The Dark Tower Review (Part 2)
The following covers the second half of The Gunslinger (1982) by Stephen King, and serves as an introduction to Ka, Mid-World, and the death & life & death of Jake Chambers.
So Much Child Death
As the Gunslinger, Roland Deschain, chases after the Man in Black (Randall Flagg / Walter Paddock O’Dim / Marten Broadcloak), he comes across a way station. The setting of this book, known as Mid-World, seems like it could be a post-apocalyptic version of our own world, an irradiated wasteland with gas stations & ancient machinery. But there are also elements of the Old West & Clint Eastwood cowboys mixed with the sword & sorcery of Arthurian legend & Lord of the Rings.
Mid-World has “moved on.” The world was full of magic, which was replaced by technology, and now that technology is falling apart. It is as if whatever caused the apocalypse, when the big nuclear bombs dropped or whatever, they hit so hard that they tore holes in the fabric of space/time. Now realities are mingling with the fantasy & magic of Stephen King’s imagination. And so much time has passed, it is almost impossible to tell what the real world would have been like so long ago.
At the way station, Roland the Gunslinger meets a boy from the real world; our world. Jake Chambers, a ten-year-old boy from New York, was pushed in front of a car and killed in 1977. When he “woke up,” he was here in Mid-World and has spent the last few hours or days hiding from the Man in Black.
It is never made clear as to why Jake’s death takes him to Mid-World, but Stephen King does this in a lot of his writing: things just happen because that’s how the story goes. It gives his stories a fable or fairytale quality; sometimes it’s a fairy godmother who shows up to save the day, sometimes it’s a giant space turtle. A killed kid serendipitously popping up at an inter-dimensional way station is the least egregious of these offenses. Eventually, the character of Stephen King in 1977 will send a message to Jake Chambers in 1999 by writing it down on a piece of paper & eating it.
The only explanation for these instances could be linked to fate or destiny, what the Gunslinger calls “Ka.” The wheel of Ka turns like an unstoppable force. Some characters will have prophetic visions or dreams, right at a conveniently crucial moment, supposedly just because Ka wills it. But psychics & telekinesis are prominent throughout King’s work. Carrie, The Shining, & Dead Zone all have protagonists who are able to know & do fantastical things simply because the author wills them to. Maybe he even believes in this kind of predestination or karma or magic.
Another common theme in King’s work is the suffering & murder of children. He’s worse than Anakin Skywalker when it comes to slaughtering younglings. The Shining, IT, The Body (Stand By Me), and Pet Sematary are made all the more terrifying because the horrors are enacted upon children. In the later Dark Tower books, the character Stephen King is struck by a car in 1999. The driver of the vehicle comments on the film version of Cujo and expresses how glad he was that the boy survives in the movie. A broken & bleeding Stephen King admits, “in the book, the boy died.”
So it is no surprise the young Jake Chambers joins Roland the Gunslinger on his dangerous quest. This poor boy, who has already died once today, almost immediately is attacked by a skeleton in a cellar. Of course, Roland saves him, but then a succubus/ghost/demon tries to sex the young Jake to death. Roland saves him again, then steps in and sexes the succubus so good she rewards him with prophetic visions. Seriously! The Gunslinger is not only the fastest draw in the west, but uses even his natural “weapons” with viscous aplomb.
Finally, as Roland & Jake close in on the Man in Black, they are overtaken by Slow Mutants. Mid-World’s version of Tolkien’s trolls or goblins, these once-human-monsters are radiation-deformed, cannibalistic brutes. Honoring the succubus’s vision, and solidifying the ruthless obsession of the Gunslinger’s quest, Roland is forced to make a choice: he can finally catch the Man in Black, only if he allows Jake to die. The boy plummets as they are trying to escape the cavernous mountains, and this time Roland doesn’t save him. As he falls to yet another death, Jake calls out to the Gunslinger, “Go then, there are other worlds than these.”
Roland is a very lonely man. Almost everyone he comes across in his journeys ends up dead, a lot of them by the Gunslinger’s own hand. But he is singular of mind & body. And as he emerges from the cave on the side of the mountains, he ultimately confronts the Man in Black sitting at a campfire, waiting for him. So they have themselves a palaver. They talk, about many things: sacrifice, love, death… and the Dark Tower.
To be continued…