The Short Version: There are many levels to the Tower, friends, and sometimes the wheel of ka turns us to places we’ve already been and times we’ve already known – but to see moments we missed before. After escaping the strange OZ in Mid-World but before they reached Calla Bryn Sturgis, Roland and his ka-tet weather a brutal superstorm in the remnants of yet another ghost town. To keep them warm as the starkblast blows, Roland tells them a story of his younger days in Gilead – and, within it, a bedtime story he’d learned as a child.
The Review: What a pleasant surprise. The Dark Tower stands above everything else ever created in English letters – ken it well, friend; there is NOTHING remotely as intricate and detailed and all-consuming. It is the magnum opus, the center, the pivot, the lynchpin of the worlds that Mr. King has created (and possibly the lynchpin of all worlds). I closed that final, eponymous novel with a strange sense of confusion and happiness and sadness. I shed some tears and marked the passing of an era. I knew Roland and his friends would be there for me to revisit – and while I secretly hoped that Uncle Stevie would someday give his long-suffering hero a true happy ending, I was contented to leave the man in black fleeing across the desert and the gunslinger following.
So what a thing, to find old friends at the height of their powers back in my life to tell one more forgotten story?
I sit here, I tell thee true, with a tear in my eye at the sheer joy of it all. The story has low stakes, it’s true: we know full well that our friends will safely weather the starkblast – we know that Roland will survive the skin-man – we can even rather safely assume the ending of Tim Ross’ tale. But the sheer joy of a simple story back in the world that we’ve come to know so well means the stakes don’t matter. This is a nostalgia tour, released on the heels of a collection of b-sides and unreleased tracks – not a cash grab, just an excuse to remember for a while.
King also uses the novel to properly bridge the series and bring the two parts – because there are two distinct parts – together. The first four novels, written over the space of 20+ years, are old-school King. The final three are new-King. New-King is not a bad thing – in fact his post-accident novels have been some of the best of his long career. But they’re different. They feel different. ‘Sneetches’ and Dr. Doom masks? Suddenly, these pop culture references were popping up in the series and tying it further to our world – but it was jarring. It didn’t quite fit with the first four novels. That’s part of why King went back and revised The Gunslinger: trying to bring everything back into a circle. This book smoothes the circle – it reiterates the sense of the wheel, it brings in pop culture references (the Dodge Dart gag was hilarious), but it also harkens back to the more simplistic gunslinger stories of the earlier novels.
I’m actually quite surprised at how successful King’s attempt at a ‘children’s story’ goes. “The Wind Through the Keyhole” – the story itself – is truly a children’s story, and while there are a few moments of not-quite-ready-for-primetime (the kid dropping a few f-bombs is a bit much – and the blood, too), it’s mostly quite lovely. It is scary, yes, but there’s a wonderful message and there’s a family thing there that roots all of the great children’s stories – because they’re told to us on windy nights by our mothers.
And that brings us to the middle story, of the skin-man: fitting in with the Susan Delgado story and the tales of the comics, we see a younger Roland – still learning, still the brash boy who Marten Broadcloak goaded into getting his guns before he was ready. We see a boy still smarting from having killed his own mother. The grown Roland begins the story by saying “Not long after the death of my mother, which as you know came by my own hand” – and it ends with another woman/mother-figure reminding him that things will be okay. The most wonderful moment of the book comes right at the end, where Roland responds to the last thing he heard from his mother – and King’s afterward is itself a beautiful moment.
This book is all about stories. I honestly think that’s a bit of what went wrong with the latter books – too much meta, too much thought, not enough story. And this is King apologizing but also (as I said) blurring the two halves of the series together into a now-cohesive whole. He’s reminding us of the pleasure in not only telling stories but hearing them, receiving them. Does it matter that the whole thing flies by and is suddenly over? Does it matter that it feels a bit lite (especially in light of the surrounding novels…)? No. It is simply a rare and unexpected pleasure to spend a little time with old friends in a land you thought you’d never see again. Were it larger or longer, people would gripe and complain about various things. In this circumstance, it’s the Goldilocks novel: just right.
Rating: 5+ out of 5. I could go on, at quite a rambling length no doubt, talking about the various aspects of the novel – but why? It’s short enough and you will only read it for one reason: because you are a fan of The Dark Tower. If you are not a fan, then I bid thee pleasant days and will you see you further on down the road. If you are a fan, be not afraid. Say thankee-sai to Uncle Stevie and do yourself a favor: let this just be a simple pleasure, for then it will outstrip any expectations and bring you joy. (yes, I know I’m using that word a lot. It’s just how I’ve felt the whole time.)