A Read of The Dark Tower

A Read of the Dark Tower: Constant Reader Tackles The Waste Lands, “Jake: Fear in a Handful of Dust”: Key and Rose, Sections 11-23

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 Jake in the middle of “going truant” as he suffers the same internal division that Roland went through in the first part of this section.

The Waste Lands—”Jake: Fear in a Handful of Dust”: Key and Rose, Section 11

Jake is following instinct (the umbrella of ka-tet) through the streets of New York, following the “sense of whiteness.” He is relieved because the voices in his head have quieted, and he longs to get back into Roland’s world. Instead he comes to a bookstore.

What Constant Reader Learns: So I’ve been thinking about how Jake, instead of being frightened by Roland’s world and afraid of it, longs to get back to it. The more we see of his home life, particularly his father, it’s easy to see why he bonded so closely with Roland. Of course it’s also ka-tet at work.


The Waste Lands—”Jake: Fear in a Handful of Dust”: Key and Rose, Section 12

The bookstore Jake is led to is The Manhattan Restaurant of the Mind, and on its chalkboard menu are “Fresh-Broiled John D. MacDonald,” “Pan-Fried William Faulkner,” and “Hard-Boiled Raymond Chandler.” Jake goes inside, the musty smell of books “somehow like coming home.” The bookstore is laid out like a malt shop, with tables and chairs

What Constant Reader Learns: Significance of MacDonald, Faulkner and Chandler? MacDonald, one of Stephen King’s favorite authors, wrote the Travis McGee novels about a kind of mercenary salvage recovery guy. Faulkner’s Snopes novels (The Hamlet, The Town, The Mansion) were family gothics but, of course, Faulker’s home was O/Detta’s “Oxford Town.” Chandler’s Marlow novels were hard-boiled detective stories. Ehhh….the significance is probably no more than to have people like me scratching our heads.

Interesting that Jake thinks of the force pulling him along as a “force-beam.”


The Waste Lands—”Jake: Fear in a Handful of Dust”: Key and Rose, Section 13

Jake notices a display of children’s book, and is drawn to a book called Charlie the Choo-Choo, with a story and pictures by Beryl Evans. He also found a book of riddles called Riddle-De-Dum. He opens the riddle book and sees: When is a door not a door? “When it’s a jar,” Jake says.

The store owner’s name is (of course) Calvin Tower, which freaks Jake out (no kidding), and he addresses Jake as “Hyperborean Wanderer,” which strikes an uncomfortable chord with the boy for reasons he doesn’t know. The other man, Albert Deepneau, who’s engaged in a chess match with Mr. Tower, is holding a book called The Plague. Jake buys both the Choo Choo and riddle books, and puts the change in his pocket.

What Constant Reader Learns: Trivia time: Beryl Evans was a victim of the 1940s British serial killer John Christie. Before Christie confessed, Evans’ husband was charged with the crime and hanged for it, then later was shown to be innocent.

Riddle-de-Dum. Shades of lobstrosities!

Is there significance to “Hyperborean Wanderer” other than reference to a wanderer from another land? The Hyperboreans were people who lived in lands beyond the North Wind in Greek mythology. Then again, Mr. “Tower” is a fountain of odd literary references, from Conan to William Cowper. And then, of course, there’s The Plague, which I assume is the Albert Camus existential novel of the absurd—and maybe gives a nod toward The Stand or some apocalyptic event that caused the world to move on. 


The Waste Lands—”Jake: Fear in a Handful of Dust”: Key and Rose, Section 14

Once outside the bookstore, Jake checks out the intro to the riddle book and reads the biblical riddle Samson asked young men at his wedding on the day he married Delilah: “Out of the eater came forth meat, and out of the strong came forth sweetness.” Delilah sneaked the answer to the young men and Samson had them put to death for cheating. Of course when Jake looks in the back for the answer, the answer key is missing (speaking of cheating). He goes back into the bookstore and asks the solution. Aaron Deepneau breaks into a song about Samson battling the lion, and bees making honey in the lion’s head. Aaron poses another riddle, but Jake has a strong feeling he needs to move on.

What Constant Reader Learns: I’m sure at some point the Samson story’s significance will strike me, about the lion and the honey, but it’s not doing it right now.


The Waste Lands—”Jake: Fear in a Handful of Dust”: Key and Rose, Section 15

Jake continues down Second Avenue, senses acute, still burning with the feeling that something good is going to happen. He knows what he’s going to see, as if he’s followed this path before in another time: a bum, to whom he gives his bookstore change; a record store (Tower of Power!) playing the line from “Paint it Black” about the red door; a mirror store where he can see many versions of himself (symbolic much?). He knows he’s going to a delicatessen that’s a doorway to another world, so he begins to run, sure he’s going to see a way back to Roland. He’s devastated when he rounds the corner and instead comes upon a vacant lot.

What Constant Reader Learns: Jake knows he’s going to see the bum, and the mirror store, and the music store playing Rolling Stones’ “Paint It Black.” Has he traveled this loop in another time, or is ka merely working on him?

He’s heading to a delicatessen that’s a doorway to another world. It’s gotta be the deli Eddie keeps visiting in his dreams.


The Waste Lands—”Jake: Fear in a Handful of Dust”: Key and Rose, Section 16

Jake stands outside the fence, feeling despair that it was a false alarm and thinking he’s just going to give up. He sees a weathered sign on the property advertising Turtle Bay luxury condos, and Jake remembers hearing his dad on the phone two weeks earlier, telling his business adviser to stay away from any more condo developments. One bit of graffiti reads: “See the TURTLE of enormous girth! On his shell he holds the earth. If you want to run and play, come along the BEAM today”—a poem that makes Jake break out in goose bumps.

Jake jumps over the fence into the vacant lot, spraining his ankle when he falls roughly on a loose pile of bricks. While on the ground, he realizes there’s a strong feeling of power around him, “thrumming in the air, like loose volts escaping from the biggest power-plant in the world.”

Next, Jake finds an old sign for Tom and Gerry’s Artistic Deli. Graffiti on it reads: “He holds us all within his mind.” And when Jake stands up, everything around him takes on new dimension and richness. “He understood that he was standing on the edge of a great mystery, and he felt a shudder…It’s all here. Everything is still here.” The thrumming noise becomes a humming, a chorus, and he’s able to see faces in the weeds and heaps of bricks. He catches names in the hum of voices: Marten, Cuthbert, and Roland of Gilead.

Jake looks down and sees a key and, beyond it, a rose.

What Constant Reader Learns: Funny fliers on the board fence surrounding the lot: Olivia Newton-John in concert; G. Gordon Liddy and the Grots; a film, War of the Zombies.

I’m thinking this “power plant” point of power is connected to the one Roland, Susannah, and Eddie found in the forest, home of the Bear. If he finds a door here, would it give him a direct link to their world?

Hm, so Jake finds the key and the rose…interesting. Not sure how this is all going to tie together.


The Waste Lands—”Jake: Fear in a Handful of Dust”: Key and Rose, Section 17

Jake falls to his knees, crying, and reaches for the key—it’s a shape he’s seen in his dream (and so has Eddie). When he picks it up, the chorus of voices rises and he feels a jolt of power run up his arm. He tucks the key inside Charlie the Choo-Choo.

When Jake looks at the rose again, he realizes the flower is the “real key.” It’s glowing as it grows from “a clump of alien purple grass.” As Jake reaches for the rose, he realizes something is wrong, “a pulsing discord, like a deep and ugly scratch across some priceless work of art…It was something like a worm. An invading worm.”

What Constant Reader Learns: So here’s Eddie’s key and rose, at the site of Ben and Gerry’s. And here is Roland’s purple grass from his Man in Black palaver.

Interesting that Jake realizes everything he sees in the rose has started going wrong, that the worlds contained within the rose (or a blade of alien purple grass) are in danger.


The Waste Lands—”Jake: Fear in a Handful of Dust”: Key and Rose, Section 18

After touching the rose, Jake falls unconscious. He comes to hours later with his head bleeding where he’d keeled over and hit a brick. Surprised to see he hasn’t been mugged, he’s disoriented at first, but slowly remembers what happened. The power in the vacant lot seems to have waned—almost. But he knows what he saw was real. The choir is here, only now it’s distant. He sees a barely discernible face in a chunk of plaster. “Allie?” he asks. “Isn’t your name Allie?” The rose is there, but it’s just a rose. He touches it, and stays a while longer before knowing it’s time for him to go home. When he picks up his books, the key falls out and he knows that part was real, too. He tucks it in his pocket.

What Constant Reader Learns: Maybe Roland is lying on the desert back near the way station, and all of this other stuff is just taking place in his head. Or maybe it’s just leakage between worlds along the beam as things go askew.

Jake’s worried about leaving the rose alone, but Roland’s voice pops up in his mind: “No one will pick it. nor will any vandal crush it beneath his heel because his dull eyes cannot abide the sight of its beauty. That is not the danger.”


The Waste Lands—”Jake: Fear in a Handful of Dust”: Key and Rose, Section 19

When Jake gets home, his father is standing outside the elevator, and he is not a happy man. He grabs Jake and drags him inside the apartment. Dad’s been snorting coke and mom’s had three Valiums since noon (“better living through chemistry’). When dad Elmer gives the boy a hard shake, Jake feels a new set of emotions toward him: anger, disgust, and homesickness. “This is not my place,” he thinks. “Not anymore.”

For the first time, he stands up to his father and tells him to let him go, the shoves him away and goes to his room.

What Constant Reader Learns: Jake’s foray into the weird has given him a new resolve. Now that he knows some of the things he’s been remembering are real, he’s not so freaked out by people thinking he’s crazy. When he learns that the Piper School headmaster called and the French teacher actually dropped by, he doesn’t much care anymore.


The Waste Lands—”Jake: Fear in a Handful of Dust”: Key and Rose, Section 20

Jake listens to his parents arguing downstairs until the housekeeper Greta Shaw—the closest he has to a friend—brings him dinner. He tells her what she needs to hear to get his parents to calm down, and leaves an envelope and folder for him the French teacher brought by.

Jake stops eating long enough to open the envelope and finds a sweet note of concern from the French teacher, which makes him feel like crying because its caring warmth isn’t something he’s felt very often. The note also says “congratulations” on his English essay (choo choo, and that’s the truth). So he pulls out the essay with a note from the English teacher about how brilliant it is and what she thinks his symbols mean, which sends Jake into fits of hysterical laughter—he’s especially fond of the part where she wonders if the “Roland” he refers to is his father since Elmer’s middle initial is ‘R’.

What Constant Reader Learns: Okay, so I laughed pretty hard at this, too, since the obnoxious, clueless English teacher has tried to read things into all the symbols in Jake’s essay the same way I do each week with the Dark Tower reads, especially weeks like this one, where everything seems to burst with hidden meaning. Or…does it?


The Waste Lands—”Jake: Fear in a Handful of Dust”: Key and Rose, Section 22

Both of Jake’s parents visit him, to make sure everything can slide back into its normal routine. He plays the game. Curious, he asks his father what his middle name is—wouldn’t it be quite the coincidence if it were Roland?—but it’s just an initial that doesn’t have a name behind it. Which sends Jake into another round of laughter.

What Constant Reader Learns: Stephen King is laughing at us. I know it.


The Waste Lands—”Jake: Fear in a Handful of Dust”: Key and Rose, Section 22

Once Jake recovers from his second laughing fit, he opens Charlie the Choo Choo for a read. He sees that the book was published in 1942. In the book, we have Bob the Engineer working for The Mid-World Railway Company, and Charlie was the locomotive he drove. And then Bob learns Charlie is really alive and can talk to him, although mostly he chants a poem about being a happy train until the day he dies. One day, Mid-World Railway buys a spiffy new locomotive from the Utica Engine Works and puts Charlie out to pasture. Of course, Bob won’t drive another train, so he’s put out to pasture too. Until he and Charlie save the day by getting Mr. Martin, president of the company, to his daughter Susannah’s piano recital, after which time Bob and Charlie give rides to happy kids in a California amusement park. 

Jake goes through the book and circles the words that resonate with him: The Mid-World Railway Company…Engineer Bob…a small, gruff voice…WHOO-OOO…the first real friend he’d had since his wife died, long ago, in New York…Mr. Martin…the world has moved on…Susannah.

What Constant Reader Learns:  The book was published in 1942. Some of the authors featured at the bookstore wrote in the 1940s. Just sayin’.

Charlie, whom I envision as kind of an old-fashioned, sinister Thomas the Tank Engine, strikes Jake as maybe a little evil and not to be trusted. He finds the line in his essay that corresponds to his feelings: “I’m pretty sure Blaine is dangerous, and that is the truth.” In the book’s final picture of Charlie, ferrying kids around the park, the kids look more frightened than happy, Jake thinks. “Let us off this train,” those faces seemed to say. “Please, just let us off this train alive.”

And Mr. Martin (as opposed to Marten), head of the Mid-World Railway Co., has a daughter named Susannah. *headdesk*


The Waste Lands—”Jake: Fear in a Handful of Dust”: Key and Rose, Section 23

Jake tries to go to sleep, but the voices are back—he’s dead/he’s alivehe’s dead/he’s alive. He wants to scream at them, but notices his pants lying over the seat of his desk chair—with the key in the pocket. As soon as he touches the key, the voices cease. As he drifts off to sleep, he thinks: “Tell him. Tell him to grab the key. The key makes the voices go.”

What Constant Reader Learns: So is that final message for Eddie? A way for Eddie to help Roland stop hearing the voices as well?

That’s it for this week. Join us next week, as we tackle the beginning of “Jake: Fear in a Handful of Dust”: Door and Demon.


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