This and the companion pieces are less reviews than they are a sort of reader's diary of my experiences encountering Stephen King's monumental fantasy/western/science fiction tale The Dark Tower. It's made up of seven books, each of which I read at different times in my life. These are some reflections on the separate volumes, and I will be assuming that the reader has already read them or does not care if what he or she reads spoils the books or their endings. That is, of course, assuming that these little exercises have readers to begin with ;-)
Again, and I will stress this so that no one may find the experience of learning Roland's story and reading The Dark Tower lessened by knowing what comes next, THERE BE SPOILERS HERE.
You've been alerted.By the time The Drawing of the Three was published in 1987, the reputation of the Dark Tower series had grown among Stephen King fans. Since The Gunslinger was, at that point, available only in the limited-edition Donald M. Grant edition or as serial chapters in nine-year-old copies of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, its scarcity prompted a hunger for subsequent chapters of Roland's story. I found Three on sale at a modeling/collectibles/hobby shop in the now mostly-abandoned Crossroads Mall. I happened to visit that mall about a year ago when one of its last anchor stores closed, looking for some shirt bargains, and the nearly empty mall can give a very good impression of being a place that's "moved on," like the world in which we first meet Roland. I paid about $40 for it; not overwhelming in today's market (King's most recent, Under the Dome, runs $35 retail) but a very good chunk of change for a book in 1987.
Three picks up just a few hours after the apocalyptic "palaver" between Roland and the Man in Black at the shores of the Western Sea that closed out Gunslinger. Before he has much time to consider what he has learned or what may have been the fate of the Man in Black, Roland is attacked by the creatures of the sea that he calls "lobstrosities." His hand and foot are maimed, leaving him able to use only one of his deadly guns and suffering from a potentially lethal infection.
As he heads north along the shore, he encounters a door, labeled "The Prisoner." Opening it, Roland finds himself in our world -- or one very much like it -- in 1987, somehow living in the body of Eddie Dean, a heroin addict who has agreed to mule drugs into New York City for a low-level mobster. Though he is still Roland in his mind, he has Eddie's body and can access some of Eddie's knowledge. Eddie and Roland use the dimension-crossing aspects of the door to allow Eddie to escape detection by the police, as Roland's odd actions draw the attention of the flight attendant and law enforcement. Seeing no alternative to either worse addiction, imprisonment by the law or death at the hands of the mob that is very curious about where its cocaine went, Eddie reluctantly crosses into Roland's world and joins him on his quest for the Tower. The relationship does not begin smoothly, as Roland is feverish from his infected wounds and Eddie suffers from heroin withdrawal. They manage to get antibiotics that begin to fight Roland's infection, but he is still weak.
The second door is called "Lady of the Shadows," and it leads into the mind of Odetta Holmes, a civil rights activist in 1964 New York City. Odetta is confined to a wheelchair, as she was attacked several years ago by a man named Jack Mort, who pushed her in front of a subway train and caused her to lose her legs. She also has an alter personality, a borderline psychotic who calls herself Detta Walker and who is nothing like the refined Odetta Holmes. Detta seems to be the result of a head injury that Odetta suffered when she was a child -- an injury again at the hands of Jack Mort. Roland and Eddie bring Odetta/Detta into Roland's world but have to deal with the evil and potentially harmful Detta instead.
The third door is labeled "The Pusher," and it is one that Roland has no desire to enter. He remembers that Jake, his companion from The Gunslinger, died when a man pushed him in front of a car and he knows exactly where this door will lead. And in fact it does enter the mind of the man who killed Jake, the same Jack Mort who caused Odetta so much harm and misery. Roland has to call upon the diplomacy he learned as the son of Gilead's leader in order to finesse Mort into playing his role in the quest while not allowing him to harm any of the members of the group. He even manages to save Jake, so that Mort never causes the boy's death and never sends him into Roland's world, exposing him to death under the mountains as Roland and Jake chase the Man in Black. The act will have dangerous consequences for Roland and Jake in The Waste Lands, the third book in the series.
By the end of the book, Roland has helped Eddie sweat out his addiction and has begun a full recovery from his injuries. Odetta successfully merges her personality with Detta and gives herself the name Susannah to signify she is a new person, and she and Eddie fall in love. Roland has drawn the "three" of his group (Susannah counts twice; as her original self of Odetta Holmes, and as her merged self of Susannah Dean), or ka-tet, which will help him quest for the tower.
Three is easily the strongest book of the seven that make up The Dark Tower. Written after King had several other books under his belt, it lacked some of the rough and raw edges that slowed The Gunslinger. But it comes early enough in his career that the bestseller's bloat which will plague most of his work past the middle 1980's isn't yet apparent. As we watch Roland try to interact with our world (a drink of Pepsi nearly sends him into a sugar euphoria that might almost usurp his quest for the Tower) we can get a much better sense of who he is than we were able to see through the haphazard flashbackery of Gunslinger. Although Eddie arrives as a whiny addict who seems far too weak to be of any help in Roland's quest, he starts to show hints of the substance that will later make Roland feel confident Eddie could continue the quest for the tower were Roland to die. Odetta is rather sketchy, as King spends a slightly uncomfortable amount of time detailing the dysfunctions, sexual and otherwise, of her alter-ego Detta. But the merged Susannah offers some interesting hints of her character as well, and considering that King used tween-aged group sex as an important plot point in 1986's It, Detta's quirks were hardly the queasiest thing he'd done in that realm by that point.
Jack Mort is somehow disappointing, as what seems to be a pivotal source of evil faced by the ka-tet gets relegated to a "thanks for playing, here are some lovely parting gifts" status by the time Three is finished. But in an intriguing development, we see King begin to draw connections between the Man in Black, who may not be as dead as Roland thought, and the evil Flagg of The Stand and Eyes of the Dragon. By today, of course, the idea that King was threading similar thoughts and ideas among several of his stories is common knowledge to Dark Tower readers, but in 1987 it was still a new concept for him.
Phil Hale's illustrations really cemented the visual aspects of the characters in my mind; Michael Whelan's version of Roland from The Gunslinger and The Dark Tower always seemed far too young and too much of a buff superhero; Ned Dameron's and Berni Wrightson's work from The Waste Lands and Wolves of the Calla, respectively, was not all that memorable; Darrell Anderson did mostly landscapes and some murky, weird colorized sketches in Song of Susannah and Dave McKean's acid-trip/grunge-deconstruction photo illustrations are fit companions for the awfulness of Wizard and Glass. Whether Hale was simply better able to envision Roland's world or whether King's ability to focus and communicate that vision would never be better than it was in Drawing of the Three is hard to say.
Three remains the best of the seven books that make up The Dark Tower. It's imperfect, and there have been moments before it and there will be moments after it that when King matches or exceeds what he does here. But he will not string them together in such a consistent whole at any time while he explores Roland's world and follows his quest, and he will rarely do so again even outside of the Dark Tower arena.