(Gwendy’s Final Task)
We’ve arrived in 2022 (the present year as I’m writing this, though anyone reading this post will be looking back from 2023), and with 2022 comes the end of the odd little Gwendy trilogy that starts with a Stephen King/Richard Chizmar collaboration, continues with an installment by Chizmar alone, and then finishes up with this, another King/Chizmar joint. That’s such a weird way to do a trilogy. It couldn’t have been planned, right? Stephen King has reiterated many times that he’s not much of a planner, so it seems likely that it wasn’t. (I am pretty sure they’ve said it wasn’t planned out, I just don’t automatically take a statement from the creator at face value.) Although this trilogy kind of puts me in mind of how the second book in the Mr. Mercedes series — while a very good story — is markedly different from the first and last book in the series. Not “totally different author” different, but still.
I read all these Gwendy books as they came out, and I remember thinking at the time that Gwendy’s Magic Feather was a perfectly good middle book and didn’t seem jarringly not-Kingish at all. But of course, that means that I read them in 2017, 2019, and then 2022. I didn’t read them all together on this re-read, of course, since I’m going in publication order, but I did get to them in a much closer stretch of time, clearly. And close together like that — I mean, I still don’t think that Magic Feather is bad. But it’s much more clearly not-King from this perspective.
Gwendy’s Final Task is one of those King books that sounds kind of ridiculous if you summarize the premise: senator with Alzheimer’s disease goes to space to dispose of magic box. But it doesn’t feel ridiculous while you’re reading it. King is good at that, I think.
It’s interesting to me that the book concerns both Castle Rock, where Gwendy is from, and Derry. Both of them are fictional little Stephen King Maine towns that have seen some shit. I’m old enough to remember when Needful Things was “the end of Castle Rock” (and “The Sun Dog” was just “a look back.”) But Castle Rock didn’t end, obviously, even after myriad terrible and even cataclysmic events. In fact, judging by Elevation and the Gwendy trilogy, Castle Rock has gotten better. Derry, on the other hand… well, it also didn’t end, come flood or fire, the town is still there. But it didn’t get better. People still look the other way when bad things happen out of their own self-interest. And the clown is still around. Is that the difference between just being a weird town and being built on bad ground?
So, the button box has been busy since we last saw it. It’s made a man kill his family, and it started the COVID pandemic. Probably not 9/11, though. I’m not sure that all the timelines totally line up here — this book is supposed to be set in 2026, which is fine, and maybe that’s how old Gwendy’s supposed to be now… but does that line up with the timeline from the previous book? Not going to lie here, I don’t actually care enough to go back through them and check. If I remember, I’ll look next time I feel like re-reading them, but for now, eh. It nagged at my brain a little. I could be wrong, though. I also could have sworn that I remembered that Book 1 Richard Farris said that the button box always went to a child, yet his last box-watchers all seem to have been adults. Maybe that’s the problem, but then why did he switch? Again, I don’t feel like going back to book one to confirm this, though. Maybe I’m mixing it up with why Willy Wonka wanted to give his chocolate factory to a child. But I really think I’m right about this one.
Anyhoo, the box is destroying people and getting more evil, and it falls to Gwendy, who’s always been special, to dispose of it. In space, because that’s the only place that the people who are looking for it won’t find it. Who are those people? The low men from other levels of the tower! This is a Dark Tower-connected book. They also killed Gwendy’s husband. And since they can’t seem to get to her on their own, they’ve sent an evil rich guy on the space flight with her and promised him his own world to rule in return for getting the box. (Now that’s kind of believable.) But between the time of the giving of the box and the time when Gwendy, having become a US senator and maneuvered her way onto a space flight, takes off for the final frontier, she’s developed Alzheimer’s disease. Some days, she can barely remember what she’s doing at all. She wrote “crankshafts” when she meant hot dogs.
Even when I stretch it out like this, the plot premise sounds silly. I promise you it’s not. When you’re reading it, you’re right there with Gwendy. Especially, I think, if you’ve already journeyed to the Dark Tower. You know there are other worlds than these. And you also know that if those low men actually get that box, there won’t be other worlds left for evil billionaire men to rule.
Gwendy manages to complete her task and save this world and all worlds. And unlike Roland, she doesn’t just get sent back to the beginning. As far as we know, anyway. Instead, she makes the ultimate sacrifice and goes out as an unsung heroine. This is another one where a main character chooses to accept and embrace death/the end/floating off into space, a la Elevation. It’s also another one containing a lot of Alzheimer’s stuff like Later does. The author of Elevation, Later, and this (well, one of the authors of this) turned 75 months after this book was published. I wonder what’s been on his mind lately? I feel like King’s books are such a window to what he’s experiencing and thinking or worrying about. No, I don’t think he has Alzheimer’s — I just think at 75, you’d probably be thinking about it, wouldn’t you? Or maybe he knows someone who’s been through it — I notice both in Later and in this book, he’s specifically talking about early-onset Alzheimer’s. I don’t hear about that all that much, so it seems significant to me.
I think this one is probably the best book of the trilogy. I don’t think this trilogy is the best Stephen King product out there, but it’s very hopeful — Gwendy is the epitome of a good character who does good things, is rewarded for that, but also remains good and does good when bad things happen to her too. You want to believe that people like that exist. You want to believe you could be that person. You want to believe that people like that could be elected to high office (I so want that!). I like that… I feel like Gwendy is a series you read when you want that hopeful feeling. It’s also notable because it’s a collaboration and a strange configuration at that – I feel like if you’re someone who’s interested in the off-the-beaten-path things King has done, like writing the story for a musical, releasing a series of small, inexpensive chapbooks once a month instead of releasing the whole book at once, writing early ebooks before most other authors were, and other things like that, this is a trilogy that belongs in your collection. I also think you could probably just grab Gwendy’s Final Task by itself and enjoy it as is (same for the other two, but I think Final Task is the most entertaining and engaging.)