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 the 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.
When we last saw Roland, he was heading into the desert after telling the border dweller Brown about the events in Tull. In today’s entry, I’ll cover the first six sections of “The Way Station,” the second mega-chapter of The Gunslinger.
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The Way Station: Section I
It has been 16 days since Roland left Brown’s hut. The desert heat is brutal, his water is gone, and he’s on the verge of sunstroke. A nursery rhyme his mother sang to him plays in his head. He falls, and is offended by the blood on his scraped hands. He sees something in the distance and stumbles for it—two buildings, a way station and a barn. Someone is crouched in the station’s shadows. Roland begins to run, sure it is the Man in Black, and pulls one of his guns. Only when he gets to the building does he see it is a boy. Roland changes direction, goes into the barn, and promptly faints.
What Constant Reader learns: Sheesh. I might faint with him. We get a glimpse into Roland’s childhood, where he has a room in a castle, and another hint at the rigors of his training to the gun—his mother sings to him in the daytime but not at night, because “small boys born to the High Speech must face the dark alone.”
So, here we have another rare woman in this world, Roland’s mother. He seems to love her, to associate her with comfort and safety, although his thoughts of her “red lips” is creepily Oedipal. At least she’s not another pathetic female figure. Well, not yet.
Back to Roland. He seems resigned to dying in the early part of this section and it makes him angry. He resents the blood on his hands (symbolic much?) when he falls, and describes it as smug, as being made sacrifice unto.
Okay, zombie time. We’re going to have another zombie, aren’t we? As Roland runs toward what he thinks is the Man in Black, we learn “it did not occur to him until later that the figure might even have been dead.” Which certainly implies that whoever it is, will indeed be a dead person. Roland’s as shocked to see this tow-headed kid as I am.
In an earlier section, during the Tull massacre, Roland thinks of his hands as separate entities, acting on their own out of muscle memory, so I found it interesting that as he’s standing in the barn, clearly having a sunstroke, his hands manage to holster his gun before he keels over.
The Way Station: Section II
Roland awakens in the barn. The boy brings him water and introduces himself as John Chambers, or Jake. When Roland upchucks the first drink of water Jake goes to get more. Roland hears a “humming thump” in the back and then Jake returns with more water. The boy tells Roland the “priest” came through earlier, but the kid has lost track of the days. The Man in Black stopped, Jake said, but didn’t drink and didn’t sleep and the boy wondered if he was a ghost, like in a movie he’d seen in Times Square (OMG). Roland has no clue what he’s talking about, and neither do I. Finally, he asks where Jake came from, and he doesn’t know. The boy is aware that his memories are fading, and it makes him cry. Roland is patient with the boy, and continues to question him. Finally, Roland hypnotizes Jake.
What Constant Reader Learns. Okay, so a little boy has suddenly teleported from New York City to the desert. That’s bizarre enough, but Roland’s befuddled reaction is interesting. I can’t quite get a feel for how modern things have or haven’t made their way to Roland’s world. In Tull, Sheb was playing a Beatles’ song on the piano, so “our” music has drifted to the border towns, but Roland has no idea what a “teevee” is, or a “channel,” and suspects the whole skyscraper business is a figment of Jake’s imagination. Maybe they’re things of the postmodern parallel world and the desert world is some mid-way place.
Then there’s what sounds like an electric pump in the barn that Jake is using to get water, though we haven’t seen it. Roland was startled by it.
Once again, Roland’s hands take on their own life as he uses a child’s game to hypnotize Jake. It’s the old trick of walking a coin through one’s fingers and back, only Roland uses a bullet (of course).
The most interesting part of this section was Roland, yet again, seeming to resent the role he’s been asked to play in this quest. He tells the boy not to feel sorry for himself, then indulges in his own pity party. He hears Allie’s voice, and goes through a litany of wrongs: how he hadn’t asked to be part of the “nineteen” scheme, hadn’t asked to “be faced with a choice between duty and flat-out murder.” He’s feeling guilty, and rails at the unfairness of innocent bystanders like Allie and Jake being made “to speak lines they didn’t understand on a strange stage.”
He’s regretful that Allie was used by the Man in Black as part of their “game,” but the use of the boy makes him angry. I have a horrible feeling he’s going to end up killing this boy. I find myself waiting on it. His anger turns on his hands again as he hypnotizes the boy: “Had [the shell] exploded, in that moment he would have rejoiced at the destruction of his talented hand, for its only true talent was murder.”
Roland, dude, you’ve got to get a grip. This self-hatred just can’t result in anything good.
Finally, finally, finally. We get a mention of the Tower at the end of this section, included as the thing that’s demanding all this blood sacrifice and misery—all for “the bloody good, the bloody myth, for the grail, for the Tower. Ah, the Tower stood somewhere in the middle of things (so they did say), rearing its black-gray bulk to the sky.”
The Way Station: Section III
This section is poor little Jake’s recollection of the morning before he suddenly found himself in Roland’s neck of the desert. He appears to be a rich but neglected kid left to the care of the family cook, Mrs. Greta Shaw, and a nanny and tutor. His father works for The Network, and his mother reads romance novels, and Jake doesn’t know it yet, but he hates professionals such as his parents.
Jake recalls getting his backpack and his lunch from Mrs. Shaw and walking to school, then being hit by a car. He recalls to Roland in great detail about what he sees and thinks as he is dying—primarily, the “terrible, calm” voice of a priest. He seems to recognize him: “He sees the black robe and knows sudden horror. It is him, the man in black.” He turns his face away from the man and dies to the sound of a Kiss song playing on someone’s radio.
What Constant Reader Learns: Hm…Okay, so I’m not shocked that Jake is dead because this was foreshadowed, and we can only assume the MiB did another resurrection. But dying to a Kiss song? That’s just mean, Stephen King. At least it wasn’t AC/DC’s “Highway to Hell.”
I’m confused at the implication that Jake recognized the Man in Black. Did he literally recognize him? Or did he recognize him as Death or Doom or Satan? Jake, like Allie, does seem a sad little pawn in this.
The Way Station: Section IV
While Jake sleeps off his hypnosis, Roland explores the barn and finds the stainless steel pump. He wonders why it wasn’t removed when the way station was abandoned and attributes it to demons (uh-oh). He assumes it runs on an “atomic slug” since there’s no electricity here; it was made by North Central Positronics. Roland realizes it is alien to this place, and its presence bothers him. As he gets ready to sleep himself, he reflects on his past again, on his teacher Cort, on Susan from Mejis, on his mother, and on someone named Marten, “that incomplete enchanter.” Roland, not for the first time, reflects that he isn’t a man to ponder the past and is surprised by his thoughts.
What Constant Reader learns: Roland knows the boy is somehow a trap being set by the Man in Black, but he likes the dead kid despite it. I wonder if, like Allie, his fondness for the boy is itself the trap. He also doesn’t seem too freaked out that the kid is a walking, talking dead boy, so I have to think he’s seen this before.
The pump makes me wonder again about what is and is not a part of Roland’s world. He seems to know what stainless steel is, and chrome. He knows of electricity, batteries, even an “atomic slug,” although there isn’t any within a thousand miles of the desert. He thinks of it as a reminder of a time “when the world had not yet moved on,” which brings up the possibility again of some apocalyptic event. Later, he wonders if the Man in Black is purposely letting him catch up.
Roland’s self-awareness clashes with his thoughts, so like the boy who is losing his memories, I have to wonder how much of what Roland recognizes as “himself” still exists. For a man who says he spends little time reflecting on the past, he’s spending a hell of a lot of time reflecting on the past.
He gives us new names to ponder in addition to Marten—Cuthbert, Alain, the old man Jonas, the Clean Sea, a “great rolling plain known as the Drop,” and this time, Susan is “the lovely girl at the window.” I suspect we’ll meet all of them soon enough.
The Way Station: Section V
Roland wakes up and finds Jake sitting outside with a kerosene lamp. He tells the boy it’s time to leave in the morning and the boy will have to come with him. They talk about what supplies are left at the station. Jake asks Roland if he plans to kill the Man in Black, and Roland says he doesn’t know. “I have to make him tell me something,” he says. “I make have to make him take me someplace.” Roland reminisces about Cuthbert and Jamie.
What Constant Reader learns: So….I had been assuming Roland wanted to kill the Man in Black, but it seems he wants to get answers from him, presumably about the Tower and the world and whatever is happening. Somehow I don’t think that little tete-a-tete will go well.
I assume Cuthbert and Jamie are the two boys with Roland at Mejis, perhaps other gunslingers-in-training. In time, grasshopper, you shall understand all. Or not. We’ve already been told they are all dead. Did Roland kill them all? Oy.
The Way Station: Section VI
Roland explores the cellar, which not only smells of rotten vegetables; it is full of mutant spiders with eyes on stalks—because this is Stephen King and we have to have little touches of gross-out. Roland finds cans of food and starts handing them out to Jake. On the third trip, he hears a groaning sound and sees a crack in the foundation with sand spilling through. Frightened, Jake begs Roland to leave the celler, but Roland is calm and tells Jake to go outside—and “get the hell out” if Roland doesn’t come up by the time he counts to 300.
The groan turns to labored breathing, and Roland addresses the demon in the High Speech. It answers in the “dragging, clotting” voice of Alice from Tull and says: “Go slow past the Drawers, gunslinger. Watch for the taheen. While you travel with the boy, the man in black travels with your soul in his pocket.” Roland asks for clarification but the demon disappears, which is too bad because I’d like some clarification too. Following custom, Roland reaches into the hole, pulls out a jawbone, and stuffs it in his back pocket. He and Jake get their packs and waterbags and head toward the mountains. They agree it feels like someone is watching.
What Constant Reader learns: WTH? Okay. I’m going to assume that the demon, or spirit, in the wall was not Alice but either knows demonic things that would allow it to speak in Alice’s voice or Roland’s own guilt colors how he hears it. Whatever the source, its information—which Roland believes to be true—reinforces my gut feeling that Roland is going to have to kill Jake in order to move ahead on his mission. Especially since he realizes he loves the boy, which could prove to be a weakness. Maybe Roland is a bit of a romantic after all. Sorry I doubted you, man.
Jake thinks someone is watching them and Roland agrees, but says he does not think anyone had been watching them along. So perhaps the Man in Black is now aware of their movements and they can feel his presence? Or is the Tower itself a watchful presence?
As for the references to the “Drawers” and the “taheen”…. Not a freakin’ clue.
That’s it for this week! Next week—same time, same place—we’ll pick up with the last seven sections of The Gunslinger’s second chapter, titled “The Way Station.”