(Wolves of the Calla: The Dark Tower V)
Before I get too into the story, I want to announce, for anyone who might be following along in real time, a change to the timeline. When I got the idea to start writing this, it was a couple of months after I decided to read all of King’s books in order, so before moving on, I wrote all the books up that I’d already read, then scheduled them to release twice a week, one at a time, before I went on reading. This has allowed me to keep the posts ahead of my reading schedule — up until now, I always had somewhere between 5-10 posts in the can ahead of where ever I happened to be reading.
Then I got sick. Not Covid (I don’t think) just a bad cold, but it took it out of me. I’ve been reading Wolves of the Calla for weeks. I don’t blame the book, which is very good, I think being sick just slowed me down a lot. I’m mostly healed now, but still moving slowly, reading slowly, writing slowly. And while I was moving and reading and writing slowly, my stash of pre-written posts was being used up. I think I started reading Wolves when either the Tom Gordon or the Hearts post was coming out. And I just finished.
Now, I read fast, and the next book, Song of Susannah, is short, and I managed to read about 40% of it after finishing Wolves yesterday. But the last Dark Tower book is long, the next one on my list after that is Faithful, which is a non-fiction baseball book and may take me awhile, and there’s some other long ones coming up after it (because of course, this is Stephen King.) And I also have a job and a family and a life and I don’t think I can reasonably expect to finish two books a week going forward. Even one book a week seems like a stretch right now. So, for the foreseeable future, this is my last Tuesday post. There won’t be one this Friday, and going forward, I’m going to go for one every other week, to be posted on Fridays, starting Feb 25th (I’m counting this week as week One, because I posted this, even though I’m not posting on Friday. Should I manage to build up a backlog again, I’ll look at reverting back to a faster schedule. But as the Dark Tower has shown us, time is a fickle thing, and the important part is to just keep going. After all, someone who’s actually reading along currently might feel the slowdown, but someone who comes along in five years can just binge all the posts in order, without waiting for me, right? It all depends on what when you’re in. What matters is to finish.
And that was what King was thinking when working on this book, and the two that follow it. If you’ve read Dark Tower books published in more recent years, they usually contain some explanation for the breakneck pace of this novel and the two that follow it. And if you’ve followed his life at all, you could probably figure it out without his help. He had that accident, and among all the loss that his family, his friends, his fans, and even the landscape of modern literature would have endured had it actually been a fatal accident instead of a near-fatal one, King, and many of his Tower-junkie followers, realized that had he died, the tower would have fallen for good, Roland and the rest of the ka-tet’s quest left forever unfinished. And he didn’t want that, luckily for all of us. The result is Wolves and the two books that follow it, written and released back to back to back. And while I want to take them one at a time, I feel like it’s important to note that starting Wolves feels like climbing to the top of a slide and starting down it. It’s a very long slide, it takes the next two books to slide all the way down, but it’s still going at the pace of sliding down a slide rather than the pace of the first five books, which feel much more Lord of The Rings-like in the way that the wanderers take their time along the way. At this point, wandering is pretty much done.
None of which makes Wolves a bad book, by the way. Opinions are divided on… well everything, but specifically this part of the series. And actually, the fourth book will sometimes be lumped in with the final three, and sometimes be counted with the first three, depending on how the reader felt about it, so opinions are divided on that, too. But to my point, some readers feel that in King’s determination to finish the story, he also rushed the story, and it suffers for that. Personally, I think that he did a good job of incorporating the relentless, rushed, looming deadline kind of feel into the story. I think it’s supposed to feel like that, and I really like the last three, and this one in particular.
Wolves of the Calla is also the story where, to me, it becomes clear that the Dark Tower is linked to not just bits and pieces of King’s work here and there, but to almost all of it. Or possibly to literally all of it, if your theory is that everything King has ever written depicts some level of the tower and corner of the multiverse, whether or not any connections between what you’re reading and anything else of his you’ve ever read are evident. I rather like that idea myself, but YMMV. He includes so many other references that it’s even possible to posit that all of literature, or maybe all fiction/all of media is a huge, interconnected multiverse? That one feels too much for my brain, frankly, but it’s not that different from positing a Tommy Westphall universe in television that connects a huge number of otherwise unconnected TV shows spanning decades. He does this by bringing in Father Callahan, a character from his second book, ‘Salem’s Lot.
Now, ‘Salem’s Lot is one of my few sticking points with King’s work. I don’t think it’s bad, but I can never really get into it, for whatever reason. I’ve tried again and again. I tried after reading this series for the first time, because I really like Father Callahan as a character here. I continue to like him as a character here and remain uninterested in ‘Salem’s Lot, though. It is what it is.
The actual story is influenced by other stories, and though I haven’t watched much of Sergio Leone’s work, nor have I ever seen The Seven Samurai, I’m familiar enough with the story beats just by cultural osmosis to pick up on how they’re used here — but of course, set in Stephen King’s strange world, populated by robots and roont twins and farmers and merchants who seem remarkably hobbitish, except that they’re not. With a dash of Star Wars here and a pinch of Harry Potter there, and probably some other things that I’m not well-read or well-watched enough to recognize. Not that he’s stealing, mind you. King calls out most of the influences he’s using plainly in the context of the story, and outside of the context of the story, it’s clear enough to me that what he’s doing is sharing, not stealing. He’s using influences and homages to tell a story, sure, but he’s also telling the reader, “hey, I liked this so much I put it in my story. Maybe you’ll like it too. Now that you’ve seen it here, go check out the original.” He does that a lot — Hearts in Atlantis is another really notable example, but once you start looking for it, you’ll see it everywhere. At worst, he’s contributing to his readers’ cultural osmosis — even if you don’t check these things out, a bit of it will probably stick in your head and you’ll know it when someone mentions that book/movie/song/poem/etc. to you. At best, you’ll come away with whole new reading lists and playlists and watchlists. Either way, it’s pretty neat.
Susannah’s pregnancy is also beginning to speed along here, after having been only recently acknowledged and before that only hinted at. At the beginning of this book, she’s still consciously unaware of it, and by the end, she knows she’s pregnant (by a demon) possessed (by a demon/mom) and then takes off into the unknown to give birth. That happened fast. One of my favorite things about the pregnancy discussions in this book (which mostly take place between men and out of earshot of Susannah, even though it’s Susannah who’s pregnant, which is… frustrating, but at least that’s acknowledged) is when Roland broaches the possibility of an abortion to Father Callahan, who not only strenuously objects, Catholic priest that he is, but also threatens to turn the town against them should they seek to do it anyway. Roland notes that Jesus was a bit of a son of a bitch when it comes to women. Fair, Roland. Very fair. It’s funny to me, because of course Susannah can’t have an abortion, the thing she’s carrying is going to matter later. That may have been, narratively speaking, part of the point of keeping it quiet to this point in the story, because it’s not impossible that some sort of abortifacient that Susannah (or Roland) could recognize was just growing out there wild along their path, so if she’d suspected she was pregnant with a demon 6 weeks along, why not just take it before getting this far? But when they got to a town, full of farming folk, and strong women with their own feminine practices and traditions — there’s no reasonable way to pretend such a place wouldn’t have contained women that someone like Susannah could go to for a termination, and others who would happily point her to such a person. So, either we make Susannah herself a staunch pro-lifer, which doesn’t seem to really fit her character, we make Eddie one – so much of one that he would find a way to stop her from aborting a demon baby — which seems even less in character and would also make me hate him, we make Roland a pro-lifer, which just contradicts everything we know about him, or we throw a pro-lifer in their path who can make it impossible for Susannah to even try to seek out this service, and reveal the whole thing to him via Roland (any other character might think not to mention it to him), who wouldn’t really grok the Catholic preoccupation with saving fetuses, since that’s not really of his world. It’s quite clever.
I also don’t hate Father Callahan for this move as much as I’d probably dislike any other character who pulled it. It kind of feels like… Catholic priests gonna Catholic, what are you going to do? Of course, in reality, men who use their power and authority to prevent women from controlling their own bodies are seriously bad news. But in our specific situation here, we need Susannah’s chap for story reasons, we’ve created a world without the weird laws against abortion and a woman who’s probably strong and smart enough to figure out how even with no help, but we’ve also given her potential help, so how do we prevent it? With a Catholic priest who has some political power in the town they’re in, and whose position — “don’t abort, even if it’s a demon baby who’s immediately going to eat the mother” — sort of underlines the absurdity of the pro-life position and how it devalues women. It’s probably not perfect, but it made me smile. Besides, some authors wouldn’t have bothered to tackle this at all. This sets us up to go into the next book, where a childbirth will happen, without needing to wonder why Susannah didn’t take care of this problem before it was too late.