The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed.
Welcome to A Read of the Dark Tower series. Join me each week as I, Constant Reader, tackle the magnum opus of Stephen King’s career for the first time.
If you want to discuss in general terms or talk about these first sections, join me by commenting here. If you want to talk spoilers, please head over to Tor.com forums for the spoiler discussion for the spoiler discussion so my Dark Tower-virgin ears won’t hear anything before I read it, which might tempt me into trying to sound more intelligent than I actually am.
In today’s entry, I’ll finish up the first big chapter in The Gunslinger, with sections XVI-XX.
Section XVI: Gunslinger leaves Sylvia Pittston’s shack and goes back to Kennerly’s barn to get his mule. A “queer obscurity” of a windy dust-storm approaches from the north, and Kennerly warns him that he shouldn’t leave yet or the wind will kill him. Kennerly’s dragging his feet, as if waiting for something—namely, his “bovine” daughter Soobie, who tries to kill Gunslinger with a stick of stovewood. Gunslinger dodges her easily and asks again for his mule. He finally takes his mule and leaves them, “he with his sick grin, she with dumb, inanimate defiance.”
What Constant Reader Learns: Women aren’t faring well in the Dark Tower world so far. They’re dumb or possessed or beaten down—all victims. Other than Allie, however, they’re not very sympathetic victims. I’m struck at Gunslinger’s patience and willingness to let these idiots Kennerly and Soobie live, much as he showed with Sylvia. I’m thinking he needs to whip out those pistols and kick some Tull ass. And I have a feeling it’s going to happen soon.
The weather seems very tied to power, particularly the wind. In the Bible, after God destroys the earth by flood, he sends a strong wind to make the water recede. When he sent the plague of locusts, they came via a strong wind, and then left with another great wind. Is the wind only tied to the Man in Black, or is it tied to shifts of great energy in this land? Or did I take too many English lit classes?
Section XVII: Gunslinger walks his mule through the center of town, waterbags filled, ready to leave. He stops at Sheb’s to see Allie but the place is empty. He takes some food—cornmeal, roasted corn, some of the raw hamburger—and leaves money on the counter. He feels eyes watching him as he walks through town, and acknowledges that the Man in Black had “played God” in Tull. He reflects more on the child Sylvia claimed to be carrying, the child of the Crimson King, and wonders if it was “a sense of the cosmic comic, or a matter of desperation?”
Finally, the trap is sprung. Men, women and children rush at him from the buildings carrying knives and chunks of wood—he notes they’d probably never even seen a gun before. The Gunslinger reacts on instinct, pulling his guns, and of course the first person he aims at turns out to be Allie, being used by Sheb as a human shield. She begs him to kill her because—as we knew she would—Allie has said the word nineteen, and the horrors Nort told her of the afterlife are more than she can live with. Gunslinger kills her. The rest come at him with shouts of “Satan” and “Interloper” and “Antichrist”—all the words Sylvia Pittston had given them, and in fact eventually he hears her behind them, firing up their zeal.
The Gunslinger takes a few minor hits, but fires at them with practiced ease. At some point he realizes he’s screaming, and had been screaming for some time. His existence boils down to his eye and his hand as he goes on killing-autopilot. There is a brief pause in the action as Sylvia takes the lead and Gunslinger blows apart the wooden crosses in her hands, and then good old Sylvia herself. As the rest of the mob attacks, Gunslinger is tiring. He misses once, and hasn’t had time to reload but his hands “began doing their infallible trick.” He gets multiple stab wounds but, ironically, the only serious one was in the calf at the hands of a child, for which the Gunslinger “blew his head off.” The mob that was left begins scattering, but he shoots them as they retreated.
He bandages his calf and looks at his handiwork—bodies “in a twisting, zigzagging path.” He walks around and counts the bodies—39 men, 14 women and five children—the entire population of Tull. The first gust of wind brings a “sickish-sweet odor” and Gunslinger looks up to see Nort, who’s been crucified, nailed to the roof of Sheb’s saloon.
The Gunslinger cuts Nort loose, then leaves his body with the others and goes inside. He fries up some hamburgers and drinks three beers. He sleeps in Allie’s bed and, in the morning, the wind had gone and the sun is “its usual bright and forgetful self.”
What Constant Reader Learns: Even though he acts as if he’s leaving, the Gunslinger seems to know that his visit to Tull isn’t over, that the play set up by the Man in Black has yet to have its final scene. “There was a tight feeling in his throat,” King writes. “He might still avoid the trap, but the chances were small. He was, after all, The Interloper.” And then, of course, the attack begins.
Gunslinger’s thoughts about Sylvia and the child of the Crimson King are interesting. He isn’t sure if the supposed child is a big joke by the Man in Black—“the cosmic comic”—or “a matter of desperation.” This is the first sense we’ve had he “fled” across the desert that the Man in Black has limitations. He’s possibly desperate, either running away from something or running toward something. Or he’s the classic, insanely evil “cosmic comic.”
Allie meets with a sad and fitting ending, a sacrifice of the one noble character in Tull besides Nort. Maybe it was a mercy killing in a sense—she had, after all, fallen into the MiB’s trap herself by saying nineteen. But Roland’s reaction is automatic rather than sympathetic: “He was the last of his breed and it was not only his mouth that knew the High Speech. The guns beat their heavy, atonal music into the air.” When he shoots both her and Sheb, he thinks: “They’ve gone to the land of Nineteen. Whatever is there.”
Hell if I know, but I’m betting real money that the land of Nineteen shows up again before we’re done. Maybe we’re all age nineteen in the afterlife, which might be enough to drive one insane now that I think about it.
Once the mob comes after him, he goes into true Gunslinger mode, the first time we’ve seen it. He kills without pity and spares no one—not even those trying to flee at the end. It’s as if he always knew once he started killing, there would be no stopping until everyone was dead.
After all the reflection he’s done and the fear and the uncertainty he’s felt, the Gunslinger is surprisingly not reflective after the townspeople are dead. He has the dystopian equivalent of a pizza and a ballgame. Eats, sleeps, moves on.
Is there any significance to the pattern into which the bodies fall—a zigzagging path? Or the numbers? Guess they’re all in the land of Nineteen and can’t tell us yet.
A final religious reference. Nort is resurrected and then crucified. Another bit of setting Christianity on its ear, and no doubt inspired by the “cosmic comic.”
Section XVIII: We’re out of the flashback and into the present, sitting with the Gunslinger at Brown’s hut. Zoltan is asleep, and at first Gunslinger thinks Brown is too. But when he gets up, Brown asks if he feels better now that he’s told his story. Gunslinger doesn’t seem to understand the concept of unburdening one’s soul, but he again wonders who Brown really is. “I’m just me,” Brown tells him. “Why do you think you have to be in the middle of such a mystery?” The Gunslinger doesn’t reply. Brown tells him he’s getting closer to the Man in Black, then goes to sleep.
What Constant Reader Learns: A tiny glimpse into the MiB. Brown seems both detached from things, wondering why the Gunslinger has to read more into his situation than it might call for, and tied into things. He tells Gunslinger he’s getting close to the Man and asks if the MiB is desperate—which we’ve gotten an indication of before. Yet Gunslinger says he doesn’t know. “Are you (desperate)?” Brown asks, to which the Gunslinger says, “Not yet.” He describes his quest as going where he has to go and doing what he has to do. I still get the sense that the Man in Black is in a much bigger hurry, and more desperate, than is the Gunslinger. I may be wrong; it’s been known to happen.
Section XIX: In the morning, Brown fixes breakfast and sends the Gunslinger on his way. He says he’ll eat the mule. They shake hands and “the man Allie had called Roland” walked away with his guns and his waterbags. He looks back once and sees Brown back in his little corn patch, working.
What Constant Reader Learns: It took us 88 pages but, by God, Roland has a name! And I can’t help but think of Bill the Pony being left behind, and Frodo and Co. setting out toward Mordor on foot. Although I don’t think Bill the Pony got “et.”
Section XX: In the dark hours of night, Roland dreams. The desert has “baked out” any feelings of regret or guilt, so he dreams not of Tull but of Cort, who had taught him to shoot. “Cort had known black from white.” He awakens and looks at his own dead fire, which was built atop the dead fire of the Man in Black who went before him, because this has been their pattern.
Roland reflects that he is a romantic—something he doesn’t let many know. Susan, the girl from Mejis, had been one of the few. Thinking of Susan makes him think of Cort again, and he reflects that they are all dead except for him. “The world had moved on.”
What Constant Reader Learns: At this stage, I’ll take Roland’s word for it that he’s a romantic. He has a shred or two of kindness in him, but I’m assuming we’ll hear Susan’s story before it’s all over and then I might believe him for real. Now? Well, if he says so.
Roland’s thoughts about his dead friends and the world itself is interesting. They have all moved on, except for him. Which makes where he is…where? Somewhere that is not the world? Are they all in the land of Nineteen?
I’m having disturbing flashbacks to the first two seasons of ABC’s LOST, when I was still trying to figure out what the deal was with the Island and the Smoke Monster. (Well, okay, it took me longer than two seasons.) Is Roland in purgatory? Is Roland, indeed, in the afterlife? Are his dead friends in the “world” somewhere else, while he’s in some “non-world?”
What in the world am I rambling about? *headdesk*
That’s it for this week! Next week—same time, same place—we’ll pick up with the first six sections of The Gunslinger’s second chapter, titled “The Way Station.”