The Dark Tower Volume III: The Wastelands by Stephen King (1991) 512 p.

crooked scan ahoy

I’m largely reading the Dark Tower series because of Lost. Well, I’ve been meaning to read it for a while, but I’ve been told that the writers of Lost draw a lot of direct influence from the Dark Tower series, especially for the upcoming final season. So I’m trying to push through all seven books before the next premiere in February.

I’m already seeing these influences, the most obvious of which is time travel. In the first book, The Gunslinger, Roland comes across a boy named Jake who died in our world and awoke in Roland’s. Roland later lets him die again, sacrificing him to pursue his own quest. In the second book, The Drawing of the Three, Roland finds himself travelling into our world in the minds of three separate New Yorkers in various different time periods. The third of these is Jake’s murderer, and Roland kills him – before the murder takes place.

The first half of the novel deals with the results of the subsequent time paradox, as both Jake and Roland begin to go insane with two separate memories of their past/future/whatever duking it out in their brains. This problem is eventually solved with the drawing of Jake into Roland’s world, and the fortified party continues its quest for the Dark Tower.

The best part of The Wastelands is that it shows us more of Roland’s fascinating world, a unique and original creation that is part fantasy, part science fiction, part Western and part post-apocalyptic, and – because this is Stephen King – tinged with an American vibe that somehow manages to feel appropriate. While an excellent book, The Drawing of the Three was lacking in that regard because the scenes in Roland’s world took place entirely along the same stretch of dull, desolate beach. The Wastelands blows that effort right out of the water, as within the first fifty pages the party enters a pine forest and is attacked by a huge and ancient bear, which then turns out to be a nuclear-powered cyborg, one of many relics left behind by the long-forgotten Great Old Ones. That sounds silly, but it’s actually brilliant, and a thousand times better than Tolkien-riffed fantasy about elves and orcs.

Unfortunately, a very large chunk of the book is devoted to resolving the Jake-Roland time paradox, which means we are rudely thrust back into New York for 150 pages. This was a very unwelcome interruption, especially when I thought we were finally done with our own world and were about to go exploring in Roland’s. It also contains a pretty sloppy mistake for a series that so heavily involves time travel: this segment involves Henry Dean, Eddie’s older brother, and takes place when he is eighteen, shortly before he “shipped out to Vietnam.” It also takes places in 1977. Spot the error.

A second comparison I’m going to draw to Lost is the regular themes of fate and destiny, and an unwillingness to dole out answers. Lost was quite unwilling to hand out answers to anything in its early seasons, but I watched regardless, because it was a fascinating show and I had faith things would be explained eventually. The most frustrating thing was not the writers’ unwillingness to explain – despite complaints from unimaginative people who give up on the show, I’m smart enough to realise that if everything was dumped straight up in the first episode it would defeat the entire purpose – but rather in the characters’ unwillingness to ask questions. This is exactly the same situation that exists in the Dark Tower series. Eddie and Susannah are swept up in Roland’s quest and agree to seek out the Dark Tower without understanding what it is or why he seeks it. Jake’s adventures in New York are doubly frustrating, partly because we have to read about them at all, and partly because they’re all about fate and destiny and visions and things he just “knows.” It’s tedious to read, it bogged down the pace and I got mighty sick of it. (Yes, I was quite disappointed when Lost’s fifth season finale suddenly took a sharp turn back towards the DESTINY theme. Jacob in particular pissed me off, it felt like fan-fiction.)

But then – hallelujah! – Jake is drawn into the gunslinger’s world and we resume our quest. Not only that, but we finally get answers, as Roland divulges the reason he seeks out the Dark Tower – and a damn good one at that. It was established in the first two books that Roland’s world is euphemistically described as having “moved on;” not only has it suffered two separate apocalypse-level events, one a thousand years ago and one within living memory, but it seems to be physically coming apart at the seams. Time flows strangely, the sun rises and sets in odd directions, and the land itself is expanding like a cancer. The Dark Tower is a kind of lynchpin for reality itself. Roland intends to find it, make sense of it, and use it to repair his broken world. (Blaine, a diabolical entity encountered at the conclusion of the book, implies in passing that each “level” of the Dark Tower contains an entire world, including our own world; so perhaps the Tower both exists inside the universe, and also contains it).

And is if that wasn’t good enough, the second half of the book is simply excellent storytelling. The travellers enter the ruined city of Lud, and their experiences there are on par with Eddie’s drawing in The Drawing of the Three, both on the plane and in Balazar’s nightclub, for the best writing of the series so far – and the best writing King has ever done. Jake’s drawing drags The Wastelands down quite a bit, but the rest of the book is brilliant, and probably better than its predecessor.

My previous complaints about the Dark Tower series largely rested on the fact that it took too long to build up momentum. The Gunslinger introduced the quest and the hero, and the Drawing of the Three introduced his companions. The Wastelands, at long last, fires up the engine and comes screaming out of the garage. This series may have taken its sweet time to get started, but now I’m glad I put the effort in.

I sure feel bad for all the original readers who had to wait nine years for this book, though.