The Gunslinger by Stephen King
"Go then, there are other worlds than these.”
No other phrase has defined my writing career better than the iconic words of Jake Chambers in Stephen King’s The Gunslinger. It allowed me to explore genres I would never have otherwise attempted and is much of the reason I stayed away from reviewing Mr. King’s works in the past. The enormous influence he has in my writing made me question my ability to write a constructive review.
Nevertheless, with the approach of a live-action film in 2017, I decided to revisit The Gunslinger since reading the book so long ago, my recollections of it can be crystallised to only a few details. Roland, the titular Gunslinger, the Man in Black, the search for the Dark Tower and finally those gripping words by Jake, the boy Roland encounters on his travels.
This will probably be more of an analysis than an actual review so beware the spoilers.
The first line of the book is simple, wasting no time in introducing us to the two main characters, the Man in Black and the Gunslinger. The reader might be forgiven for thinking they are reading a western for certainly the book has all the elements of a Zane Grey novel. From the wide sprawling desert, to the relentless pursuit across a wasteland and the two men who are antithesis of each other, the only thing missing is Clint Eastwood.
Although thanks to the perfect casting of Idris Elba, I imagine his voice saying Roland’s words.
Mid-World, the realm of the Gunslinger is a place that has ‘moved on’.
One could be forgiven for thinking this might be a post-apocalyptic version of our own world, thousands years in the future. Roland’s references to livestock and fauna being of mutated stock, songs like Hey Jude and the slow 'muties' he encounters later, certainly support this. The mixture of medievalist and Old West sensibilities implies the cherry picking of the most appropriate elements of history to rebuild civilisation. Even so, it is clear what calamity befell this world hasn’t repaired itself and only serves to prolong its inevitable end.
The book is set out in three major acts. Roland’s meeting with Farmer Brown and his musically inclined bird Zoltan, the dark events at Tull and finally the entry of Jake Chambers into the Gunslinger’s life.
Farmer Brown acts mostly as an exposition device, allowing Roland to give the reader hints about himself and his role as a gunslinger. The title of Gunslinger appears to be a mixture of medieval knights and Japanese samurais, rather than its Old West approximation. Magic clearly figures into this world as Roland’s initial perception of Brown is as a figment of enchantment is accepted as a matter-of-fact.
Roland’s cleansing revelation of his time at Tull moves the book into its second act which focuses, this time, on the Man in Black and malignant mechanism he sets in motion in the small, lethargic town. From this point on, the book fully embraces its western persona, despite the presence of a Lazarus-like resurrection. While characters like Allie, Nort and Kennerly feel lifted straight out of a spaghetti western, King writes Allie with surprising depth that resonates with the readers by the time her finale fate is revealed. In contrast Allies’ tragic heroine is Sylvia Pittston, Tull’s preacher who is the straight-out caricature of a Bible thumping fanatic, a common element in King’s books.
The initially slow pace of the Gunslinger’s time in Tull builds up to what is possibly the highlight of the book, a balls to the wall, running gunfight with Roland earning every inch of terrain in his effort to flee the town. It is a cinematic spectacle of madness and heart-pounding action, highlighting why Roland is the last gunslinger standing. The reader, right along with Roland, lets out a collective sigh when the shooting stops.
The final act which sets the stage for the latter books, begins when Roland encounters Jake Chambers, a boy who slipped into Mid-World from ‘someplace else’. It becomes clear that ‘someplace else’ is our world and that Jake’s presence in Roland’s life is a part of a calculated plan by the Man in Black. It might have served King if he had not quite tipped his hand on what’s in store for Jake as the reader approaches the moment with ominous dread instead of a gut-punch. Nevertheless, the result is the same. Roland’s path to the Dark Tower will mean sacrifices and he is just obsessive enough to make them, no matter how bloody it gets.
The climax which sees Roland finally facing the Man in Black is a low-key affair and the dialogue between to two is like a verbal shootout which leaves Roland the last man standing, but not necessarily the winner. The nature of the Dark Tower is revealed and leaves the reader with the question about just what is Roland's plan when he reaches it. By the end of the palaver, Roland as well as the reader, is left with more questions than answers but by this point, it no longer matters.
The reader is just as committed to reaching the Dark Tower as Roland.
Bring on The Drawing of the Three