Jun 16 2014 11:00am

A Read of the Dark Tower: Constant Reader Tackles The Dark Tower, The White Lands of Empathica, Chapter 5

Stephen King The Dark Tower

“There they stood, ranged along the hillsides, met
To view the last of me, a living frame
For one more picture! In a sheet of flame
I saw them and I knew them all.”

—Robert Browning, “Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came”

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 or preceding sections, join me by commenting here.

Last time out, Roland, Susannah and Oy caught deer, skinned hides, said prayers, skinned more hides, thought about how cold Mordred must be, and skinned more hides.

The Dark Tower, Part Four: The White Lands of Empathica; Chapter 5: Joe Collins of Odd’s Lane, Section 1

We pick up the story three weeks later, as our threesome finally heads downhill across an open field covered by at least five feet of snow. They have to stop periodically to wait out new blizzards, and in some places trees are buried almost to their tops in the drifts.

Susannah finally thinks of snowshoes, and is able to make a pair for Roland, which helps speed up their travel. Eventually, she asks Roland again about Mordred. He says the boy is falling further behind, “struggling to eat, struggling to catch up, struggling most of all to stay warm.” But he can’t really explain how it is he knows.

When Susannah asks Roland if he feels sorry for Mordred, he says no: “I can’t afford pity, and neither can you.” But he doesn’t look her in the eye when he says it, and Susannah suspects it isn’t true.

What Constant Reader Learns: It’s really annoying at how pleased Susannah gets when Roland gives her a simple compliment. On the other hand, it seems to annoy her too, that she’d give him the power of making her feel good about herself, but figures she’s stuck with it. Then again, she grew up in a different era.


The Dark Tower, Part Four: The White Lands of Empathica; Chapter 5: Joe Collins of Odd’s Lane, Section 2

The threesome continues on its way until, finally, Roland spots something ahead and gets Susannah to look—it’s roads that have been plowed. He also sees roofs, maybe cottages or a town. It looks like smoke is coming from one of the houses.

Susannah has mixed feelings about seeing people again, because people always complicate things.

Soon they come to an intersection with two road signs. One reads Odd’s Lane and the other Tower Road.

What Constant Reader Learns: Somehow, a road sign pointing out the way to the Tower seems suspicious and a little too convenient. Roland and Susannah need to keep their wits about them, I think.


The Dark Tower, Part Four: The White Lands of Empathica; Chapter 5: Joe Collins of Odd’s Lane, Section 3

All but one of the cottages near the intersection are deserted, and several had collapsed under the weight of the snow. About three-quarters of the way down Odd’s Lane, however, is a cottage with its roof cleared of show, a path shoveled to its front door, and smoke billowing from its chimney. Susannah can’t help but think of Hansel and Gretel and wonders if they should just keep moving. Roland points out that even if they keep moving, Mordred won’t—and he’d kill the inhabitants not just because he was hungry, but because he was also angry at his situation.

It’s too late anyway, as a one-eyed old man exits the house. He’s limping heavily. From behind his house they can hear the whinny of a horse the man refers to as Lippy, among a litany of more colorful names. The man’s carrying on elicits a genuine laugh from Roland, and makes Susannah relax.

He greets them as “gunslingers on pilgrimage to the Dark Tower,” and introduces himself as Joe Collins of Odd’s Lane.

What Constant Reader Learns: Susannah might see the cottages and wonder if it will be Hansel or Gretel who opens the door, but she might want to rethink her fairy tale. Methinks it was the wicked witch who lived in the cottage in the woods, and Hansel and Gretel were dinner.

Okay, Roland is laughing, Susannah is laughing, and Oy is hopping up to grab gumdrops in midair. Something is NOT right here.


The Dark Tower, Part Four: The White Lands of Empathica; Chapter 5: Joe Collins of Odd’s Lane, Section 4

Susannah and Roland descend from the banked-up snow on which they’ve been traveling, laughing all the way. They all introduce themselves, and Joe Bombadillo-Collins says he’s from America-side, or was long ago. He’s all excited to meet someone from Gilead, and notes that Roland must be “older’n God.”

Lippy the horse staggers up and Susannah’s horrified by him—he was blind and mangy and scrawny.

Joe invites them in for dinner and says the storm that’s blowing in will probably keep them indoors for three days at least. Again, Susannah is a little uneasy but seems to brush it off.

What Constant Reader Learns: Joe Collins is almost as irritating as Tom Bombadillo-o, although I suspect he’s a lot more dangerous. Just not sure how yet. Please God, help him not sing. It’s Oy that makes me so suspicious, because he’s downright jovial and talking again. And Susannah should know very well, by this point in the story, to trust her instincts.


The Dark Tower, Part Four: The White Lands of Empathica; Chapter 5: Joe Collins of Odd’s Lane, Section 5

They go to Joe’s barn, where Roland helps him gather some hay for Lippy. Then they all go inside, where Joe has electricity and a working refrigerator/freezer with an icemaker, no less. And a furnace.

A robot named Stuttering Bill keeps everything running, shovels the sidewalks, clears the roads, and cleans the house.

Joe says he’s been here about seventeen years, although it’s hard to be sure since the time ran funny there for a while.

What Constant Reader Learns: I need a Stuttering Bill. Interesting that he’s still up and running. Maybe it’s the proximity to the Tower.


The Dark Tower, Part Four: The White Lands of Empathica; Chapter 5: Joe Collins of Odd’s Lane, Section 6

They go into the living room, complete with a La-Z-Boy recliner and a table heaped with books and magazines. There’s also a TV and VCR, although neither Roland nor Susannah know what that is.

The thing they focus on is a photograph tacked to one of the walls—a photo of the Dark Tower. Joe claims to have taken it—it’s a Polaroid—but he’s been too old to go back. “Yet I would if I could, for it’s lovely there,” he says, “a place of warm-hearted ghosts.” He hasn’t been back in two years.

Joe tells them it will take them six or seven days to get out of the White Lands, and when Susannah asks if he calls those lands Empathical, he looks puzzled. Suze thinks that puzzled look wasn’t genuine, but Roland wants her to move on. Then another ten or twelve days beyond that to the Tower. So nineteen days if one walks, or ten days if one takes one of the handy-dandy golf carts sitting along the way. Roland seems stunned to hear they’re within three weeks of reaching the Tower, “after all the years and all the miles.”

Roland asks Joe if he’s ever gone right up to the Tower, close enough to touch it. He says no, because “I thought to go closer might kill me, but I wouldn’t be able to stop. The voices would draw me on.”

What Constant Reader Learns: I would be interested in knowing what magazines the old guy reads, and where he gets them. And his Polaroid camera. Argh. Driving me nuts. What’s with this guy?


The Dark Tower, Part Four: The White Lands of Empathica; Chapter 5: Joe Collins of Odd’s Lane, Section 7

After a big meal, the sore on Susannah’s face burst—but before we’re told how that came to be, we learn about their roasted chicken and mashed potatoes with gravy, and eggnog. Oy gets his own plate. After dessert, they get their coffee and settle into the living room as the storm howls outside. Susannah gives a brief thought to Mordred and once again feels sorry for him.

Roland asks for Joe’s story, and he says he was a stand-up comedian in the late 1960s/early 1970s. As he’s telling his story, Susannah thinks he begins to sound more like a “wiseguy American.” Roland asks if a comic is somewhat like a court jester in his day, and they decide the answer is yes.

Joe was playing a club called Jango’s in Cleveland when someone threw a Molotov cocktail through the front window. When Joe ran out the back door, he was accosted by three black men and beaten up. When he woke up, he was in Mid-World.

Susannah decides she doesn’t believe Joe’s story, or not much of it, but isn’t sure it matters.

Roland wants to know if Joe saw the Crimson King pass by on his final trip to the Dark Tower. No, the old man says, but now that he thinks about it about six months ago, there had been a terrible storm that drove him into his cellar for shelter, and he’d had a sense that “some terrible creature” was nearby. This story, Susannah thinks is true.

Roland surprises them by asking Joe to do his standup comedy routine, and Susannah surprises herself by agreeing.

What Constant Reader Learns: So, how’s he getting the fresh food? Does he have a garden? Does Stuttering Bill travel to the local Nozz-a-la factory outlet and stock up?

There’s a “babyish” crying sound from near the front of the house but no one seems to notice it except Susannah, who tells herself it’s the wind. But her mind whispers back that it’s Mordred out there, freezing. The next time she hears it, she thinks it’s not Mordred but something in the cellar where Joe had gone to hide from the Crimson King.

Which brings up interesting possibilities. The ever-mentioned Patrick Danville, perhaps? Someone we haven’t met yet? Is the person hiding or is the person a prisoner?

And Susannah thinks old Joe has more teeth than he did when they arrived. What’s up with that?

Oh holy cow, not a standup comedy routine. Do we really have to?


The Dark Tower, Part Four: The White Lands of Empathica; Chapter 5: Joe Collins of Odd’s Lane, Section 8

Joe stands up, closes his eyes, and starts his litany of bad jokes and one-liners. Before long, Roland’s snorting with laughter, and Susannah’s laughing so hard that she slaps the side of her face, which pops the sore, and sends blood gushing down her face and neck. Roland tells Joe to stop telling jokes, and the old guy looks annoyed.

What Constant Reader Learns: The jokes are figuring into it. The laughter…and Susannah’s popped sore interrupted whatever was happening. Just can’t quite figure it out….


The Dark Tower, Part Four: The White Lands of Empathica; Chapter 5: Joe Collins of Odd’s Lane, Section 9

Oy’s barking, Susannah’s bleeding, Roland’s tending to her wound, and Joe is looking pissed off that she interrupted his comedy routine. She’s feeling queasy and feels an urgent need to get away, to be alone for a few minutes. She says she has to go to the bathroom, and Roland says she should call him if she feels lightheaded.

What Constant Reader Learns: So Joe’s been annoyed at being interrupted, but he looks confused and doubtful when Susannah wants to leave the room. Because that’s not part of his script? And who wrote that script? Who is Joe Collins answering to, if anyone?


The Dark Tower, Part Four: The White Lands of Empathica; Chapter 5: Joe Collins of Odd’s Lane, Section 10

Joe Collins has a nice feminine bathroom with pink wallpaper. Susannah takes a washcloth and cleans herself up, then notices a piece of note paper lying on the towel in the shelf:

Relax! Here comes the Deus ex Machina!

Odd’s Lane

Odd Lane

Turn this over after you think about it.

Of course, she just turns it over and finds:

You didn’t think about it! What a bad girl!

I’ve left you something in the medicine cabinet, but first,


(Hint: Comedy + Tragedy = MAKE BELIEVE)

In the other room, she can tell Joe has returned to his joke-telling, and Roland is laughing hard. Her first reaction is jealousy that Joe would start back while she wasn’t there, and that Roland would let him.

She tries to focus on the note. It says “what a bad girl,” so it has to be for her. But who could have written it? Who could’ve foreseen that she’d slap herself silly and end up pulling a towel off the shelf?

She thinks about Odd’s Lane and thinks the sign was changed from Odd Lane for some reason. As she thinks it through, in the other room, Roland is laughing louder and louder. She writes out Odd Lane in the condensation on the mirror and finally sees it: rearranged, the letters of Odd Lane spell out DANDELO. And in the other room, Roland’s laughter has gotten so out of hand that he’s choking.

What Constant Reader Learns: Ahhhhh. Well, crap. I didn’t see that coming. Maybe because it’s the Deus ex Machina. Maybe the note is from Stephen King. Maybe Stephen King is locked in the basement. I have no clue, except that they might be wishing Mordred’s a’Hungry shows up sooner rather than later, ironically. I wonder what’s in the medicine cabinet?

And…that’s it for this week! Next week—same time, same place—we’ll continue our read of the final book of the Dark Tower saga.

Chris Nelly
1. Aeryl
19 days from the Tower, they meet Dandelo.

Of course they do.
Adam S.
I was actually pleasantly surprised by the quality of Joe Collins' standup routine.
The whole note in the bathroom kind of put me off the story, though. Pointing out that it's deus ex machina doesn't make it any less out of nowhere.
Thomas Thatcher
3. StrongDreams
I think the story would have been just as credible if Susannah had figured out what was going on with Detta's help instead of S. King's help. After all, there is a long history of End-World's bogeymen underestimating people and things from the "real" world -- such as Walter being able to enchant Roland's revolvers but not Jake's Ruger at the end of WaG.

That being the case, it might be worth thinking about why King chose to insert himself in the story one more time. (Not that I have an answer.)
Chris Nelly
4. Aeryl
@3, Remember back when Jake died, and we flashed to King, who was whining that he wasn't the God In The Machine? This chapter proves he was wrong.

That chapter comes across as King trying to refuse to take responsibility for the deaths of his characters. This chapter is King letting us know that HE(not the Story-King) knows it's bullshit.
Eric Murray
5. E.Murray
I have mixed feelings on the Deus ex Machina. On one hand, it fits really well into the winking, self-depracating (self-referential?) undercurrent in the whole book. That King would resort to such a hackneyed "tool" in his magnum opus shows well his refusal to get to uppity about his work. It's another element that makes me think of this as a "writer's book" and is clever in a backhanded sort of way. But its use (Dandelo is just Odd Lane rearranged...really? Blech.) is for something so goofy that the impact isn't there. I know he couldn't do it for something big and important, or readers would cry foul. But he made such a big deal of Dandelo for 200 pages. And now he employs the Deus ex Machina to solve it. And it's something that makes us shrug and say, "huh..."

My other complaint is something he couldn't really do much about. The Dark Tower - the center of all Being and thing which holds all universes together - is someplace that people could go on vacation (assuming they're pretty adventurous and live close)? There are paintings and Polaroids? Is it really just a matter of going to the Piggly Wiggly and turning left? My complaint is that Roland's mega-special quest is needed just because he happened to be born really far away. Sure, it's a tough trip, but that's only because they're so ill-prepared. After all, it's simpler than a climb to the peak of Everest. It diminishes the power of the thing that it's nothing more than a building anybody can go see. Granted, it takes his guns to get inside, but it still seems disappointing.
It's like he says in Danse Macabre about having to eventually show the monster. There's an inevitable let-down since spelling something out can never live up to our imagination. If we say the monster is 10 feet tall, there's always going to be that voice that says, "Whew, at least it isn't 20 feet tall. That's not as scary as it could have been." Having to define the tower in concrete terms is never going to live up to the half-glimpses and shimmery visions we've had thus far. But I still feel like it could be better. Maybe it's somplace in the middle of Todash or a non-physical place that can only be reached by dying. Anything but a place people picnic after arriving by Jeep...
6. Katiya
I always had the impression that the Tower was both a physical and metaphysical place. It fits into the themes that have played through the whole series, like the Guardians being both stories and real, creates robots. Were they ever real? It's not very clear. Without veering into spoiler territory, I definitely get that sense from the Fields of Can Ka No'Rey.
Thomas Thatcher
7. StrongDreams
Well, not everything in Joe Collins' house is as it seems (*cough*spoilers*cough*), so the Polaroid of the Tower might simply be something that Roland wants to see, or that Joe wants him to see. The Tower might not actually be something that just anyone can walk up to.

But on the other hand, we have been firmly told ever since book one that in Roland's world, the Tower exists as an actual physical tower, and not a metaphorical manifestation (like the rose). So, yeah, eventually they have to be able to get there without dropping through another dimensional door or some such. And while the Tower might not be guarded behind a hundred-year old hedge of thorns, for example, it has been a pretty harrowing journey. And, if not for the combination of the poisons released by the Old Ones and the Crimson King's madness in blasting the landscape and murdering his castle staff, the road and the two castles they passed would have been much more formidable barriers.
Eric Murray
8. E.Murray
I think it helps to separate the complaint into two pieces. As far as consistency goes, this is well done. Sai King has made clear since the beginning that the tower is not only physical, but almost fragile. It manifests as a rose for crying out loud. It requires mundane things like the Tet corporation and human weaponry to protect it (and could be destroyed by the same). That's one of the interesting parts of the story. It's very postmodern to picture the sustaining force in the universe as something so ordinary (OK, don't get technical since true postmodernism would reject the notion of the meta-narrative implied by the tower. yeah yeah yeah) So from that perspective, the tower could be nothing more than it is.
But from the *story* perspective, I hoped for something bigger (ala Danse Macabre analogy, I guess). Maybe it's the Polaroid that was the final straw (agreed, the picture might be fake, but there's no reason to believe somebody couldn't take a vacation photo of it). Dandelo, a peevish spider-boy and the three Kings come across as not scary enough for the final guardians (in the *story*, again) to the most sacred and important thing in all existence. It's like running into God buying antacids at WalMart. I mean, seriously, a couple well-outfitted Jeeps, some decent firepower and a day to pack and they could cruise to it in climate-controlled comfort all the way from Discordia. I hoped for a more mind-bendingly-creative approach to the finale when I started the series 25 years ago. Too much build-up in my own mind is probably the biggest problem...
Thomas Thatcher
9. StrongDreams
I think maybe the real antagonist of this book is not Walter or Mordered or Dandelo or the Crimson King, but Roland's obsession to actually enter the Tower (which, as has been explained, can only increase the risk of the Tower falling to the King). Hence, many parts of this book seem anticlimactic, because they aren't supposed to be the climax.
10. Jaime Chris
Great comments and a wonderful post! :)

I actually DO feel this entire narrative is very post-modern because of the self-referentiality (is that a word?) on King's part. I was not COMPLETELY thrilled with this part of the book but the comments (@E Murray) about "Dance Macabre" are well-taken - remember that in that book he says that, unlike Lovecraft, he always wants to show the monster, even if he fails. And I feel that that is in play here. I also kind of feel like, as a writer, he was struggling with the ending. Remember how, after his real-life accident, he said that he felt compelled to finish the "Dark Tower" series because he actually realized he could die without finishing it? King started it when he was 19. (haha) This has been his life's work and (as kind of a writer myself), I can try to imagine what it felt like when he came near the end.

Also, the jokes in the stand-up routine are borrowed from Dave Barry, who is a member of the rock band "The Rock Bottom Remainders" with King and Amy Tan and a couple of other writers.

Joe Collins míght be pissed of getting his routine interrupted but boy (or oy) did I feel pissed when I read this part for the first time. Everything about it was cringeworthy to me and I have not read the section ever since.

Roland laughing like a mad cow, the Deus Ex Machina, Susannah not figuring out matters herself, and the horrible jokes. Ugh.

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