The Gunslinger: The Dark Tower I
Stephen King, in his forward to the newly revised and expanded edition of THE GUNSLINGER: The Dark Tower I, indicates that THE DARK TOWER books have had comparatively few readers when set next to his other novels. Be that as it may, I think this will change. This epic tale of Roland the Gunslinger and his pursuit of the Dark Tower stands on its own as an exciting tale that is full of mystery and told in rich and descriptive language --- this alone is worth the price of admission. There is more to it, however. THE DARK TOWER epic is so full of allegory and metaphor that it will undoubtedly be studied for years (it is in fact already being studied) as the cornerstone of King's work.
This tale has amazed, befuddled and, yes, made angry many of the King faithful who have encountered it, for many different reasons. Like the Tower to which it refers, this epic story, which King considers to be one long novel, is the nexus of King's literary universe, wending and weaving its way through such disparate tales as SALEM'S LOT, ROSE MADDER, EYE OF THE DRAGON, BLACK HOUSE and FROM A BUICK 8, while standing firmly and boldly on its own. King actually began the work in 1970 and completed it in 2003. The result is that WOLVES OF THE CALLA will be published on November 4, 2003, while SONG OF SUSANNAH will see the light of day on August 1, 2004, and the final volume, fittingly titled THE DARK TOWER, will see its long-awaited publication on November 1, 2004. By Christmas of next year the entire DARK TOWER epic will be sitting on groaning bookshelves throughout the world. This new edition of THE GUNSLINGER has been published in anticipation.
Don't expect major changes in this new edition of THE GUNSLINGER. The tale remains the same. King drops his reader in medias res beside Roland, The Gunslinger, a brooding figure who is making his way across a post apocalyptic wasteland of both ancient and recent etiology. Roland pursues, follows, or is lured to The Man in Black (and all, none, or one of the preceding may be true) who remains just out of reach until a time of his own choosing. Roland's world is like, and unlike, our own. A saloon piano player in an all-but-dead town plays a rousing version of "Hey Jude." A rusted Amoco gas pump sits silent and useless. Yet, the term "subway" is unknown. Is this our future, our past, or an alternative universe?
The puzzle becomes even more mysterious when Roland meets Jake, a boy very much of our own world, who is violently brought to Roland's world by The Man in Black. Roland and Jake follow the path of The Man in Black; as they track him Roland slowly reveals why he pursues this mysterious, powerful figure who set in motion the destruction of everything --- and everyone --- Roland ever cared for. Not all is revealed, however; the story of Roland's past is doled out piecemeal throughout THE GUNSLINGER (and indeed, throughout the subsequent volumes) so that the tale moves forward and backward by turns. When Roland finally confronts The Man in Black, little is learned other than that the mysterious figure is not all he seems to be.
Your first question regarding the revisions and additions will probably be "Why?" It would be a good one. King addresses this issue, and actually faces it head on in his Forward to THE GUNSLINGER. It's simple, really. King started THE GUNSLINGER in 1970, and its first book publication was in 1982. Some of you out there weren't even born yet, and may have a child or two of your own by now. I can remember 1982 (can I EVER remember 1982) like it happened yesterday, but it was 21 years ago. A lot can happen in 21 years. And as Roland repeatedly notes throughout THE GUNSLINGER, the world has moved ahead.
But...but...why issue a "revised and expanded version?" King would not seem to need the money (though, were he doing this simply for the further acquisition and accumulation of filthy lucre, more power to him, since it's not as if anyone has to go out and buy it). King is quite forthright in his introduction regarding his reasons for doing what he is doing here. THE GUNSLINGER was started in 1970 when King was 19. It accordingly is a young man's book, a book that King felt needed some revision, both in terms of his own maturity and in terms of consistency with the way the tale has developed over the years. King estimates that there are approximately 35 pages of new material in this edition of THE GUNSLINGER. It is his own opinion that if you are a completist, or new to the series, you should get this version. If you are not a completist, and are already familiar with the series and this volume, then ... you probably should not.
Now, King completists are an interesting breed. I have one friend who has all of King's work in Japanese editions. And, no, he is not Japanese. I can understand the mentality (those Japanese editions are simply exquisite, and look more and more like the neighbor's hot wife every time I see them) but I am not OF it. However, I'm going to differ with King on this point and respectfully suggest that you go ahead and lay it down for this new edition, even if you have the earlier one.
Why? There are a couple of reasons. King describes THE DARK TOWER as an epic novel of several thousand pages. That it is, and it's taken over two decades to get it all out. The result is that you're going to want to go back to the beginning and read the first four volumes before the much-anticipated WOLVES OF THE CALLA is published. If you're going to go to all that effort, whether it's for the first or the fifth time, you might as well do it with the definitive version. Another reason is that this version is a bit richer, sharper if you will. King begins dropping his nuggets, his hints, a bit earlier. Even the fifth section, wherein Roland confronts The Man in Black, is first-rate, if a bit wordy. Once you get over the fact that all they are going to do is chat around the campfire, when what you really want is for Roland to smite the smarmy bastard a time or fifty smartly across the noggin and concentrate on the discussion, it's all good. I mean, at some point, one must take a break from venom-spitting spiders and the like.
So skip that afternoon Starbucks fix for a couple of weeks and get your new and improved copy of THE GUNSLINGER. You lose the coffee in a couple of hours anyway. This book, however, will be yours forever, as will be the memory of King's epic story.
Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on January 22, 2011