11.12.2012

King's Highway pt. 47: The Dark Tower (1 of 2)

All art unless-otherwise-noted by artist "of imaginative realism" extraordinaire Michael Whelan.
The full panoramic.
As I've mentioned elsewhere (here, among other places) there's a bit of Elric in Roland. I somehow didn't put together that Michael Whelan is the guy who did the covers for the DAW series of Elric books.
I particularly like this one, especially because of the "Tower" connection. Hile, Gunslinger!
Here we are at the end!

Well... nearly. A couple of different friends told me they found my last few entries to be somewhat inaccessible, and, looking them over and considering the plight of the non-King reader, perhaps they're right. Things are getting more and more specialized. Certainly, any attempt to review all the goings-on this last chapter would plunge us further into unwieldiness. So, I've decided to skip my usual summary-of-events and just blog-it-as-I-experience-it, info-dumps be damned.

Even foregoing the above, this is probably too much to cover in one sitting, so I've split the book down-the-middle. Counting the Author's note at the end (and why wouldn't you), this one clocks in at 845 pages. Parts One and Two, "The Little Red King (Dan-Tete)" and "Blue Heaven (Devar-Toi)," respectively, comprise the first 420 pages, so that seemed a good place to stop and review before continuing. So, first 420 pages this time; the rest, next-blog.

The drawback to this is that I'm writing what-you're-reading-now before finishing the whole book. As a result, any second-half revelations (or discussions of external reviews) will have to be covered next time. Not to worry, though, there's plenty to go through, here.

But, before we do... please take a brief moment to ponder the sights we've seen thus far. I've linked to that suggested reading order (aka our "trail guide") many times, but now that I've got the end in my sights, I can now personally attest to the fact that this is indeed both a logical and entertainment-maximizing way to proceed from point zero of the MidWorld-verse to the top of the Tower and beyond. Credit should be given where it is due: Chapeau, Sai Burnette, Wordslinger of The Truth Inside the Lie; you have done the aspiring-Dark-Tower-reader a great service. May any who seek safe passage through the Dark Tower National Forest and Wildlife Preserve find and follow your breadcrumb-trail, forevermore.

Some fan-art I like of our ka-tet from here. (Do Eddie and Jake have horns?)

And without further ado...

- The story begins where Song of Susannah left off, with Pere Callahan, Oy, and Jake ready to unleash-hell at the Dixie Pig. I got my first "Oh so that's what those things were" moment early on, as the "little doctors" from The Little Sisters of Eluria make their appearance here and we learn they are "parasites, blood-drinkers, camp-followers, Grandfather-fleas." Also, the eternal enemy of the Bumblers. Very nice.

- Similarly, the section detailing the hierarchies of the Can-Toi, Taheen, and "humes" cleared up most of the questions I had about the differences between them all, and why/what The Low Men were all about.

The Stephen King Players

- This description of John Cullum - "An even more familiar man leaning nonchalantly against the truck's rust-spotted longbed, dressed in cuffed bluejeans and an ironed blue chambray shirt buttoned all the way to the closeshaved, wattled neck. He also wore a Boston Red Sox cap tilted just a little to one side as if to say I got the drop on you, partner. He was smoking a pipe, the blue smoke rising and seeming to hang suspended around his seamed and good-humored face on the breathless pre-storm air." - put me in mind of go-to character for King. I picture these guys as hanging around the bullpen in King's imagination, waiting to be called in to relieve or do their bit. This guy is definitely one of them; he appears in some form or another in many a King novel. As do

* The wise-cracker (here played by Eddie) 
* The writer (here played by none other than King himself) 
* The guy who gets some kind of psychic power for plot convenience (formerly played by Jake, here (with teleportation) played by Sheemie)

All that's missing is the Henry Bowzer guy (and I don't miss him) who can't stop seig-heil-ing, Americana-style. 

It'd be fun to make a big poster of these, grouping together all the examples from King's work. One for King's Highway: The Next Generation, perhaps.

Jake, on pg. 336, asks: "I wonder if Stephen King ever uses dreams in his writing. You know, as yeast to make the plot rise."   
Wink-wink, nudge-nudge
 - Getting back to Sai Cullum, the activities of John Cullum and the Tet Corporation are really intriguing. A book focusing only on them would be quite fun. "We're the Three Toothless Musketeers," says JC on pg. 125, "the Old Farts of the Apocalypse, and we're supposed to keep (Sombra Corporation and North Central Positronics) from gettin' what they want, by fair means or foul. Dirty tricks most definitely allowed." I'll add Further Adventures of the Tet Corporation to my wish-list for more Dark Tower books.

More Human Than Human

- Postmodernism as a topic is more than I want to get into here, but after years of running amok in American literature, it seems to be enjoying less of a vogue these days. Kurt Vonnegut perhaps did it best in works like Slaugherhouse Five, Breakfast of Champions, or Timequake. (Actually, I didn't think of this until literally-right-now, but maybe that is what The Dark Tower is missing - an overt King-surrogate instead of King-himself, i.e. a Kilgore Trout.)

I'd say it works when it serves a point (as Vonnegut employed it to serve, or Grant Morrison's sudden appearance as the main villain in his Animal Man story arc from years back) but introduces avoidable problems when it doesn't.

(Not to mention, it can get cutesy, and it does here, several times. At one point Eddie or Jake says something like "In a story, a minor character like John Cullum who appears to save the day would be considered wildly unrealistic," and Roland responds, "In real life, it happens all the time." While true, it's kind of an eye-roller/ feels a little lazy, to me. Going with my gut on that one; it crosses the outside of the plate. Streeee-ike. Or when Walter (or perhaps it's the author/ narrator) reflects on the end of Wizard and Glass. Bit too much, for this Constant Reader.) 

Anyway, what is the ultimate point of this? I'll save most of my thoughts on this until next time, as I'll wait and see how it plays out. But I don't think the "saving the writer" aspect of the meta-ness really works. It was enough (for me) to see him in Song of Susannah. The Dark Tower has explicitly commented on/ pondered how stories affect reality and vice versa, and that "felt" okay to me. But to discover that the obituary at the end of Susannah was not a wink at the camera and is actually being used in the plot is problematic. Why? Well, if the Crimson King is sending agents into our world to stop King from writing the book... well, there comes a point where you've got to ask (of the writer) Wait, what are you saying, here? Is the whole Dark Tower story now a metaphor for suicide, of sorts? (i.e. King's creation, the anti-King (aka the Crimson King) seeks to prevent King from writing, thus ending all creation, in the story... for King, too?)
Is Kirk embracing himself/ reconciling himself with his dark half? (He beats up on himself in print an awful lot in these first two sections...)
Or is it something else?
I wonder if it mightn't have been better to sit on this idea for a bit, rather than pump the last three books of the series out as fast he did. I can't help but wonder if this was King's intent all along (he says "No, these things write themselves; I just tune in and transmit it." If so, I'll say this is definitely a case where the writer should've plotted a bit/ thought of the scenarios before writing it down as-received) or if he isn't just making the most he can out of a bad decision. I've read that King has considered (perhaps is still considering) Lucas-sizing - and if that is not a word, it should be - the Dark Tower re-releases and removing his meta-self. That seems to be making more of a mess of things by trying to tidy it up. He made his bed and should lie in it, but it might result in muddying up the waters...


- One last thing (for now) - the narrative-voice changes a lot in part 7. Quite different than the other books. Whether as a result of all this metastasizing or not, I don't know, but I sympathize: kind of hard to keep up the unobtrusive omnipresent-narrator once the narrator intrudes is in the story as himself.

Body Count

Fast and furious. First, Father Callahan's final act of redemption, this time not just against one Type One vampire (i.e. Barlow) but a whole slew of them.

R.I.P., Pere Callahan
Then Mordred, i.e. Mia's "chap" from the past couple of books, emerges from his mother's womb to immediately turn into a spider and eat her in a passage too disturbing to recount here.

Some fan-art (as near as I can tell) from here.
 I sort-of expected these two deaths, but I was truly surprised at this next one:


I thought the patterns-of-death would follow a sort of symmetry, i.e. we started with Roland alone, then added Jake, Walter/ Flagg, Eddie, Susannah, then Oy, so I thought they would backtrack through that order, killing off each character until it was just Roland again. But, I was wrong. Flagg stayed alive for eons by being clever, but underestimating the were-spider/ son of Roland proves his undoing. Good on ya, spider-kid. The bit where Walter realizes Morded's been in his mind all along, "standing there against the wall... like a teenage housebreaker, probably high on some aerosol product" was just perfect.

In-between all the above are the deaths of countless can-toi (I greatly enjoyed Roland's and Eddie's revenge-killings outside the Fedic door) and vampires and little doctors.

As well as Nigel. I don't know if this picture is Nigel or not, actually, but it came up in a search for "Michael Whelan/ Dark Tower," and it's pretty cool, so, here it is.
But the biggest death of the book-thus-far is Eddie's.

Some fan art from here. This looks like the Eddie I picture in my head. The character models for these illustrations (not to mention Marvel's) are wildly inconsistent.
Nowhere worse than here, though, which is one of the professional-i.e.-by-Michael-Whelan pics in the book. This is supposed to be Jake? Looks like it could be Kristy McNichol from some early 80s TV movie. Plus, the door and the sign next to it are described quite differently in the text.
Anyway, Eddie's death is handled well and is quite moving. (So much in fact that when Susannah sees the head wound that sends him to the ground, "she leaps to her feet" on page 389. Quite impressive for a lady with no legs!) Anyway, RIP, Eddie Dean - you were fun to get to know over the past couple of months. (I hope you have someone besides your dumb-ass brother to keep you company in the clearing until Susannah gets there.)

Some Parting Thoughts

- On pg. 141, Roland refers to "can't sir" in lieu of "cancer." I don't think I've seen that before. In The Waste Lands, someone refers to a Nazi as a "Not-See," which I've seen elsewhere. (The only book that's coming to mind is Daniel Quinn's After Dachau, which, actually, was published after The Waste Lands was... is King the author of both terms, I wonder?)

- "The piped-in Muzak on this lowest level of the Fedic Dogan sounded like Beatles tunes as rendered by the Comatose String Quartet." (pg. 159)

- "Maybe once, just after the Prim withdrew and Gan's voice still echoed in the rooms of the macroverse, the Beams were smooth and polished, but those days were gone. Now the Way of the Bear and the Turtle is lumpy and eroded, full of coves and cols and bays and cracks, plenty of places to get your fingers in and take hold, and sometimes you drag at it and sometimes you can feel yourself worming your way into it like a drop of acid that can think. All these sensations are intensely pleasurable. Sexy." (pg. 291)

- When discussing Ted Brautigan's recruitment and deployment as a Breaker, mention is made of the SeaBees. My Dad would be happy; I'll have to let him know.

My Dad (and Mom) shortly after his last deployment to The Nam. (Whether or not he was put to work disrupting The Beam while in-country has yet to be determined)
- Pimli's and Figli's relationship reminded me a little of Kurtz's and Underhill's from Dreamcatcher. Which makes me wish there'd been a scene in the movie where Tom Sizemore drank the puss from one of Morgan Freeman's popped blisters. (The dietary habits in Thunderclap are pretty disgusting. Apparently, used-nappies are a culinary treat, as well.) Also, they were good villains - the kind of rank-and-file agents-in-service-of-the-bad that King has excelled at time and time again. Although they only appear briefly, an entire world/ way-of-life is sketched out. I ended up liking them, despite myself.

- I've been listening to a bit of King Crimson (and Rick Wakeman's "King Arthur" album; here's a good instrumental from that) while reading these. I'd like to think SK did the same. 

The gardener plants an evergreen
Whilst trampling on a flower.
I chase the wind of a prism ship
To taste the sweet and sour.
The pattern juggler lifts his hand;
The orchestra begin.
As slowly turns the grinding wheel

In the court of the crimson king.

Not to imply the King Crimson song inspired any of this, but I've got a whole new way to look at that song now.

2 comments:

  1. Good stuff here.

    Thoughts:

    (1) I probably ought to read those Moorcock books eventually.

    (2) I had -- and, I guess, have -- a hard time reconciling the Doctor bugs as presented here with the one presented in "The Little Sisters of Eluria." In that novella, they seemed like a force for good, in the end; here, though, they are bad through and through. Maybe there's an explanation I'm not taking into consideration.

    (3) I second the call for "Further Adventures of the Tet Corporation." That needs to happen. Please, Mr. King, sir!

    (4) The elements involving the plot revolving around "Stephen King" having to be saved are ... difficult to wrestle with. His appearance in Book VI seemingly put a LOT of people right off the series, which I can sympathize with. I'm still a bit on the fence about it all, personally. I think it works reasonably well, and it's such a lunatic idea that you kinda have to take your hat off to it, even if you dislike it. But was it the optimal direction for the series to go? Almost certainly not.

    (5) Those shots from Star Trek cracked me up, especially Kirk making out with the Gorn. I'm weirding my cats out by making Gorn noises at the while I type this. Good times.

    (6) Flagg's death/defeat was the most disappointing aspect of the entire series, to me. I wasn't expecting him to get chumped like that, and I'm not sure it works.

    (7) I love Whelan's art, generally speaking, but I agree that that piece depicting Jake is kinda terrible. There are several others I dislike intensely, including the one depicting the happy tet right before the shit hits the fan and Eddie dies. Worst of all: I don't know what it is, but I just HATE the way Roland looks on the cover. The rest of that piece is great, but Roland himself looks ... frumpy. Not the word I want to use in association with Roland Deschain, but there you have it.

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    1. Thanks, Bryant - let me respond to these backwards:

      7) I meant to include that damn happy-katet pic; that provoked a strong negative reaction, as well. Some of the illustrations that I'll post next time I think are absolutely brilliant, and like you, I think the guy's great. But that one of Jake just floors me - I literally looked at that for five minutes trying to convince myself it had to be someone else.

      As for Roland, I've yet to see the definitive one, myself. I hear you on the cover.

      6) I was really surprised by Flagg's death. I can see not being into it. The economy-of-plotting is impressive, though. Mordred consumes someone with a lifetime of Mid-World's knowledge, not to mention other tricks, so he's able to get up to speed (however temporarily, but a residue of experience is said to remain) in one fell swoop, and how. I look at Flagg as one of the CK's most powerful pieces, and he maneuvered him into place for the benefit of what he hopes is his savior piece, ie Mordred. Tho, I wouldn't be surprised if we discover Roland is actually his queen, and he hopes to maneuver him into place, as well. I could keep going with chess metaphors, but I'll stop there.

      5) You know, I looked for the Kirk vs. Kirk ones from STVI, but those kept coming up and I laughed out loud. They seem to fit even better, weirdly enough.

      4) I do tip my cap to the offbeat boldness of it. Sort of like Flagg's sudden death - I definitely appreciate his not letting me get complacent and not knowing what to expect next.

      3) Seconded! One HBO show to rule them all, covering the main books, a cable show based on Tim Stoutheart, and an AMC movie-event featuring the TetCo.

      2) Oh yeah, I meant to mention that about the Little Doctors. Are the Little Sisters supposed to be Type Ones? I'll have to look it up. If the sex-identity-zeitgeist hadn't already passed (if indeed it has) King could cash in with a mammoth tome of the hermaphroditic Type Ones and fully sketch out what the "bugs" are. All right, damn it, I've talked myself into this; add it to the above list! Sex Zeitgeist Bugs Show.

      1) I've only read the Elrics. I tried with a bunch of his other stuff and just wasn't it. But the Elrics are lots off fun. It's probably just the commonality of fantasy genre tropes, but there's a lot of thematic overlap between the Dark Tower and Elric. Maybe I'll do a King's Highway / Elric side-road one day and re-read the Elrics with the Dark Tower in mind. It'd be fun; they're quick reads, too. Hmmm.

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