Steven King


The Gunslinger

(The Dark Tower, Volume 1)


Potent, dreamlike, dark, but also… gratuitous, indulgent, offensive.


There’s no doubting King’s ability to write evocative prose, to create a scene. There is, however, much reason to doubt his ability to write a coherent story: fabulous gloss, but not much going on underneath. Definitely nothing healthy. Don’t get me wrong – I can ‘enjoy’ (as King seems to want us to) an atrocity as much as the next ghoulish reader, but I want it to mean something – to hit me. Although he’s ten times the writer Goodkind is, King is similarly too blithe about brutality for it to really be brutal. Contrast this with, for example, Banks’ Use of Weapons and Card’s Ender’s Game: both include stingingly ugly incidents, but they actually sting because they’re not hurled about so casually, and we are able to feel something for the victims and even the perpetrators. The gunslinger, however, can shoot everyone in a whole town without causing a fraction of the emotional reaction in the reader. The townsfolk are so obviously one-dimensional characters, foils – I mean, sure, the whole thing ‘looks’ amazing, the consistent mood and scenery reminds me of the incredibly rich visuals of the TV series ‘Carnevalé’ (whoever directed this could definitely do ‘The Gunslinger’ justice), but we’re so detached from these dreamlike, no, not ‘characters’, that’s too strong a word for them – they’re more like props: there’s a piano in the saloon bar, there’s a guy who’ll get shot later. King loved the movie westerns a little too much – he hasn’t merely recreated their mood, he’s included the scaffolding holding up the shopfronts in the Hollywood back lot. This is more a tribute to (wonderful) artifice than an attempt at story.


There’s a weakness in making Roland’s life automatically worth so much more than anyone else’s. He becomes a little absurd – like Rambo standing invulnerable in a hail of bullets – because he’s American and has his shirt off, and the others are just faceless gooks, bit players in a deliberately farcical melodrama. Death here really means nothing – they’re just falling down like kids in a playground game.


Again, King’s skills as a presenter of scenes can fool you, or maybe that’s all you might be asking of him, but this book really lacks substance – ironically in the same way that so many glib ‘happy ending’ books (that you might be trying to escape from with King) lack substance. So many fantasy novels, for example, have no suspense because we can all see a mile off how the author is going to indulge his lead characters with wonderful powers that mean his evil nemesis never really had a chance, and that he’ll get the girl. However, for King, the doom, instead of the victory, is just too easy – we know the gunslinger’s going to be tortured, and going to bump into all sorts of abuse along the way, because that’s the evil deus et machina that King is – but it’s still lazily pulling God out of the box to ruin things with no attempt to make this square with a wider sensical plot.


I mean, really, what’s going on with the ridiculous ‘man in black’ who, for all his pretensions of grandeur and mystery, ‘might as well go by the name Snidely Whiplash and twirl his handlebar moustache’ (thankyou Tony Hines). There is no attempt to even vaguely explain his godlike powers – maybe he writes to the same ACME people that miraculously supplied Wile E. Coyote. How can we feel the tragedy we’re supposed to with Jake’s death when it’s just a card being turned? Now the man in black telekinetically controls railway bridges – uh, right, great. And why is this demigod running from Roland? Why is he devoting himself entirely to torturing this man in these odd ways? Maybe I’m meant to be asking these questions to hook me into the story, but I really don’t care about the answers: I don’t trust King actually knew – he just ran with something that felt good to him.


And while we’re talking about ridiculous characters – did you pick that pretty much every woman we meet (Soobie, Allie, the Oracle, even Roland’s mother) – are ruled by their sexual cravings. Yeah, that’s pretty much what women are like, isn’t it: they just want sex so bad that they let men order them about. I suppose this is a fantasy, but this aspect is particularly puerile. I reckon King would be better as part of a team: someone else comes up with a structure – he then comes into the picture by creating the ride.


I could almost go along for the ride alone. My edition has the first couple of chapters of Volume 2, ‘The Prisoner’, and, sure, King can cast a spell. He’s particularly good at openings – creating a striking scene, and hinting at all sorts of intriguing mysteries that you’d like to have solved. However based on this volume I suspect he doesn’t have anything substantial waiting for us – just more of this enigmatic darkness. But I don’t think it’s enough for me, impressive as it is. Give me some charm, some humour, some insight. Give me some reason for Roland having to be minutes away from death before he finally stumbles across a mystical door, or a way station, or whatever will be next – apart from the reason that it feels more dramatic that way. In the dream that is Mid-world anything can happen, and that’s not a good thing if it’s lazy and random. Well, not good for me anyway – but if you enjoy the vibe, man, of brutality in competently evoked settings, if you just want to escape the nauseating sentimentality of so many ‘feel-good’ books and would like to feel bad for a change (in a detached, clearly contrived way from the comfort of your armchair) just for the heck of it, go ahead, pull up a chair.


March 2006