King's Short Fiction Reread, pt. 1: Night Shift (1978)

King first got on my radar in 1983 or 1984, but I only read this in 1988. By that time, four of its twenty stories had been adapted, with another five to come. (Not to mention a Dollar Baby many haven't seen of "The Woman in the Room," directed by some guy named Frank Darabont.) Is this some kind of record for short stories in one collection from an author? Probably not. But it's still remarkable. The King phenomenon provoked a feeding frenzy of any optionable work in the 80s and 90s (and still ongoing). This led to some undeniably poor work, but it's still very fun to have so much of this book adapted to the screen, poor or not. 

As a result of the above, maybe this is King's most popular short story collection. Maybe not saleswise:

"Collections, as a rule, don’t hit the bestseller lists, especially collections largely made up of tales culled from “men’s magazines.” History proved out, and Night Shift failed to make any impression on the hardcover charts. The paperback publication would fare a bit better: a little over a year later, on March 4th, 1979, it would appear on the paperback charts at #12, peaking at #9. Night Shift was the last mass-market Stephen King hardcover to fail to reach the bestseller list." (Kevin Quigley, Chart of Darkness)

My memory is that this book was everywhere - bookshelves, libraries, dentists's offices, study halls - in the 80s. Skeleton Crew, too. But maybe I'm just remembering my own experiences with the book with all the above and projecting them. 

So how does it hold up? Well, take a look at the table of contents. How do you think it holds up? It's an incredibly entertaining read. An EC/ Creepy selection of tales, to be sure - one is hard put to evaluate them as "literary short fiction" in the Raymond Carver or Bobbie Ann Mason use of the term. Although who knows? Put Raymond Carver's name on "Children of the Corn" and Bobbie Ann Mason's on "The Woman in the Room" and perhaps the evaluative lens would change. (This works both ways: put a mediocre story of King's ("The Man in the Black Suit") in the New Yorker of the 90s and that's all it took to make King "a serious writer" in the eyes of those who needed such window dressing to come to that opinion.) But any way you slice it, this is fiction of the "let's go to the library and find the right spell to cast" variety.

I'm not going to re-invent the wheel with any of the below, but here's a list of my favorites, least to most, of King's first collection of short fiction.

"Night Surf"

A little slice of Captain Trips and post-apocalyptic nihilism. It's not bad, just kind of not much there. Atmosphere, some suggestions, that's about it. Once upon a time, though, I loved it; I had a whole movie based on this story in my head, scored mostly to Sonic Youth's Sister (still my favorite album of theirs), when I was 14. 

"The Last Rung of the Ladder"

If you know your King biography, some of these tales make you smile a little. While he sets the action here in Hemingford Home (just up the road, presumably, from the James place in "1922") and makes the protagonists brother and sister, this evokes a young Steve and Dave King jumping into hay in their Uncle Oren's barn. Thankfully, Dave fared better in real life than the sister character does here.

Nothing wrong with this one, but there's not much story to it, is there? It feels like a first chapter with potential for something that wanted to be bigger.

"The Boogeyman"

Another one that's not bad but felt like it could've gone somewhere more interesting. King loves the device of one character telling another character a long story. The therapist set-up makes it more realistic here than elsewhere, but sometimes I think the story might have worked better had it not all been just a flashback told to another character. 

"I Know What You Need"

Throughout I kept thinking "oh here comes that creepy King kid with his army fatigue jacket!" (Also: How I Met Your Mother.)

It's not bad, but the ending is kind of weak. 

"The Man Who Loves Flowers"

If this was an EC annual of some kind, this would've been the one I'd have assigned to Harvey Kurtzman to adapt. His style works for this kind of thing, I think. I'm a pretty big fan of King's short fiction - I mean, one would assume this was obvious considering I'm rereading all of it but just to be clear - but occasionally he writes what I call "one-and-a-half-punch" stories. This is one of them. It sets up a surprise and then that's it. I suppose it's enough sometimes just to create atmosphere. He does that here just fine - in all of these, really. Atmosphere is never much of a problem in any King enterprise. 

"Gray Matter"

Whereas this one, I'd have given to Ghastly Graham Ingels. I won't do this for every entry, that might get tedious. But I kept this conceit in mind as I made my way through these stories, and it helped me visualize it in my head. 

This one might fit into Creepy or Eerie more than EC. Anyway. It's not bad and admirably gross. I wonder if it inspired the movie Slither in any way shape or form?

"Strawberry Spring"

Along the lines of King-bio/King-context augmenting one's enjoyment of these tales, there's allusion to "Hey Jude" playing "endlessly, endlessly" on a jukebox on campus. Easy to picture the (perhaps) real-life inspiration for Sheb standing there and pumping in his quarters. 

Some people really love this story. It's okay, not one of my favorites, but I do see it as more than a one-and-a-half-punch. It sets up an ironic twist and surprise, but it feels more well-rounded than some of the others I so designate.

"Sometimes They Come Back"

Everything about this story is solid "A" material until it gets to the spellcraft stuff at the end. It's okay on Buffy or Angel, but I pretty much roll my eyes at this stuff anywhere else. As soon as the antagonists can be dispelled by looking up the right spell or saying the right rhyme, something is lost. 

Still, until it gets to that point, it's masterful - definitely an early indicator of the powerhouse of pace and mood to come. 

I mentioned how many works in this collection have been made not just into films but as tentpoles of unlikely franchises. This one is probably my number one nomination for such a thing. 

"The Mangler"

This one makes a bit more sense to adapt. I've still never seen it, actually - how is that possible?

Still, it's a silly story. It's written well and it's lots of fun. But yeah, virginal blood mixing with belladonna-based pimple medication or whatever it was falling into a laundry machine that rips itself free from its moorings and goes charging down main street... I mean, yeah. Fun but sheesh. I like when King references his laundry days, though. 

"Graveyard Shift"

An improbable inspiration for a film that only gets better and funner the older I get. If you care to read what I think of it, just scroll down to the comments here; I leave more remarks everytime I watch it. I'm sure I'll be leaving more before you know it.

I like the film much more than the story, even though, like "The Mangler," it's perfectly fine, well-written, with lots of drive and momentum. But, it just doesn't have the room it needs to be grow. Maybe not a one-and-a-half-punch, but not a one-two-uppercut either. 

"The Ledge"

I've seen Cat's Eye something like a hundred times. I think this works better on the screen, but it's really kind of airtight and that's why it's here in the top ten. As metaphors go, it's not the subtlest of them, but it stays focused entirely on the action, which is a kind of subtlety. Its class warfare never hits you over the head, like Titanic, even when its set-up rests entirely on the reader's understanding of it. 


Just as silly as "The Mangler," but what is it about this one that entertains me so? It's just fun in a way I can't really put my finger on. But it's pretty close to that feeling of playing with your toys as a kid, and I appreciate King capturing some of that. I feel the same way about the TNT adaptation. 

Could it be improved? Absolutely. Imagine if it was written with the same flair as Ur or "Lunch at the Gotham Cafe." But why punish it for what it isn't? I'll instead share a memory from study hall in 9th grade, when I was reading this story and got to the part where Renshaw is told to surrender and he writes "NUTS" as a reply. I had no idea of the Battle of the Bulge or General McAuliffe at the time and thought this was the funniest, most random thing ever. Imagine my surprise when I learned - the same year, if memory serves, in history class - where it came from.


What a great little story this one is. I'd dog-eared a page or two to put some quotes but un-dog-eared them without writing them down. A pity. 

You'd think I'd find this one to be one of those one-and-a-half-punch deals for not resolving the dilemma(s) it created. But it doesn't need to. As a reaction to the various crises of the early 70s (gas, existential, environmental) it's as relevant and harrowing as any of them. He repeated this feat in Cell, some decades and technologies later.

"Quitters, Inc."

The ultimate quitting-smoking story. Not counting "The Ten O'Clock People." See Cat's Eye and "The Ledge" thoughts above (minus class warfare).

"I Am the Doorway"

I've mentioned the EC conceit a few times. This reads like one of the best EC stories never published, as rendered by Bernie Krigstein or Harvey Kurtzman again. Or hell any of those guys. It's like EC got to do an original-series The Outer Limits episode, adapted by Stephen King.

I like that Venus is still available as a spooky-planet-of-storytelling-choice for writers. This is a great little horror story and I don't mean to short-change it with these scant remarks. 

"One for the Road"

I still love this little tie-in to 'Salems Lot, although, like Ur, if you don't know the context, some of its aspects might be a little anticlimatic or odd. I doubt there's anyone out there reading this who doesn't know Salem's Lot, so it's a moot point, but there's that ever-so-mild thing working against it: it's a cool special feature but as a stand-alone story too much is left unsaid or not introduced/ worked properly.

The atmosphere is great, though. Snow vampires are a cool concept. I didn't really like Thirty Days of Night, while we're here. It wasn't awful, but it should've been much cooler. Has nothing to do with "One for the Road," of course,  but while we're here. 

"Jerusalem's Lot"

Very enjoyable Lovecraft pastiche. Maybe less Lovecraft than people think and just old-school in general. Clearly written by a guy with much affection for the conventions of the genre and well-read in its practitioners. The expedition to the town and discoveries at the church are wonderfully tense. I thought a little of the similar scene in the labyrinth from the last episode of True Detective season 1. (Also involving cult leaders with harems where "like had bred with like.")  

Not meant to be a direct tie in to Salem's Lot, although (a) like I need to tell you that, and (b) I'm happier reconciling it to Salem's than I am Wolves of the Calla. Which isn't a dis to Wolves, just that when I read Salem's, I have no trouble imagining it as somehow related to this novella/ short story from Night Shift, even if details contradict, whereas I prefer to simply pretend the vampire cosmology of the Dark Tower verse does not exist.

"The Woman in the Room"

This story is horror by virtue of its subject matter and final plot actions, but it's really quite a well-observed (and therefore, very uncomfortable) portrait of a mother dying from stomach cancer. Something King knew firsthand. The other side of Roadwork.

This was never published anywhere except Night Shift, and it's possible it remains a little off the radar for King's short fiction. I imagine that will change when / if King's work recedes further and further from "popular author"dom and into anthologies and Twentieth Century Literature courses. I think it's at such a time that the quiet, disturbing work like this will receive its due. It's probably the best (as in Literary Fiction "best") story of the collection but only my 3rd favorite. A little too realistic. I appreciate its artistry, but that doesn't make it any easier to read. 


"The Lawnmower Man"

Oh man! For sure audacity/ plot twists, this one really stands out in King's ouevre. But beyond that, this is a pretty compact and sturdy piece of fiction. Like Paul Sheldon and Annie Wilkes go over in Misery, it doesn't have to be believable in writing, it just has to be fair. Everything that happens here is fair. 

And of the EC or Creepy artist could have put their individual stamp on this one, had it been offered via those publications. I can picture (and am enjoying doing so) Jack Kamen's, Jack Davis's, Graham Ingels's, Kurtzman's, or Krigstein's (or Johnny Craig's) style quite easily. I like that it's so easy to do that with this story. The EC-side of King's career is quite fun. 

Notoriously ill-adapted for the screen.

"Children of the Corn"

And finally, another airtight, wonderful, absurd, harrowing, well-told, well-built little tale, good for what it is but also as the tip of a weird and metaphorical iceberg. This was my favorite story when I read the collection in the 80s, was my nod for the best when I reread it in 2012, and is my favorite now.

It's not the best short story ever written, of course, nor is it even the best short story King ever wrote. But he hit something here that has endured as a touchstone for at least my own generation. King or 80s or pop culture fan or not, the children of the corn/ He Who Walks Behind the Rows touched some kind of archetypal nerve. 

Beyond that, I just love it as an uncomfortable window/ deconstruction of two people not communicating and the danger hidden from view. Plus the whole murder and religious crazies and corn-husks in eyeballs and The Blue Man and all the little details. 


The Dark Tower Reread, pt. 8: "Ur"

"He had stumbled on 10.4 million alternate realities, 
and he was an unpublished loser in all of them."

Just a quick one tonight, one I hadn't planned to reread but the idea got in my head and stayed there. I love this story, so it wasn't a hard sell.

The Plot: Wesley Smith is an English teacher at Moore College, a pretty good school that no one has heard of outside a 30-mile radius. One of the school's success stories is its ladies basketball team, coached by Wesley's ex-girlfriend, Ellen. Wesley's feeling lousy about the harsh words exchanged at their break-up, as well as his lack of progress as a writer of fiction; having always wanted to write books, he's written exactly zero. Ellen had mocked him for his Old School ways, and when a student (the Henderson kid) discusses the virtues of an Amazon Kindle in class, he imagines getting one of these newfangled Kindles and being seen reading it on the quad and the effect it might have on her. 

"Spite was kind of a methadone for lovers, 
and better than going cold turkey."

He purchases one, but what arrives is a device from another world. It is pink (like a certain grapefruit) where all others are of the white. (Why is there no North Central Positronics stamped on the back? I'd like to think because the story was commissioned by Amazon and someone at Amazon was savvy enough to not want to associate its product - even with those few would care about such things - with the work of the Crimson King in this world. So, not quite crimson, but pink.) 

"A crazy certainty had arisen in his mind: a hand - or perhaps a claw - was going to swim up from the grayness of the Kindle screen, grab him by the throat, and yank him in. He would exist forever in computerized grayness, floating around the microchips and between the many worlds of Ur."


Wes soon discovers that not only can he download books from authors in this dimension, he can download books from hundreds of millions of dimensions. He downloads works by Edgar Allen Poe and Hemingway and reads until dawn, fascinated and terrified and unable to turn away. (Again, like a certain grapefruit.) 

He asks both the Henderson kid and his friend Don to verify the reality of these newfound discoveries, and they go even further into its mysteries, finding first Ur-New-Archive (news and events from an infinite channel of alternate realities) and then Ur-Local (news from a 6-month-window unto the future for any localized user). Upon discovering his ex (with whom he's been slowly reconciling) and almost all of the Lady Meerkats are to be killed by a drunk driver as they return from a tournament, and with the further plot complication of Ellen having told Wes that - no exceptions - they'd talk when she got back from their away game and not before, Wes and Robbie (the Henderson kid) race to intercept the drunk driver.

After they do Wes is visited by some familiar low men who drive flashy cars and wear garish coats that are probably alive and make sounds like liquid chuckling. They chalk the whole thing up to a shipping error, reclaim the Ur-kindle, and leave Wes to his life. Which, on the cusp of reconciliation with Ellen and with newfound wonder at the multiverse, is considerably brighter than where it was when the story began.

"Ur" is a quick read and I still really enjoy it. There are so many great lines (the spite one quoted above, as well as this really odd but wonderful detail about one of Ellen's colleagues at Moore College: "The current coach was a drug addict who liked to tell people that he had seen The Wrestler twelve times and never failed to cry when Mickey Rourke told his estranged daughter that he was just a broken-down piece of meat.") there's fun English-major detective work (although one wonders how many current English majors would actually be able to cross-compare a canon of old white guys like John D MacDonald or James M. Cain: for the sake of argument - and to avoid thinking about the Guy Montag-ization of English Lit - let's pretend at least a couple), and there's compelling drama, hard choices, and some unsettling slapping of an old drunk in a parking lot. 

So many of the moments like this:

"And even as a crime writer, Hemingway had departed from gang wars and cheating, gore-happy debs long enough to write A Farewell to Arms. He always wrote A Farewell to Arms, it seemed; other titles came and went, but A Farewell to Arms was always there and The Old Man and the Sea was usually there.
He tried Faulkner.
Faulkner was not there at all, in any of the Urs.
He checked the regular menu and discovered plenty of Faulkner. But only in this reality, it seemed.
This reality?
The mind boggled."

really landed with me. What would you do with an Ur-Kindle? And like I say, the English major detective work appeals to me. Here's where a very particular skill set - and really, not to harp on it, but a skill set deliberately compromised these days by the very people we trust to impart it to the next generation(s) - comes in handy. I'd like to see the comic book or film version of the device. 

And, like it says up there, therein lies the danger. The last thing I want to see, actually, is such a device. I would fall into it and never come out. Who needs the Wizard's Rainbow when you've got this thing?

I love, too, that Don and Robbie are both diehard Red Sox fans, in Kentucky. It's not totally unrealistic - you'll find both New England expats and Red Sox fans anywhere you go, God bless us - but it made me chuckle. It's like King forgot he set the thing in Kentucky for these parts.

"Bonus points for you Roland of Gilead fans out there 
who catch references to a certain Dark Tower."

So says King at the end of his intro to this one. Uhh. If there is a Roland of Gilead fan out there who didn't catch the references, that's beyond 'shame on them,' that's into 'clearly you did not read this story' terrain. 

There used to be a page up at Cemetery Dance detailing the differences between the "Ur" in Bazaar of Bad Dreams and the one published as the original Kindle Single, but it appears to be inactive. Here's a link to a very uninformative Reddit on the topic with some negative reactions from folks if that's something that appeals to you for some reason. Anyway, it's my understanding the similarities to 11/22/63 (which had not been published yet when King wrote "Ur" originally) were smoothed over and maybe a reference updated here or there. 

Basically, the references are: (1) a Dark Tower icon on the Ur-kindle screen, and (2) a visit from the Low Men at the end who reclaim the device. These Low Men seem much nicer than the Low Men who reclaim Ted Brautigan. They still serve the King, though, although maybe this is a kinder, gentler, more library-ly King than the one we met in bk 7 and Insomnia. They seem more like embarrassed FBI agents covering their asses than malevolent non-people with hungry cars and coats. 

My favorite King blog liked this a bit less than me. "There are some very big ideas in "Ur," and I'd argue that they are perhaps a bit too big for the story that is wrapped around them.  I'd also argue that Wesley's weakness is never satisfactorily resolved by the story, nor is it explored sufficiently for the story to serve as any sort of judgment on that weakness."

That's a good point, and it speaks to something King writes about in his intro to the whole book: short stories are a different, tougher animal than any other genre of writing. Every sentence selection matters, pretty much. Chekov's rule about guns being introduced in act 1 having to go off in act 3 is true a hundred times over. So, if the story begins by establishing some weakness for Wes, the events of the story must re-enforce, play out tragically, or transform these qualities.

I'd argue that it does, though, or does it enough, but perhaps once things are set in motion the characters more or less just play the scenes out. The dramatic confrontation with the drunk driver represents the action/ transformed-arc of Wes, but it almost (perhaps) doesn't quite fit. (It also does seem kind of weird that two men could slap the crap out of this lady in the parking lot and no one called the cops? It was witnessed, and other customers were yelling after them. Does this seem right?) More importantly, the Low Men make perfect sense to us Dark Tower readers but might seem kind of anticlimactic to anyone else. It's like, oh here's the Men in Black but no answers. 

Still, it's an incredibly entertaining read and one of my favorite things from King. 



The Dark Tower Reread pt. 7: The Wind Through the Keyhole

These are things that happened, once upon a bye.”

Plot: (1) Between the events of Wizard and Glass and Wolves of the Calla, Roland and his ka-tet take shelter from a starkblast * in Gook, a deserted town on the Calla side of the river Whye. ** To pass the time until it's over, Roland tells them the tale of (2) when he and Jamie DeCurry *** were sent to trap a skin-man **** in Debaria. Within that tale, young Roland tells them the old Gilead children's tale The Wind Through the Keyhole: (3) Young Tim Stoutheart, on the dubious advice of the Covenant Man ***** travels far beyond his part of the world to find the magic drop that will restore his mother's eyesight. 

* wicked killer storm.
** don't worry about any of these names.
*** fellow Gunslinger of Gilead-that-was.
**** Shape-shifting Murderer.
***** Our old friend the Man in Black. 

Three stories in one, each section unfolding into the next, then back to the beginning, this little coda to the Dark Tower series came out in 2012, 8 years after King ended the Dark Tower tale in bk 7. And guess what? In almost every way that matters it's the best and most Dark Tower-iest book of them all. I don't reasonably know how to quantify such a claim - does it have NCP? Magic? Memorable characters and tragedies? A mix of adventure fantasy, sci-fi, and horror? Does it move forward or contribute to or clear up the overall epic mystery? All these things and more. And it ties together perhaps the most important theme of the entire series.

So maybe we should be seeing TWTTK atop more Dark Tower lists and not treated as some kind of (well-regarded nonetheless) afterthought. 

"Hile, Sir Throcken." - Roland's greeting to Oy, early on.
Just love the sound of it, particularly as a greeting for a small, Oy-like creature. Had I a pug or other small dog, I'd say this whenever he or she entered the room.

The author with Marlowe, a possible keystone-Earth version of Oy, last seen in bk 7.

Some bulletpoint-randoms before we get to the individual sections:

- Sort of a fan-service appearance for Walter. Does he seem like himself? Wonderfully so. Does his appearance make sense? Kind of? I mean, we learn Tim was a gunslinger of Gilead after all and even saw the Dark Tower (in some other tale we'll never get). The only issue it raises is - this is Roland telling this story, and Roland's mother telling it to him. Does this complicate the whole Roland/Gabrielle Deschain/ Marten palace intrigue, perhaps even fatally? I think so. it's a mistake to have Roland telling a story that has these sort of details about Walter, as well as an appearance by North Central Positronics. There is no indication in any other appearance of these things that these are things Roland has stored in memory from when he was a child in his mother's lap. 

When my friend Bryant and I palavered on this one during the original stretch of the King's Highway, we both made attempts to engage the larger King online community on this POV point. Neither of us got much for our troubles except some defensive discomfort for even even bringing it up. Ah well.

More importantly and back to the specific task at hand: who cares? Do you want this story without Marten Broadcloak? Or NCP? Of course not. If each book of the Dark Tower series was a movie, say, and made lots of money but won no awards, and if the same actor played the Man in Black throughout, this would be the one where he gets the legacy win for Best Supporting Actor. 

Not particularly enamored with Jae Lee's illustrations, in general or here in TWTTK. This will be the last of them I share. What the heck am I going to do for pictures?

Is it weird that he gives Tim so much aid, particularly with the items left at the dogan with Maerlyn? Who can figure this crazy asshole out? He does what it does, he do what he do. Presumably it was all part of the game of castles he played right up to his untimely end.

"The bugs are voracious flesh-eaters, but according to the old wives, they'll not eat the flesh of a virtuous man." 

So the MIB tells Tim when discovering his da's corpse in the river. (Near "yon pookey," but more on that momentarily.) What a bullshitter.

- I like that Daria can detect - and even distinguish between good and bad - magic. I like everything about Daria actually. After Andy, is there a malevolent robot we see in the series? We meet Nigel (in bk7) and the Algul Siento fire response team (not to mention Eddie's good-natured-enough grill in the cave) - they're not exactly lawful characters but they're not malevolent. And here's Daria, who is lawful. And lonely and loyal. Maybe King just felt bad about creating any more bad robots after Blaine and Andy and all the rest.

- Speaking of bad robots (sorry), is there just a tad bit of Lost in this book? Self-consciously so, I mean; obviously, there was a lot of Dark Tower in Lost itself. Along with just about everything else, sooner or later. All things serve the Beam. 

- Bix (the ferryman) got the "Z" from a NCP storehouse or museum of sorts. Sort of like finding new tombs to rob. I could read a whole book about the "Lost Tombs of the Old Ones" and the radioactive/ robot/ speaking-demon problems of digging them up. Or a tie-in book, done up like a fake encyclopedia or something. Man Jesus! The money, fortune, and storytelling glory these Dark Tower copyright holders leave on the table.

- It's cool to see Jamie DeMurray, the last of Roland's original band of gunslingers. He doesn't have too terribly much to do here, but that's okay. These Antilles Wedge sort of characters are just cool to have in the background (and not die). (EDIT: Please see comments.)


"It made him feel like an icy visitor in his own head."

More bulletpoints, do it please ya.

- Even the mud people laugh so hard they have to hold on to each other to keep from falling over.

- King's hit or miss with some of these Roland-isms. "Jing jang" is great. Anyone want to go through all the books ever written and replace "telephone" with "jing jang?" Fine by me. I never much cared for "popkin," though, or much of the can-vas-ne-Gan-dinh-ka-mahfah stuff. But whatever - it comes with the epic fantasy territory. Then there's stuff like "pookey," the In-World slang for Giant Serpent in a Tree, which appears by my unofficial count something like 254 times in the novel's 336 pages. I wish I could understand King's brain sometimes.

- Big Kells. The ubiquity of this sort of villain in the King-verse is sometimes exasperating. You could say 'well, the ubiquity of this sort of man in the world' justifies it. Which is a point, I guess, just not one I find particularly persuasive for King's over-use of it. Like psionics holding hands in a circle softly goading characters to the next plot point, it's effective, I guess, but sometimes it's just repetitive. Not so much a criticism or fatal flaw just a here-we-go-again. 

All that aside: let's say Big Kells was the only such villain in the King ouevre. Very effective, very memorable, very satisfying to see him get the poetic justice we need from such fairy tales.


So, we learn that Roland ended the instructive days of Cort at Gilead. Sure hope the kingdom doesn't pay a price for losing the guy who teaches the gunslingers how to gunsling or anything...

"He can't catch anyone, Tim - he's himself caught, pent up at the top of the Dark Tower. But he has powers and he has his emissaries. The one you met is far from the greatest of them."  - Maerlyn on the CK.

The appearance of Maerlyn at the end of the saga was teased by King way back in The Gunslinger, and here we finally see him. Roland never does (that we know of) but close enough. Any discrepancies, and Maerlyn provides the answer. ("I was drunk," he tells Tim with some embarrassment.)

What do we learn of the mythos with Maerlyn here? He's fallible, of the White (i.e. of the lawful and Eld), he knows many things, and he may or may not be sending vague messages of help through space and time to counter-balance the insidious work of the Crimson King.

"Tim saw Maerlyn once more -" I read that and blocked thinking about it immediately. Oh no you don't, Sai King. Unh-unh. Fool me once way more than once.


I'm sure you're all familiar with Bryant Burnette's theory on The Dark Half, right? It's sketched out over a couple of posts over at The Truth Inside the Lie. The basic gist in his own words (from the comments here:) "Beaumont was so addicted to the things he was addicted to that he'd essentially invented a second personality under which to play in that world. Then, when he tried to go cold-turkey, that personality proved to be so potent that it took on a life of its own. Seems like a good metaphor. The fact that King was able to come up with so many different -- and useful -- ways of examining the same subject (addiction) is a bit of a wonder."

I think something similar is going on with the Crimson King in the Dark Tower books, how it all plays out. Roland is "good" King's twin, fighting his way past all the various hang-ups, tendencies, addictions, obstacles, guilts, and mistakes that the Crimson King put in his way, that the "good" King enabled, etc. (Think of Maerlyn, again, here, talking to Tim. The true man-behind-the-curtain speaks. Again.) It's this reason why the CK is offscreen and - as an actual character - extremely unsatisfying, and even why he's dispatched the way he is in bk7. He's an externalization of King's own dark half, and the entire Dark Tower journey is a million-word deconstruction of King's writing and life, metaphorically explored and served up to us.

Along these lines here are some thing specific to TWTTK:

- the "Starkblast." Do I need to remind you the name of Beaumont's alter ego in The Dark Half? What is a starkblast? A killer storm that will destroy everything in its path if one doesn't hunker down and find cover. King's written extensively on how his writing saves and renews him. How does the ka-tet wait out this storm? They pass the time in story. This fits with everything King has written about his writing and how it saved/ saves him from his addictions (and pain). I'm reminded of the liner notes to Johnny Cash's (amazing) Unchained, where he writes of his own struggles with staying sober. (paraphrased) "Sometimes at night, I still hear the wolf howl somewhere in the dark out there, and I want to go howl with him." But, he doesn't, he picks up his guitar and tells a story. 

And here, the connection between storytelling and salvation from/ attempted sabotage by the Crimson King is part of the plot, not just metaphorical window dressing. Fascinating stuff. I'll keep up this line of inquiry when I get to the other reviews but wanted to red-circle it (no pun intended).

- The demon in the mine in the skin-man section. ("It speaks to your face and tells you to come inside.") What does it do once you're inside? Changes you, physically and mentally, sets you on a destructive cycle that destroys all in its path and tears families apart. All the demons or dead machines (or thinnies) of Roland's world have this same message: come in, come in, come join us in the land of the dead. I suggest this is purposeful. The author has wisely positioned a gunslinger between himself and it. 

- Finally, at the end of the Skin Man tale, Roland receives a letter from his mother that basically absolves him of the considerable guilt he (understandably) carries for killing her. Chronologically this is all happening before we ever meet Roland in bk1, but publication-wise, this is the last word of the Dark Tower saga. It ends on a note of maternal reconciliation, of solace. This is not just important, it could be the point of the entire thing. I mentioned last time that King seemed to be processing both the death of his mother and some of the lingering effects of childhood in "Low Men in Yellow Coats" and (via Roland) in the Dark Tower books in general. 

In the Tim Stoutheart story, what motivates young Tim's quest? Believing the lies of one indifferent, trickster father, he wants to save his mother from another untrue father, who murdered his true father, rendering him absent. Is this the projection of King's childhood? It is, for what it's worth, a common fantasy of children in fatherless homes. Whatever, though, back to the mama - how does Tim get home after he meets (and rescues - that's important) a benevolent (though equally absent) father figure? He closes his eyes and says the magic words: "How I miss you, mama." This simplest and purest of truths, all artifice stripped away, is the redemptive magic. 

I've got to tell you, I got really teared up at this, this time around. If you picture King spending a good portion of the years since sobering up reprocessing many of the things blocked out from the years under the starkblast of drugs and alcohol, there's a hell of a lot of weight in this one line. He referred to Roadwork as his contemporaneous attempt to process his mother's death. I think he got a lot closer in "Low Men in Yellow Coats" and closest of all here. This is the true fairy tale end to both the Dark Tower and to King's long-delayed roadwork.


I didn't want to end on a completely sappy - though wonderfully earned and pivotal to all things - note, so here's a parting observation from Roland from the Skin Man saga: 

"I'd seen such mealy white flesh before. It was brains. Human brains."