Then We Came to the End: The Last Dark, by Stephen R. Donaldson

In 1977, Stephen R. Donaldson began The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant with the release of his novel Lord Foul’s Bane —about dyspeptic leper Thomas Covenant and the wild magic held within his white gold wedding band—and now Donaldson is wrapping it up, nine books later, with The Last Dark.

An epic denouement thirty-six years in the making, The Last Dark purports to be a rich, satisfying finale for Stephen R. Donaldson’s signature character.

But really, I’m not going to talk much about how you’d find the end of this series. I’d like to talk about why you might start.

The Last Dark can only be read as the payoff to an investment. If you’ve put in the overtime reading the first nine books, you’ll almost certainly want to read this one, and will find rewards waiting for you when you do. If you have not read what came before, well, don’t blame me when you pick this up and you don’t know what haruchai are, or what “Kevin’s Dirt” is, and why it’s super bad. This may be why there seems to be relatively little fanfare surrounding this book. The people likely to read it already know that they’re going to, and the people who aren’t, won’t. It’s like the old joke about why companies that make adult diapers don’t spend much money on advertising—if people need them, they’ll find them.

Not a lot of people I know have read the series, which is a shame because I think it has a singular power and voice that make it unlike anything else I’ve ever read. It was one of my favorites as a teenager, but while the grown-up me recognizes the series’ gross elements of self-pity, and its deeply problematic nature, I still think it’s a riveting, unique tale worth reading, and deserves a higher place in our common fantasy canon.

It’s possible there might be some spoilers in the following paragraphs.

The series concerns Thomas Covenant, a successful writer in the real world who is abandoned by his wife and child after he contracts leprosy and becomes a figure of Shirley Jackson-like ostracism in his provincial small town. He can’t write, he can’t depend on anyone for support, and he can’t even—this one’s important pretty soon—get an erection. Time passes. Covenant lives a miserable, isolated existence, and survives his affliction by constantly checking and re-checking his body and extremities for the small, infection-prone wounds he cannot feel because of his leprosy. His life literally depends on obsessively protecting himself from harm.

Subtlety of metaphor is not Donaldson’s strong suit.

Covenant is hit on the head and awakens in what seems to be an almost stereotypical fantasy realm called “The Land.” He encounters a figure of Sauron-flavored malice named Lord Foul who prophesizes his destruction of the Land; he’s told his white gold wedding ring is a magical artifact of unimaginable power; he meets a village girl named Lena who mistakes him for an ancient culture hero and savior. And he is, miraculously, healed of his leprosy. Covenant refuses to believe any of it is real.

What happens next will probably determine whether you continue reading the book or attempt to kick a field goal with it. There’s no way to sugar coat this and please stop reading if you want to live spoiler free. Thomas Covenant discovers that along with his leprosy being cured, so has his leper-flaccid penis. Enraged at how the world has wronged him, and insisting that the Land is a dream or hallucination anyway, and therefore his actions have no moral significance, Covenant rapes Lena. As with the Flashman series, you are expected to continue sympathizing with the main character, but there is no denying or mitigating it: Thomas Covenant is a rapist.

And here is where Covenant’s journey really begins, with that shameful, evil act. He thereafter spends the largest part of the narrative refusing to believe in the reality of the Land, while the secondary characters, who love their home and don’t want it to be annihilated, drag Covenant along on their quests, like a moody, self-absorbed Frodo dripping with guilt and self-loathing who just wants to sit in a dark corner and listen to melodramatic music on his headphones. The wild magic in his ring, you see, could save the Land or destroy it. Over time Covenant learns to accept the Land, whether or not it’s actually real, and to love it as his new companions love it, and to stop being such a pill all the time, and, ultimately, to sacrifice himself for this magical place.

The series isn’t “Weird Fiction”-weird, but it is genuinely odd-weird in a way that stands apart from most fantasy. The Land’s mythologies and jargons, building blocks of any fantasy series worth its salt, hang together in a way that seems at once overfamiliar and deeply alien. Donaldson is no meticulous world-builder, but the setting of the Land possesses a palpable emotional character and presence, even if ecologically it’s a bit of a hash. So many things in the series seem like they shouldn’t work, but they are so powerfully infused with Donaldson’s intensity and extravagant depth of feeling that you don’t dare take them with anything less than utter seriousness. Donaldson is a grandiose, operatic writer—indeed the Covenant books and Donaldson’s (possibly superior) Gap Cycle seem at times to almost be adaptations of Wagner’s Ring of the Nibeling —and his thunderous voice puts the electricity and fire of real life into everyone and everything you encounter in the Covenant books.

That’s not to say he’s a writer without flaw, and now is when it’s finally time to talk about The Last Dark specifically. Donaldson has a tendency toward over-writing, and is a natural bombast who could benefit from more pitiless editing. In the last four books of the series, his worst tendencies seem to have been given free rein. Fatal Revenant, the eighth book, is at 900 pages nearly as long as the first two books in the series put together. The Last Dark could stand to be half as long as it actually is. It is a flabby work, distended with even more navel-gazing and garment-rending than is usual for him. And Donaldson’s penchant for needlessly archaic vocabulary is in full effect. He doesn’t just break George Orwell’s second rule of writing (“Never use a long word where a short one will do”), he destroys it with a condign maleficence.

But even in a work inflated by his worst tendencies, Donaldson builds toward a staggering resolution of love, endurance, and self-sacrifice that only he could have written. Donaldson is unquestionably a master of cinematic action and the steady build to an explosive end. He has a special talent for disastrous climaxes, and this book is no exception. It is a fitting end for a unique, complicated, great fantasy epic.

Read this book. Or read Lord Foul’s Bane if you haven’t seen what comes before. I promise the end of the journey will not make you regret one step you’ve taken along the path.

The Last Dark is available now from G.P. Putnam’s Sons

David Moran has hit himself in the head many times in the attempt to transport himself into an achingly beautiful fantasy land where, despite having mostly just messed around in high school, he’s qualified to be the savior of the entire world. You can follow him on Twitter.


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