For a very long time, I have longed to rid myself of the addiction to reading Stephen King novels.  But we have history, Mr. King and I.  The first non-girl lit books I ever read were his horror novels.  I was eight when I started.  For me, horror novels symbolized my departure from reading what authority figures (aka Elementary school teachers librarians and my mom - ever hopeful that I'd grow up to be a graceful swan in a family of carnivorous Italian-Germans, eh...her intentions were good at least) told me to read.  With a little covert saving and spending on my part, I could finally put down Anne of Green Gables, Little Women, Gone With the Wind, and (urgg) Nancy Drew for good and move on having learned that if girls could be writers, plantation owners and detectives, they could bloody well also read horror fiction.  

This was long ago, when I was in fourth or fifth grade, back when the internet was considered by suburban luddites as a ridiculous ephemeral phase of technology that noveau-riche and tacky families added to jack up their phone bills and flaunt to their co-workers.  Little did they know how much the invention would take hold.  Little did I know, huddling under the flashlight in my bedroom reading about ghosts, vampires, monsters, etc.. how much of an impact this one writer would have on me - as is the case with so many other readers. 

Not my tat.  But not bad choice. 
All I knew was that I was not allowed to stay up to watch Stephen King movies and that aunts, uncles, older cousins, and schoolmates with more lenient parents had read his books and were delightfully frightened by the stories contained.  I wanted to be a part of that.  I wanted to be up at night with the covers pulled up to my chin.  So I saved my meager allowance of like five dollars a week to purchase several used copies of his books.  

When my mom finally realized I was more of a horror fiend than a women's empowerment book fanatic, it was she who bought me my first tattered copy of The Gunslinger from a 'throw out' pile of library books she raided.  Though she still does not know it, this was one of her greatest gifts to me.  Though I have read books by hundreds of authors and in just about every genre, the number one repeated name on my bookshelf is still Stephen King.  There's just no way around it.  Sometimes people are dumb lemmings, but sometimes the majority sees something awesome, and that this is the case with King's best work, I have no doubt.

Years later, I would be humiliated by my senior year AP English teacher in high school, who told me (in front of the class) when I requested a paper topic on the literary and commercial phenomenon of Stephen King, that I should pick "a real writer" as opposed to "trash".  Had I known that I could get away with telling a teacher to go fuck himself without significant damage to my chances of getting a decent college scholarship, I would've relished in the deed, but my respect for people in positions of 'responsible adult' still had a strong a grip on me.  Perhaps it was for the best that I did not, or else I would not have developed such a comfortably-seething hatred for the honored realms of lit crit's adherence to viewing books on the limited scale of a few scholars and philosophers rather than admitting that everyone has an opinion, and that a huge amount of those opinions have the capacity to be real and right.  My opinion then and now is that King is both a departure from the classics and a classic. 

That I was barred from writing anything academic about King did not deter me from continuing to plow though his novels.  If anything, it only sped up the process.  Being told not to do something is modus operandi enough for the adolescent mind.  Plus, I had just finished The Gunslinger the year before and was already drawn in to Roland's cause.  

In choosing which King book to write about first, I had a hard time.  There are just so many other books that he wrote that are more directly categorized as straight horror (Carrie, 'Salem's Lot, The Shining, Pet Semetary, Needful Things, IT, etc.) that The Dark Tower by comparison seems to fall more into the lines of Fantasy.  But I have to beg to differ on that one.  It definitely is a Fantasy novel series, but underneath it all, each book is guided by that otherworldly horror tone that King manages to place in an Americana layman's voice with ease.  When it comes down to why I like King's stuff, it's not only the stories he tells but his writer's voice.  Once you've enjoyed one of his books, the rest are not only tales of terror, but sources of comfort, like settling down to being told a story by your favorite uncle or something, the one who the whole family regards as a bit of a rebel and a dreamer.  There's familiarity and continuity in almost all of his books that keeps us reading...and buying...;)

The Dark Tower series begins with the epic The Gunslinger, of which I would advise readers to purchase the original cut version rather than the later version released.  The cut version actually struck me as more sparse and epic - more holes for the reader to fill in with their own imaginations.  It opens with a sentence I will never forget: "The man in black fled across the desert and the gunslinger followed."  At the time I was more terrified that I would be reading some country western novel and that I would suffer through three hundred odd pages of "draw yer gun, ya dirty dawg" and "who stole my cattle?!".  That fear quickly transformed into an affinity for stoic Roland, for the question of life itself, the nature of all of the realms of the universe, of ghosts and vampires and worlds laid to radioactive waste, and speaking demons and oracles.

Roland is on a quest for all answers, joined by a group of oddly-met friends in a world (or many worlds) dominated by the chaos of life and the neverending power struggles of those living life.  Yeah, it sounds familiar.  A bazillion other fantasy writers have gone there.  But there's something special about this otherworldly set.  The series is seven novels long, and some of the set are more engrossing than others.  Along those same lines, some characters are more captivating than others.  Like most series fiction, it has its ups and downs, but King himself sees these novels as a huge chunk of his life's work, written over the course of 30(?) some-odd years.  As an author, he's notorious for plugging his other books - there are direct links to 'Salem's Lot, IT, Insomnia, The Stand, and probably a buttload more that I am not remembering in the thousands of pages.  I've heard it called King's "uber-novel", one long narrative that links together other pieces of his life's work.  My suggestion would be to either read these books first and then read the other major books, OR (this might be more fun), read the others first, then start the series because you'll recognize the links more clearly.  

Evenually, Roland meets a young, displaced boy named Jake in an abandoned waystation.  The kid has no idea where he is or how he got there.  A city kid with a mind full of ideas and nobody to entertain them.  I love Jake.  He's a kid who is not afraid to ask questions, but at the same time feels awkward and jaded at a young age.  The kind every teacher worthy of the title wants in their classroom.  I felt linked to this kid because I was also always a nerd (though I kicked boys' asses if they called me that to my face, so there's a tad bit of a difference there), and I never quite fit in with the popularity-hound crowd, though I was voted "class clown" once, or the athlete crowd even when I was on varsity, and so on.  Jake is good at what he does but feels completely unappreciated.  In Roland's world, he finds his purpose, discovers it was always there but always unseen.  These characters make a good duo as they travel together to where the desert ends and the perilous mountains begin.  It is from Jake that we eventually get one of the famous quotes from the series (99% of which come from the first book): "Go then, there are other worlds than these."  As early as the first book, there is this sort of fantasy version of quantum physics.  The possibility of many existences happening simultaneously where all possibilities exhaust themselves.   

Likewise, the Man in Black is an equally, if not more alluring a character, always messing with Roland's mind; the reader never knows how much he is leading Roland on, or how much of what he says is truth.  

The book and the series continue forward (and backward) in the directions of good and evil and god and the devil and everything in between.  King is a bit Christian-y at times, but it doesn't get too preachy, and I'm fine with that - I'm not a Christian, but I respect everyone's point of view so long as they are not trying to convince me I'm a heathen (I already know that).  Some of my friends who have read the series are disappointed by it.  They either don't like some of the characters, or the occasional religious undertones, or the ending, etc..  While many of them have good points to the series' downsides, what kept me reading was the journey of it all, the voice, and the most of all the questions. 

Over the course of the series, you can't help but bond with some of these characters and their relentless quest through time and space.  At least I couldn't help it.  We are introduced to heroin addicts and split personalities, vampire hunters, soothsayers, witches, peasants with pitchforks, and the Crimson King himself (perhaps a shout-out to the beloved King Crimson?).  What I loved about these books was that I did not want them to end.  This is a rarity for me.  I'm one of those sadists who forces herself to finish books that are lagging, boring, full of plotholes, full of shit, etc.. because I feel that I am disrespecting the author by putting the book down and judging it without seeing the whole scope of the thing.  In my recent years, I've slowly developed some ability to say "this is shit!" and put it down, but not entirely...I still have a stack of books on my nightstand that are buried under books I want to read - a stack of books I feel guilty for not finishing.  I know.  I'm a dork. 

BUT!  When I find a book or series of books that motivates me to stay stuck in that world, to get hooked, I am appreciative.  This set is grounded in fantasy, but I argue that fantasy and horror are husband and wife.  They both ask the same "what if...?" questions.  The both posit the same outlandish situations.  The differences between them are primarily tonal, but both push the buttons of life and death, time and space, and The Dark Tower is exemplary of that marriage.   

This review must be written before Ron Howard goes and makes a movie out of it all so more Americans can be convinced that they don't need to read anything and people in general can continue to get dumber.  Why did you sell the rights, Stephen?  Did you need another marble indoor pool or something?  Ok, yeah, it might be great like Kubrick's The Shining, (but you yourself had some major issues with that and then ended up okay-ing a made-for-tv movie as if it would somehow rectify the situation).  Kubrick's version was pretty awesome-o, I'll give him that (even though Nicholson was as batshit in the beginning of the film as the end - was that one of your complaints too?)  I guess it had to happen and here's hoping it will rock as much as some of the other King books sold into celluloid.  

I will also note that the books have been made into graphic novels as well...HOT FRIGGIN DAMN can we knock it off with the marketing?  While the images in the graphic novel are kinda kickass.......Can't a book just be a book?  I have tried to get into them but find that watching the images and dialog bubbles corrupts my initial vision of the series, which I prefer to keep thankyouverymuch.  The magic of the original books in this set is exactly that: writer's voice and description met with reader's vision.  No amount of illustration and CGI can make up for that in books like these.

I suppose it's about marketing.  How else would people remember a writer's name?  But the originality of that first awesome journey across the desert and through the mountains blew me away - and that was a tattered, dogeared yellowed and musty used book - THE BEST KIND!!!!  From said tattered dogeared yellowed musty used book sprang these messed up and broken worlds that are not quite ours, but have pieces of our world hanging around, like "Hey Jude" playing in a piano bar of a desolate badlands town

Read these books because they are a colorful and weird journey, not because you expect Roland to do what you want him to do.  Read these books if you like anything King has done (at least the early novels).  Read these books if you like being sucked into a comfortable yet on-the-edge without being some wanky and heinously over-detailed alternate reality.  Read these books if you can handle some level of cheesiness for the sake of an earnest yummy yarn.  They are the the biggest lump in the life's work of one of the world's bestselling authors and while I think a lot of bestselling authors are full of shit, this is not so with King, who wrote through childhood and tough jobs and poverty and parenting and still makes sense.  It is a rarity for me to sink inside a book, or for a book to make me cry or feel anything semblant of real concern for a character.  But Roland and his wonder-horror journey won me over.  

WTF = 28
T= 9
F= 9   

Stephen King gives advice to those who want to be writers...


  1. even though i disagree as to this being king's best work, the set (particularly the 1st, 2nd, and last books) is a wonderfully woven bunch of story. i do prefer the essentials over this if i had to choose: the shining & salem's lot namely - possibly carrie too.

  2. This series is for the die-hards of Stephen King. Not for the people who just want a cheap scare reading 'Carrie' or 'The Shining'. I would agree with your assessment that these read like horror novels. There are moments of insane terror, gore, and the supernatural. On the religion thing, yes, there's definitly Christian undertones, but King's flaw is he's limited himself to the boundries of America - almost no books even mention foriegn countries. Very All-American, but in this case, it's not a bad thing :)

  3. Best books ever. Ever!