I just finished the Dark Tower series. It's taken me about a year and a half. I have no idea what made me start the thing - I have been a Stephen King fan since I was about ten (yes, I started reading him way too young) and had always went out of my way to avoid the Gunslinger.
There will be a separate post about my reaction to the novel, but first I just want to talk about the size of the thing.
First, let's talk about time. As I mentioned, I start reading this thing almost 18 months ago. About the time my goddaughter was born, and today she is officially a full on toddler, talking and running around and developing some sass. Each book is long, but I took a break in between and read another book - I hit a Vonnegut period and consumed three of his books in a month, I picked up The Girl on the Train and Luckiest Girl Alive. I delved into Erik Larson's nonfiction books for a bit, reading Devil in the White City and picking up Garden of the Beast after a trip to Berlin.
Excuses aside, I finally finished the series. Because of the internet and my insatiable curiosity and lack of reverence to spoilers, I knew how it ended. Given time, I think Roland of Gilead's ending is going to become as famous, or infamous, as Winston Smith's in 1984. Winston just has about sixty years on Roland. And as I expected, it made me want to reread the thing, all 4,000 pages of it. I will try to show some restraint and avoid doing that. At least for a year or so.
There are three aspects of the series I want to take a look at - the time of it, the world building of it, and the length of it. Anyway you look at it, it is gargantuan. Stephen King has said before he was influenced by The Lord of the Rings. Here is where I admit I'm not a huge Tolkien fan. I appreciate the importance of his work. After all, if it's good enough for Stephen Colbert... The Hobbit I enjoyed (though my nerd cred remains somewhat intact - I hated the movies like one should). It took me two tries (one in college and the other for shits and giggles a few years later) but I enjoyed it overall. It also took me two tries on the second book, though I gave up both times. Never got to the third. Sorry readers. All that aside, there are hints of Tolkien here, primarily in the world building and the journey and the epicness of it all. Instead of a ring, we have a tower and a rose. And instead of hobbits and dwarfs, we've got a dog-like creature called a billy bumbler, a rich kid from Manhattan, a drug addict from another version of New York, and a wealthy black woman who suffers from multiple personality disorders and also is legless from the knees down. And there's the gunslinger himself, a Clint Eastwood character crossed with something from Star Wars.
That brings us to the first - the complex world building. There's the world inside the series itself, which is wide spread. There are different versions of different worlds, reminding me somewhat of the baseball-capped gatekeepers from King's 11/22/63, struggling to keep all the different realities in line. King also creates something of his own language, not quite modern English and not Shakespeare either, something in between. Like any good fantasy series, there are creatures of King's own creation. However, aside from the billy bumbler and these human hybrid things calls can toi, they are all man-made. There's robots of every variety here - the kind that help with house keeping and the kind that plan mass child knapping and the king that ride horses and the kind that are animal-like themselves - bears and turtles and horses, oh my! There is magic, including doors leading to other wheres and whens and magic balls of color. Some characters have 'the touch' and can read minds, influence others with thoughts. The usual. Time is also unreliable in this world. Our hero Roland seems to be thousands of years old. Time doesn't run even as minutes will pass in one world to be days in another. There isn't a clear timeline of the journey itself as they span worlds and regions of varying timeline.
The most impressive part of King's world building, though, is how he brings in elements of his other novels, to varying degrees of success, which I will get into with the review of the thing. He even brings in himself. Instead of writing himself in as God of this world, he is the messenger, writing the story of Roland and somehow also influencing it. A huge sacrifice is made to save the writer's life, so that he can keep writing the story, and all the characters basically hate King for it. There's a lot of bashing the writer. And some of it seems to come from guilt - it did take him a damn long time to finish the thing. Writer avatar aside, there are also references to other King characters. That's weird the header image comes from. You can't just read the Dark Tower series (well, really you probably can, just read the wiki for some of the referenced novels). The header provides a nice overview of the other King novels and when to read them. I had read all the other King novels referenced, but most of them were read when I was in middle school or high school. So not only is the memory of these novels hazy, I also had no idea what the hell I was reading for the most part. Tagging the sexy bits to share with friends later and hiding the books from certain prudish literature teachers. I've already got a reread of The Stand, Hearts in Atlantis, and 'Salem's Lot on my to do list. Some of the references to other novels are small - the Rosemadder reference, example, is fleeting and if it wasn't for the diagram above I would have missed it. However, 'Salem's Lot's entire plot is summed up in Wolves of the Calla and a major character from that novel joins Rolan's ka-tet until the Dark Tower final novel. At one point, as King writes himself into his own novel, Roland guesses that the Dark Tower story must have been in the back of King's mind over decades, as he fiddled with other books, too lazy and maybe afraid of returning to End-World or Mid-World. Reading the novels and all the mentions of his other books, one can imagine King sitting at his type writer, the gunslinger stuff crossing his mind from time to time, pushing back the idea to focus on an easier, smaller story, but also tagging some of it as bound for Roland's story eventually. Ted Brautigan, for example, is a major character in Hearts in Atlantis and easily transports into the gunslinger series. Imagine King, sitting at his desk, creating this character just to give him a backstory and to ease the work for himself when he finally gets back to Roland. Maybe it's a ploy to sell more of his other novels. If so, joke's on him - I've already get an entire book shelf of King's books and every single one of the novels mentioned in the above diagram are already on my shelf.
Next, there's size and time. Here is a rundown of the novels, including when it was published, the number of pages, and how long it took me to read the thing:
There another book, The Wind Through the Keyhole, published in 2012. I skipped this one - it's an excerpt from a previous book, some period of time in their journey King didn't think worthy of the original story. So I'll get to it later, but honestly I would be more interested to a sequel to the entire thing. Spoilers: This would be basically a rewrite of the entire thing, with Roland being a little wiser. If they could cut out of the Wolves of Calla bit, or make it much shorter, that would be great.
Let's look at the timing here. The book itself covers years, but there is a 22 year span of the novels, ranging from mere months between the last two and six years between some. So, sure, my goddaughter went from a squalling newborn to a mischievous toddler, but other people had kids and then watched the kids grow up, go to college, and graduate from college, all in the span of time it took King to get his epic series out. The person who started reading the book in 1982 is not the same as the one who finished it in 2004. And to have the last two books come out so close together! No time to savor Song of Susannah, just plowing through to get to Dark Tower. To sum up, us Game of Thrones fans can quit our bitching about George R. R. Martin. I'm glad I finally read the thing when he had already finished it; I can't imagine the rage of his fans, watching as King released book after book, prolific as ever. He's writing, just not the good stuff.
Then there's the pages. It's exactly 3914 pages. If I read about 60 pages an hour, that's 65 hours. 2.72 days. In actuality, I spent 203 of the last 550 days reading The Dark Tower series. This might say more about me than it does King.