(Song of Susannah: The Dark Tower VI)
I’m of the opinion that Song of Susannah is hugely underrated. And I think I know why.
It’s that slide effect the last three books have. Wolves of the Calla takes you up the stairs and onto the slide, then pushes you to start the sliding. The Dark Tower, the seventh book, finally gets you to the bottom of the slide so that you can see what you’re landing in. What part do you most want to rush through? That middle part of the slide. That’s Song of Susannah. I remember being not terribly impressed with this book the first time I read it, too, because by that point I was in such a tearing hurry to get through to the end, I was rushing. In retrospect and with further re-reads, I missed or glossed over some really good stuff at the time, and I bet I’m not the only one. I suppose it is possible that this book, which is one of the shorter ones, could have been split up and added to the end of the last one and beginning of the first, but I think it’s important that Susannah get her due — she’s often the least detailed, least understandable one of the ka-tet, and she’s so very important. This book seems right. My theory is that it’s just better on second and subsequent readings because you’re not in such a rush to get to the damn tower already.
One of the first things I made a note about in this book is Trudy Damascus. If you don’t remember her, she’s the woman who sees Susannah/Mia appear out of nowhere on a sidewalk in New York, and she’s the one Susannah/Mia mugs for her shoes. She’s just a neat little character — King sketches her out in a couple of sentences, letting us know that she’s not the type of person to ever believe in, say, other worlds, singing roses, people appearing out of nowhere, etc. Then Susannah appears and her whole worldview is permanently altered. This is probably pretty basic, but I didn’t catch it before — I think it’s probably significant that Trudy’s last name is Damascus — the road to Damascus is where the scales fell from Paul’s eyes, in Biblical history, and Trudy certainly has a moment of the scales falling from her own eyes here. We won’t deal with Trudy again, as far as I remember, she’s not really important. But I think the concept of losing one’s blinders, realizing that there’s more in the universe than one previously suspected or believed, is an important theme of both this story (specifically with regard to Mia, whose blinders put her in a position to learn a pretty harsh lesson in this book) and to the overall theme of the Dark Tower as a whole. And it’s just succinctly illustrated in this minor, throwaway character. It’s a great device.
The next few notes have to do with Susannah and Mia’s conversations in Fedic. There’s a Poe references, of course — the humans in Fedic have been killed off by the Red Death, which is a Poe allusion, and one that Stephen King has used before. Of course, it’s not the only allusion in this book, but it feels important. Mia also talks about the machines breaking down and how the men always thought there would be more of them to make more machines, but they were wrong. Because none of them foresaw the “universal exhaustion” that’s happening now. The phrase “universal exhaustion” struck a chord with me. I know this was written ages ago — but that phrase feels like what’s happening to the world now, maybe what’s been happening for a while. This book also returns repeatedly to the sad announcements about the deaths of people — JFK, RFK, JFK jr.,MLK, Marilyn Monroe, etc, etc. I read it now and I sort of imagine that the same sad voices are adding on, oh, I don’t know, John Lewis. George Floyd. Ahmaud Arbery. Heather Heyer. Jamal Khashoggi. There are so many more. It’s exhausting, the bad news. It feels like it’s piling up, too. Maybe it’s not, maybe it’s always been this way, and I just don’t have the perspective to see it. Or maybe it is piling up, but it’s been happening slowly, piling up for longer than I have the perspective to see. I don’t know. But I look around at the world, and “universal exhaustion” feels so apt right now.
Susannah isn’t the only one with a lot going on, of course. Eddie and Roland are in the 70s, meeting John Cullum, who will be important later, convincing Calvin Tower to sign the rose over to the newly-formed Tet corporation, and, importantly, meeting Stephen King. Also realizing their own… unreality. After the shootout in the store, when Eddie is getting the bullet that shot him removed from his leg, he realizes that he’s in a common Western movie-type trope, the pulling of the bullet. It occurred to me that the way this series plays with and calls out the tropes of various genres, like Westerns and fantasy, reminds me of the way that the Scream movie series plays with and calls out the tropes of the horror genre. Although I’m unsure if the Dark Tower can be said to play with the conventions of horror, only because, when it comes to written horror, Stephen King kind of is the convention.
Eddie and Roland’s meeting with Stephen King is fascinating, and, I think, important. I know that King writing himself into his own epic was beyond controversial. But I like it, again. I also see these as playing with tropes and conventions. Deus ex Machina is the term that sneeringly gets aimed at this, but in a way, all fiction is that. I mean, the writer controls everything anyway. King just called it out. This isn’t supposed to be subtle.
I don’t think it would have worked for every author. This is pure speculation because I don’t know Stephen King personally, of course — my judgment of him as a person is largely based on the fictional work he puts out, and that’s not an easy way to judge a person. But he comes across as fairly humble, and with a sense of humor about himself. That helps. If he’d actually chosen to write about himself as the all-knowing, omnipotent god of the universe he created, that would, I suppose, be fair — how could an author not be the god of the worlds he creates? — but it wouldn’t be fun to read. The fact that he’s upfront about his flaws and limitations and seems able to laugh at himself mitigates the cringe to a large extent. And for me, makes it possible to focus on the literary trick he’s pulling here. In my opinion, it works if you also have a sense of humor and don’t take the thing too seriously. It may be an epic story, but it’s still fiction, and that means that someone is pulling the strings. King just pointed that out.
I also think that Roland’s comment that King will write many stories, but that all of them will be more or less about this story, further confirms for me that his work really is all connected and turns on the Dark Tower as a linchpin, whether we’re able to actually spot the connections or not. I’ve seen it argued that the Stephen King multiverse is just something that fans want to be true, but that the connections between books are often just Easter eggs and not indicative of a real, intentional multiverse. I disagree, and I think the inclusion of this line is proof of the intentional nature of linking all of the books and stories.
Finally, there’s Jake and Pere Callahan. Before walking into the Dixie Pig — and we won’t see the outcome of that until the next book — the most important thing they do here is stash Black Thirteen in the storage area of the Twin Towers. If I remember correctly, there actually is no such storage area — this is something King entirely made up for story purposes. At any rate, this decision means that Black Thirteen is gone now, destroyed in 9/11. I’ve seen it posited that Black Thirteen actually caused that event — that it work up, stirred trouble, and boom, 9/11. I don’t really see anything in the text that supports that, but I suppose it can be read that way if one wants.
Before I end the post, I want to include a note about the excerpts from the author’s journal that are included in the back of this book. I am sure these are not real excerpts (I don’t even know if King keeps a personal journal in that way, though it wouldn’t be surprising). I suspect the gist of the entries, the real-world gist, is mostly accurate, though. Like I said, King seems incredibly forthcoming about his own life, shortcomings and failures, and foibles as much as anything else. He’s been clear enough about his addiction and alcoholism and about his writing process and interests and family in so many other places, that the parts of the “journal” pages that mention this ring true enough to me. These journal pages take us right up to that accident that spurred the rapid production of the end of this series. He’s dealt with it in fiction before, as well as in non-fiction, toward the end of On Writing. He’s about to deal with it as comprehensively as an author of primarily fiction can, though, and he lets us know it by what he doesn’t say in this book — by where these journal entries leave off.