What I Read On My Summer Vacation, A Book Report By Me
I spent the last few days rereading Stephen King’s Dark Tower series. All 3,750 pages of it.
(By the way, this is your official spoiler warning. If you haven’t read the books yet, this will a. ruin some surprises, and b. not make much sense, anyway.)
Not too long ago these books came up in a conversation with Beth, and I remember her being really surprised when I said the first book in the series, The Gunslinger, was my favorite. So surprised, in fact, that I immediately backpedaled — oh, well, it’s been a while since I read them, maybe I’m misremembering and the later ones were better, whatever.
So here I am with a nasty head cold I picked up at Thanksgiving dinner, too loopy and feverish to do much of anything but lie in bed and read — the kind of state in which I tend to select books by thickness. Perfect opportunity. Zapped through them all in basically one sitting. They’re good books. The kind of books whose language and mood color your speech patterns and alter your dreams for a while. (The fever might have something to do with that as well, of course.)
But the first one’s still my favorite.
It took me a while to figure out why. The other six books are far more polished, more eventful, more complex, more obviously professional; King got several decades of experience as a writer between the first book and the second, and it shows. The Gunslinger’s mostly mood and setting; when you come right down to it the whole book’s nothing much more than a long walk towards an unexplained but ominously-named goal. Not much there, really. So why is that the one that sticks in my head the most?
I blame Dandelo.
Dandelo is just about the last encounter before our heroes reach the dark tower. He’s interesting, novel, well-drawn, and genuinely creepy. And he makes no frickin’ sense whatsoever.
He’s foreshadowed — repeatedly — through ka-tet-enabled dreams and warnings passed on by Jake: beware Dandelo. Watch out for Dandelo. It doesn’t bother me that Jake gets these premonitions seemingly from nowhere: it’s been well-established by this point that he has “the touch,” so a little precognition isn’t out of place. What does bother me is that his warning is so oblique. At other points in the series, when it’s convenient, members of Roland’s ka-tet are able to have detailed telepathic conversations with one another across whole worlds and alternate timelines; this time, though, all Jake manages to convey is a one-word Clue, which isn’t too helpful given that Dandelo, like any well-prepared villain, goes by a nom de ville.
But go with that, and see what the clue is meant to convey: Dandelo. An anagram of Odd Lane, which is where he turns out to live. Why? No particular reason.
Why would Dandelo try to obfuscate this clue — which he has no way of knowing is a clue — by altering the sign to read “Odd’s Lane,” instead of just taking the sign down altogether? No particular reason.
Why would a vampire who feeds on human emotion choose to set up camp in the empty, abandoned wilderness next door to the near-mythical hub of all worlds, instead of, oh, say, a town? Preferably one with a comedy club, or a funeral home or prison or something else he could lurk around back of and take his fill? No particular reason.
Why would our heroes be so instantly trusting of this guy, so totally unsuspicious of a man who just happens to live in this no-mans-land and offers them a hot meal — especially when the last people they met who offered them supper were agents of the evil Crimson King? No particular reason. Well, he has a twinkle in his eye. He has that much going for him.
But go with all that, and see how our heroes get out of this predicament: by a literal deus ex machina, a postcard sent by Stephen King himself to his characters explaining (but again only obliquely) what’s going on. I could almost buy this conceit. It’s weird, but given the metafiction-y nature of the last few books it’s not totally out of place… except that he already used it. This get-out-of-jail-free card is already played: back in Song of Susannah a hypnotized King says “I am allowed mail privileges, but only once… I can send a letter to myself… perhaps even a small package… but only once.” He then immediately does so, conjuring a hotel room key for Jake’s use less than twenty-five pages later. (Totally unnecessarily, since Jake could’ve just shot the lock out, but whatever.) Using the same trick twice, especially when you’ve already insisted you’re only allowed to do it once, is cheating.
So that’s Dandelo. He’s a pop-up villain, a shooting gallery target who’s in the book for no reason other than to give the protagonists something to do between point A and point B. And there are people and puzzles like this all over the place. Blaine’s prime-number puzzle, for example. (Or his riddles. Or Blaine himself.) Or the detour through Oz / Kansas. All the business with the pusher in Drawing of the Three. The house that tries to eat Jake. And innumerable creepy-crawlies in the dark — too many of these feel just… arbitrary. Like they’re there to keep the pacing right, or to convey the protagonists from point A to point B, or occasionally to deliver some small bit of information to them. It all starts to feel like a big shaggy-dog story that he’s just making up as he goes along.
I know this is, to some extent, just the nature of quest narratives: hero is asked to fetch a cookie, hero has adventures on the way to and from the cookie, hero delivers the cookie. Everyone lives happily ever after, or at least until Gandalf gets peckish for another cookie. And — Dandelo or not, these are good books. Even the most pointless detours are fun, and interesting, and leave you wanting more.
But for whatever reason, the first book doesn’t seem to have these problems. It’s a lot less polished than the rest, there’s no real payoff, and nothing really happens during the course of the book… but what does happen doesn’t feel arbitrary. It works.
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