A Read of The Dark Tower

A Read of The Dark Tower: Constant Reader Tackles The Gunslinger, Chapter 1: “The Gunslinger,” Sections 1-5

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 so my Dark Tower-virgin ears won’t hear anything before I read it, because then I might sound more intelligent than I actually am.

In today’s entry, I’ll talk in detail about the opening to The Gunslinger, the first in the seven-volume series. The Gunslinger is divided into five books, with each book subdivided into sections. Today, we’ll look at the first five sections of book one, titled repetitively enough, “The Gunslinger.” Clear as mud? For each section, I’ll summarize what happens, then what I’ve learned so far.

It’s a wild ride already, with a lot of worldbuilding that’s left Constant Reader here trying to figure out what is fraught with meaning and what isn’t. Am I missing a Clue? An Important Thing that I’ll later kick myself over? It feels like freshman lit all over again, only with more interesting characters. So…let’s go!

Section I: The Gunslinger is following the Man in Black through a barren wasteland, for a reason we don’t know. He’s leading his mule, which is on its last legs, and he has a moment of dizziness where he remembers things and people he’s lost in his past. He finds the dizziness troubling, as well as the memories. He comes across the cold remains of the Man in Black’s fire and stops for the night. He feels he’s getting closer, but doesn’t know for sure.

What Constant Reader Learns: I feel bombarded with information already, which makes me wonder what things will look like in another thousand pages or so.  Best not to dwell on it. Gotta give Stephen King credit, however. There’s no infodump here—he weaves minute details in every loaded phrase until Constant Reader’s head feels in danger of exploding.

After this first section, I know the as-yet-unnamed Gunslinger considers himself an “ordinary pilgrim,” although I suspect it could be false modesty. He’s had a long life, although age could be a relative thing in this dystopian world, and he has been following the Man in Black for the past two months, always moving southeast. This implies the Man in Black is heading for a specific destination. The Gunslinger hasn’t seen a town for the past three weeks.

The Gunslinger’s physical description, beyond his clothing and his guns, is minimal. His face is “pitted and flaked,” and his grin is “gruesome.” (Actor Javier Bardem, who looks like a shoo-in to play this role in the upcoming films, is prettier but feels like a really good casting choice.) We learn the Gunslinger is heavier and taller than his father, from whom he inherited his guns. He’s the sort of man who “might straighten bad pictures in strange hotel rooms.” So, does that mean he’s anal-retentive, or just always compelled to set things to rights? Given that this is a story of a quest, I assume the latter.

His surroundings are bleak scrublands where the only thing growing is an addictive, possibly hallucinogenic “devil grass” he must use to make campfires. The trail he follows has all but disappeared because, we learn, the world has “moved on” and has “emptied.” The sun doesn’t quite set at due west, which the Gunslinger finds disturbing. Duh, yeah.

There are “border dwellers,” although it’s been a while since he’s seen one of their huts. The dwellers are described as being either “lepers or madmen,” which, along with the description of the Gunslinger’s skin, makes me wonder if there has been some sort of plague that wiped out most of the people a la The Stand.

We know little about the Man in Black at this stage. His humanity seems to be in doubt. He’s fleeing across the desert (whereas the Gunslinger is not fleeing in pursuit, but following steadily), which begs the question: What’s the bad dude running from—or toward? And why is the Gunslinger dawdling?

Section II: After camping for the night, the Gunslinger sets off again. Eventually he crests a dune and finds the hut of a border-dweller. A youngish man with waist-length red hair and a talking pet raven named Zoltan is working in a pathetic little cornfield, and introduces himself as Brown. The Gunslinger introduces himself, but we aren’t told his name. It’s assumed the Gunslinger will stay overnight. He is tired, and reflects that he’d been traveling from sixteen to eighteen hours a day since he’d been in the town of Tull three weeks earlier, where the Man in Black, who from now on will be known as the MiB because I’m tired of typing it, had healed an “old man” of thirty-five.

What Constant Reader Learns: Apparently, the physical world is not the only thing falling apart. One of the first questions the Gunslinger asks of Brown is if he’s alive or dead. They both assure each other they’re alive, which tells me that, at some point, there might be zombies or other animated dead things. Did I mention zombies scare the crap out of me?

We also learn that the Gunslinger came from a place called In-World very long ago, and he implies that nothing is left there. He’s heard of a green land called Mid-World but isn’t convinced it exists.

Brown realizes almost immediately that the Gunslinger is after “the other one,” and we learn the MiB spent the evening with Brown as well, though Brown isn’t sure of how long ago it was. He asks the Gunslinger if MiB is a sorcerer because he pulled a ready-to-cook rabbit out of his sleeve, and we learn that he is a sorcerer, “among other things.” So with the bunny trick, I’m already picturing the Man in Black as having that classic warped, Stephen King bad guy sense of humor—a sort of gleeful madness that runs through the truly evil beings throughout many of his books. Not only are they evil, damn it. They enjoy being evil. Evil is fun.

Roland experiences another moment of doubt as he’s refilling his water skins in Brown’s well, realizing it would be easy for Brown to kill him. I get the impression these episodes of self-doubt are alien to the Gunslinger but they seem to be happening with more frequency.

Religious references are piling up. The old folks talk about God’s will, and Brown uses the “thees” and “thous” of the Manni, a holy people looking for holes in the world much as today’s end-time Christians look for signs of the Second Coming. There is also a reference to “ka,” which seems to be sort of a ruling spirit or universal karma.

(Oh, and Dear Mr. King: Love ya, man. But a mule and a donkey are not the same thing, so when the Gunslinger is suddenly leading his donkey down to Brown’s hut, I’m like, where’s the mule, dude? A mule is the offspring of a donkey and a mare. I grew up in Alabama. I know mules. Yeah, I know. Blame the copy editor.)

Section III: The Gunslinger awakens from a short nap and finds Brown has cooked a dinner of beans and corn. Brown tells him the mule (which sometimes masquerades as a donkey) has died, and that Zoltan has eaten its eyes—news the Gunslinger seems to take with resigned indifference. The Gunslinger asks Brown if he believes in an afterlife, and Brown says he thinks this is the afterlife.

What Constant Reader Learns: Ravens eat the eyes of dead mules, and Gunslinger is concerned about the permanence of life and death. Religious references continue, as Brown utters a paganistic prayer before the meal in addition to the afterlife conversation. Good and evil, life and death and the hereafter: classic Stephen King concerns.

Section IV: Gunslinger and Brown share a meal and a smoke. Gunslinger is waiting for Brown to ask him questions about why he’s after MiB and what has happened on his journey. He’s disconcerted when Brown doesn’t ask. In another moment of self-doubt, he even wonders if Brown is real, or if he’s just an illusion left by the Man in Black to trap him. Brown says no, he is not an illusion, unless he’s unaware of it. Finally, because he knows Gunslinger wants him to, Brown asks about Tull.

What Constant Reader Learns: Gunslinger says he almost got killed in Tull, and that he killed a man who’d been touched by God—except it wasn’t God but the Man in Black—another thinly veiled reference to the MiB’s possible lack of humanity. Gunslinger seems to need to talk about what happened in Tull, and Brown’s seeming lack of curiosity bothers him. Finally, when Brown asks if Tull is growing, Gunslinger says the town is dead, and that he killed it.

So, besides the obvious wondering if Tull is named after the popular 1970s band Jethro Tull, because Stephen King knows his music, it’s clear that something big and bad happened in that little town when the Gunslinger passed through. The Gunslinger’s odd self-doubt continues as he wonders if perhaps he is going mad.

Section V: Gunslinger’s flashback about Tull begins. He rides into town an hour after sunset, following the lights and sound of a honky-tonk piano. The townspeople out on the streets are silent and watchful. Gunslinger comes across a trio of young boys playing marbles and asks where he can get food. One of the boys directs him to Sheb’s, the source of the music. He leaves his mule at the stable and goes into the saloon, which is full of locals. He orders three burgers and a beer, which riles up the poor and obviously hungry locals. As he eats, an old man who’d been sleeping at a table by the door, approaches Gunslinger and speaks to him in the High Speech of Gilead. It shocks Gunslinger to hear it, and he realizes the man is dead. Uncomfortable, the other bar patrons leave. The woman working behind the bar, who has cooked Gunslinger’s burgers, says the talking dead man is Nort. She offers to trade information to Gunslinger for sex, and he agrees.

What Constant Reader Learns: We see a bit more of the world that’s left, and wonder what the hell happened here (wherever here is). There was once a forest but it’s been overtaken by prairie and desert. Deserted estates lie alongside the road, filled with scattered mansions where “demons” walk—is that literal demons or just the figurative demons of the past? More hints of decay and some plague-like disease can be found here as well. One of the boys playing marbles has a bloated eye bulging from its socket, and the woman behind the bar has a disfiguring scar across her forehead. The old man, Nort, has teeth stained green from eating the addictive devil grass.

Gunslinger has a stash of money—he uses a gold coin with the stable owner, gives another to the woman for his burgers, and hands a third to Nort. The people in the saloon are not used to riches—they seem angry and jealous at his ability to eat meat, and no one has change, which makes me wonder what viable currency they use in this world. Even though Gunslinger is the last of his kind, they know what he is and seem to fear him.

The woman behind the bar is a pathetic figure. She seems to be middle-aged and rode hard. She is clear about what she wants from Gunslinger, but ashamed of herself when he gives her a look-over before saying he’ll have sex with her. She has a sad, defeated acceptance of what her life is.

My favorite moment: It’s easy to read this and imagine it in the Old West (well, except for the promise of the walking, talking dead)—but when Gunslinger rides into Tull, the song Sheb is playing on the honky-tonk piano is The Beatles’ “Hey Jude,” and the bar patrons are singing along with the chorus. Gives the whole scene a surreal feel that’s just mind-bogglingly fun.

That’s it for this week! Next week—same time, same place—we’ll pick up with the next five sections of The Gunslinger’s first chapter, also titled “The Gunslinger.”

Urban fantasy author Suzanne Johnson is annoyed that she’s far past 16 and still hasn’t discovered her secret powers. Her new urban fantasy series, scheduled to begin with the release of Royal Street in April 2012 by Tor Books, is set in New Orleans during and after Hurricane Katrina. Find Suzanne on Twitter.


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