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 Tor.com 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 pick up with sections VI-X of The Gunslinger’s first big chapter, also called “The Gunslinger.”
Section VI: The Gunslinger and the woman at Sheb’s bar have a little post-coital pillow talk. She tells him Nort is, indeed, dead. The man had been around town forever, had gotten addicted to devil grass, and had become the joke of the town, hounded by children and animals alike. He’d finally died in his own vomit in front of Sheb’s. Gunslinger asks about the man in black, who we presume was involved in the resurrection of Nort. She’s puts up a brief argument, but agrees to tell him the rest of the story.
What Constant Reader learns: Age is relative. Nort had been around town as long as the woman can remember, but in an earlier conversation with Brown, Gunslinger put his age at 35. Nort’s story is not so unusual, and I wonder at its significance. He’s a devil-weed junkie. The bigger question, which the woman doesn’t answer yet and which Gunslinger doesn’t ask, is if Nort died in his own puke in front of Sheb’s, why’s he sitting at a corner table and talking to Gunslinger in the High Language of Gilead? Where is Gilead, and is that the In-Country from which Gunslinger once came? Who brought Nort back to life? I suspect that would be the Man in Black.
Gunslinger realizes he’s afraid of the desert ahead of him, which means we should be, too. Is he afraid of the desert itself—or is he afraid of the Man in Black, whom he might catch up with in the desert?
Section VII: We have a flashback within a flashback here, as Gunslinger has been talking to border dweller Brown about what happened in Tull when he was there, and now he’s telling what happened in Tull before he got there.
The Man in Black arrived in Tull the day Nort died, and he came accompanied by a fierce wind. Nort’s body had been laid out on a table in Sheb’s while the bar patrons had a wake, complete with Sheb playing old Methodist hymns ragtime-style. The MiB arrives with a big grin (told ya so) and comes into the bar. Alice, aka Allie (we finally learn her name), waits on him and he both frightens and arouses her. He pays for his drink with a silver coin.
The wind picks up, and the bar patrons begin to get freaked out by MiB’s happy, almost clownish behavior. They flee, especially after the MiB begins to do some gymnastics-worthy leaping over Nort’s body. As the MiB leaps back and forth over him, Nort begins to breathe again, his eyes pop open, and he wanders out in search of his next fix of devil grass.
Frightened, Allie runs to her room to hide. When she comes back downstairs, MiB is gone, but he has left her a note. The note tells her if she wants to know about death—about what comes after death—she only has to say the word “Nineteen” to Nort and he will tell her, but the knowledge will drive her mad. She feels as if she has been handed a cocked pistol she won’t be able to stop herself from firing eventually. The note is signed with our first look at a name for MiB: Walter O’Dim.
What Constant Reader learns: Finally, we get a look at the Man in Black, aka Walter O’Dim. He rides into town in a rig with a tarp tied across the back—what’s he carrying back there besides a saddlebag? He has a “big howdy-do of a grin” on his face, and wears a black robe with a hood that obscures all but the grin. Allie first thinks he might be a priest. He throws the saddlebag over his shoulder and comes inside, but he never really does anything with the bag. His voice is described as soft and pleasant, his eyes large and luminous. Initially they’re of an indistinct color, but later Allie sees them as blue.
None of the drunk townspeople notices him at first, which sort of gives him an “everyman” vibe. The scene reads like an orgy-fest from the second season of “True Blood,” with drinking and carousing and public groping. “A fever seemed to be on all of them,” King writes, which tells me the townspeople’s behavior, in addition to the storm brewing outside, reflects the MiB’s presence.
As MiB drinks (and pays with a silver coin—is that of lesser value than the gold coin used by Gunslinger?), he tells Allie she’s preoccupied with death. We already know she’s on the verge of menopause and then she’ll be old, and old people don’t last long in this world. It frightens her that MiB knows this. He laughs (a loud, fine laugh), and it’s the laugh that finally attracts the attention of the patrons at Sheb’s. Everything grinds to a halt, and then MiB starts a dog and pony show that feels a little forced to me, over the top. Why spit on and leap back and forth over the body in order to bring Nort back to life? Why not mutter an incantation and have a laying on of hands?
I think it all goes back to the close link between evil and madness that King’s villains always seem to have. I guess in a sense there’s something ultimately scarier about a laughing, leaping Lord of Evil than one that’s all dark and sinister—with a cheerful Dark Lord, there’s a bigger chance you could get taken in by him unawares. Still, I found myself getting annoyed with all the laughing and leaping because MiB didn’t have time to properly creep me out before I saw the manic behavior. Much eerier is the weather factor—the wind and barometric pressure seem to rise with the MiB’s antics as if larger forces are being summoned.
Everyone else is creeped out, however, when Nort is resurrected and wanders off in search of devil-grass. Allie runs up to her room, and MiB calls after her with a cryptic comment: “Even that (death) isn’t reversible. Although it’s so…goddamned…funny!”
*Constant Readers bangs head on desk*
Allie hides in her room and wonders how much Nort knows about the afterlife, and whether he’d tell her. The MiB always knows our deepest fears, it seems, thus the note he left for her with the “Nineteen” message.
What’s the significance of nineteen? In the introduction to the book, Stephen King talks a lot about being nineteen when he started this book, and the importance of that age—when one is indestructible, immortal, without the self-doubts that age brings, and death is abstract. LOL. Or maybe it’s just a number. We shall see.
Nort is the truly tragic figure here. He’s resurrected but it isn’t a second chance. He comes back with the same addictions he died with. He finally begins to weep and asks Allie a question she can’t answer: “What am I?”
I don’t know, Nort. I surely don’t know.
Finally, this long section has a veiled reference to what I assume is the Dark Tower. Allie is watching the townspeople. She “watched them and felt a pang of fleeting despair for the sad times of this world. Things had stretched apart. There was no glue at the center anymore, and when it fell, all would end.”
I can’t help but be drawn back to WB Yeats’ poem “The Second Coming,” which is also connected to Stephen King’s The Stand: “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold; Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world.”
Section VIII: Allie finishes her story, and bitterly asks the Gunslinger if he plans to leave. He admits he should—he thinks the MiB has laid a trap. He tells her never to say the word nineteen to Nort. “If you can, teach yourself that the number after eighteen is twenty,” he tells her, warning her to take the note seriously. “The man who signed himself Walter O’Dim is a lot of things but a liar isn’t one of them.” Even as he warns her, Gunslinger knows Allie will eventually say the words and fall into the trap. She begs him to stay, and he says, “We’ll see.”
What Constant Reader learns: This short section tells us more about Gunslinger than about Walter O’Dim, which I suspect is probably one of many names the Man in Black uses if he is the embodiment of death and destruction. Gunslinger has a grudging respect for him—he acknowledges the “ghastly perfection” of the trap O’Dim has left for Allie. She’ll drive herself mad trying not to use the word that, in turn, will drive her mad. And she’ll eventually fail because it’s human nature.
Knowing this, we see a glimpse of pity in the Gunslinger for Allie, although he doesn’t couch it as such. He knows his presence brings her comfort and is willing to give her that much, at least for a while. But is he really doing it for her, or avoiding the desert that frightens him? Maybe both.
Section IX: The next morning, he asks Allie for a map of the desert, but she doesn’t have one. He wants to know what lies on the other side of it. “How would I know?” she asks. “Nobody crosses it.” He heads to the stable to ask the hostler. She warns him that the hostler, Kennerly, will lie to him, and the Gunslinger thanks her. Allie cries because she can’t remember the last time anyone thanked her.
What Constant Reader learns: This is an odd little section. Gunslinger asks for a map to see what lies beyond the desert, yet he knows why O’Dim is headed southeast. So he knows where they’re going (the Dark Tower, I assume) but has never actually been there before. The presence of the “center” of the world in that direction is confirmed when Allie says that sometimes the clouds all drift that way as if something is sucking them toward it.
So, I have to admit I have no idea what the significance of the map is, or his desire for a map. Mostly, this section underscores the sadness of Allie’s life. She’s pitifully grateful to know he’s not leaving her yet.
Section X: Gunslinger visits Kennerly the hostler and asks how big the desert is. He gives a vague answer and references the preacher-woman, who has told them all about demons who live in the desert. Gunslinger asks about what’s after the desert, but Kennerly knows only the rumors he’s heard—mountains, perhaps, or even a green ocean with monsters.
What Constant Reader learns: Kennerly, the hostler, is described as a “toothless and unpleasant old satyr” who had buried two wives and was plagued with daughters whom he sexually abuses. He’s the other side of Tull. There’s none of the ragged nobility in him that one finds in Allie or even poor old Nort. It’s clear that the people of Tull have no idea what lies beyond their narrow borders, and are too beaten down to summon enough curiosity to find out. And, besides that, there’s nowhere to go.
The main purpose of this section, since it gives us little clue as to what does lie beyond the desert, seems to be to introduce us to the preacher-woman and the blind belief, at least on Kennerly’s part, in what she tells her followers. Kennerly blames his obscene and murderous daughter Soobie’s behavior on the Last Times the preacher-woman has told them about, “when children won’t obey their parents, and a plague’ll be visited on the multitudes.”
This is the first time I’ve noticed the word “plague,” and previously the Gunslinger had referred to “the rot,” so it’s another sign that something epic has occurred to create this dystopian world our characters find themselves in.
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.