The Dark Tower Volume V: Wolves of the Calla by Stephen King (2003) 925 p.
There are a lot of things that are great about the Dark Tower series, and a lot of things that are not so great, and some things that are downright awful. One of the bad things is that King wrote it over a very long period of time, beginning in the 70’s and ending in 2004. It’s impossible for an iteration late in a series to be anything like an iteration early in a series, and it’s usually for the worse. Example: the first Die Hard movie and the fourth Die Hard movie, the first Indiana Jones movie and the fourth Indiana Jones movie, and so on. With Wolves of the Calla, I’m entering the stretch of the series that King wrote in a frenzy after a near-fatal car accident in 2001.
Fortunately it’s not as bad as it could have been, although it has its fair share of bullshit. The basic premise for the novel is excellent: Roland and his gunslingers come across a town called Calla Bryn Sturgis, located at the very edge of the world, near the roiling darkness of “Thunderclap,” where evil things reside. The Calla is also peculiar in that nearly every human birth is that of twins. Every generation or so, masked riders known as Wolves emerge from Thunderclap, ride into town wielding futuristic weapons that make them nigh invincible, and abduct one child from every set of twins below puberty age. A few days later the children are sent back across the desert from Thunderclap on flatbeds behind an unmanned train, crying and sunburnt, and rendered mental retards by whatever the Wolves did to them – they have become what the folks of the Calla call “roont.” As they age, they grow to a huge size, disfigured and in pain, and generally die young.
The way King gradually introduces this concept is intriguing, and while it leads to a fairly predictable story (the townsfolk recruit the gunslingers to protect them against an upcoming attack by the Wolves, and they obviously prevail) there’s enough interesting stuff along the way to make it enjoyable. As well as roont children and the mystery of the Wolves themselves, the robots of Roland’s world – always its most fascinating aspect – are represented in the Calla by Andy, a spindly metal robot whose North Central Positronics chest-plate reads “Design: Messenger (Many Other Functions).” Andy is a relic of more advanced times who acts as a sort of servant around the village:
He sang songs, passed on gossip and rumour from one end of the town to the other – a tireless walker was Andy the Messenger Robot – and seemed to enjoy the giving of horoscopes above all things, although there was general agreement that they meant little. He had one other function, however, and that meant much.
That other function is to warn the townsfolk a month in advance before each attack of the Wolves. He seems to be a cheerful and stupid thing to the townsfolk, and a convenient plot device for the author, but in actual fact he is much more than that, and is probably the novel’s strongest element – particularly his conversations and encounters with Eddie.
“Tell me about the Wolves,” Eddie said.
“What would you know, sai Eddie?”
“Where they come from, for a start. The place where they feel they can put their feet up and fart right out loud. Who they work for. Why they take the kids. And why the ones they take come back ruined.” Then another question struck him. Perhaps the most obvious. “Also, how do you know when they’re coming?”
Clicks from inside Andy. A lot of them this time; maybe a full minute’s worth…
“What’s your password, sai Eddie?”
“Password. You have ten seconds. Nine… eight…seven…”
Eddie thought of spy movies he’d seen. “You mean I say something like “The roses are blooming in Cairo” and you say “Only in Mr. Wilson’s garden” and then I say-”
“Incorrect password, sai Eddie… two… one… zero.” From within Andy came a low thudding sound which Eddie found singularly unpleasant. It sounded like the blade of a sharp cleaver passing through meat and into the wood of the chopping block beneath.
“You may retry once,” said the cold voice. It bore a resemblance to the one that had asked Eddie if he would like his horoscope told, but that was the best you could call it – a resemblance. “Would you retry, Eddie of New York?”
Eddie thought fast. “No,” he said, “that’s all right. That info’s restricted, huh?”
Several clicks. Then: “Restricted: confined, kept within certain set limits, as information in a given document or q-disc; limited to those authorised to use that information; those authorised announce themselves by giving the password.” Another pause to think and then Andy said, “Yes, Eddie. That info’s restricted.”
Another enjoyable part of the book was the “Priest’s Tale” (deja vu), the story of Father Callahan, a character from King’s early novel Salem’s Lot (which I haven’t read) who has somehow found himself in Roland’s world. After a quick recap of his unfortunate experience with vampires in Salem’s Lot, Callahan regales the gunslingers with an extensive tale of what happened after he fled: his time killing vampires in New York, realising they were hunting him, discovering his ability to travel through alternate versions of America, being hunted by the “low men” and eventually the event that brought him to the Calla. It’s pretty good, and probably deserved its own novel rather than being shoehorned into Wolves of the Calla.
But now… the problems. What I love about the Dark Tower series is its fictional world: a post-apocalyptic land of ruined cities, ancient robots, machinery incongruously stamped with brands from our own world, demon circles and radioactive mutants and artificial intelligences run amok. It’s a great blend of science fiction and fantasy, and endlessly fascinating.
What Stephen King loves about the Dark Tower series is quite different: rambling cosmology, fate, destiny, signs and portents, visions and hallucinations, Susannah’s irritating split personalities, representations of chaos and order, good and evil, a whole bunch of stuff I couldn’t give a flying fuck about and find very irritating to read. There’s a section early in the book where the characters (always certain that the mystical force of ka is driving their quest) are discussing the importance of the number 19 in all the omens they’ve been seeing. King then expects us to get excited about the eeeerie fact that many of the supporting characters have names with exactly nineteen letters! Coincidence? Fate? Or the fact that King himself is the one naming the goddamn characters?
There’s also a few annoying interdimensional expeditions to New York City, where a rose that sits in a vacant lot – somehow representing or containing the Dark Tower – is under threat from developers, and Roland’s posse needs to protect it through exciting real estate acquisition adventure. This rose has pissed me off ever since it was introduced in The Waste Lands. Unfortunately, like most things about the Dark Tower series that piss me off, it’s apparently pivotal to the story and shows no sign of going away.
The last negative mark I want to jot down is the size of this book. King used to write very tight novels, like, say, The Gunslinger. These days they’re hundreds and hundreds of pages long, and the thing is, they don’t need to be. They’re not epic, just bloated. A good deal of Wolves of the Calla involves the characters sitting around testing weapons, talking to the townsfolk, and preparing for the attack itself (which is over in less than 50 pages). There’s a lot of redundancy, which Wizard and Glass suffered from quite a bit too. His writing style has gone from being sparse and concise, to dripping with detail and focusing on every character’s most inconsequential thoughts. It’s a real shame.
Overall, Wolves of the Calla is appropriately representative of the Dark Tower series itself: it does a lot of things wrong, but there’s enough intriguing stuff to keep you reading. Unfortunately, I got the feeling towards the end of this book that the next installment will involve a lot more mystical destiny bullshit and a lot less of Roland’s awesome world. Including but not limited to an uber-meta meeting between Roland and Stephen King himself, which, if it really comes to pass, may cause me actual physical pain.