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.
Oy! We last left our trio as they became a quartet—Jake having finally been brought through the door between worlds as we concluded the first “book” of this novel, “Jake: Fear in a Handful of Dust.” Today, we start book two, “Lud: A Heap of Broken Images,” and the first chapter, “Town and Ka-Tet.”
The Waste Lands—“Lud: A Heap of Broken Images,” Town and Ka-Tet, Section 1
Four days have passed since Jake joined our travelers, and he awakens to find a billy-bumbler licking his face. We learn that the spider bite Jake brought with him from his world has gotten infected and Roland has dosed him with “Cheflet” (because apparently Roland can’t quite wrap his tongue around the word “Keflex,” much to his annoyance).
The billy-bumbler is kind of skinny and limping, and Jake takes a liking to it. Roland lets him feed it a gunslinger burrito, and we learn that in Roland’s day, the well-to-do folks kept the animals as pets. They parrot back parts of words they hear (OY!), and since Jake calls the animal “boy” and it repeats “oy” back to him, it quickly becomes Oy.
Before they can resume their march toward the great city, the drumbeats start up again. Jake hates the sound, thinking “it was as if, somewhere out in that thick and featureless blanket of morning mist, the heart of some big animal was beating.”
What Constant Reader Learns: Welcome to Roland’s world, Jake. The digital Seiko watch Jake’s father was so proud of has gotten wonky. Just after Jake came through, the time was 98:71:65 (any significance to those numbers? anyone having Lost flashbacks?), and on the day of this chapter, it is “sixty-two minutes past forty on a Wednesday, Thursday, and Saturday in both December and March.” Jake finds this much more fascinating than Roland.
Eddie’s a grump early in the morning…or maybe he’s a little jealous that Roland has a new favorite kid?
The Waste Lands—“Lud: A Heap of Broken Images,” Town and Ka-Tet, Section 2
They’re getting nearer the city and the road has changed to cobblestone, which makes for hard going with Susannah’s wheelchair. They begin passing ramshackle farmhouse remains, although they “seemed to be the work of time rather than violence.” Both Eddie and Jake are harboring hopes they’ll find useful items—or useful people—in the city.
Everyone’s alarmed to hear Roland say they’re being watched. He’s smelled people, seen gardens hidden behind banks of weeds, and noticed a working windmill with his keen gunslinger senses. When Susannah asks if the watching people are dangerous, Roland says, “Will a strange dog bite?” This annoys Eddie, who tells him to stop his “Zen Buddhist shit.” Roland asks, “Who is this man Zen Buddhist? Is he wise like me?” Eddie finally realizes Roland is joking.
What Constant Reader Learns: There are herds of “shaggy beasts” like bison grazing on the plains—and some of them have two heads. When Jake asks Roland what they are, he replies “Muties,” which freaks poor Jake out as he remembers the Slow Mutants in the mountain. Interestingly, Roland says he thinks the mutants are being “bred out” of the herd here, whereas the Slow Mutants “were still getting worse.” So does that mean this part of the land is regenerating, or just that it’s experiencing a different kind of “passing on”?
Jake is acting very much the ten-year-old, asking question after question. So far, Roland is being very patient with him. And Ro’s cracking a joke. Who is this foreign gunslinger and what has he done with Roland?
The Waste Lands—“Lud: A Heap of Broken Images,” Town and Ka-Tet, Section 3
As our travelers approach their first real town, Roland tells them to “be ready for anything.” It’s about three in the afternoon, and they’ve reached a town that looks like a town in the Old West. Eddie, who’s been a grump since bringing Jake through the door, asks for the Ruger Jake brought from his father’s study. After consulting with Roland, he gives it to him.
Roland tells them that if they find people, they’ll be very old and frightened. The “younger folk” will be gone. He says it’s unlikely those who are left will have firearms—might never have seen one except in the old books. He warns them that they are to start no trouble.
Susannah suspects the local people might be afraid of them, thinking they’re harriers, the “old-time outlaws” in some of Roland’s stories. So they head toward the town, with Oy trotting along behind them.
What Constant Reader Learns: Susannah wants to detour around the town, but Roland doesn’t. “Detouring’s a bad habit that’s easy to get into,” he tells her. “It’s always better to go straight on, unless there’s a good visible reason not to.”
Susannah also wonders who this kinder, gentler Roland is. “This is the way he was when he still had wars to fight and men to lead and his old friends around him,” she thinks. “How he was before the world moved on and he moved on with it, chasing that man Walter. This is how he was before the Big Empty turned him inward on himself and made him strange.” The Big Empty…does that mean all the years he was alone or all the years in the desert? It’s also, I realize, the first time we’ve seen Roland when he wasn’t sick, or dehydrated, or wracked by guilt, or obsessed with the man in black. Ah, but how long can it last?
I like Oy! I hope he sticks around and proves useful.
The Waste Lands—“Lud: A Heap of Broken Images,” Town and Ka-Tet, Section 4
As our travelers approach the town, Susannah starts having visions of a sort—she can see in her mind what the town looked like in its heyday, with barges on the river, wagon traffic, people going to and from market. There are signs on the buildings “in a bastardized form of English” that she thinks is what Roland calls the low speech. Likewise, when they reach the center of town, she can imagine it on market day, filled with music and noise and throngs of people. “It’s as if I lived here in another life,” she thinks. (Hmmmm….)
Susannah feels the sensation of being watched now. She sees a blur in a window, and wishes Roland would speed it up, but he’s keeping a slow and steady (Roland-like) pace.
They find a stone marker in the middle of the main town intersection, and stop to look at it.
On one side, it says “Lud, 160 wheels,” which is an old form of measurement. And it’s 40 wheels to Jimtown.”
While they tarry in the town square, a man and woman come out of the building Susannah has identified as the town courthouse. They’re both old and dressed like old-time country folk, him in bib overalls and her in homespun and a “poke bonnet.” The woman was blinded in what looks like a violent way. The woman, Mercy, asks the man, Si, if our travelers are harriers, but as soon as Roland addresses them in the High Speech, the man’s eyes light up and he knows immediately that a gunslinger is in their midst.
What Constant Reader Learns: Interesting that the big city in the distance is reminiscent of New York, with tall buildings, while this small town sounds straight out of an episode of Gunsmoke. There’s a livery stable, hitching rails in front of the buildings, the remains of board sidewalks, even a saloon. Kind of like Tull.
Eddie makes a joke about Jimtown being the birthplace of Wayne Newton, and neither Roland nor I knew what the heck he is talking about. Any significance, or is Eddie just acting silly?
There’s graffiti in town, along the side of the town’s only stone building, which Susannah identifies as a combination county jail and courthouse. It says “Pubes Die.”
Roland throws a rock at the metal box atop the marker in the town square, and a green flag pops out the side with the word “Go.” Eddie thinks it’s a Keystone Kops traffic light. Or maybe a train signal, I wonder, although there’s been no mention of train tracks.
From the trivia files: Lud was supposedly the name of the ancient British king who founded London, although this city seems to be tied to New York. Lud was also a grandson of Noah and some biblical history has him as the father of the Persian people.
The Waste Lands—“Lud: A Heap of Broken Images,” Town and Ka-Tet, Section 5
As the old couple approaches, Jake feels something against his ankle and looks down to find Oy—he’s able to pet the animal for the first time.
The old couple greets Roland and his companions. “Welcome gunslinger,” Si says. “I thought all your kind had perished from the earth.” The old man begins to cry from happiness. Mercy’s not so convinced they aren’t harriers, until Roland instructs Eddie to let her handle Jake’s gun. The old man knows the Ruger isn’t a serious gun—not like the one Roland and Susannah carry.
Five or six new people appear now, and as Roland predicted, they’re all old and include a pair of identical twins who are albino. Their leader is an ancient toothless woman with whom Roland has a playful exchange. Roland tells the old woman they’re on a search for the Dark Tower, and she reacts by using the forked sign of the evil eye along the path of the Beam. “I am sorry to hear it,” she cries. “For no one who ever went in search of that black dog ever came back!” To which Roland responds: “Ka.” She says “ka” is also a black dog, and asks them to share a meal before they continue on their way.
What Constant Reader Learns: Si identifies the travelers to Mercy: Jake is a “pube,” so probably a pubescent/teen, while Susannah has brown skin “like the people of Garlan had.”
Eddie, Jake and Susannah all are able to understand the High Speech perfectly, even while realizing “it would have been gibberish” in their world. Ka-tet.
Jake gets really creeped out at the old woman’s words before they go to eat: “Behold ye, the return of the White. After evil ways and evil days, the White comes again! Be of good heart and hold up your heads, for ye have lived to see the wheel of ka begin to turn once more.” Uh, yeah, that would creep me out, too, knowing I was strapped to that wheel, as our travelers most likely are.
The Waste Lands—“Lud: A Heap of Broken Images,” Town and Ka-Tet, Section 6
The old woman’s name is Aunt Talitha, and she leads them to The Church of the Blood Everlasting (premonition?). Written over the name of the church is more graffiti: “Death to Grays.” The church is in ruins, but Talitha leads them down a flight of stairs into a well-appointed kitchen and, behind that, beautiful gardens. Three more elderly people have joined the group, and the elderly albino twins start dragging heavy trestle tables to the garden. Eddie wants to help, but Talitha won’t hear of it.
Si tells them the garden is the one place they keep the way it was in the old days, before the world moved on. They keep it hidden because those who ride through—Pubes, Grays, and harriers—would burn it. “They hate anything nice—all of em. It’s the one thing all those bastards have in common.”
The guests are served apple-beer, which Roland warns Jake to drink only enough to be polite. He likes it, but Oy wants no part of it.
What Constant Reader Learns: So there’s been nasty folks about, at least in the older days. Now, they all stay closer to the city. *uh oh*
Talitha asks Roland to “set us on with a word,” which I guess is sort of like saying an invocation. Roland’s premeal “prayer” is this: “Will you drink to the earth, and to the days which have passed upon it? Will you drink to the fullness which was, and to friends who have passed on? Will you drink to good company, well met?” Aunt Talitha is in tears by the time he’s done, but they’re happy tears, and Jake finds himself feeling happy as well—the shadow of the doorkeeper finally gone from his heart.
In terms of story pacing, it strikes me that this section is kind of a Tolkienesque interlude—a lighthearted, calm period between the dramatic events at the end of the last chapter and to set up what is no doubt going to be something really ugly ahead.
The Waste Lands—“Lud: A Heap of Broken Images,” Town and Ka-Tet, Section 7
Eddie thinks this meal is the best he’s had since his childhood birthday meals, and that it’s not just because they’ve been living on lobstrosity and deer meat for so long since Jake’s digging in as well (and feeing Oy). There are bowls of buffalo stew, biscuits, and some kind of greens that Eddie and the others eat a lot of. For dessert there’s cake filled with blueberries and topped with whipped “buffaler” cream since the last cow died thirty years earlier. They top off the meal with chicory coffee—or “dockey-coffee,” as Talitha calls it.
One everyone has eaten, it’s time for a palaver with Aunt Talitha, Si, and the albino twins, Bill and Till. Everyone else lines up and goes through a kind of reception line made up of Roland, Eddie, Susannah and Jake. They all kneel before Roland and gets blessed by them like he’s a kindly, beneficient, well-armed Pope.
Jake asks Talitha how old she is, and she isn’t sure. She remembers her 80th birthday and that was at more than 25 years earlier.
What Constant Reader Learns: Mercy was blinded by harriers, we’re told, with a branding iron. Her crime was “looking at em pert.”
Oy doesn’t seem to like anyone besides Jake, and he won’t talk in front of the old people. While they’re fussing over the billy-bumbler, Talitha notes that Jake doesn’t act like he belongs there. Not only are his clothes strange, but also his eyes. “In a month or two, no one will be able to see his strangeness,” Roland says. What’s strange about his eyes?
Uh oh. Suze is kind of sick. Puh-leeze tell me she isn’t pregnant with a baby invisible demon. Or a little Eddie, for that matter. *does not want Stephen King describing childbirth*
The Waste Lands—“Lud: A Heap of Broken Images,” Town and Ka-Tet, Section 8
Now it’s time for the palaver. Aunt Talitha tells them the city is an evil place, especially for Jake, and wonders if they can go around it. Roland wonders if they could skirt around it as well and pick up the Beam on the other side. (This was an idea he rejected earlier when Suze suggested it.) Eddie’s convinced they’ll find people in the city who will help them—he finds it hard to believe something so evil would have befallen a city that looks so much like New York. He thinks at least they might find books that would help, maybe even some transportation. Before he can speak up, however, Jake says they can’t go around. “Do you know about trains?” he asks Talitha.
There’s a long silence. Talitha asks, “Is it Blaine ye speak of, boy?” And of course it is. “How would ye know of Blaine the Mono?” she asks. But Jake doesn’t know how he knows.
What Constant Reader Learns: Again a kind of wariness of Eddie toward Jake: “He knows more than he wants to tell here…and I think he’s scared.” Roland changes the subject of Blain the Mono…monorail? “That is our business, I think,” he tells the old woman. Ooh…Charlie the Choo-Choo is coming.
The Waste Lands—“Lud: A Heap of Broken Images,” Town and Ka-Tet, Section 9
Bill and Till do most of the talking about Lud. In the days of their great-great-grandparents, the town of River Crossing (where they are) is as Susannah had envisioned it. There had been buffalo hunters. The twins knew nothing about the city’s original residents our how the Great Old Ones built the city’s buildings. At one time, the city even had horseless vehicles and electricity—and in some places it still might. In the old days, there was an outlaw named Quick who even created a mechanical bird that flew—although he went up in it and crashed.
Eddie wonders if, since the buildings are still standing, there might not still be machines and equipment that people no longer know how to use. Eddie’s excited by that, thinking he might be just the man to get the machines running again.
Four or five generations ago, there was built a great bridge over the River Send that still stands—a great thing of steel cables that “stands in the sky like the web of some great spiders.”
What Constant Reader Learns: Bill and Till don’t know a lot about Lud, which doesn’t surprise Roland. “In these latter days, memories faded rapidly and all but the most recent past seemed not to exist,” he thinks.
Susannah is surprised that the twins know the legend of Icarus. This isn’t the first time we’ve had overlapping mythologies between worlds. *cue Arthur Eld*
This bridge sounds like bad news. Last time Roland and Jake went over a bridge, it didn’t work out so well for the kid.
The Waste Lands—“Lud: A Heap of Broken Images,” Town and Ka-Tet, Section 10
The twins continue the story of Lud, but it’s a story Roland had heard many times himself, and could be summed up in one sentence: “Once there was a world we knew, but that world has moved on.”
A civil war had broken out several hundred years earlier, and its ripples spread, “pushing anarchy and dissention ahead of them.” Armies traveled the roads and, as time passed, they broke into smaller groups and then roving bands of outlaws. Travel became dangerous. Communication between Lud and River Crossing all but stopped. Si tells them at the time of his great-grandfather, they last sent tribute to the Barony castle, and those who made it found the castle deserted and broken down. There had been a slaughter to the west, and the fields were white with bones and red with rusted armor. His people dropped their tribute and returned home. Among those who made it back was his great-grandfather, but he picked up a “ring-worm” on his face and chest that was said to be “the radiation sickness.”
After that, no one left River Crossing anymore. They just tried to survive the bands of harriers riding along the beam toward the war “which raged endlessly in Lud.” The war had originally been between the harriers and outlaws against the artisans and “manufactories” in the city—who had guns and bigger weapons. The outlaws are now called the Grays, because they’re older, while the city dwellers who stand against them are Pubes.
“Lud became, in effect, the last fortress-refuge of the latter world,” the albino twins tell them. All the best and brightest moved there, and they learned to grow their own food. But eventually the Grays gained power. The last band of harriers and Grays had gone through ninety years earlier, led by a “warrior prince” David Quick (he of airplane invention fame).
The situation in the city now, as far as they know (which isn’t far at all), is that there are still some Pubes and Grays squabbling over the “remaining spoils.” Aunt Talitha tells Roland that both sides would want Eddie. They’d want Susannah, to bear children. And they’d “lust for the boy.” Roland, they’d just kill.
After Aunt Talitha quits speaking, and the group is ready to leave, Jake asks a final question: “Tell what you know about Blaine the Mono,” he says. “Tell about Blaine and Engineer Bob.”
What Constant Reader Learns: My ears perked up when I read the “radiation sickness” bit, which echoes some of the references in The Gunslinger to some sort of cataclysmic event that created the Slow Mutants, for example.
Why can’t the people of River Crossing hear the drums? And if they don’t know anything about them, how do they know enough about them to call them “the god-drums?” Does not compute.
Jake is not pleased to hear the Grays and Pubes would “lust” for him. He thinks another version of the passage under the mountains lies ahead, and I fear he’s right.
When Aunt Talitha says the harriers would want Susannah for breeding, she almost says something but then bites her tongue. *begins composing a lullabye for a baby invisible demon*
That’s it for this week. Join us next week, as we read the rest of “Lud: A Heap of Broken Images,” Town and Ka-Tet.