King's Highway pt. 33: The Waste Lands (Dark Tower pt. 3)

If you continue on this path, USE CAUTION. This section of the Dark Tower National Park and Wildlife Reserve is fraught with peril, packed with mythos, and even features a deranged train. (Do not attempt to out-riddle the train, and do not provoke it with sass.) And most of it is radioactive and inhabited only by strange, mutant creatures. In case of inclement weather, TURN BACK IMMEDIATELY. If you are attacked by a gigantic cyborg bear, a) remember the face of your father and b) aim for the little steel hat atop its head.


This third part of the Dark Tower series was published in 1991, only four years after The Drawing of the Three , with a dedication to his son Owen, 'Khef, Ka, and Ka-tet.' So much happens in this book that attempting to summarize it seems crazy. (I mean, how many summaries already exist out there?) But, c'est la ka.

As Matthew Peckham notes in his excellent SF Site review of this book, "at last we're going to get some real answers... The first book stands as a nearly self-contained narrative... and the second book is an action-packed interlude that develops characters simmered in Jungian archetypes and baked in Campbellian mysticism. The story was inspired in part by Robert Browning's poem "Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came" but picks up literary and pop-culture allusions like a corybantic tumbleweed..."

"The title of the third book unsubtly invokes T.S. Eliot's 1922 "The Waste Land." The quote from the poem at the front of the book is the infamous stanza that ends "I will show you fear in a handful of dust." And so King does, linking the bleakness of Browning's poem's middle sections in which the landscape is both an object and a presence, with the grotesqueries of Eliot's gelded cyclicality." Whew! But that's pretty cool.
- We discover that the Dark Tower (described in that SF Site review as a "reality lynchpin," infected by sickness or wrongness and slowly shutting down the universe) is like the sun in the center of the zodiac.

(Well, a makeshift zodiac, as Roland's world has "moved on" and all.)
- Instead of astrological signs, it is ringed by portals, each of which is guarded by a special creature. The one we meet first is a gigantic cyborg Guardian, Shardik, The Bear.
Shardik bears a plaque upon which is stamped ** NR ** SUBNUCLEAR CELLS MUST NOT BE REPLACED **NR**

- It attacks our ka-tet. Susannah shoots off the Bear's silver hat (some kind of radar dish/ central processing unit), and crisis averted. By following Shardik's backtrail, they get to the portal, which is where the Beam begins.

- What is this Beam? It manifests itself as a sort of wave in the sky, one they can feel as well as see once they tune into it. Roland says, 'The Great Old Ones didn't make the world, but they did re-make it. Some tale-tellers say the Beam saved it; others say they are seeds of the world's destruction. (They) created the Beams... lines which bind and hold... not just magnetism, but... gravity and the proper alignment of space, size and dimension.' The Beams from each portal cross-converge on the Tower, so by turning from the portal and following it, they will, in theory, eventually reach it.

- Along the way, Eddie and Susannah grow as gunslingers, and Eddie rediscovers whittling skills. Roland goes a little crazy on account of creating a paradox through the events of the last book, namely saving Jake, but this is fixed by, among other things, Susannah having sex with a demon. (There's a precedent for this in the series, but yeah. Again, c'est la ka.) A door is opened, and Jake Chambers joins the ka-tet. 

- Before / alongside the above, Jake struggles with his own side of the paradox. Haunted by visions of Roland's world/ his own death but unable to understand them, he goes to a bookstore, the awesomely-named Manhattan Restaurant of the Mind, and picks up two books: a book of riddles with the answers torn out, and Charlie the Choo-Choo. He is led to an abandoned lot which seems to share real estate, dimensionally, with Roland's world, and sees a brilliant red rose. He doesn't know what it is, just that it feels important, beautiful, and endangered.

- Jake's joining the ka-tet dispels the last of his and Roland's respective mental problems and they're back on the Road to the Tower. Along the path of the Beam, they pass through River Crossing,

(where 'Roland is given a silver cross and a courtly tribute by the town's last, ancient citizens.')
 and on to the town of Lud,

where the "god-drums" play every night and trigger a Red Hour blood-lust among its post-apocalyptic inhabitants. These god-drums (we later discover they are maintained by Blaine the Mono, either to keep people in line or for his own morbid amusement) sound familiar to Eddie...

and he later recognizes them as the drums from "Velcro Fly" by ZZ Top.
- Jake is captured by a sadistic little bugger named Gasher and brought beneath the city, where the Tick-Tock Man...

The equally-if-not-more sadistic grandson of David Quick, a Luftwaffe pilot from our world (presumably) whose plane mysteriously crashed in Lud several generations ago.
...demands Jake tell him everything he knows about 'dipolar computers and transitive circuits.' Lud is a computerized super-city, but unfortunately, no one who lives there knows how to work or fix its many machines and computers.

- Meanwhile, as Roland (and Oy, more below) track Jake, Eddie and Susannah infiltrate the city, and after thwarting those who want to make them their blood sacrifice to the god-drums, eventually make it to the cradle of Blaine the Mono, a sentient but deranged train that has lived long enough as the sole omnipresent (artificial) intelligence in Lud to go well and truly bonkers. The train loves riddles, John Wayne impersonations, and a bit of the old ultra-violence. It doesn't kill them, though, as Eddie and Susannah tell it of Jake's riddle book.

- Roland and Oy rescue Jake, with extreme gunslinger prejudice, then Blaine contacts them to make sure they actually do have a book of riddles.

That voice belonged to a machine, an incredibly smart machine, a playful machine, but there was something very wrong with it just the same.
'The book,' Jake said. 'I've got the riddle book.'
'GOOD.' There was an almost human satisfaction in the voice. 'THAT'S REALLY EXCELLENT.'

After a few trials, off they go, rocketing across The Waste Lands, whereupon Blaine reveals he intends to include them all in his grand suicide run to Kansas, the termination of his rail line. Roland challenges him to a riddle contest, like they used to do in Gilead-that-was, and Blaine accepts...

Did you get all that? Whew. 590 pages, paperback! And I left out plenty.


The aforementioned Shardik:

The name's an homage to this book, which I've never read.
"See the BEAR of fearsome size!
All the WORLD'S within his eyes.
TIME grows thin, the past's a riddle;
The TOWER awaits you in the middle."

We'll meet The Turtle, his Portal counterpart (and more) soon enough.

The deal with Shardik is that he's a powerful cyborg gone to seed: 

The bear... made his way through the forest like a moving building, a shaggy tower with reddish-brown eyes. Those eyes glowed with fever and madness. His huge head, now wearing a garland of broken branches and fir needles, swung ceaselessly from side to side. Every now and then - AH-CHOW! - and clouds of squirming white parasites would be discharged from his dripping nostrils. His paws, armed with curved talons, three feet in length, tore at the trees. He walked upright, sinking deep tracks in the soft black soil under the trees. He reeked of fresh balsam and old, sour shit.

Blaine the Mono

He wasn't always a solo act. (from wiki) "The crashed blue mono seen from the Send bridge is revealed to have been named Patricia, apparently possessed of a separate sub-personality within the Lud computer. The Patricia personality lapsed into a depression, and could not stop crying. Blaine "liberated" her by removing certain blocks in her programming, and once freed, she committed suicide, derailing herself in the river. It is a sign of Blaine's cruel personality that he finds this amusing."
"Blaine also has a smaller counter-mind called Little Blaine, who represents the weaker partner in Blaine's dissociative processor mind. Little Blaine speaks in the voice that once was used to make cabin announcements on-board Blaine in better times. He is, unfortunately, of no help."

Blaine the Mono is one of my favorite King creations. (Although the above picture, which I do like quite a bit, is not at all the Blaine of the book. But it is the cover of the printing I have.) He (I'll use the masculine pronoun, here, but, of course, it's really just a psycho sci-fi robot) also appears in Wizard and Glass. King is sometimes at his best writing psychopaths, and Blaine's unpredictability, random sadism, and sci-fi-mayhem were my favorite parts of the novel.

The portions of Suzanne Johnson's read of the Dark Tower over at Tor.com that cover the last parts of The Waste Lands are worth linking to.

“Eddie has a big-picture moment when he realizes that Blaine, Shardik, the doors, everything, are all “part of an awful, decaying whole, a tattered web with the Dark Tower at its center like an incomprehensible stone spider. All of Mid-World had become one vast haunted mansion in these strange latter days; all of Mid-World had become The Drawers; all of Mid-World had become a waste land, haunting and haunted.” Or, as Little Blaine notes, “Big Blaine is the ghost in ALL the machines.”

Blaine's counterpart (twinner?) in our world, Charlie the Choo Choo, may also be a malevolent force. As Jake reflects on the story, he remembers a certain dread... are the children seen here roaring with delight or screaming in terror?

'Talk about zip! Talk about zowie! Golly gee, gosh, and wowie!'
This is also the first mention (I think) that we get of North Central Positronics.

An at-present-mysterious corporation from sometime in Mid-World's past.
Calvin Tower, proprietor of the Manhattan Restaurant of the Mind, who gives Jake the two books. He pops up here in a conspicuous enough way to make me think he'll be back. (I stopped short from reading his online bio, but I wanted to confirm his importance to the series before including him here, so I looked him up. Once confirmed, I closed the window. Going to preserve as much of the surprise at the ending as I can.)

Oy, an intelligent 'billy-bumbler.' “Bumblers, which look like a combination of badger, raccoon, and dog, have a limited speaking ability. Elsewhere, bumblers are described as 'a combination raccoon and woodchuck, with a little dachsund thrown in.' At one point, Eddie calls Oy 'a fucked-up weasel'. Oy's voice is described as "low and deep, almost a bark; the voice of an English footballer with a bad cold in his throat.”

Oy! Oy! Oy!
And, of course, The Ageless Stranger, our old friend Flagg, who calls himself Richard Fannin here, appears after the shoot-out to the Tick Tock Man and recruits him, for purposes unknown.

As drawn by Michael Whelan.

Well, as you can see, there's an awful lot here. But I for one tore through this one like a knife through hot butter. It hooked me immediately with Shardik and left me instantly scrambling to continue the story with the cliffhanger ending with Blaine. (Come for The Bear, stay for the Riddle Contest with the Deranged Super-train at the End of Time!)

Although what we see of Jake's home life isn't ideal, he does seem to abandon his family with little fanfare. I think he mentions them once after he joins the ka-tet, almost in a shrugging way.

The gunslinger ethos is pretty much the definition of patriarchy. That's all well and good and all, but the constant repetition of "...the face of your fathers" can sometimes be a bit much for this Constant Reader. Although I enjoyed Roland turning the tables on Blaine by forcefully reminding him, Kirk-to-Nomad-style, that the train has arrogantly forgotten the faces of those who made him. But more on that next blog.


The Cradle of Blaine the Mono
The enduring destination.


From the prologue to the reprint edition, where he discusses both his accident and recovery and its inspiring him to buckle down and finish the Dark Tower series, and the challenges of connecting to material from his youth as a man on the other side of fifty:

"Nineteen's a selfish age and finds one's cares tightly circumscribed. I had a lot of reach, and I cared about that. I had a lot of ambition, and I cared about that. I had a typewriter that I carried from one shit-hole apartment to the next, always with a deck of smokes in my pocket and a smile on my face. The compromises of middle age were distant, the insults of old age over the horizon... My head was full of things I wanted to say and my heart was full of stories I wanted to tell. Sounds corny now; felt wonderful then. Felt very cool. More than anything else I wanted to get inside my readers' defenses... change them forever with nothing but story."

And just one quote/ image I quite like:

“And above [the three of] them, Old Star and Old Mother rose into their appointed places and stared at each other across the starry ruins of their ancient broken marriage.”

Even the stars in Roland's world reflect its disarray and tragedy.

Wizard and Glass (and it's a doozy, folks)


  1. A Kirk-versus-Nomad reference...! Awesome!

    There is no doubt in my mind that this is one of King's very best novels. I always forget just how much of the lore of the series is introduced here; in terms of leaps forward (of plot and understanding), this one is probably the fastest-paced in the series.

    One thing I've never quite managed to understand: why did Eddie, when confronted by a Godzilla-sized robot bear intent on his destruction, decide to climb a tree to try to escape? Let's just agree to chalk it up to panic ... but I suspect the real reason is because it was the only way King could come up with to permit Shardik to sneeze maggoty snot onto Eddie.

  2. Thanks, Bryant. After Still a ways to go, of course, but I'm kicking around how I want to go about it... By decade, probably, but how do I handle the Dark Towers? Do I rank them against his other books, or against each other? And if so, where do I draw the line with "Dark Tower related" works? Still got to figure it out, but if I was ranking this one against his other works (of the 90s or whenever) it'd be damn near close to the top. This one's got it all! From sneezed maggoty snot to ZZ Top to going off the rails on the ol' crazy train... And Nazis to boot!

    1. Yeah, it's really pretty dang great. I've got it at #9 on my overall King list, currently, but it was so difficult for me to rank the top eleven or so books on that list that you could arrange them in almost any order and I'd be okay with it.

      Nice Ozzy reference there, by the way. All aboard! Ah-hah-hah-hah-hah!

    2. Oops, I deleted part of my sentence up there in my reply. You sussed out my meaning, but to clarify... "After I finish all this, I want to do a post ranking everything."

    3. ;)

      Always glad to know my reading-between-the-lines has been successful!

      And I look forward to reading that post. Having written one of my own, I can say definitively that it is both fun as hell and maddening to write one. At some point I've got to do one for the short stories; I dread it, and also kinda can't wait.