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 trio pondering Roland’s paradox about Jake being alive in one world but not another and following the trail left by the Guardian Bear Shardik.
The Waste Lands—”Jake: Fear in a Handful of Dust”: Bear and Bone, Section 24
Our ka-tet camps about fifteen miles east of where Shardik the bear died, and we’re told that Roland has nightmares—we’re not told what they are of, but probably Jake. In the morning, Roland shoots a rabbit for breakfast. They eat at sunrise and move on. Ro’s stories of Jake are resonating with Eddie to some degree—he keeps wondering what it would be like to remember your own death, but he can’t.
What Constant Reader Learns: Interesting that this is the second or third time so far in the book we’ve been told Roland is dreaming—but without any details. It’s like Stephen King doesn’t want us too far in Roland’s head while he’s losing it; we only know what Roland’s telling Eddie and Susannah.
The Waste Lands—”Jake: Fear in a Handful of Dust”: Bear and Bone, Section 25
The trio reaches an area where most of the vegetation has been torn down and is near the bear’s hidey-hole, or so Roland says—the bear had cleared everything to free up his sightlines. It’s slow going with Susannah in the sling on Roland’s back and Eddie navigating the heavy wheelchair. Finally, they come to a stream, a good place to stop for the night. But first, Roland wants Eddie to go exploring with him—to see the bear’s home. Susannah’s not too sure about being left behind.
Once Roland points it out, Eddie realizes he’s been hearing the noise of machinery running for a while.
What Constant Reader Learns: Not much to learn from this, except the sound of machinery from the bear’s power center (so to speak). And to see how long Susannah’s willing to be left back at the camp like the little crippled woman while the guys explore.
The Waste Lands—”Jake: Fear in a Handful of Dust”: Bear and Bone, Section 26
Roland and Eddie follow a path, and Eddie’s able to distinguish between different sounds. First is a low, deep hum of machinery—almost a vibration, as if a large machine were running within the earth itself. Above it are lighter squeaks and chitterings. They reach an area where they can see into a clearing where the bear lived—”the base of operations from which he had set forth on his many expeditions of pillage and terror.”
Here’s what they find: a stream emerging from the base of a rock wall, next to which is a metal box nine feet high, with a curved roof—Eddie thinks it looks like a subway entrance. It has yellow and black diagonal stripes on it—like radioactive warnings. The earth floor in front of it is covered in gray soil that Eddie eventually realizes is bones so old they are crumbling back to dust.
In the dirt are five small metal robot-like things—the largest about the size of a “collie pup” and looks like the Tonka tractor Eddie had as a kid. A second is a steel rat. Third is a jointed steel snake. We aren’t told the other two. Eventually, Eddie realizes there are more than five of the things—there are dozens of others, but only five are still moving, and they seem to be crippled. He thinks they’re kind of pitiful, wandering in circles with their master gone. “It was not menace they projected but a strange, inhuman sadness.”
Susannah slips up on them, and startles Eddie so badly he almost shoots her. As expected, she didn’t like being left behind. She, too feels sorry for the little machines. “They are creatures of great sadness,” Roland agrees. “Eddie is going to put them out of their misery.”
Eddie balks at shooting them—”it’ll be like shooting puppies”—and snorts in annoyance when Roland tells him to “say his lesson and be true.” But Eddie begins the litany (“I do not shoot with my hand; he who shoots with his hand has forgotten the face of his father…”) As he goes through it, he feels the words of power take hold, clearing his mind and settling his nerves. He begins to fire, and “the pity was gone from Eddie’s heart.”
Eddie decimates all the machines but the rat, which charges. He panics and wants Roland to shoot it, but Roland’s standing there like a big old gunslinger statue with his arms crossed, “his expression serene and distant. He might have been thinking of chess problems.” Eddie’s down to one bullet, so instead of shooting, he steps forward and kicks the rat over. By the time it rights itself, he aims and shoots.
Ticked off, Eddie levels the gun at Roland. “If there was a round left in this, you could stop worrying about your f**ing Tower right now.” Susannah tries to calm him down, but Roland has his eye on something else. He shouts “Down,” and Eddie automatically drops without thinking as Roland draws his gun and shoots a mechanical bat flying toward Eddie’s head.
Eddie’s stunned at how fast Roland drew. He realizes “Roland could almost have eaten a hamburger and drunk a milkshake before beginning his draw. He was that fast.”
Eddie sort of apologizes, in a backhanded way, and Roland says he and Susannah had a similar exchange earlier—that Roland believes gunslingers should bite the hand that feeds them occasionally. “What if I don’t want to be a gunslinger, Roland old buddy?” Eddie asks. To which Roland says, “What you want doesn’t much matter.” You got it: it’s ka.
What Constant Reader Learns: So, the bear has for years been pillaging and terrorizing but why? What was the bear’s role in the world? If he was guardian of a portal, why was he out pillaging? Why are there decaying bones littering the site—leftovers from bear snacks? Why are there then no fresh bones? Inquiring minds need to know these things.
I’m having serious flashbacks to the first and second seasons of Lost here. I’m half expecting the ka-tet to stumble across the wreckage of Oceanic Flight 815.
Eddie realizes as he recites Roland’s words (and those of Cort before him) that the cold, killing feeling is as addicting as heroin. Fascinating to see how that stone-cold killer feeling gets in both Eddie and Susannah—reinforcing, maybe, that they are indeed gunslingers in their own way.
The Waste Lands—”Jake: Fear in a Handful of Dust”: Bear and Bone, Section 27
Eddie goes back for Susannah’s wheelchair because he wants some time alone—now that the excitement’s over, he’s feeling shaky. Not because he was scared, but because he liked the adrenaline rush. Because even though he said he doesn’t want to be a gunslinger, he actually does.
What Constant Reader Learns: Eddie has a major moment of awakening here. He realizes that if a door into New York City were to suddenly appear in front of him, he might not walk through it—not until he’d seen the Dark Tower for himself. But then Henry’s voice, in his head, reminds him that Roland’s other friends, who probably said the same thing, are all dead. Henry has a point.
The Waste Lands—”Jake: Fear in a Handful of Dust”: Bear and Bone, Section 28
Roland’s still standing around holding Susannah like a toddler and looking at the big metal box when Eddie returns with the wheelchair. The humming machinery, he thinks, is either inside the box or buried beneath it. “So this is one of the twelve portals,” he says. “Where does it go, Roland? Disney World?” Roland has a pretty good answer: “I don’t know where it goes. Maybe nowhere..or everywhere.”
The world literally has moved on, he explains—it isn’t just a figure of speech. “It goes ever faster. At the same time, things are wearing out falling apart.” The portal isn’t the edge of the world, but the place where one of the beams starts. The Beams were created by the Great Old Ones—lines that bind and hold things together.
Eddie finally gets to the heart of it: If this portal is Point A, then if they follow the beam, they’ll eventually reach the center, the Dark Tower. Roland agrees. He doesn’t know how far it is, only that it’s far and “the distance grows with every day that passes.” Of course, Eddie points out that worlds don’t grow, which gives Roland the opportunity to talk about the maps he remembers as a boy in Gilead. One map was The Greater Kingdoms of the Western Earth, and on that map, the distance from Gilead to the Western Sea was a thousand miles. “But I’ve come many thousands of miles,” Roland said, saying the trip had taken him over twenty years. (But don’t forget he was palavering with the man in black either for ten years or maybe a hundred, so we can’t much trust Roland’s accounting of time.) Roland says all those years he was moving away from John Farson, “who led the revolt which toppled the world I grew up in” and who wanted him dead because “I stole something he held very dear.” Eddie asks what that was, but Roland won’t tell him.
The point, he says, is the world is wearing out around them. “Everything in the world is either coming to rest or falling to pieces. At the same time, the forces which interlock and give the world its coherence—in time and size as well as in space—are weakening .The Beams are breaking down.”
Eddie has a long flashback about an old Victorian house a mile from his childhood neighborhood. The kids all thought it was haunted, and it had been deserted for as long as anyone knew, yet it had a feeling of power and danger to it. He gets the same vibe from the metal box. As he approaches it, he gets goosebumps and feels a wind blowing past him even though the day is still. He understands somehow that the powerful machinery producing the sound is falling “out of tune with itself,” and he begins to chant words that can only be coming from the box: “All is silent in the halls of the dead. All is forgotten in the stone halls of the dead. Behold the stairways which stand in darkness; behold the rooms of ruin. These are the halls of the dead where the spiders spin and the great circuits fall quiet, one by one.”
Finally, Roland pulls Eddie away from the box. But as they move away to make their camp, Eddie still feels it calling to him.
What Constant Reader Learns: Holy cow, what an extremely long info-dump! My head spins. I’m channeling a little W.B. Yeats in this philosophical lesson: “Turning and turning in the widening gyre, the falcon cannot hear the falconer; things fall apart; the centre cannot hold; mere anarchy is loosed upon the world.” Can a slouching, rough beast be far behind?
So the portals lead to some kind of geomantic lines that bind together space, size, dimension, gravity, magnetic fields.
The big spiders spinning in the halls of the dead bring up images from It in the drains under Derry.
The Waste Lands—”Jake: Fear in a Handful of Dust”: Bear and Bone, Section 29
Eddie’s dreaming again, headed back to Tom and Gerry’s Artistic Deli. The Rolling Stones’ “Paint it Black” booms from a record store as he passes. He sees himself in a mirror as he passes a shop window and thinks he looks tanned and fit—but is wearing a “yuppie from hell” outfit.
Susannah wakes him, frightened because Roland has curled into a fetal position and is moaning about “other worlds than these” and screaming Jake’s name. Eddie and Susannah debate whether or not they should wake the gunslinger, and Eddie notes with some concern how close at hand Roland’s gun is. They both realize that if Roland goes insane, he could very well hurt them—Eddie remembers how blazingly fast Roland drew the gun on the mechanical bat.
What Constant Reader Learns: Again, Stephen King is keeping us out of Roland’s head and in Eddie’s, and forcing us to surmise his internal struggles and his own falling apart via the observations of Eddie and Susannah. But Roland’s in scary bad shape.
The Waste Lands—”Jake: Fear in a Handful of Dust”: Bear and Bone, Section 30
It’s morning again, and our travelers have breakfast at dawn and move back to the bear’s headquarters. Roland seems unaware of the nightmares from the previous night. From his man-purse, he pulls a long silver needle and uses it in an old pottery cup filled with water to serve as a compass as it turns to follow the magnetic pull of the Beam. Further, Roland shows the others how to “see” the Beam in the same way one can see different shapes in optical illusions by forcing the eye not to focus on any one thing.
Once they see the path of the Beam, they see the pattern repeating around them, from the direction leaves turn on the trees to the pattern of clouds as they move through the sky—all twisting in the direction of the Dark Tower to the southeast.
Finally, they’re ready to start their travels in earnest, despite Susannah’s fears of how they’ll manage with her and her wheelchair. Before they leave, Roland removes his gunbelt and hands it to Eddie. Eddie “felt a terrible stew of conflicting emotions roiling inside him,” but Roland’s willing to admit what Eddie knows and is afraid to say—that as he loses his mind “an inch at a time,” Roland “is not fit to wear this.”
Eddie’s horrified but makes a joke about the knife—which Roland turns over to him as well. Then Roland cracks a rare joke and lightens the mood.
What Constant Reader Learns: As a reminder of how off-kilter the world has gotten, Roland says he uses the sun and stars to set his course, rather than relying on a compass, but that even these things are no longer as reliable as they once were. Eddie gets a bit freaked by what might happen if true north “slips slyly off to the east or west.”
Roland giving up his gun and knife is probably one of the boldest things he has yet done. He earns some respect on that one. Worrisome, though.
The Waste Lands—”Jake: Fear in a Handful of Dust”: Bear and Bone, Section 31
Our ka-tet finally gets away from the bear’s living space and follows the stream. Eddie sees a tree branch that calls to his whittling self. He wants to stop and get it, even as he hears Henry’s taunting voice in his head making fun of the sissy who wants to carve. Eddie starts to change his mind, but Roland—who always seems to know just where Eddie’s head is—urges him to get whatever it is he saw—it might be important. “If you need it, Eddie, we need it,” he tells him. “What we don’t need is a man who can’t let go of the useless baggage of his memories.”
Finally, thinking of the shape of the key from his jawbone vision, Eddie cuts down the piece of wood.
What Constant Reader Learns: Roland the Wise, as he’s watching Eddie, knows he still hasn’t told him something important from the night the jawbone burned. When Eddie admits he isn’t ready to tell, Roland only wants to know one thing—”Have you perhaps seen some way into the heart of my my problem?” And Eddie thinks that’s as close as Roland will ever come to admitting how desperate he is.
The Waste Lands—”Jake: Fear in a Handful of Dust”: Bear and Bone, Section 32
That night after supper, Eddie begins to carve, Susannah looks at the stars, and we finally get a small glimpse directly into Roland’s head: “There was a boy. There was no boy. Was. Wasn’t. Was.” Yikes.
What Constant Reader Learns: Where, oh where, is this madness going?!
That’s it for this week! Next week—same time, same place—we’ll begin reading Key and Rose, the second chapter in “Book One Jake: Fear in a Handful of Dust.”