11.01.2012

King's Highway pt. 45: Wolves of the Calla (Dark Tower pt. 5)

All art by Bernie Wrightson unless otherwise noted.
Our trail guide has steered us through those other books that comment on or provide context to the goings-on in Mid-World and beyond, and we now rejoin the main path to begin our three-book-exit-strategy from the Dark Tower National Forest and Wildlife Preserve. Pack your trash and fill your canteens; we are just over two thousand pages from the finish line.

WHAT YOU'LL SEE
 
In his introduction to the revised version of The Gunslinger, King details how his brush-with-death in 1999 injected new urgency into the completion of the Dark Tower saga. He spent the nineties dropping hints and contextual info in the books previously covered, - Sorry, Desperation/ Regulators, I'll get to you eventually; not-so-sorry Talisman/ Black House - and the first thing he wanted to do post-recovery was tie things together and wrap up the story-proper. And so, with renewed purpose, Wolves of the Calla, part five of the series, appeared in 2003. Does it deliver the goods? Spoiler alert: Aye, and say thankya, big-big.

One more note before we begin in earnest: I may have gone a little hyperlink-crazy on this one - too many? Hell, not enough? Feel free to let me know.

THE PLOT: Once a generation, the folken of Calla Bryn Sturgis are plagued by "the Wolves," who sweep into town from Thunderclap, the shadow-region beyond the river. At the start of the story, Tian Jaffords, a farmer and father, receives news from Andy - a "messenger robot; many other functions" (three guesses who built him...) - that the time of the Wolves has come round again. He tries to rouse the town against them, but it is pointed out - quite rightly - that they are woefully outgunned. The Wolves ride in on gray steeds and have both "light-sticks" and "sneetches," which (when Eddie learns of them) are described as something like those killer-balls (no jokes please) from the movie Phantasm. 

If anyone thought of Golden Snitch from Harry Potter with this description/the term "Sneetch," or "light-saber" for "light-stick," rest assured, this is no accident. As someone says during the course of this novel, "Coincidence has been cancelled."
In the distant past, the Calla-folken stood up to the Wolves, but they have been beaten into submission through repeated failure and catastrophe. The children are returned, but as "roont" husks of their former selves, i.e. mentally-vacant, neutered, and given to gigantism followed by early (and painful) deaths.

(Speaking of...

)

The folken are resigned to this generational "culling."  But this Old Fella,
Pere Callahan: More on him in a bit.
cries foul. (Actually, he cries, "Chickenshit." An epithet immediately graspable to a community of farmers) It just so happens there are gunslingers in the vicinity this time around. Roland's ka-tet is traveling through the forest by the Calla (after the events of Wizard and Glass, not to mention The Wind Through the Keyhole), and a delegation is sent to see if they will help. The plot from this point on is a little similar to the Mejis section of Wizard and Glass.  

Not to mention John "Calla Bryn" Sturges's The Magnificent Seven...
Or Akira Kurosawa's Seven Samurai, which TMS is based on.
As with the light-sabers and the sneetches, again this is not done unintentionally and is remarked upon by characters in the novel itself. ("Everything's gone nineteen," as Eddie likes to say.) From this point on in the Dark Tower stories, things are going to get, as William Shakespeare once said, "meta as shit."

Incidentally, Sturges, second-from-left, once met with Akira Kurosawa, who told him that he loved The Magnificent Seven  and presented him with a samurai sword. According to his wiki, Sturges considered this the proudest moment of his professional career. (Considering his career, that's saying something!)
Our heroes suss out the mystery in the days they have left, preparing for the inevitable showdown with the Wolves, lay a trap, and with the help of some of the townsfolk (two of whom die tragically), destroy the Wolves. Whereupon they discover what they already knew/ suspected: that they are robots.
Here is a depiction of the Wolves that I like from http://dboehmke.blogspot.com/2010/06/wolves-of-cala.htm
Both Eddie and Jake describe them as looking like Doctor Doom. (Art by John Byrne)
They also discover that "Harry Potter Model" is stamped on the North Central Positronics plate adorning the sneetches. What is going on here? (Amusingly, Eddie and Jake - both from time periods before Harry Potter existed - speculate "This Potter fella must be some Marvel comic from the future.") The novel doesn't reveal the answer, but it is clear that whomever is working with the Crimson King has an impish fascination with late twentieth-century pop culture. (Not to mention automobiles, as we saw in Hearts in Atlantis and From a Buick 8.)

Counterpoint to the events-aforementioned:

- Eddie travels back to the Manhattan Restaurant of the Mind - remember that from The Waste Lands? - and agrees to safeguard Calvin Tower's prized-books-collection in exchange for agreeing to sell the lot he owns to "The Tet Corporation," i.e. Roland and the gang. The Rose, as you may recall, is in grave danger and must be saved at all costs.
- Susannah's pregnancy - previously unconfirmed - is confirmed, as well as the appearance of a new personality, see below.)
- Roland deals with arthritis and gets a little nooky along the way.

The novel ends with two other revelations: a) Susannah is gone and she took Black Thirteen (remember this, the most powerful of "glasses" aka Maerlyn's Globes?) with her, and b) Pere Callahan discovers "himself" in one of Calvin Tower's books, the one by Stephen King entitled 'Salem's Lot.

WHOM YOU'LL MEET

Let's start with Pere Callahan aka Father Callahan, from the first real entry in the King's Highway series, Salem's Lot. (How slight that entry seems now! It took me awhile to find my stride.) Quick 'Salem's recap: his faith wavered during his confrontation with Barlow, and the vampire made him drink from his tainted blood rather than kill him. Callahan leaves Jerusalem's Lot by bus, shaken and cast out from the eyes of the Lord.


His backstory after-that-point takes up a good part of the middle-section of Wolves: his years as a drifter, his discovery of the "highways-in-hiding" leading to other Americas (distinguished from one another by the faces on the currency, see TRAIL NOTES, below), his descent to rock-bottom-alcoholism-and-redemption, and, due to his Blade-like vampire-hunting, his being marked (both literally and figuratively) by the Low Men, who search for him via the same lost-cat fliers we saw in the Low Men's pursuit of Ted Brautigan in Hearts

From the Dark Tower wiki: "Callahan is later lured into a building by Richard Sayre and several vampires. Rather than being infected, he jumps out a window committing suicide. After his death, he wakes up in the Way Station, where he encounters Walter o'Dim who gives him Black Thirteen. Walter apparently does so in the hopes that it will kill Roland Deschain later in his journey. It transports him to Doorway Cave outside Calla Bryn Sturgis, where he leads a new life and over the next five years attempts to teach the locals his religion."

(If Walter (aka The Man in Black aka Flagg) is the Crimson King's Prime Minister, Richard Sayre is a union boss/ regional VP of sorts. He is the head of the Sombra Corporation - remember them from The Waste Lands? They're the ones trying to buy Calvin Tower's Lot - and we'll see more of him next blog.)

Pere Callahan has several "I am not some fictional character in some horror novel; I am real!" lines at the end, as is all-too-understandable.

Mia is the personality created (or so we contemporaneously believe... I apologize if this entry is horribly confusing for any who haven't read the book) by Susannah to rear her "chap.," i.e. the baby created by her "tryst" with the speaking-demon in The Waste Lands. 

If she looks Caucasian to you, there's a reason for that, but we'll save that for next time.
Susannah doesn't realize Mia exists until more than halfway through the book. She's having her period, after all, so she doesn't realize she's pregnant. But during the night, while Jake and Eddie 'go todash' back to New York (see THE MANNI, below), Roland (and later, Jake) observes her sneak away to eat frogs and drink pig's blood and other such things aspiring-demon-moms must do.

As can be reliably-expected in any King tale, the various denizens of the Calla are not just faceless background characters but three-dimensional fully-realized characters with fun personality quirks. I remain in awe of his ability to do this. Too many to get into here, though several intersect the novel's climax in powerful ways. (Sorry to give short shrift to them here, just got too much to cover.)

The Manni - the religious-folken of the Calla (not given to the Man-Jesus of Pere Callahan). They are guardians of the Doorway Cave and are students of the multiverse. They "go Todash," i.e. flit-between-the-wheres-and-whens of the Dark-Tower-verse, like Indigenous-Americans taking peyote or ayahuasca to visit the spirit world.

And then there's Andy.
Spoiler Alert: He doesn't make it.
Andy's introduced as a C3PO-type character, a "messenger robot" whose only function, it seems, is to sing songs, tell horoscopes, and alert the folken as to the coming of the Wolves. But, it turns out he is in league with them. He is last seen talked-into-shutting-down by Eddie and buried in the shit beneath an outhouse, but there is brief mention of him in The Wind Through the Keyhole (in the section that takes place immediately prior to the events of Wolves) by Bix, the river-crossman. (I don't have the exact quote with me, but something like "If you see Andy, tell him I don't want my damn horoscope read!")

I would love to see a whole book written about Andy. Who made him, what he's seen, how he ended up where he ended up. 

TRAIL NOTES

- I dug this one quite a bit. I was baffled by some of the negative reviews I read. Someone in a recent AV Club thread dismissed this with "The less said about five the better." I don't (as evidenced by this long-ass-blog) understand that at all, so I guess the only thing to say is "To each his own." Or Nice try; it's turtles all the way down.

- In one of the "whens" visited by Pere Callahan, we see President Chadbourne from King's story "The Reploids" on one of the currencies. Who is this guy? I googled him, and I'm not sure if it's meant as a reference to Paul A. Chadbourne, someone local/ probably-known to King, or someone else.

- Eddie continues to crack me up: "By the time you get there, he'll probably have found twelve used bookstores and God knows how many first editions of Indiana Jones and the Nineteenth Nervous Breakdown." (pg. 585)

and (after they discover Andy's duplicity)

"'Wave back,' Roland said and raised his hand. 'Wave back, all of you, for the sake of your fathers.'
Eddie flashed Andy a happy, toothy grin. "How you doing, you cheapshit Radio Shack dickweed?" he asked. The voice coming through his grin was low and savage. He gave Andy a double thumbs-up. "How you doing, you robot psycho? Say fine? Say thankya! Say bite my bag!" (pg. 589)

- Foreshadowing of 11/22/63: "If there ever was a watershed moment in America's life, (11/22/63) was it. Change that, change everything that came after. Vietnam... the race riots... everything." (pg. 468) (NOTE: I don't think it's out of character for Pere Callahan to think this way, but... it's not the most historically-accurate idea, in my opinion.)

- Towards the subtext of worlds-gone-by/ time-moving-on:

"I suppose I wanted to say goodbye to someone and have someone say goodbye to me. The goodbyes we speak and the goodbyes we hear are the goodbyes that tell us we're still alive." (pg. 293)

- And, finally, more evidence if anyone needed any, of Roland's bad-ass-ed-ness:
"'We're almost there, aren't we?' Susannah asked. 'Almost to the shooting.'
Roland nodded. 'And the shooting will happen so fast and be over so quick that you'll wonder what all the planning and palaver was for, when in the end it always comes down to the same five minutes' worth of blood, pain, and stupidity.'" (pg. 590)

TRAIL DIFFICULTY

- King continues to put "Sugar" in Susannah's mouth at an alarming rate...
38 by my count. A low number, all things considered- certainly Bill and Ted say "dude" a proportionate (probably more) amount in either of their cinematic triumphs - but it really jumps out at me as just an unfortunate "tic" King gives only to his black female characters. This'll be the last I mention of it; there are, unfortunately, far bigger race-related problems to discuss in Song of Susannah.
- If you sigh or roll your eyes whenever a character suddenly develops "the touch" i.e. psychic insight in a King book, be prepared, for Jake Chambers is given this power here. It doesn't really bother me (and seems more appropriate here than in other areas) but worth a mention, as King definitely goes to this storytelling-well more often than he perhaps should.

- If "meta" is not your thing, you won't appreciate the revelations of the ending, described above. Nor the fact that Stephen King himself (or a version of him) is set to appear "in the flesh" come next book. One review I read (I think it was Kev's? Or perhaps The Guardian's) thought perhaps Jake and Eddie were too gung-ho about the "nineteen" synchronicities, i.e. they started to notice its importance/ pervasiveness not due to organic events of the novel but because King wanted them to. I didn't have a problem with this, myself; whether it's Eddie's and Susannah's marriage or all-of-their training as gunslingers, I'm fine with a certain amount of it happening "off-camera."

I kept waiting for this to be referenced in some way. Is there a character named Landau I missed? It seemed almost conspicuous for its absence. Not that it's even a favorite show of mine, just the insistent appearance of "19" and "99" throughout the book put me on watch.
- I was not as enchanted with the term "commala," which is one of those made-up/ many-different-meanings-words given to the folken, as King apparently was when writing this. (And Song of Susannah, but, again, next time!) I can't say I hated this or was unduly distracted, but it sure gets repeated a lot. Beep Beep, Ritchie; BEEP BEEP FOREVER!!

SCENIC VIEW

I usually like Bernie Wrightson's pencils just fine, but I wasn't so taken with the paintings here.
Here, Roland dances the commala. A fun/ important detail of the story, but not the most visually interesting thing to depict. Of all the events described in this book, this merits a painting? Cool color design, though.
Also, I know Jake is supposed to be a "little Roland" of sorts, but this is not a great representation of a kid, to my eyes; it seems like a shrunken version of Roland rather than a separate character. (If you look at that picture of Eddie shooting Andy, above, I have similar problems with how Eddie is depicted; they all look too alike to Roland.) Also, Oy looks too pig-like for me, here.
And does this look like a black woman, or even a human being, to you? The hair is wrong for an African-American, for one, especially one who hasn't seen a hair salon in many a moon by this point, and two, the arms look like they're missing flesh. I like the light/ color, and far be it for artistically-inept-me to cast stones, but... just seems off to me.
NEXT!
PART SIX: SONG OF SUSANNAH

6 comments:

  1. I forgot to mention Bango Skank, which appears in graffiti a few different places, unexplained. The Dark Tower Wiki describes it like this:

    "He is never actually seen in any of the books, but it most likely that it is an alias for one of the Crimson King's followers, as the graffiti in the tunnel exclaims that "BANGO SKANK AWAITS THE KING!"

    Which makes me wonder if the DT-Wiki has Google... because googling it provides the answer:

    "Bango Skank is a character created by horror novelist Peter Straub, and made reference to in Stephen King's epic Dark Tower novels.

    Bango Skank first appeared in Straub's "The Buffalo Hunter", the third story in his short fiction collection Houses Without Doors.

    Although Skank never makes a physical appearance in The Dark Tower novels, he has left graffiti in surprising, dangerous, and unlikely spots, from alternate versions of New York City to the tunnels beneath the Dixie Pig restaurant."

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    1. I've never read that Straub book, but I've got it, and I'm slowly working my way toward it.

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  2. This book seems to mark a point at which some fans of the series were left behind by King's tendency toward metafiction. With the possible exception of books six and eight, it's my least-favorite; but I love all three, so we're not really saying much negative here.

    What I remember is that when the novel first came out, I went to Walmart at midnight and pestered some poor employee into fiding the box the copies of it were in it and selling me and my friend a couple of copies. After that, I read it over the course of the next few days, and my memory is that I enjoyed it, but was also keenly disappointed in it, because I felt like it went nowhere.

    Bear in mind, it had been something like six years since Wizard and Glass, which was -- and is -- one of my favorite books of all time. So expectations were high. Bear in mind also that Stephen King had very nearly died, which ratcheted up the tension level and made it seem damn near a reality that the journey to the Tower would never be completed.

    Also: Black House had created BIG TIME expectations -- in my mind, if in nobody else's -- that Jack Sawyer would be making an appearance in the final three books. And I developed a theory that the fifth book was going to consist of Roland and his band drawing a series of compatriots to form a small army to combat the Crimson King. When it was announced early on that Father Callahan was going to be in it, that more or less convinced me that my theory was right.

    So when it turned out to be wrong, I was keenly disappointed.

    In a way, I still am. I wish King had gone a different direction in these last three novels, and yet ... I love all three of them (especially the last one, warts and all). This is somewhat similar to how, in the beginning of The Waste Lands, Roland both remembers and doesn't remember Jake dying. Two conflicting but wholly real memories laid on top of each other.

    That's a bit like how I feel, opinion-wise, about his resolution to the Tower series. But I'm smart enough to realize that one of those is valid, and the other is me making shit up. So yeah, that disappointment is there, but it's manageable, and has long since faded into footnote status; this is a hell of a fun novel, through and through, and deserves to be seen that way.

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    1. I can only imagine what it must have been like to read these things and have to wait years in-between new ones. (And, like you say, deal with the near-death of King in the middle of it!) That would DEFINITELY factor into how I, personally, would have approached these things.

      There's a lot about the DT resolution I've kept spoiler-free for myself, but the meta-ness I knew was coming, having heard people talk about it for awhile. So, I'm at either an advantage of disadvantage, there.

      This one was a fun read, though. Do you think it's only the meta-ness that turns people off to it? I kept waiting for something awful to happen that would explain why people seem to pounce on this one, but when nothing did (unless it's just the Harry Potter Model, which made me chuckle, but I guess that could enrage/ turn some people off) I was confused.

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    2. p.s. Any ideas on this Chadbourne fella?

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    3. No clue! In fact, until I read this post, I had no idea -- or, had forgotten -- that "The Reploids" and "Wolves of the Calla" tied in in that way.

      I know that "The Reploids" wasn't a short story so much as it was an excerpt from a busted novel that King was never able to finish. The idea of "walk-ins" (from "The Reploids") definitely shows up -- though in a minor way -- in Book VI, so clearly, whatever ideas he was up to in that novel from which "The Reploids" was drawn on were still with him years and years later.

      Apart from that, I gots not light to shed.

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