Review: The Gunslinger by Stephen King

The Gunslinger by Stephen King
The Gunslinger by Stephen King

The Gunslinger
Stephen King
Plume, 2003 (nook  edition)

First Line: The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed.

Despite being the book that kicked off Stephen King’s Dark Tower series I originally read it third, during the long wait between The Waste Lands and Wizard and Glass, oddly enough I never felt that this spoiled my reading of the series; it marks the only time I know of that I’ve managed to read a series out of order.  The Gunslinger is based loosely off of the Robert Browning poem “Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came,” a poem based off of a line from Shakespeare’s King Lear, a line itself referencing a traditional fairy tale, a fairy tale which may have been inspired by an old Scottish ballad.  Which is all fascinating, if slightly confusing, but perhaps more fascinating is that The Gunslinger, and the rest of the novels in the series, create something of a unifying mythology for most of Stephen King’s novels.

But that is perhaps getting a bit ahead of myself.  The Gunslinger is at its heart a tale of one man’s quest  for revenge.  The titular gunslinger, a dusty knight errant by way of Clint Eastwood (an image immortalized by the always awesome art of Michael Whelan), wanders across a dusty landscape both eerily similar and frighteningly different from our own world.  The gunslinger’s, Roland Deschain’s, world has “moved on” and has been transformed into  a post-apocalyptic wasteland crossed with a parallel dimension.  Of course The Gunslinger only scratches at the depth and breadth of Roland’s world and the hints a ties to King’s other work only comes later.

Given its inspiration it isn’t a small surprise that the language of The Gunslinger takes on a  more poetic tone.   There is a cadence to the prose here that is very different from the almost workaday tone of King’s other fiction. While it isn’t particularly jarring I wouldn’t be surprised if at its initial release the fluid nature of that narrative put off the everyday mainstream King reader.  While King has been long associated with the horror genre his works have crossed so far into the mainstream that a book like The Gunslinger (or Eyes of the Dragon) really stands out from the pack.  It is, in my opinion, some of his best work.  It is hard to argue with languid descriptions, such as the novel’s opening vision of the desert:

The desert was the apotheosis of all deserts, huge, standing to the sky for what looked like eternity in all directions.  It was white and blinding and waterless and without feature save for the faint, cloudy haze of the mountains which sketched themselves on the horizon and the devil-grass which brought sweet dreams, nightmares, death.

The opening words of that first sentence are ones that stick with you.  There are a million other little gems that King sprinkles liberally across the narrative, particularly when it comes to Roland’s thoughts about himself: “The only contingency he had not learned how to bear was the possibility of his own madness.” and later:

Not for the first time the gunslinger tasted the smooth, loden taste of soul-sickness.  The shell in his fingers, manipulated with such unknown grace, was suddenly horrific, the spoor of a monster.  he dropped it into his palm, made a fist, and squeezed it with painful force.  Had it exploded, in that moment he would have rejoiced at the destruction of his talented hand, for its only true talent was murder.

It’s some absolutely brilliant fiction and some frequently stirring prose.

If I’m to be completely candorous here I should point out that the Dark Tower series marks my first brush with the post-apocalyptic genre (King, is of course no stranger to apocalypses chronicling at least two more in The Stand and later in Cell).  As I mentioned when talking about The Forest of Hands and Teeth the best post-apocalyptic novels embrace a sense of discovery, how things happened aren’t explained in detail but hinted at through ephemera and debris left behind.  This is element that King handles expertly in The Gunslinger.  While the world is startlingly different from our own it is one littered with the remnants of both its own past and our own present (or the present that existed when the novel was written, natch).  The song Hey Jude being played in a dusty saloon, a trip through an abandoned subway station littered with the corpses of the dead caught going about their day-to-day business are neatly juxtaposed with giant mutated freaks, strange linguistic quirks (“I say thankya”), and flashbacks to a very medieval themed training (complete with lords, ladies, other sundry nobilit, a scheming adviser, and gruff arms master)  except instead of swords there are guns.

While my experience is somewhat dimmed by the memories of how the series meanders a bit towards its end, a feeling I admit may change upon a more linear and chronologically compact reading, I’m pretty jazzed to continue with The Drawing of the Three.  As has been reported by various sources on the internet Ron Howard has been tapped to translate the series from fiction into a movie trilogy and I’m very much excited to see how that works.  Sci-fi horror fantasy post-apocalyptic westerns that tie together a single author’s (with at least one pseudonym) fiction in its near entirety are hardly a common occurrence and the scope of the Dark Tower series really is something to marvel at so if you’ve yet to experience this series I highly highly recommend giving it a try.

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