulated experience and unquantifiable forces – ka, if you will. It examines what it means to be a writer and what it means to develop a legacy: the last Dark Tower rewards the dedicated reader with a unique and vibrant tapestry of language, references and in-jokes. Yet at the end of such an exceptionally long journey, it was always going to be bittersweet. There are other worlds than these: I’ll read The Wind Through the Keyhole, the ‘eighth’ Dark Tower book. I’ll read Dune. I will no longer prohibit myself from starting A Song of Ice and Fire.
Taken as a whole, The Dark Tower is my favourite book, and that won’t change – I’ll set my watch and warrant on it. There are just too many great stories, too many personal memories that intertwine literature and experience: reading The Gunslinger in the shelter of a caravan while the Irish summer thundered outside; Wizard and Glass on a beach in Devon; Wolves of the Calla in a Montreal steakhouse, feeding the sparrows my baguette crumbs. I will remember Roland, Jake, Susannah, Eddie, and Oy forever, and they will influence the stories I write, just as Robert Browning’s Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came influenced King.
Right now, I’m thinking about a story a long way from beginning: one that begins with a child in front of my Stephen King collection, reaching for The Gunslinger, beginning their own quest for the Tower. Ka is a wheel, after all.
Long days and pleasant nights.
When I mention The Dark Tower on Twitter, some people love it, while others gave up early in the series. I thought it was worth giving a rough ranking: I don’t expect anyone to agree with this list, especially my top pick.
The Dark Tower books were written over a twenty year period, with years between many releases: it’s one long story, but there’s a lot of variation (the last three volumes were written concurrently). I struggled with The Drawing of the Three, but I’d recommend the books to anyone. If you’re not enjoying the books after Wizard and Glass, that’s unlikely to change – but by that point, were I you, I’d stand true to the quest.
Anyway, here’s my totally subjective, best to worst ranking:
IV: Wizard and Glass
VII: The Dark Tower
I: The Gunslinger
III: The Waste Lands
VI: Song of Susannah
V: Wolves of the Calla
II: The Drawing of the Three