Friday, August 18, 2017

Forgotten Books: THE GUNSLINGER by Stephen King (1981)


Well, that was an experience. I read The Stand a long time ago, and probably another King or two, but I remember his writing being sort of normal. Disgustingly good, but normal. The Gunslinger isn’t. It’s wonderful and horrible, captivating and boring, meaningful and incomprehensible.

I picked up the first two Dark Tower books about ten years ago, read maybe twenty pages and put them in a box, never to be seen again. But when I went to see Wonder Woman a few weeks back, I saw the trailer for the new Gunslinger film, and figured I should give it another go. So I did.


Did I enjoy it? You can probably guess the answer to that one. Yes and no. Will I read the next in the series? Yeah, absolutely. I won’t be able to help myself.

Partly, that’s due to King’s writing. His sentences are like no one else’s, and at times he strings them into prose poems that make me feel like my head is about to spin off. Sometimes, I suspect, he gets so carried away his own head spins off, and the meaning is lost in the clouds, but it’s so well written I don’t really care.

It’s also due to the fact this is so totally unlike anything I’ve read before. A steady diet of normal works just fine for me, but it's probably good to shake up my brain once in a while.


I’m not going to tell you what this book is about, because that would ruin it for you. It’s not really a story so much as a voyage of discovery. You start out wondering what the hell is going on, and very gradually, mostly in flashbacks, you get some of the answers. And a lot more questions.

In the lengthy introduction to this revised edition (yes, he revised the novel in 2003, adding about nine thousand words and making who knows how many changes), King reveals what inspired it. The short answer is The Lord of the Rings and The Good, The Bad and The Ugly. That’s all you need to know, and all you really want to know, before starting.


King is famous for his method of writing by the seat of his pants. He writes to see where the story takes him. Sometimes it takes him to great heights, while at others he seems lost (like the gunslinger himself) in the desert or under a mountain, waiting for something interesting to happen. The novel’s saving grace is that when something interesting does happen, it really happens

The worst part, for me, was a long stretch in the dark—so long even the characters lost track of time—that reminded me of one of my least favorite books, Rex Stout’s Under the Andes (unfavorably reviewed HERE). It also didn’t help that there’s a whiny, snot-nosed kid in it. Whiny, snot-nosed kids should be banned from fiction. Forever.



I’m curious to see how this will work on screen. A good screenwriter can probably patch together enough scenes to resemble a story. At least there’ll be plenty of shooting.

There are seven numbered volumes in The Dark Tower series and an eighth that slips in between. If I read them all, will everything make sense? Can my brain take that much shaking up? Will my head spin off before I make it to book III? Alas, more questions than answers.


I believe most of the artwork shown here, by Michael Whelan, is from the 1981 first edition, now commanding five or six hundred bucks on eBay. One of these pics is from the cover of the third edition, and another was the basis of the cover for first trade paperback. I own none of the above. Along with my lost-in-a-box later pb, I have only an ebook.

7 comments:

oscar case said...

Those illustrations are great, but I don't care mixed genres. But then, maybe I should.

George said...

I read the whole DARK TOWER series. It's less than the sum of its parts.

Paul Fraser said...

I've read nearly everything by King, apart from the bulk of this. I caught the four Gunslinger stories in F&SF that made up the first novel, then read it again when it came out as a book. Thanks for posting the colour plates--I'd forgotten about those.
Lost interest after reading the second volume. I should probably give it another go.
I'll be interested to see what you make of the rest of the series if you tackle it. Some of the later books are very long.

Evan Lewis said...

Sheesh. This one SEEMED really long.

Mathew Paust said...

I did the same with a couple of Dark Towers decades ago. Abandoned after a few pages. I believe they're still in a packing box in my apartment, among the half dozen or so I have yet to unpack--some day.

Mike Stamm said...

I've read all 8 (8+, if you count the later novella "The Little Sisters of Eluria") volumes of THE DARK TOWER, and enjoyed them all, some more than once; particularly the first, the fourth (WIZARD AND GLASS) and the eighth (THE WIND THROUGH THE KEYHOLE). I haven't seen the movie yet (the reviews have been fairly tepid at best), and I'm not enamored of the movie/TV series/movie/god-knows-what-else format proposed for the rest. The last volume, THE DARK TOWER, could have used some serious editing; it's maybe a third longer than it needed to be. Still, when they're good, they are very, very good, and when they are less good they're still compulsively readable.

Charles Gramlich said...

I felt kind of similar. Parts of the first one were really good but for the most part it seemed badly flawed to me. I never went further.