Jun 6 2011 11:27am

A Read of The Dark Tower: Constant Reader Tackles The Gunslinger, Chapter 1: “The Gunslinger,” Sections 16-20

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 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.”

Marcus W
1. toryx
Man. It's hard to even know what to say, really. It's been several years since I last read this book but reading the summation brings it back to me pretty effectively. There's a dreamlike reality to the world King paints here, where it makes sense only because you're dreaming.

In a world that has moved on, it seems as though wiping out an entire town like Roland did is either the highest sacriledge or the greatest mercy. There's no real way to tell which it is. But I thought it was apporpriate somehow to go inside and eat some hamburgers and nap. The only real way to get out of the nightmare was to sleep and wake again.

I'm really looking forward to next week's post.
Kate Nepveu
2. katenepveu
Yeah. Allie begging to be killed is new to the revised edition. In the original, she begs not to be killed.
Iain Cupples
3. NumberNone
The scene where Roland shoots every man, woman and child in Tull... yeah, that's something. Dreamlike is a good description: it ought to come across as a nightmare, and maybe on some level it is - he's screaming, after all. But as Roland recounts it, it isn't primarily emotional, like a nightmare would be. It's just him doing what a gunslinger does: kill. And that's what makes it so effective.
Suzanne Johnson
4. SuzanneJohnson
@katenepveu...Interesting that Allie begging/not begging for Roland to kill her has done a 180 in the revised version. I wonder what the thought process was behind that change? (Maybe something I just haven't read yet.)

@NumberNone...It's not only unemotional but seems as if Roland's hands and guns become their own entity that are separate from him. That killer's sense of detachment, maybe. Yet the fact that he so badly needs to tell Brown his story (whether Roland realizes it or not) would seem to indicate that he's profoundly disturbed by it on some level. Good stuff!
Jeff Wight
5. jdubb
RE: Allie begging/not begging to be killed, I don't remember noticing this specific change when I read the expanded edition. Thinking about it now, it reminds me of the "Han did/didn't shoot first" change in the later versions of Star Wars. I think the rationale there was too make Han a little less scoundrel and a little more hero. Maybe there was some of that same rationale here?
6. Katiya
Definitely agree with you, jdubb...King has said that, while at first Roland was very "Man With No Name", he later changed in a way that the author found to be disturbingly dark. While Roland's later actions in this book keep him in that realm, I think SK deliberately tried to make Roland less menacing than he was when he first sketched him out in 1977. Since the expanded edition was re-written as he was completing the last of the series, SK had a much better idea about the sum of Roland's character, rather than the vague idea that readers first experienced in 1982.

I read a lot of DT...can you tell? :P
Suzanne Johnson
7. SuzanneJohnson
@Katiya...great insight, though. It's really early, so I reserve the right to change my mind, but I'm seeing Roland as more of a victim than menacing. He is what he was brought up to be, but the rules changed--or maybe the rules disappeared. Not sure.
Kate Nepveu
8. katenepveu
I am going to have to save my comments about the Allie change, because my principal reaction to it (again, not having read the revised version) is in contrast with something that happens much later in the book.
craig thrift
9. gagecreedlives
Not sure how I would react to the Tull massacre now if the revised addition was my first experience with the Gunslinger but I do remember when I read the original that Roland came across as being really pragmatic about the whole thing. Not uncaring exactly but like it was just another chore to be done on his way to the MiB and probably wouldn’t give it another thought once the town was behind him.

Agree completely with jdubb and Katiya but I think it was the wrong option. And for me it makes 2 somethings that happen in a later book a little less meaningful (both minor but noticeable for myself). But will get to that when we get to that.
10. Gorbag
Just a throw-away comment, but every time I see the proper name "Satan" in print, I'm reminded of the open source network security tool satan published during the late nineties, and the inevitable (over)reaction by various religious types. The original developers of it, with a weary shrug at the humourless, published a Perl script named repent to to rename it santa.

Getting past that, I'm surprised to read that Allie at first didn't want to die at Roland's expert hands, then later changed her mind. I shouldn't be, I know - a woman is allowed to change her mind, I was told as a teenager by one of my teenage female friends.

That said, I've only ever read the revised edition. I may have to do some hunting in the second hand bookshops to find a genuine copy of the original edition.
Marcus W
11. toryx
The more I think of it, the more I have to side with those who are making the comparison with Han shoots second. I have to admit, I'd have rather he'd left that particular line alone. Oh well.
12. Improbable Joe
Unlike LOST, you actually get answers to most of the big questions, and a pretty decent chunk of the small ones.

Not all of the answers are satisfying, of course... but that's a lot better than spending 90% of the time setting up mysteries and the last 10% trying to pretend that the mysteries didn't really matter at all.
Suzanne Johnson
13. SuzanneJohnson
@Improbably Joe...LOL. You're probably right. I did finish up LOST growling in frustration.
14. dcf
Dark Tower really influenced a lot of my Lost theories until the end. There is a lot in Lost that can be explained in terms of the Tower. Thats about all I can say without spoiling the wonders of the Tower!

Also, if you're interested in the significance of the numbers of people Roland killed in Tull, just add up the number of women and children.

Finally, have you considered reading any of the Tower-related side stories? The most important of the connected stories are The Little Sisters of Elluria (a prequel), the short story called Everything's Eventual, Part 1 of Hearts in Atlantis, and Insomnia, (those 3 are all for characters that will appear later). Apart from Little Sisters, which I read first, the others fit in nicely between books 4 and 5 of the Tower. Even Salem's Lot, It, and The Stand couldn't hurt...or just watch the movies.
Kate Nepveu
15. katenepveu
Counter-opinion: "Little Sisters of Eluria" is entirely forgettable.

_Insomnia_ does have some relevance but ISTR that it fits oddly with the last book.

_It_ and _The Stand_'s relationship to the DT series can be summed up in a single sentence. (Ditto _The Eyes of the Dragon_, which is charming and a nice palate-cleanser if you don't like the ending of the DT proper.)

OTOH _Salem's Lot_ I haven't read, and it's possible the later part of the series would have had additional emotional resonance to me if I had. But, darn it, I shouldn't open book five and discover that I have to go and read an entirely different book in order to really get the full picture.

Which is to say, in general I rather think that for this project, and for general aesthetic purposes, the seven books ought to be able to be judged alone.
craig thrift
16. gagecreedlives
You forgot the Black House :) and by extension the Talisman as well I guess.

I like Little Sisters of Eluria but I dont think going down the path of trying to read every connected King story to the Dark Tower would be a good idea. You may as well just do a Stephen King re-read which would take a while (although going through and spotting all the minor cross overs for all his stories would be fun).

I think the Insomnia link may have been one King later regretted. IIRC it does seem toward the end of the series that he tries to write himself out of the hole he dug with that.

I have read Salem's Lot and while it is quite an enjoyable story you didnt miss anything that relates to the Dark Tower and I didnt get any particular kick out of seeing the character back. Although that could because my version of Wizard and Glass had a spoiler in the authors notes at the end.
17. Jenny C.
I have another thought about Allie's change. It's a world of change for her certainly, but it doesn't change anything about Roland. In both versions, he's set to kill every living thing in Tull. Killing the one who doesn't want to die first is to him probably just as merciful as killing one who begs to be killed.

The change I think is just to introduce the number nineteen.
Marcus W
18. toryx
I agree with katenepveu @ 15 about "Little Sisters of Eluria." I bought Legends 1 solely for that story and the Wheel of Time novella and didn't really care for either of them (while falling head over heels in love with GRRM's writing). By the time the next DT book came out I'd completely forgotten the entire story and I still don't remember any thing that happened in it.

I've only been able to read Insomnia once; I tried to read it again before the final DT book but couldn't do it and I think gagecreedlives @ 16 is probably right about King regretting. I think there was one scene that kind of confused me as a result of not reading the book again but I can't help but wonder if I'd have been less confused if I'd never read it in the first place.

Salem's Lot, on the other hand, is a pretty damned good book and that's one that I really liked the way King connected to the DT series.
Suzanne Johnson
19. SuzanneJohnson
Ack, you guys. Now I at least have to dig out my dusty copy of Salem's Lot, which I haven't read in donkey's years. But I'm so early along in DT, would I even catch the connections? Or should I wait and re-read it a bit farther along?
Kate Nepveu
20. katenepveu
You don't need _Salem's Lot_ until book five, so you have LOTS of time.
craig thrift
21. gagecreedlives
Just make sure you dont read the authors notes in Wizard and Glass if you wanna be surprised
22. Gorbag
2. katenepveu

I can verify that observation now:

Allie: "He's got me O Jesus don't shoot don't don't don't---"

Stephen King, The Gunslinger, 1982, pg 82.

I suppose a woman does have the right to change her mind, after all ...

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