The Gunslinger is my first encounter reading Stephen King. And I was horribly disappointed.
“The man in black fled across the desert, and the Gunslinger followed.”
This is the first line in The Dark Tower series; eight dark fantasy/horror/western books which King describes as the magnum opus of all his writing. It’s an incredible first line and quite possibly the greatest first line I have ever read.
It’s a shame that I hated almost every moment which followed.
From the beginning, you are thrown into King’s universe with no explanations. You don’t know who the Man in Black is, who The Gunslinger is, where they are, why The Gunslinger is chasing him, or why the Man in Black is fleeing. Or if he is even fleeing. Or what the heck is going on. All we know is that the Gunslinger follows.
The problem is that as we continue, nothing is really explained to us. We get some background on the Gunslinger, but not enough. We experience the world with the Gunslinger as he progresses through the desert, but that’s it. This means that I had no idea what was going on, or why it was happening, for 98% of the book. I didn’t care about the events that were happening, or what happened to the characters. There was no way to identify if there was good or evil, or if any of the characters fell into those paradigms. No characters had any relationships to speak of, nor relationships to the world around them. Things happened, and I read the words which explained them.
I’m also frustrated by the lack of themes. There are strange metaphors and weird imagery. There are aloof religious references and peculiar dreams. There are profound philosophical conversations with no connection or reference to anything we know. I couldn’t connect one idea to the next– it felt like walking into a Hoarder’s home and trying not to panic. I found myself constantly thinking, “Why am I even reading this book?”
The only time reading this novel didn’t feel like reading a textbook in Sanskrit was during the flashbacks. When the Gunslinger was sharing stories, either with other characters or in his head, I felt like connections could be made. We saw how the Gunslinger viewed the world in some small way, and we got a tiny bit of real world building. Whether we experienced his childhood or his previous experiences while following the Man in Black, I felt like there was something to hold on to. We learned of the Gunslinger in a way his wandering would never be able to explain. However, once the flashback ended, there were rare connections to the continuing story. Why did we just read that? Did it help propel the story forward? Possibly, but not in any way we can see from this first book.
I’m sure the story improves and dots are connected as one reads on. I recognize this is just a hook and long setup for a series. But I personally found this frustrating. I could see greatness hiding, and the words used to describe this world are often perfectly placed. I mean, I knew this wouldn’t be the greatest of King’s work since it’s the first story he ever wrote. For a 19-year-old, this is still great. But I detested it.
After I finished the book, I did some research in this series. I found that a lot of people love The Dark Tower series. King is constantly referencing it throughout his other works. The most interesting aspect to me was that King says this series was inspired by the poem Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came by Robert Browning. This poem is inspired by a line from King Lear, in which Glouchester’s son Edgar speaks nonsense:
Child Rowland to the dark tower came,
His word was still ‘Fie, foh, and fum
I smell the blood of a British man’.
– King Lear, Act 3 Scene 4
And this line is inspired by the fairy tale Childe Rowland popularized from Joseph Jacobs’ English Folk and Fairy Tales published in 1892.
Upon reading the fairy tale, the book makes a minuscule bit more sense to me, but I feel like I’m filling in gaps I never would have understood otherwise. It also gives me a good idea of what could possibly happen in the next book, if not the remainder of the series. I have only read the first two verses of the poem, just in case there are true spoilers for what might happen in the series.
If anyone I know has read this series and wants to let me know what I’m missing, I’ll gladly listen. I want this book to be great. I want to avoid spoilers since I want to pretend someday I will get this book and be interested in reading the rest of the series. If so many people love this series, there must be something waiting beyond the first book. Has anyone read it? Does anyone want to tell me why I should stick around?
Alas. Until such a time arises that this is bested, I shall leave this my least favorite book of 2016. By a lot.