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.
We last left Roland, Eddie, and Susannah (the “gunslinger" formerly known as Odetta Holmes and Detta Walker) recuperating at the end of book two, The Drawing of the Three. This week, we begin with the introductory pages of book three, The Waste Lands, and start the first chapter, “Bear and Bone,” of the section of the book entitled “Jake: Fear in a Handful of Dust.”
A heap of broken images, where the sun beats,
And the dead tree gives no shelter, the cricket no relief,
And the dry stone no sound of water.
— From T.S. Eliot’s “The Wastelands”
The Waste Lands — “Argument”
The Waste Lands was published in 1991, four years after The Drawing of the Three. As is often the case, Stephen King begins his story with some author’s notes, in this case titled “Argument,” in which he gives some thoughts about the story that has gone on before. His own summaries are usually illuminating.
The Gunslinger, he reminds us, tells how Roland, the last gunslinger in a world that has moved on, seeks to catch the man in black, “a sorcerer named Walter who falsely claimed the friendship of Roland’s father in the days when the unity of Mid-World still held.” King describes Walter as a “half-human spell-caster,” which is not something I’m sure was ever made quite so clear in the reading (the half-human part), although it was certainly hinted at.
King describes Roland as “a kind of knight, one of those charged with holding (or possibly redeeming) a world Roland remembers as being ‘filled with love and light,’” but we’re reminded that Roland’s memories might not be reliable.
In summarizing the events of Jake’s death at Roland’s hands, King describes Roland’s choice “the second most agonizing of his life,” sacrificing “this symbolic son,” which certainly is in keeping with the religious symbolism that ran through the first book.
In describing the events of The Drawing of the Three,” King describes Detta Walker as a “brutally direct intellect,” which is an apt description.
Though we’re never overtly told this in the events that drew Roland to Jack Mort — the same madman who’d twice injured Odetta during her life — here Stephen King tells us what was referenced obliquely: “To Roland’s eye, these interrelationships suggest a power greater than mere coincidence; he believes the titanic forces which surround the Dark Tower have begun to gather once again.”
We’re reminded that when Roland first encounters Jack Mort through the third door, Mort is getting ready to push Jake Chambers in front of an oncoming car — the way Jake died his first death, we’d previously thought at the hands of Walter. This leads Roland “to a confusing and possibly dangerous development,” we’re told. While Walter was definitely there at Jake’s first death, what if it had been Jack Mort and not Walter who pushed him?
If that’s the case, Roland — by killing Jack Mort — has changed history. And if Jake didn’t die at Jack Mort’s hand, where is he now? If he’s still alive in his own 1970s Manhattan, how is it that Roland remembers him?
What a tangled web Roland and his Constant Reader find themselves in….
And now, The Waste Lands takes up the story of Roland and his two companions, Eddie and Susannah: “For the first time in untold years, Roland of Gilead is no longer alone in his quest for the Dark Tower…but the gunslinger has a way of being bad medicine for his friends. Very bad medicine, indeed…Susannah is learning to shoot, Eddie is learning to carve, and the gunslinger is learning how it feels to lose one’s mind, a piece at a time.”
And so, ominously, it begins.
The Waste Lands — “Jake: Fear in a Handful of Dust”: Bear and Bone, Section 1
We pick up several months after the final events of The Drawing of the Three, and our trio has moved inland to more hospitable surroundings, or so it seems. Roland has rigged one of his holsters for Susannah to use in her wheelchair.
Roland and Susannah are at a clearing about a mile from the camp where they’d been living for two months while Ro healed and Eddie and Susannah learned new skills. Today, Eddie has stayed behind. It’s a pretty land, full of forest, with a clear stream running to a steep drop-off.
Ro and Susannah engage in some banter about the differences in their worlds regarding the discipline of wayward children. Roland has come to respect both Susannah and Eddie after their ordeals — their own period of testing — and has come to accept that he’s never going to be able to draw with his right hand again. So he’s spent a lot of time getting Susannah set up with the holster and teaching her to shoot. He’s also learned that he enjoys teaching, and might even have a talent for it.
Roland pauses during their lesson and presses his fingers to his temple — Susannah sees that his hands are trembling. She asks him what’s wrong, and says both she had Eddie have noticed it. “It’s something wrong, and it’s getting worse.” He denies it, but inside he knows she’s right.
He’s getting ready to tell her “I’m going insane” but just as he opens his mouth, they hear a tree fall in the forest (which does make a sound since they’re there to hear it) — it’s the second one that’s fallen, and it’s close to their camp. Then there’s a bellow of rage.
In a Superman-like feat, Roland, using “uncanny, ruthless speed,” picks Susannah up from her chair, hoists her to his shoulders “like a cheerleader,” and sprints toward camp.
What Constant Reader Learns: Both Eddie and Susannah have learned their self-defense and survival skills quickly, confirming Roland’s belief they were both “born gunslingers.”
It makes me nervous that they’re staying in a camp near a steep drop-off. The fact that Stephen King describes this setting in such detail, and that Roland knows there were people who lived in the forest in some distant time, makes me wonder a) why the people are no longer there and b) who’s going to plunge off that cliff? We’re also told that Roland considers fire “evil stuff that delighted in escaping the hands which created it.”
The crows are restless. This is probably a bad sign.
Roland is teaching Susannah the philosophy Cort taught him: I do not aim with my hand; she who aims with her hand has forgotten the face of her father. I aim with my eye. I do not shoot with my hand; she who shoots with her hand has forgotten the face of her father. I shoot with my mind. I do not kill with my gun; she who kills with her gun has forgotten the face of her father. I kill with my heart.
Susannah’s not getting it until Roland reminds her of the wrongs done to her in her life, trying to teach her to channel her anger and hate into a cold ability to kill. She resents his words, and tells him so. He says he needed to bring up that anger to make her a gunslinger. “Damn it, I’m not a gunslinger,” she argues. But he knows better.
Okay, so what’s this “I’m going insane” business? All of a sudden Roland just knows he’s going insane? What if Constant Reader goes insane first?
The Waste Lands — “Jake: Fear in a Handful of Dust”: Bear and Bone, Section 2
“He was the largest creature in the forest which had once been known as the Great West Woods, and he was the oldest.” He is a bear. Let me repeat that. He is a bear, one who “came out of the dim unknown reaches of Out-World like a brutal, wandering king.” He’s also a demon. A demon bear.
So our big mean demon bear is the reason the Old People who used to live in the Great West Woods aren’t there anymore. Their arrows didn’t do much besides annoy him. For every arrow that hit him, he’d kill some of the people’s women and children — leaving their warriors alone to feel impotent and humiliated. So Demon Bear is not just a bear.
The Old People called him Mir, and he’s been ignoring our happy trio until now, when the parasites eating his brain made him think they were poisoning him and thus need to be wiped out. The bear, “whose real name was not Mir but something else entirely,” rampages through the woods, following his smell toward the camp, knocking down trees as he goes.
What Constant Reader Learns: So…it’s been a long time since I read it, but wasn’t there a big extra-sentient bear in “The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon?”
Holy crap. So…we have a demon bear, Mir, who stands 70 feet tall and is about 1,800 years old. And he’s full of parasites which have eaten his brain and he’s now mad, partly from brain-eating parasites and partly from age. Parallel much with the last gunslinger/knight who’s going insane? Parallel much with the former Detta Walker who thought Ro and Eddie were poisoning her? Does this mean Roland (who’s also of some unknown old vintage) also has parasites eating his brain? And what’s with the thing on top of the bear’s head?
The Waste Lands — “Jake: Fear in a Handful of Dust”: Bear and Bone, Section 3
Two days before Demon Bear began his rampage, Eddie Dean had taken up carving for the first time since he was a kid — it had been something he was good at, and something Henry hated and made fun of him for. Eddie simply wasn’t allowed to be better at anything than Henry (who wasn’t really good at anything), so Henry had driven Eddie away from everything he’d been good at — basketball, reading, math, even jumping rope.
What Constant Reader Learns: Eddie’s doing some reflecting on Henry — how carving was something Henry hated because Eddie was good at it and Henry wasn’t. And Henry got what Henry wanted, mostly by manipulation.
We learn there were eight years’ difference in age between the two boys, and that there had been a sister (Gloria) in between them who’d been killed at age six by a drunk driver. To make sure nothing happened to Eddie, Mrs. Dean told Henry he had to Watch Out for Eddie — something they both laid a guilt trip on Eddie about. But Eddie had let himself be manipulated because he idolized Henry. Now that Henry’s dead and Eddie is gaining some self-confidence, maybe he’s able to see this more clearly.
The Waste Lands — “Jake: Fear in a Handful of Dust”: Bear and Bone, Section 4
Two days earlier, while Susannah was skinning a rabbit and Ro was cooking, Eddie had seen a funny spur of wood sticking out of a stump and he had a feeling of déjà vu. He realizes he’d been thinking about the courtyard behind the building where he and Henry had lived. It reminded him of how he’d loved to carve. How he loved the ability to look at a piece of wood and “see” what it could become — to see how much of that thing you could get out of the wood without breaking it. (Maybe much as Roland’s going to do to him?)
He borrowed Roland’s knife and brings the wood back to camp.
What Constant Reader Learns: Eddie looks at the stump of wood and the urge to whittle comes to him. He resists at first because he hears Henry in his head, making fun of him. Then he remembers Henry is dead and he, Eddie, is free: a realization that fills him with “soaring joy.”
So even though we know Demon Bear is going to come charging out of the woods and do horrible things, it’s nice to see this moment of healing for Eddie. He is carving is a slingshot. Too bad it isn’t finished or we could have a David-and-Goliath kind of throw-down between Eddie and the Demon Bear.
The Waste Lands — “Jake: Fear in a Handful of Dust”: Bear and Bone, Section 5
Eddie doesn’t get much advance warning about Demon Bear’s approach because he’s so wrapped up in his carving. He’s brought out of his creative trance not by the falling trees but the “thunder of a .45 from the south.” Eddie looks up and sees Roland’s gun hanging by its belt from a nearby branch, and wonders exactly how old Roland is and what is wrong with him — he still doesn’t realize he’s in danger.
Finally, with the falling of another tree nearby, Eddie finally gets that something is wrong. He jumps up, his half-carved slingshot in one hand and Roland’s knife in the other. He tosses the knife into a tree and grabs Roland’s other gun as a huge shape becomes visible through the trees — towering over the trees, its footfalls making the ground shake.
In his head, Eddie hears Roland’s voice, telling him to think. He doesn’t believe Ro’s gun will kill it. He doesn’t think he can outrun it. His only other option is to climb. Luckily, the tree he’s standing beside is a “huge, hoary pine,” the tallest in this part of the woods. So he starts climbing.
Demon Bear is slowed down, conveniently (my new word for “ka”), by a sneezing fit — something that has been plaguing it. Bear keeps sneezing out clouds of parasites. He begins batting at Eddie, then sneezes on him, which Eddie finds revolting. (No kidding!)
Eddie climbs as high as he can, out of the bear’s reach, looks down, and realizes there’s something growing out of the bear’s skull that looks like a radar dish. He also realizes the bear is crazy.
Finally, the bear circles the tree with his paws and begins to shake it. Eddie hangs on as the tree sways like a pendulum.
What Constant Reader Learns: Eddie’s sitting leaned up against a tree, looking handsome — “a young man with unruly dark hair which constantly tried to spill across his high forehead, a young man with a strong, mobile mouth and hazel eyes.”
Roland left one of his guns at camp with Eddie and Susannah has the other — before the bear comes out, Eddie wonders how long it’s been since the gunslinger went anywhere without at least one of his guns? So, has Roland become complacent? Or is he more trusting of his companions?
Eddie and Susannah have apparently discussed the fact that something is wrong with Roland, and had agreed that Susannah would try and bring up the subject: “It was time to let old long tall and ugly know that they knew something was wrong.”
Eddie’s reaction at seeing Demon Bear for the first time: “Oh man, I’m f**ked.” Uh, yeah. You better hope Roland’s running really fast.
So, if Demon Bear keeps sneezing out “clouds of parasites,” isn’t that kind of, like, unhealthy for our heroes — especiallly after he sneezes all over Eddie, “hot snot filled with thousands of small white worms”? GROSS OUT. This is so much worse than the hairy spiders with eyes on stalks. “Yellowish foam, thick with worms, squeezed between its paws in curdled gobbets.” OMG. Is there more Keflex? Doesn’t the word “gobbets” just imply grossness? Sorry. Having a girly moment here.
Woo-hoo! Eddie has come up with a new version of the lobstrosities: Bearzilla. Heh.
Dear Stephen King: You really should have had a different kind of tree for Eddie to climb. A hardwood, perhaps, because they’re, like, hard. If you’d lived much of your life in tornado alley like your Constant Reader, you’d realize that if Bearzilla had taken a swipe at a pine tree — even a big pine tree — its soft wood would have snapped like a matchstick and Eddie Dean would be on the ground. Just for future reference. Although yeah, yeah, I know. This is a different world. Maybe pines are tougher in this world.
Uh… I hate to seem dense (well, more so than usual), but WTH is up with the radar dish growing out of Bearzilla’s head?
That’s it for this week! Next week — same time, same place — we’ll read the next ten sections of Bear and Bone, the first chapter in “Book One Jake: Fear in a Handful of Dust.”