Monday, December 27, 2010

There I Will Sing All Their Names


The last great unknown has passed from my life.

Pffft.

Ok, indulge me, though.

After deliberately delaying and avoiding it for several years, I finally reached the clearing at the end of the long, long path laid down by Stephen King's The Dark Tower series. This was a series I began reading sometime in elementary school, when I was around 9 or 10, borrowing the beat-up copies from my dad's bookshelf. The sudden end of volume three, The Waste Lands, was my first encounter with a gut-wrenching cliffhanger at the end of a story. I would go into the Waldenbooks store in the mall and occasionally ask the employees if they knew when the next volume would be released. They never did. Waiting for that fourth volume, Wizard and Glass, was my first experience in eagerly anticipating a media release. When it finally came out I believe I bought it as a "gift" for my dad, but you better believe I read it as soon as he tore the wrapping off.

(When I asked my dad why he let me read Stephen King's books at that age, he thought about it for a minute then replied, "Well, there wasn't anything in there I thought you couldn't handle, I suppose.")

I re-read the books a few time in the next few years, and when I found out several other King books tied into the Dark Tower mythos, I read them as well. When the last three books were released six years later, though, I didn't buy them right away. I suppose I just didn't have the money at the time, and I ended up checking out Wolves of the Calla and Song of Susannah from the library. I tore through them and then just... stopped.

The series had been a part of my life for so long that I didn't want it to end. Roland and his companions had occupied a place in my mind for so long, and I had imagined how everything would end up so many times, that the journey had become more important than the end. Roland was after the Tower in order to save his world, but I knew flipping that last page would mean, in my imagination at least, an end to that world. I had grown comfortable with the mystery of what lay at the top of the Dark Tower.

At the same time, books five and six just weren't very good. They lacked the strong and lasting imagery of the earlier books: the slow mutants under the mountains; the lobstrosities; Shardik in the forest and Blaine the Mono; Rhea of the Coos and the thinny. Nothing so memorable was found in these two volumes. Song of Susannah doesn't even function as its own novel like the previous five books. I could understand an ending to an epic saga not living up to expectations, but what if it was just flat out bad? Stephen King's novels are not known for their climaxes. It's the stuff leading up to them that you remember. What if he just couldn't pull off the ending? I have no doubt the same thoughts probably passed through his own head as he wrote, but that didn't diminish them in mine.

So I passed on the last volume. Message board discussions of the series were avoided and Google searches that might have led to spoilers were only made when strictly necessary. It wasn't until last year when I started reading the graphic novels and some jerk on Twitter spoiled me on the recursive nature of the ending that I began to think I should just suck it up and find out how everything turns out. I really liked the graphic novels, but didn't want to risk being spoiled on the end, despite being prequels. And, you know, at least this series DID get its ending. Unlike Dune, Wheel of Time, and at this point probably A Song of Ice and Fire, this was one long-running series where the author got to see it through to the end.

I acquired all the books and began reading from the start for the first time since 2004. It took two or three months to get through volumes one through six again. When it came time to begin the end, it was physically difficult for me to turn to that first page. I stared at the artwork on the cover for a long time. I turned the weighty tome in my hands over and over. I found the copyright page particularly fascinating. Reading the table of contents and seeing bizarre, foreign terms that would fit right in with The Lord of the Rings helped a bit. What did devar toi, can'-ka no rey, and ves'-ka gan mean? The series had a bit of its own peculiar terminology and quite a number of memorable dialects in dialogue, but these new phrases were both ominous and inviting as I whispered them to myself. I lingered over the page with "19" and "99" printed in large type, pondered the words REPRODUCTION, REVELATION, REDEMPTION, and RESUMPTION on the next page, closely studied the black and white illustrations from Michael Whelan on the next two pages.

And, you know, once the loose ends from Song of Susannah were tied up, all was well. The birth of Mordred and his first meal marked the return of the macabre fantasy the earlier entries had done so well. Once things got moving, I found it very hard to put the book down at night. It's amazing how much suspense is built when the author tells you ahead of time a beloved character is going to die. Maybe it won't happen, right? Narrators can be unreliable. But like a monorail crashing through the end of its track, there's nothing you can do one way or the other except to watch everything unfold. With Lovecraftian horrors, devious vampires, and a surprising confrontation with the Crimson King marking the way, this was the ending given. While I don't think it was perfect, it did feel right. Ka is a wheel, and it always rolls back around to the place it started.

Roland's past was fleshed out fairly well by the graphic novels. While it bothers me that more are on their way, and that King has mentioned he's thought of writing an eighth Dark Tower novel, any mistakes that may or may not be made in the future won't detract from what exists now: an epic masterpiece that spanned worlds and decades, and whose presence has been felt for a large percentage of my life. I miss the mystery and anticipation of the unknown, but knowing has its own satisfaction. As silly as it sounds, I think I can move on now.

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