This is yet another entry in a series of somewhat repetitive posts about Stephen King’s Dark Tower series, particularly how it is going to end. Previous installments are here: [part 1 | part 2 | part 3] Spoilers Ahead:
I’ve often felt that King doesn’t know how to end his novels – it seems like he is just making it up as he goes along. It’s a shame because he does come up with some pretty intriguing concepts, and he knows how to get you to turn the page, but as compelling as some of his ideas are, he often ends up backing himself into a corner. He sometimes manages to weasel his way out of it, but other times the ending is just unsatisfying.
The Dark Tower series was different than his other work, though. It had a broader scope than his other books. It is an ambitious effort, telling the epic story of Roland, the last gunslinger, and his quest for the Dark Tower, and King has often described it as his opus. All along, though, I was bothered by the nagging suspicion that he didn’t know how to end the series. It seemed like he was making it up as he went along, and that he was backing himself into a corner. He already did as much within the series, in the third volume called The Waste Lands, which he describes in the Author’s Note thusly:
I am well aware that some readers of The Waste Lands will be displeased that it has ended as it has, with so much unresolved. I am not terribly pleased to be leaving Roland and his companions in the not-so-tender care of Blaine the Mono myself, and although you are not obligated to believe me, I must nevertheless insist that I was as surprised by the conclusion to this third volume as some of my readers may be. Yet books which write themselves (as this one did, for the most part) must also be allowed to end themselves, and I can only assure you, Reader, that Roland and his band have come to one of the crucial border crossings in their story, and we must leave them here for a while at the customs station, answering questions and filling out forms.
He had ended The Waste Lands with a cliffhanger, but didn’t continue the story for a few years! But the new volume came, and resolve the cliffhanger it did. But in a sense, I could always tell that the story was leading somewhere, and there was always a nagging thought in the back of my mind about how he was going to end it (or even if he was going to end it). So when the new novels started coming out last year, I began noticing bits and pieces of the books which lead me to believe that I wasn’t going to be happy with the ending. At times, it is difficult to shake the notion that King is overtly attempting to warn the reader that the ending isn’t going to be satisfying. It is almost as if King realizes that he’s written himself into a hole, and doesn’t really know the way out, and is trying to subtly inform his audience that they may not like where it’s going.
I’m about 550 pages (out of 830, not including the Appendix) into the final volume of the series, aptly titled The Dark Tower. Steady as it goes, but I did want to mention something about one of King’s questionable additions to the Dark Tower mythos: the inclusion of Stephen King himself. You see, Stephen King has written himself into the story. Personally, I found this to be a questionable move, but I must admit that I found those chapters that have Stephen King (the character) to be rather well done. I’m still not sure it was the wisest move, but it could certainly have been much worse and I’ve actually enjoyed some of the nuances that have come about because of that addition. The way in which he references himself, and the part his “character” plays in the story, reminded me of something…
The movie Adaptation is based on an odd recursive concept: The screenwriter, Charlie Kaufman, was hired to write an adaptation of Susan Orlean’s novel The Orchid Thief, but he found the task to be quite difficult and could not seem to make any progress. So instead of actually writing the adaptation, he writes a script about how he is having trouble writing the adaptation. The result is a strangely compelling and moving film.
And it struck me that King, himself anxious that he would not be able to complete his beloved Dark Tower series, has instead written a story about how he is having trouble ending the series. Oh, it’s not all about him. In fact, his “character” is actually quite a peripheral one, but every mention of his character seems to fit. And to be fair, as King has said, this stuff writes itself. For example, on page 144 of The Dark Tower, Roland’s ka-tet discusses the writer:
“If he wrote those things into the story,” Eddie said, “it was long after we saw him in 1977.”
“Aye,” Roland agreed.
“And I don’t think he thought them up,” Eddie said. “Not really. He’s just… I dunno, just a…”
“A bumhug?” Susannah asked, smiling.
“No!” Jake said, sounding a little shocked. “Not that. He’s a sender. A telecaster.” …
It must be a little cathartic for King, to be able to use his difficulties in writing the series in such a way, just as Charlie Kaufman was able to channel his frustration into something meaningful. Another quote, from pages 446-447, portrays the author thinking about writing the series:
Going back to the tale of the Tower means swimming in deep water. Maybe drowning there. Yet he suddenly realizes standing here at this crossroads, that if he goes back early he will begin. He won’t be able to help himself. … He’ll junk the current story, turn his back on the safety of land, and swim out into that dark water once again. He’s done it four times before, but this time he’ll have to swim all the way to the other side.
To be honest, I’m not being very fair to King at all. I’m certainly reading a lot into them, but these last few books aren’t bad, and I’ve really enjoyed reading them. I have a feeling that once the series is over, I’ll look back on it with a grin on my face. I might even read the whole thing again. But I can’t get over the feeling that there was something else, something better, that laid in store for Roland and his quest. It feels like King has lost something with these newer books. They lack the sweeping grandeur of the first four books. It no longer seems to be such an epic quest, but then, I’m not sure such greatness could be sustained. I wonder how I would feel if King never finished the series, just leaving it at book four? In closing, another quote, from page 447:
“Resolution demands sacrifice,” King says, and although no one hears but the birds and he has no idea what this means, he is not disturbed.