The Gunslinger (The Dark Tower, #1)

I've been intending to read this series--or at least, the opening volume, ever since I read The Stand. I remember reading some commentary identifying the walkin' dude of The Stand and the man in black of The Dark Tower as one and the same, and this intrigued me. I have always been particularly fond of characters that make inter-oeuvreal (not an actual word; I just made it up. Please forgive me, O ye gods of the French language) appearances. Long before coding developers and MCU directors squirreled Easter Eggs away in their video games and films, authors were giving readers a sly wink and a nudge with references to other authors, books, and their characters. Bookish folk nerd out accordingly.

I vaguely understood before beginning my journey with The Gunslinger that this double feature of the menacingly charismatic man in black did not mean they were the same person, exactly. Perhaps two facets of one being, or two versions of the same creature. After all, Randall Flagg was maybe-blown to smithereens by a GIANT NUKE in The Stand (whoops, spoiler alert?), but in true horror fashion, he's not dead-dead.

And so, we open this novel with a line that I confess I was not familiar with before beginning the book, but which I can easily consider iconic:

"The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed."

There is gravitas here--the sort of weary pronouncement the narrator of a dark western film might make as the camera pans over a desolate wasteland. The more I consider this opening line, the more it strikes me as haunting in its simplicity.

The Stephen King novels I've read in the past (with the exception of perhaps The Shining and The Stand, both favorites of mine), have tended towards straightforward prose and narration. The hypnotic, dreamlike quality of The Gunslinger took me pleasantly by surprise. This is a Big Questions novel, one that gets into the nature of the fabric of reality by way of philosophy mumbo jumbo (am not a fan, #sorrynotsorry). Descriptions of Roland (the gunslinger)'s homeland of New Canaan were particularly lovely, and those of the desert wasteland appropriately bleak and depressing.

Is it odd, though, that I admire King the most when he writes about writing? I've yet to read the seminal On Writing, but I enjoyed his preface to this updated edition of The Gunslinger more than I enjoyed the actual novel. He has a way of talking about writing-craft that makes it approachable. Plus, he has no pretensions to being literary, which I also love. I am not a fan of modern literary fiction. Give me the pulp and the horror--you know, all the genre fiction that Serious Writers love to put down. If you read nothing else in The Gunslinger, read the preface. It explains a lot of what I didn't like about this first entry in The Dark Tower series, and this satisfies me.

Basically, King wrote the original Gunslinger when he was nineteen, his head full of epic fantasy à la Tolkien. In many ways, the book feels like one written by an enthusiastic but untested author: the imagery and foreshadowing announce themselves, and it's almost a game to play spot-the-religious-references on every page. The whole "three is the number of your fate, Roland" prophecy is a wee bit, well, not on the nose, but overdone. Humanity holds certain numbers as mystical for a reason, although I don't know what that reason is. Alas, all I could think of was King Arthur's inability to count to five three in Monty Python and the Holy Grail.

And then we have the whole provocative sexytimes scenes. Well, they're not really sexytimes, more like ... voyeuristic horror. It's creepy and uncomfortable and kind of exactly the thing I would imagine a 19 year old dude in the 1960s would conceive of as edgy and cool.

Yet, I can't dislike this book. The whole Canticle for Leibowitz desert-Biblical setting, the confluence of realities caused by the mysterious Dark Tower, and even the unsettling humanity of the terrible Man in Black--these are all promising foregleams of what's to come.


  1. Yes, I think Stephen King does wonderful non fiction, often more interesting then the stories it introduces. I thought so when I read a collection of his short stories and his history of horror fiction, Danse Macabre. I have read On Writing, which is very good, and as much an autobiography as about writing in general.

    I really must get around to reading The Gunslinger books...

    1. Oh, I forgot about Danse Macabre! That one is on my list as well.


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