The Dark Tower Volume I: The Gunslinger by Stephen King (1982) 249 p.

Stephen King is a strange beast. His wild deviation between quality and crap is a matter of public record. Here is a man who can produce brilliant novels such as The Stand or The Mist, mediocre novels such as Cujo and terrible novels such as Rose Madder. I’ll admit that I haven’t actually read much of his canon, but the rule of thumb I’ve picked up from others is that his works start to decline around the 1990s. Since The Dark Tower series, his self-professed magnum opus, begins in the early stages of his career and progresses into the 2000s, I was wary of reading it.

That sounds pretty harsh. I actually like Stephen King quite a lot – when he writes well, he writes really well, and from reading his various forewords, non-fiction pieces and his EW blog he seems like a pretty cool guy. And while his writing may not always be top-notch, there’s a certain quiet wisdom in it that elevates it above typical popular fiction; something that goes beyond an entertaining story and embeds itself in the zeitgest. If I had to pick a 20th century writer who best represents American culture, I would name Stephen King in a heartbeat.

Rambling. Anyway, I figured it was about time to give the Dark Tower series a chance, so I read the first book, The Gunslinger. It traces the journey of the eponymous gunslinger (only named as “Roland” in flashbacks to his youth) as he pursues a mysterious man in black across a desert, into mountains and through a massive cave and tunnel system. Roland faces various challenges along the way, such as a town of people enchanted by the dark man to destroy him, a young boy who died in New York and found himself in Roland’s world, and a strange oracle spirit in the mountains.

This book is fantasy, a term which has come to mean “Tolkien-derived rubbish.” The Gunslinger is the good kind of fantasy, a fable that creates its own worlds and cultures and creatures. More fascinating by far than Roland or any of his friends and enemies is the land he moves through – a strange place, similar to the American West, yet entirely different. There are suggestions it is post-apocalyptic; “the world has moved on,” as the characters say. Roland is clearly a cowboy figure, yet the clan and culture he hails from is unmistakably Arthurian. The people he meets in the desert towns sing “Hey Jude” and worship God. When travelling through the mountain caves, he comes upon an abandoned railway network, where long-dead station attendents crumble to dust at his touch, victims of chemical weapons in a forgotten war. This world, it seems, it both an alternate universe and a post-apocalyptic wasteland.

King describes The Gunslinger as “almost (but not quite!) complete in itself,” and I agree. At the end of the book there are far too many unanswered questions, Roland’s story is clearly not over, and it is obvious that this is merely the first book in a larger series. That’s fine by me. I look forward to reading the rest of the series, because I expect it to be pretty good. The Gunslinger isn’t a particularly great book on its own – plotwise it’s quite sparse, it suffers from a lack of characters, and as King himelf said it’s not a stand-alone book. But it’s very readable, and enjoyable, particularly when King reaches near-poetic heights of storytelling, which I’ve never seen him do before.

The Gunslinger is clearly a set-up. It exists to lay a foundation stone for a larger epic story, and is only worth reading if you plan to read the rest of that story. So is the Dark Tower series as a whole worth reading? I suppose I’ll have to wait and see.