The Man in Black Fled Across the Desert, and The Gunslinger Followed

(The Gunslinger: The Dark Tower I)

I normally try to title the post with a less notable quote, but really, how can you not quote that first line?

I will admit, I had trouble getting into this book the first time I read it. I actually came to The Dark Tower series through Wizard and Glass — someone gave it to me without realizing it was in the middle of a series and I started reading it without realizing that, and just got drawn in. I love Wizard and Glass. Having read it, I obviously wanted to read the rest of the series, so I hunted them down. And… I couldn’t get into them. I started this first book probably a hundred times over the years and either couldn’t get through it, or got through the first and part of the second, or got through the first and the second but only part of the third — you get the idea. I couldn’t get back to Wizard and Glass, so I couldn’t get beyond it. And more times than not, this first one was the real sticking point for me — with the other two, I think it was less the story and more that I would get distracted by life or by something else I wanted to read.

Point is, I got started with WaG at like, 17, when it was a new release, and didn’t work my way through the whole series till I broke my leg at the age of 39 and figured that since I was stuck for awhile, this was a good time to push through. Maybe it was the age or the lack of other options, but that time, the first book came more easily to me. On this re-read, I still think it starts slow, but it picks up for me when Roland starts telling about his time in Tull, and continues to hold my attention after that.

If you know Stephen King, you know that The Dark Tower is the linchpin that most of his canon turns on. I’ve known that since I read WaG, so even without having finished the series, I picked up and noted a lot (not all) of the Dark Tower references in other books. To read the series is really to better understand almost everything else he writes. I have only read the revised and re-released addition, so I don’t have the original to compare it to. I know that forewords aren’t exactly part of the story, but I kind of love the “On Being 19” essay at the beginning of this book. I find it kind of charming that he equates hippie culture with loving Tolkien’s work. I wasn’t born when Woodstock happened, so I don’t know anything at all about it firsthand — not even really second-hand, since my own parents were too young for it and my grandparents were too old — but from everything I’ve read and heard over the years, this is the first and only time I’ve ever heard of Frodos and Gandalfs in attendance, or how the hobbits’ journey sort of epitomized the time period. It’s an interesting perspective, but kind of one that I suspect only a bookworm/writer would come up with. And like (I think) many Dark Tower enthusiasts, I also love The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings series, so really reading those thoughts in that essay gave me positive feelings about the story I was about to go into.

And The Dark Tower really is this interesting mashup of the Western and Fantasy genres, with some sci-fi and some King-brand horror moments thrown in. I still think the first book is missing some of the elements that make further books in the series more engaging (and it may lean a little too heavily on the Western elements for me — that’s not one of my faves) but it does have some great moments. And great lines. This book is also where “Go, then, there are other worlds than these” comes from, which for my money might be the best line in the King-dom. And of course, “The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed,” may be be the second best line, and probably the greatest opening line I know of.

And even the slow parts really do seem to be table-setting for what’s to come, if only to get you into the world and introduce you to the language. I do think this book (small as it is compared to other King books) might take more effort to get into than other King works, especially if what you’re showing up for is the horror aspect, which is minimal here. But at the same time, looked at in the larger context of whole Dark Tower series and the related work throughout King’s canon, I think it’s absolutely worth that effort. And of course, this is just my opinion. There are plenty of Dark Tower enthusiasts who think The Gunslinger is just about a perfect book all by itself, no effort required. You might be one of those. If you’re a King fan but not yet a Tower fan, you should really give it a try. And while I wouldn’t normally recommend starting a series in the middle, if you try this and can’t get into it, I would really suggest giving WaG or even The Wastelands or The Drawing of the Three a look, then coming back to The Gunslinger and seeing if you now have the motivation to get through it. It really could stand on its own, but even if it’s not your first choice, it would be worth it for what comes after it.

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