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Thursday, August 3, 2017

The Dark Tower Beckons

Written by Jon Williams

As The Dark Tower opens in theatres this week, casual observers could be forgiven for thinking it’s nothing more than another Stephen King adaptation; there are certainly quite a few of those happening right now. More devoted King fans will tell you that The Dark Tower is more than just a book, more than just the seven-book series it eventually turned out to be. It is, in fact, King’s magnum opus, spreading its tendrils to touch, in one way or another, perhaps every book he has ever written.

The series begins with the simple yet elegant line that has become one of King’s most famous: “The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed.” He wrote those words in 1970, as a senior at the University of Maine. He was inspired by a poem, “Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came” by Robert Browning, which itself comes from a line in Shakespeare’s King Lear. He wedded that in his imagination with elements of Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, Clint Eastwood’s Man with No Name, and the Arthurian legends, among other influences, for a dark fantasy quest that was unlike any other.

He began writing in 1970 and laboured for twelve years before the first volume, The Gunslinger, was published in 1982. This established a pattern that would persist for much of the series, with several years elapsing between the publications of the individual volumes. The second book, The Drawing of the Three, came out in 1987; the third, The Waste Lands (also inspired by a poem, this one by T.S. Eliot), in 1991. One of the longest gaps, six years, came before Wizard and Glass appeared, with its many Wizard of Oz references, in 1997. This exploration of the gunslinger’s fundamental backstory will be the basis for an upcoming TV series that will feature Idris Elba in a reprisal of his role from the movie.

It was another six years before another Dark Tower book would be published. In 1999, King was hit by a minivan while out for a walk, an incident that threatened his life and drastically altered his writing career when he was finally able to get back to it. Seeing the Dark Tower series as his life’s work and now feeling his own mortality, King set to work with a will. Wolves of the Calla was released in November of 2003; the sixth and seventh books, Song of Susannah and The Dark Tower (currently unavailable on audiobook) came out three months apart in 2004.

The Dark Tower brought the series to a conclusion, but that wasn’t quite the end of the story. In 2012, King returned with The Wind Through the Keyhole, another framed story of Roland’s backstory that fits in between Wizard and Glass and Wolves of the Calla. There’s also a bit of backstory to be found in “The Little Sisters of Eluria,” a short story written in 1998 and included in the collection Everything’s Eventual.

Of course, the full tale of the Dark Tower isn’t contained solely in these books and stories. Readers and listeners will notice connections throughout King’s entire oeuvre, some more pronounced than others. For instance, near the beginning of Wizard and Glass, the gunslinger and his band of travelers pass through a world that has been ravaged by Captain Trips, the weaponized flu strand from The Stand. The man in black that Roland pursues throughout the first book of the series (played in the movie by Matthew McConaughey) appears, in different forms, in both The Stand and The Eyes of the Dragon. The character Father Callahan from ‘Salem’s Lot joins Roland’s crew for a time beginning in Wolves of the Calla, and Dinky Earnshaw (from the title story of Everything’s Eventual) and Ted Brautigan (from Hearts in Atlantis) show up with roles to play as well. The 1994 novel Insomnia becomes a plot point of its own in the final book of the series.

While the Dark Tower books are popular in their own right, they are somewhat less well known than King’s other works. With the movie in theatres and a TV show in the works, though, the series is about to come to the forefront in a big way. Patrons who are stepping into this world for the first time have a rich, rewarding journey ahead of them, and others will want to relive Roland’s adventures again and again. Make sure you have the series and its related works on your shelves for them to explore and enjoy.
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