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
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.
Well, well, well. We meet again, Roland Deschain.
A couple of years have passed since I journeyed through Mid-World along with the Last Gunslinger as he made his way to the Dark Tower, the hub of creation endangered by the chaos-loving Crimson King. Roland was the central character of the seven volume "The Dark Tower" series by Stephen King, and his quest for the Tower spanned 30 years of King's career. When he finished the series with The Dark Tower, King seemed to have closed the covers on Roland and his ka-tet of fellow seekers, leaving the grim knight-errant on yet another iteration of what may have proven to be an eternal quest. His own personal hell, perhaps, condemned to suffer over and over again receiving exactly what he most desired and learning how much smaller it was than the sacrifices he had made for it, how cheap it was compare to the price in his blood and the blood of so many others.
Then, a couple of years ago, King said he'd had an idea of another story in Roland's world. Not one that bore directly on the quest for the Tower, but one that involved Roland to some degree and helped sharpen our picture of him. So now comes The Wind Through the Keyhole, a story within a story that's within the story of Roland and the Dark Tower.
Roland, Jake, Susannah, Eddie and Oy have left the faux Emerald City created by Flagg to trap them and allow him to kill them, as described at the end of Wizard and Glass. They make their way to a large river that still has an old ferryman who offers to take them across, and during the crossing unlocks the secret of Oy's strange behavior. The billy-bumbler, or throcken as it's sometimes called, is reacting to an impending monster-storm called a starkblast, whose frigid intense winds will destroy most wooden structures and kill anyone caught outside in it. Roland's memory almost recalled what Oy's behavior meant, but he needed the ferryman's reminder. The ka-tet manage to hole up in a stone building in an abandoned town just as the starkblast hits, and hunker down to wait it out. As they do, Roland tells a story of another such storm, as well as the time when he himself first told it.
We go back in time to just after Roland's trip to Meijis, when he is still grieving his lost love Susan Delgado as well as his mother, dead by his own hand when he was under the spell of the witch Rhea. His father Steven has reports of a monstrous killer near the town of Debaria which may be a "skin-man," or shape-changing human being who takes on the forms of beasts. Roland and his friend Jaime De Curry are sent to find out what is happening and stop the killing.
After they arrive in town, another attack happens, but this time there is a survivor who saw the skin-man in his human form. A boy named Bill Streeter saw a tattoo on the monster that will help identify him even if Bill never got a view of his face. Roland and Jaime work with the local sheriff to bring suspects to a place where Bill can view them. The young boy is terrified, so Roland tells him the story "The Wind Through the Keyhole" to pass the hours while Jaime and the Sheriff do their work.
That story is the tale of young Tim Ross, a boy about Bill's age who long ago sets out on a mysterious journey of his own after his father dies and his mother remarries a man who proves no bargain. He beats her, takes Tim from school and in general makes his new household miserable and afraid. Tim's prompted, or perhaps tempted is the better word, to make the trek by the Covenant Man, a tax collector for the Barony of Gilead who has some unpleasantly familiar manners and who wears the same color as does the man Roland will one day pursue across the Mohaine Desert -- black. Tim finds himself lost in a swamp, almost eaten by a dragon and befriended by a group of muddy people that gift him with what the long-gone Old Ones used to find directions and what we would call a GPS. It guides him to a drogan or shelter, but he has no key for the door. The key that would work is on a collar around the neck of a gigantic tyger, caged next to the drogan. Tim has a primitive gun with which he could kill the tyger, but he no longer trusts the leading of the Covenant Man and decides instead to try to make a truce with it. He does, and the pair shelter out of the starkblast behind a tent of some miraculous fabric that generates its own heat and absorbs the kinetic energy of the storm's lethal winds. Other magic Tim finds helps transform the tyger back into its natural form, that of Maerlyn the magician. The good wizard sends Tim back home, armed with the means to protect his family, avenge his father's death, and the news that the Covenant Man will not be coming around again any time soon.
When the story finishes, we step back out one degree as Roland's plan to identify the skin-man succeeds and the evil man-beast is killed by his silver bullet. Roland and Jaime leave young Bill with the convent at Serenity, where Roland's own mother stayed in an attempt to conquer her personal demons. The sisters give Roland a letter his mother wrote before she left, and he reads that she knew her return would mean her death at his hands. Her mind was so tormented, though, and her will so broken to Marten Broadcloak that she could not resist and she sought any end to her suffering. She closed the letter with words of forgiveness to Roland for the part he would play in her death.
We then step back out one degree more as we see the Roland and his present-day ka-tet finish riding out the storm before resuming their journey. Roland, having confessed to his friends that his mother died by his hand, also tells them of her words of forgiveness and her request that he forgive her. As he tells Susannah that he indeed did so, he smiles, and the next day they are off again, on their way to Calla Bryn Sturgis and The Wolves of the Calla.
At less than 100,000 words, Wind is the one of the smallest of the Dark Tower books. Structurally, it resembles Wizard and Glass, in that the travelers encounter some phenomenon that brings to Roland's mind a time from his past, and the main story stops while we hear the tale. It is light years better than that book, though, in brevity as well as execution. Tim Ross's tale is much more straightforward than the directionless muddle of the Meijis flashback in Wizard and the story of the skin-man which carries it is thankfully lean as well. Although the "present-day Roland" story that frames both is a little repetitive in showing the aging and breaking down of the world that moved on, it's also done with a welcome economy of words King hasn't mustered in some time.
The focus and discipline may have come from King's decision to tell Tim's story in a definitely different voice than he uses in other books. Even more so than in the other Dark Tower stories, Wind has an 18th or 19th century rhythm and feel to its language. Perhaps King is channeling the voices of the Maine old-timers he heard as a youngster or perhaps he has another source, but he evokes the aura of the fairy-tale better than he has in just about anything since 1987's Eyes of the Dragon. Back-to-back with 11/22/63, Wind is the second half of the strongest pair of releases from King in many years.
Now mentioning Eyes of the Dragon brings up what could be a troublesome point. A cynical person could say that Wind is a mashup of Eyes and the 1983 novellette Cycle of the Werewolf, hung on a Dark Tower marketing peg for maximum sales. Although I'm definitely a friend of Diogenes, I can't see King making such a decision consciously -- he would know that his loyal fan base would buy whatever he publishes with or without a Dark Tower connection. Blockade Billy sold, after all, and fans who spent $15 on it could be counted on to buy anything. I won't speculate on what the folks at Scribner's who keep track of these things, the ones who have the cash registers in their eyes, were thinking, though.
It seems to me that King is again making a meta-narrative commentary on the idea of stories and of their creation, much as he did with the last four books of the original Dark Tower series. Again the story wears its authors influences out in the open; the Debaria deputies are named Strother and Pickens and bear no small resemblance to well-known Western character actors Strother Martin and Slim Pickens, for example. And again what's happening in the narrative rests in a matrix of greater purpose and intent.
Tim Ross's story calms and encourages Bill Streeter. The story of the skin-man passes the time for the ka-tet waiting out the storm and is a major step towards Roland opening himself to them and strengthening their bonds. In fact, in telling about his mother's letter and its closure of forgiveness, Roland may have begun to let go of some of his own guilt from that long-ago episode. King is a believer in the power of story to heal, strengthen, inspire and enlighten as well as entertain, and exactly that happens as the nested stories in Wind unspool before their audiences.
As to why he returns to this meta-narrative commentary on narratives after having spent four books of the original series lurching about in pursuit of the same goal, and why he does it so much better and more quickly here, I can't say. Perhaps he wanted to try again, and he was better at it this time.
All that said, there's nothing about the fairytale at the center of Wind that needs to be in Roland's world, or to have any connection to the gunslinger and his ka-tet at all even if it is set in that world. In fact, by making it "The Dark Tower 4.5," as King calls it in the introduction, he gives his two framing tales a bad case of prequelitis. Our current ka-tet barely reaches shelter before the starkblast hits, but since we know when and how they perish we can't muster up much worry about their chances. Nor can we be too worried about teenage Roland and his friend Jamie De Curry, since we know their fate as well. But the Tim Ross fable is strong enough to push that condition to the back and combine with an unusually focused and economic Stephen King to make Wind one of the more enjoyable entries in the Dark Tower series.
All to the good, but I couldn't resist one wicked little question before I go. As I said, King calls Wind "The Dark Tower 4.5," placing it between Wizard and Glass at No. 4 and Wolves of the Calla at No. 5. He means for us to see its events as taking place in between the events of those two books. If he had written the whole series in order, Wind would have come out before Wolves (and probably killed the series as well -- two books in a row stopping the action for long flashbacks? See ya later, Steve!)
But in The Dark Tower we learn that Roland has reached the Tower itself many times, each time drawn back to the beginning of the quest and destined to suffer through it again and again. I compared this to some of C. S. Lewis's ideas of hell, in that Roland is given what he sold his life and soul to have, only to find out that he has given away and sacrificed what truly mattered to acquire what didn't. King also suggested hell contains an element of endless repetition in his 1998 short story "That Feeling, You Can Only Say What It Is in French," later published in Everything's Eventual.
We also learn that each quest may not be exactly the same. Roland may progress a little as he makes choices that work incrementally to increase his humanity and reduce his fatal (to others) monomania for the Tower quest. As he begins again to chase the man in black across the desert, this time he carries the Horn of Eld, abandoned in earlier iterations of the quest. What kind of difference will it make? How might it further redirect Roland's path? We don't know, but the difference stands out.
So bear with me. Is The Wind Through the Keyhole actually a part of the original quest we read in The Dark Tower series as printed between 1982 and 2004? Or is it something that happens on one of the repeats, where a slightly less damned Roland is given the gift of knowing his mother's forgiveness and granting his own? I haven't seen that talked about anywhere, although I'm sure some King fans somewhere have kicked it around. I don't know, myself. And even if it is such a "later quest" tale, I seriously doubt that King has in mind a series of new Dark Tower novels that take Roland all the way to redemption or have as their ultimate goal the description of what a redeemed Roland and some final quest for the Tower might look like. It took a near-death experience to get him to cough up the last three books of the original series; I can't imagine he'd be up for an even more complex superstructure on top of those seven books.
But who knows? After all, this whole discussion is about an eighth Dark Tower novel when we were all certain the series ended at seven. It seems the only thing you can be sure of is that here, sir, there are always more tales.