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.
They begin to follow the Beam, visible as a sort of loose but definite ordered pattern in the sky, clouds and tree leaves. Where the six Beams converge, Roland knows he will find the Dark Tower itself. During their journey, Eddie and Susannah train as gunslingers, honing their skills with Roland's guns and with the one Roland took from the other world. Although they don't go through the entire training sequence that helped shape Roland himself, they do learn that being a gunslinger is more than simply pointing and pulling the trigger. Lessons like the "Gunslinger's Litany" impress on them some of the worldview that Roland has. King concludes this litany with the sentences: "I do not kill with my gun; he who kills with his gun has forgotten the face of his father. I kill with my heart." It's an interesting echo of Jesus' words in the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5, in which he contrasts the observance of the letter of the law with a failure to observe its spirit by equating even anger against someone with murder. King grew up a regular church attender with his mother and evidence of that background shows up more than once in his work.
Unfortunately, even as they start this new phase of their quest for the Tower, Roland is steadily losing his mind. When he entered the body of Jack Mort, the man who had pushed Jake Chambers in front of a car in our New York City in 1977, Roland prevented the murder and kept Jake from crossing into his world and dying beneath the mountains as described in The Gunslinger. But Roland's encounter with Jake happened in the gunslinger's past, meaning that Jake had died and he had entered Roland's world. The dual timelines Roland's action creates are destroying his mind. In the 1977 New York City, the same thing is happening to Jake's mind. The only way to save both Roland and Jake from complete insanity is to draw Jake into the Roland's world and fuse the two timelines. Jake's portal is in a haunted house in New York City; the exit portal is a speaking ring in Roland's world. The demon that haunts this speaking ring must be held captive during the ritual that will bring Jake across, and like a similar demon in The Gunslinger, the way to do this is through a mortal human being having sex with it. This time, Susannah couples with the demon and keeps both Eddie and Jake safe while Roland brings Jake across. At the time no one knows that this is actually the same demon, and that by having sex with it, Susannah has actually been impregnated with a child that is part human, from Roland, and part demon as well.
The group also gains Oy the "billy-bumbler," a kind of semi-intelligent dog-raccoon-badger cross that attaches itself to Jake. Now whole, the ka-tet of Roland sets out again to follow the Path of the Beam that will lead them to the Tower. They pass through River Crossing, the first village or town we've come to in Roland's world since he killed everyone in Tull in The Gunslinger. The elderly people of River Crossing remember gunslingers, although such a great length of time has passed that we realize Roland's meeting with The Man in Black may have taken many many years, and that his world has been moving on even faster than it had when first we met him. Talitha Unwin gives Roland a cross to be taken to the Tower and laid there while her name is spoken. King also begins to outline connections between the deteriorated Shardik and the moving on of Roland's world.
The group next reaches the great city of Lud, mostly abandoned and nearly destroyed many centuries ago. A bridge, which the visitors from our world note looks a lot like New York City's George Washington Bridge, reaches across a great river canyon to it, and the Path of the Beam follows that way. But as they cross the bridge, a near disaster gives Gasher, one of the remaining people living in Lud, the chance to capture Jake. Lud's residents have been so physically damaged, probably by radiation, that they have very few children and they hope to bring new blood to their tribe with the boy. Roland and Oy track Jake through Lud to free him from Gasher's tribe of Grays, led by Andrew Quick, the Tick-Tock Man.
Jake shoots Quick, leaving him for dead. But the Ageless Stranger, who may very well be Randall Flagg, finds him, saves him and uses him to prepare a trap for Roland. The ka-tet is reunited at the Cradle of Lud, a sort of train station where they find the city's working artificial intelligence, Blaine. They learn that Lud is surrounded by impassible, deadly country that becomes the Waste Lands of the title. They can't cross on their own, but there is a way out. They use Blaine to escape Lud via a monorail train, even though the intelligent train reminds Jake of a weird kids' book he read in which a live train was said to carry children around in play but which looked like it was actually holding them as terrified prisoners in the illustrations. These fears prove out, as Blaine challenges the group to a riddle contest -- if they can tell a riddle he has never heard or can't answer, then he will stop at the train's last station and let them off. If they can't, he will crash the train into the end of the track at top speed -- apparently near 900 miles an hour -- and kill them all. The Waste Lands ends with the ka-tet ready to begin to riddle the deranged artificial mind.
And that's where King would leave The Dark Tower fans for six years; wondering what would happen to the group trapped aboard a sentient but suicidally insane train. Five years and four years, respectively, had passed between the earlier installments of the story, but neither the first nor the second books ended with this kind of cliffhanger. King didn't earn a lot of brownie points with his fans; having delved deeper into the history of Roland's world and what was actually happening there than he ever had before he had whetted their appetites for the real meat of the Dark Tower tale to begin. Gunslinger set the stage, Drawing cast the characters and now the curtain had gone up, only to drop again and stay down for a very long time.
As far as we can tell, the Great Old Ones were people who lived in a world not very different from ours but with technology somewhat advanced over our own in some areas, especially robotics. They also had a great deal of mystical knowledge, understanding not simply science but also the magical forces behind the Beams and the Dark Tower itself. In later volumes, we will see how their knowledge led them to arrogantly try to use their technology to harness the forces of the Beams to cross between worlds. Some kind of conflict arose that devastated much of Roland's world and left behind the Baronies of Mid-World -- the nations of his youth -- as well as wrecked cities like Lud and the Waste Lands themselves.
King sets Roland in a post-apocalyptic land, but the apocalypse he creates is not simply a nuclear war or other natural conflict -- supernatural forces and supernatural damage have also been at work here. Some earlier interviews suggest that King first thought of Roland's world as one that had survived some kind of nuclear holocaust when he first began it, but his vision broadens considerably over time. The danger of a direct missile-for-missile conflict between superpowers had lessened considerably since he started the series. He also explored how technology and spirituality or faith can relate to one another, and how if the former replaces the latter, the people who depend on it may find themselves seriously adrift if it ever fails them as the Great Old Ones' technology failed them and is now failing their descendants.
The Waste Lands is probably the first of the Dark Tower series to suffer from the bloating that was affecting much of King's other work. It's minor at this point. Waste Lands is long, but things still happen and it's not nearly as much of a puffed-up wheel-spinning session as some later books will be. The main problem it presents isn't its fault, because that major problem is the six-year gap between it and Wizard and Glass. And Wizard and Glass will go wrong in enough ways to make the six-year gap seem not nearly long enough.