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”
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 our old multi-named friend the Ageless Stranger, aka Richard Fannin, rousing Tick-Tock Man, aka Andrew Quick, to kill Roland and the ka-tet, who are “meddling with things they have no business meddling with.”
The Waste Lands—“Riddle and Waste Lands,” Section 1
Back in the Cradle of Lud, Roland wants to know what Blaine’s riddle is—since old Mono won’t take them out of Lud without solving it and the poison gas bombs are counting down to detonation: You’d have to prime his pump to get him going, on his pump primes backward.
They ponder the riddle. Roland realizes it’s some kind of code or combination of numbers to open the gates and the door to the train. Finally, they notice Susannah’s off in la-la land—she’s figured out that the numeric diamond below the intercom box has to be where the combination goes. She thinks she knows the answer but can’t quite get it to come to her. “Help me remember the voice of my father,” she tells Roland.
For the first time since the Way Station, we see Roland do his bullet-rolling method of hypnosis, and Eddie has to look away to keep from being caught in it himself.
What Constant Reader Learns: So, did Susannah know that Roland had this skill? I don’t recall him using it since the Way Station with Jake. But maybe it came out during their forest show and tell before getting to Lud. Or maybe it’s one of those “knowing” things.
The Waste Lands—“Riddle and Waste Lands,” Section 2
There’s a tense moment in the Cradle as Susannah goes into a trance. They can hear a distant explosion, the rain pounding on the roof, the throb of Blaine’s engines. When Blaine tells them they have six minutes left until detonation, Eddie urges her to hurry.
And just like that, Susannah goes away and we hear a familiar voice: “Why would you want to bother wit dat bitch?”
What Constant Reader Learns: Detta Walker! She’s baaaack. Interesting that although Susannah’s “integrated,” she can still call on Detta when needed. So far, she hasn’t had the need to call on Odetta, maybe because Odetta is closer to Susannah’s personality.
The Waste Lands—“Riddle and Waste Lands,” Section 3
Detta explains that Odetta was hopeless at math, but she, Detta, got it, and so did her father. He taught her about the “forspecial” numbers—prime numbers. She’s ready to “answer dat honkey computer’s riddle.”
Roland takes her to the numerical pad, and she uses some charcoal from Roland’s man-purse to mark the prime numbers, reasoning her way through it, and he is amazed as she goes along, he hears Detta fading and Susannah coming back. She gets the prime numbers marked and figures the rest are the combination.
There’s now fifty seconds to go, as Blaine reminds them, and Susannah reaches out to punch the numbers. It’s Jake who reminds her that the pump primes backward, so she starts with 97 and presses the sequence of numbers backward. At the end, the gate slides up.
Blaine tells them to shake a leg and get onboard—the gas is about to be released.
What Constant Reader Learns: This is the new and improved Detta, who’s still kind of loud and obnoxious, but at least not homicidal or batsh*t crazy. It seems as if, when she’s figuring out the numbers and slips effortless back into Susannah mode, it might be a sign that she really is becoming integrated, although from what I understand of D.I.D., Detta could always be called on in times of need.
The Waste Lands—“Riddle and Waste Lands,” Section 4
Our fivesome (since Oy is now a member of the group) rushes toward Blaine the Mono, and a curved section of its hull slides open as they approach. A computerized voice welcomes them aboard—a “slightly louder, slightly more confident version of Little Blaine.”
A “tremendous, thudding explosion” sounds from outside. Up until that point, Eddie had been hoping Blaine’s threats about poison gas were a joke.
The interior of Blaine is like a plush private jet, with sleeper compartments, bar, and video lounge. A harpsichord sits on a pedestal, lit by a spotlight. We learn this is the Barony Cabin—the first-class digs. In the middle of the room, on a pedestal below an ornate chandelier, is a gift from Blaine: a big ice-sculpture of a gunslinger—of Roland, complete to the missing fingers on his right hand. Everyone but Roland is pretty amazed at it.
As they take their seats, Eddie asks where they’re going, and Blaine says along the path of the Beam, to the end of his track. “To the Dark Tower?” Roland asks. But Jake answers for him: “Only as far as Topeka”—which he learned from Charlie the Choo-Choo. Jake is surprised that, with all Blaine knows of their world, he doesn’t know about that book.
With horror, as they begin to move, Susannah realizes they left her wheelchair behind. Too late.
What Constant Reader Learns: With a sentient computer and the decaying state of Lud, I was kind of surprised to hear the programmed voices welcoming passengers to Blaine. And then it cracked me up when Blaine fried it out and says, “I think we can dispense with that boring old shit, don’t you?”
“Praise the Imperium,” the voice tells them. Making note of it, but it doesn’t mean anything to me at this stage.
Ironic that Eddie thinks of Blaine: “Anyone who thinks impressions of old movie actors is funny absolutely cannot be trusted. I think it’s like a law of nature.” Uh….Eddie, my man….you do this too.
Wonder what ramifications the lack of a wheelchair will have?
The Waste Lands—“Riddle and Waste Lands,” Section 5
Our fivesome enjoys (at first) Blaine’s “visual mode,” where the train itself becomes essentially invisible and gives them a 360-degree view of the passing surroundings. They pass a cluster of tall buildings that reminds Jake of Wall Street—and then they see a purple cloud, and people fleeing from it.
What Constant Reader Learns: I love the “visual mode” description of our passengers zipping through the air with no visible means of support. Everyone’s amazed again except Roland. And as is the way with new technology, Jake the child adapts to it the most quickly, while Eddie and Susannah are fearful. Blaine offers to provide the sensation of the wind blowing their hair, or the rain hitting them—but they pass on that experience.
Mr. Gunslinger seems very subdued now that they’re aboard Blaine. This section attributes it to his being more comfortable with magic than the New Yorkers, but he feels broody to me. Does he sense whatever the coming of Andrew Quick might bring? Focusing again on the Dark Tower, which has sort of been downplayed as the ka-tet got formed and they fought their way through Lud?
The Waste Lands—“Riddle and Waste Lands,” Section 6
Jake asks Blaine what the purple cloud is, but he doesn’t answer—and they all know anyway. “Old animosities” are forgotten as Pubes and Grays try to run from the cloud. Finally, after a few gruesome scenes, Jake closes his eyes. Eddie begs Blaine to put the walls back so they can’t see, but again Blaine doesn’t respond.
Blaine shows his route map to them at the front of the cabin. The stops are Candleton, Rhea (or so it looks to be on my fuzzy Kindle illustration), The Falls of the Hounds, Dasherville, and—end of the line—Topeka. The total distance, he tells them, is just over 8,000 wheels—or 7,000 miles. “It was once much less, but that was before all temporal synapses began to melt down,” he adds. It will take them eight hours and forty-five minutes to make the run…if all the tracks remain intact. It has been nine years and five months since Blaine “has bothered” to make the run, so he isn’t sure. Eddie points out that as sophisticated as Blaine is, he should be able to monitor track damage. “Well I could have,” Blain responds. “But—aw, shucks—I blew those circuits when we started to move..It’s quite a bit more exciting this way.” No one finds this amusing except Blaine the pain.
They continue to pass over the dying Lud, now in the outer slum areas. “Look closely as we leave the city and mark what you see,” Blaine tells them. “Mark it very well.” As they pass over the city walls and see beyond it, “the real waste lands begin.”
What Constant Reader Learns: Blaine plunges through the poison cloud with no ill effects—his ventilation system must be more airtight than the dodgy one below the city in Tick-Tockville.
Blaine is bored. I imagine if you’re a sentient computer surrounded by silly old humans, and things start to fall apart and the world moves on, you would get bored.
Oh boy, now we finally see the waste lands. I suspected what was on the other side of Lud was very, very awful.
The Waste Lands—“Riddle and Waste Lands,” Section 7
Now Blaine has them only thirty feet above the ground, all the better to see the nastiness below. There are sludgy streams of waste, granite cliffs gray with rain, a sunken plain. For their further viewing pleasure, Blaine treats them to a 4x magnification so they can see a scene Roland thinks is “ugly beyond his past knowledge of ugliness…and that knowledge, sadly, was wide.”
The land was blasted by a disastrous cataclysm, with a surface of distorted black glass, “stunted nightmare trees,” misshapen flying things that look like pterodactyls. They pass over what looks like a scarlet river (lava?), and Susannah thinks: “This is what Frodo and Sam saw when they reached the heart of Mordor. These are the Cracks of Doom.”
Beneath them, there’s what appears to be a volcanic eruption, and John “Blaine” Wayne tells Jake, “Don’t worry, little trailhand.”
What Constant Reader Learns: Practical Susannah, noting even the supports for Blaine’s rail has disappeared, asks what’s holding them up. “The Beam, of course,” Blaine says. “All things serve it, you know.”
The description of the waste lands beneath them is amazing. Interesting that the Detta Walker part of Susannah understands and recognizes the desolate landscape. “They had come to The Drawers and entered the waste lands; the poisoned darkness of that shunned place now lay all around them.”
Still not clear on what cataclysmic event set all this in motion—volcanic eruption, nuclear blast, etc., or all of the above caused by the slippage of the Beam?
The Waste Lands—“Riddle and Waste Lands,” Section 8
Not everything in the waste lands is dead—our travelers occasionally see figures—“misshapen things which bore no resemblance to either men or animals, prancing and cavorting in the smouldering wilderness.” There are also large pink figures that look like a cross between a stork and a camera tripod.
Eddie, in horror, notes that this was no nuclear war, and Blaine says “Nope, it was a lot worse than that, and it’s not over yet.”
Blaine asks if they’ve seen enough, and Roland finally snaps at him. “Do it or don’t do it, but stop playing games.” Blaine cuts off the visuals and speeds up. Jake, looking at the route map, pipes up, “I know something about you, Blaine…I know why you released that gas and killed all the people. I know why you took us, too, and it wasn’t just because we solved your riddle....You’re planning to commit suicide, aren’t you? And you want to take us with you.” Little Blaine is horrified, but his quiet objection is drowned out by Big Blaine’s maniacal laughter.
What Constant Reader Learns: Roland, who’s had very little reaction to anything they’ve seen, does not like the stork-like creatures. “There was something unutterably repulsive about these creatures—Roland felt that as keenly as the others—but it was impossible to say what, exactly, caused that feeling…The stork-things were, in their exquisite hatefulness, almost impossible to look at.”….Thinking of lobstrosities, are storkstrosities edible?
Oh great. A crazy, suicidal monorail. Better and better.
The Waste Lands—“Riddle and Waste Lands,” Section 9
Blaine invites them to hear some music, boasting of his broad selection of tunes. Eddie asks about Z.Z. Top and they’re bantering when Roland butts in: “Why do you wish to kill yourself?”
Blaine says it’s because he’s bored, and he knows he is going insane. Since his equipment checks have failed to solve the problem, he has concluded it is a “spiritual malaise beyond my ability to repair.” He asks Roland if he believes machines can grow senile. “I don’t know,” Roland says, and Eddie knows Roland’s mind is back on the Tower.
Blaine says at some point people forgot that the voice of the Mono was also the voice of the computer, and they began worshipping him and expecting him to dispense punishment, so he did. He says he was planning his suicide until the ka-tet came along and he discovered interesting people with a knowledge of riddles.
When he’s asked why he doesn’t just take them to Topeka and go back to sleep, Blaine says—sounding like Little Blaine—“because there are dreams.”
Finally, Blaine asks for a riddle—or he’ll kill them all right now. Everyone looks at Roland, who’s been working on a temper for a while, apparently. “F-you,” he says, which makes Blaine gasp. “If that puzzles you, Blaine, I can make it clearer. No. The answer is no.”
What Constant Reader Learns: Patricia committed suicide the month before, Blaine says, although Susannah notes it has obviously been much longer than that and Blaine’s sense of time is as warped as the rest of the world’s. She had an equipment malfunction that drove her mad even though it was something that shouldn’t have been possible.
Blaine attributes Patricia’s sickness to the world moving on. “Yes,” Roland confirms. “There is some deep sickness at the Dark Tower, which is the heart of everything. It’s spreading. The lands below us are only one more sign of that sickness.”
So Blaine says he heard rumors that a gunslinger was abroad in the world again. When Roland asks what he heard and who he heard it from, Blaine doesn’t answer. Hm....
Jake’s knowledge of broadcasting from his father could come in handy. There was a rod that rose from Blaine’s nose in the Cradle before they left, and Jake realizes Blaine is using it to communicate with the computers in Lud. “If we could break that antenna off, somehow…” I’m thinking the kid is coming up with a plan.
Uh-oh. Roland’s mad. Move outta the way.
The Waste Lands—“Riddle and Waste Lands,” Section 10
Obviously, no one has ever told Blaine to f*** off before, and he’s pretty speechless for a while. When he does respond, he drops into invisible-train mode again so they can see the lovely countryside they’re passing. There are “iron-gray peaks” and “gigantic beetles” and a “huge snake” that eats said beetle. “Roland had never in his life seen such animals or countryside, and it made his skin want to crawl right off his flesh.”
“Perhaps I should derail here,” Blaine says, and Roland can hear his rage. So he answers, perfectly calmly, “Perhaps you should.” But we’re told Roland is bluffing, and he’s counting on Blaine not being able to tell, despite his sophisticated sensors.
Blaine is horrified at Roland’s rudeness, and Eddie’s having a cow on his invisible seat.
Finally, Roland gets to his feet, stands in the invisible aisle in a gunslinger stance, and gives Blaine an earful…well, a computerized listening sensor-ful. He calls Blaine nonsensical, empty-headed, foolish, arrogant, stupid, unwise, and nothing but a gadget. Then he goes through a litany of more colorful things he would call him except that Blaine is only a machine. Then, for good measure, he calls Blaine a faithless creature, a coward, and a lost and bleating mechanical goblin.
When Blaine finally “commands” him to shut up, Roland’s eyes blaze with “such wild blue fire that Eddie shrank away from him.”
“Kill me if you will,” Roland roars, “but command me nothing…Now either kill us or be silent and listen to me, Roland of Gilead, son of Steven, gunslinger, and lord of the ancient lands!”
Better listen to him, Blaine, Eddie says. “They didn’t call him The Mad Dog of Gilead for nothing.” To which Blaine sulks, “What good are you to me if you won’t tell me riddles?”
And just like that, the power shifts. Blaine sounds uncertain, and has a conversation with Roland as the gunslinger bargains for their lives with the promised quality of his riddles.
Roland has a long recollection of the Fair-Day Riddling in Gilead, when riddlers would gather in the Hall of the Grandfathers, and we’re reminded of the story Roland told Jake about him, Cuthbert, and Jamie sneaking into the hall and seeing Marten dance with Roland’s mother. Cort won the riddling every year, and took home the prize—the largest goose in Barony.
So Roland proposes that the next hours be their Fair-Day. They will tell Blaine riddles, with their lives as the prize. If Blaine solves all their riddles he can kill them in Topeka. If not, he must let them go.
And Blaine agrees: "Very well, Roland of Gilead. Very well, Eddie of New York. Very well, Susannah of New York. Very well, Jake of New York. Very well, Oy of Mid-World. You are ka-tet; one made from many. So am I. Whose ka-tet is the stronger is something we must now prove…Cast your nets, wanderers! Try me with your questions, and let the contest begin.”
What Constant Reader Learns: Oh, I love Roland in this scene. I have this visual image of Stephen King writing Roland’s speech…let’s see, what else can he call him—oh yeah, a lost and bleating mechanical goblin!
Lord of ancient lands, eh?
I love the ka-tet’s reaction to Roland’s rant. After their initial fear, Susannah has to stifle a laugh, Eddie grins at him, and Jake’s expression “was adoration, pure and simple.”
So, Roland and Blaine have laid out the plans for Wizard and Glass....Let the contest begin!
That’s it for this week! Next week—same time, same place—we’ll begin our read of book four in the Dark Tower series, Wizard and Glass.