The Dark Tower Volume VII: The Dark Tower by Stephen King (2004) 1050 p.
When I started reading the Dark Tower series last year I expressed concern that, because the series spans Stephen King’s entire career, its quality would drop correspondingly. That turned out to be pretty much on the money.
Where did it all start to go wrong? When did the Dark Tower series, an interesting and original fantasy epic with well-developed characters and a fascinating world, become a rambling masturbatory tale of Stephen King’s delusional writing career?
Was it in The Waste Lands, the best book of the series, but also the one where Jake discovers the rose in the vacant lot that opens the door to a tidal wave of cosmological bullshit? Was it in Wizard And Glass, the book where the quality starts to level off, featuring a gigantic emerald Oz palace in an alternate dimension Kansas, giving you the sinking feeling that King is just starting to pull stuff out of his ass? Was it in Song of Susannah, the worst book of the series, where King spends an entire novel developing a plot thread that ultimately goes nowhere, and inserts himself into the story on the side?
It was in real life, actually, on the 19th of June, 1999, when King nearly died in a car accident. This brush with mortality knocked the procrastinating jackanapes right out of him and he scrambled to finish the last of his life’s work, either not caring how they turned out or labouring under the delusion that you can produce three books in less than a year without a drop in quality. Fuck that fucking car accident. Without it, the final volume in the Dark Tower series probably wouldn’t even be finished yet, but at least it and its predecessors would actually be good, rather than the mediocre-to-shit excuses for fiction the last few volumes are.
I had no problem with Roland’s ultimate fate upon reaching the Dark Tower; I think it was fitting, and I liked the tiny detail that suggests he might finally manage to break free of his fate. (I was also spoilered well in advance of even beginning The Gunslinger, which may have helped.) I had no problem with the deaths of several major characters, which was heavily foreshadowed as far back as The Drawing of the Three – with how they died, perhaps, but death was certainly coming to them.
What I had a problem with was the death of Randall Flagg, an awesome villain from much better Stephen King books than these, dying a completely pointless death at the hands of the new villain Mordred, to make the new kid on the block seem more impressive (an old, weak and cheap trick). What I had a problem with was Mordred meeting his fate in an equally inane and anticlimactic way, shitting his pants for several chapters because of food poisoning and then blundering into Roland’s camp and being promptly put down. What I had a problem with was the cheerful cottage on the road to the Dark Tower inhabited by an evil insect disguising itself as a stand-up comedian who ensnares Roland and his few remaining companions with fits of laughter, their salvation only delivered because Stephen King left a note warning them about an anagram in the insect’s bathroom medicine cabinet (Oh God, how I wish I was joking). What I had a problem with was the stinking, vile flood of deus ex machina that overflows from the pages of this book (and the series in general), King just making shit up to move the story along whenever he feels like it – and then acknowledging it through metafiction as though that somehow makes it okay. What I had a problem with was that King seemed to think the series was being divinely beamed to him by God and that if you don’t like it you can either put up or shut up because he’ll be damned if he’s hiring an editor.
Even in this final volume there are pages and pages of bloat. Towards the end there is an entire chapter titled “Hides,” where the Roland’s posse stops to kill and skin some deer, being sure to take us through the finer points of stripping and tanning an animal. Because when we’re within sight of the Dark Tower after seven books, thousands of pages and more than thirty years, that’s what we REALLY WANT TO BE FUCKING READING ABOUT. Then I came to this sentence and was convinced that King was deliberately fucking with us.
They stayed three days in the camp by the stream, and during that time Susannah learned more about making hide garments than she would ever have believed (and much more than she really wanted to know).
This is the narrative equivalent of King snickering and shoving his raised middle finger in our faces. Fuck you too, man.
The capstone to the series is just so unsatisfying. I powered through the last third of this book in a single sitting, because I wanted to be done with it. I wanted to move on to something else, something good, delighted with the knowledge that I would never have to read the word “ka” again. The conclusion was bound to be gripping, after this long journey, but that’s not mutually exclusive with being terrible. We get all the characters we’ve known and loved for six books removed, and replaced with some fucking pissant mute artist who uses his magical drawing ability to defeat Roland’s terrible final foe (a deranged Santa Claus figure sitting on a balcony throwing Harry Potter hand grenades at him).
I won’t deny that the deaths of Roland’s posse or his arrival at the Dark Tower didn’t have an emotional impact – this was a long series, after all, and the first few volumes were actually good. There are a handful of poignant moments in this book, tiny islets of good writing and stortytelling girt by a turgid sea of shit. But God, why did it have to be like this?
There’s a better Dark Tower series out there somewhere, in an alternate world where King didn’t get hit by a car, or perhaps where King was a little less arrogant – there are not one but two notes from the author in this book condescendingly telling readers they can go fuck themselves if they don’t like the bizarre, rushed farce of an ending that he vomited out after a near-death experience. There’s a Dark Tower series where all the loose ends are tied up, where we learn properly about the key elements of Roland’s past rather than spending eight hundred pages on his holiday romance and then hand-waving everything else away. There’s a Dark Tower series where Walter/Marten/Flagg is the final villain, not Mordred and the Crimson King. There’s a Dark Tower series where, after killing off the secondary characters, King doesn’t shove in some kind of alternate-universe happy ending. There’s a Dark Tower series where, hallelujah, King doesn’t achieve the wankiest thing an author can ever do by putting himself in the story.
I say all this, with wistful regrets, because I found the Dark Tower series so frustrating. If it was all-out crap I’d just write a bad review and move on. But there was a lot of great stuff in there – the characters, the world, cyborg bears and malfunctioning robots and ruined cities and Randall Flagg and the awful truth at the top of the Dark Tower. But there’s just so much rubbish you have to swim through to reach those things. The carrot is always dangling juuust out of reach in front of the reader’s face. And, ultimately, the good stuff doesn’t outweigh the crap. Doesn’t even come close. My ultimate verdict on the Dark Tower series as a whole is that, unless you’re a die-hard King fan, they’re not worth your time.
As Sean T. Collins put it at the end of his blogslinging extravaganza, which I was enjoying throughout my own gruelling experience:
“Go, then. There are better books than these.”