Stephen King’s The Dark Tower series seemed to be at an interesting nexus for many of his die-hard fans. There are some who hail it as his Magnum Opus, even more iconic than works like The Stand and IT. On the other side, however, who find it a deviation in tone from the rest of his stories and dismissing it for not scratching that same itch.
For those who haven’t had the chance to read the first volume, The Gunslinger takes place on a barren world not unlike the lands depicted in Western movies of yore, with sprinklings of dark-magic and quasi-horror beats that have made the writer so prolific. The chapter in study is what made me first realise what a tour-de-force this series is, and encapsulates everything good about King’s writing and the story that is unfolding.
The Gunslinger is divided into four parts; the eponymous Gunslinger, The Waystation, The Oracle and the Mountains, The Slow Mutants, and The Gunslinger and the Man in Black. This chapter takes place in the very first part, and sets itself up as a perfect introduction. It spends the sixty pages prior teaching us everything we need about the world; that it is a desperate, lawless place, and our enigmatic and cold Gunslinger, Roland Deschain.
The Gunslinger regales a tale of his time in a small town in the desert called Tull, where the inhabitants are preparing for a dust-storm, and dealing with the ails of the local opiate known as “Devil-grass”. The Gunslinger begins a carnal relationship with a tavern owner known as Allie, who tells him she has met with the Man-In-Black, who Roland has been relentlessly pursuing through the desert. The Man-In-Black stopped at Tull a few days before Roland, and Allie tells him how he has impregnated the local leader of the church with what she believes to be some kind of messiah, and has been turned against Roland.
Allie tells Roland that the Man-In-Black brought a man back to life, granting him some reverence within the town, and how he left a cryptic letter along with a curse for Allie, a curse that will only occur when she says the word “Nineteen”, a reoccurring number in some of King’s works. The curse is lead mostly ambiguous, as if of course the author’s style, the only description being; “If you say it to him his mind will be opened. He will tell you what lies beyond. He will tell you what he saw.” The implication is at first Roland being the subject, but further analysis on the story as a whole potentially implies it is The Crimson King, who would become the central antagonist of the series, who the Man-In-Black serves. Roland remarks on how it is the perfect curse, as she knows she will say it one day simply because she has been forbidden to.
Tensions in the town build with Roland there, who has already been described to the towns-folk by the Man-In-Black as “The Interloper”, and warned them of his coming. The previous owner of the bar, Sheb, tries to attack Roland as he is in bed with Allie, and Roland breaks his wrists. When he finally meets the leader oft he church, he discovers that despite being quite overweight, he finds himself drawn physically towards her, and suspects that most men are. She tells him she has been impregnated with the new “Red-prince”, which culminates in a disturbing scene where it is implied Roland gives her an abortion using his revolver.
Through only a few pages, we are introduced to this small town and a small amount of it’s inhabitants, with each of them having their own stories and histories with one another, in a way that sells us on their differences enough to compel us to know what kind of town this is, and how it’s inevitable end will surely come.
By part 17, Roland begins to realise he has to leave before the trap is sprung, but is aware his chances are slim. As he goes to retrieve his mule and supplies, he finds the town empty, battered down for the upcoming storm. Before he can leave, the trap is indeed sprung, and the towns folk converge on him, wielding whatever they could find as weapons. The men, the women and the children; all with knives, sticks and whatever else they could find. They scream at the accursed and call him The Interloper, before advancing on him with malicious intent.
Roland draws his guns, but not before Sheb pushes out of the door with a knife to Allie’s throat. She cries and confesses that she said the word, as inevitably, she knew she would. She tells him that ‘He’ told her something and that couldn’t bear it, and begs Roland to kill him to put her out of her misery (In the newer revised versions, in the original she pleaded with Roland not to kill her), and which he obliges, blasting her and Sheb into the dust.
The town then advances on him, every one of them, cursing and calling him, slashing at him and throwing every weapon they can, scratching and cutting at him. This is where the story diverges from convention, I find. When I first read through this part, I was simply expecting a short chase scene until Roland escapes the town, but instead, he digs his heels into the sand, and shows the reader why he is known as The Gunslinger.
The crowd converges on him, and Roland opens fire wildly with deadly efficiency. They chase him into the salon and out, flailing wildly and attacking, but Roland holds his own. Chamber after chamber is unloaded, until, finally, he realises the entire town is dead. Here is where we see the true nature of Roland; that of a survivor, with a killer edge honed by many, many years of training.
After the blood-shed, Roland looks around the empty town. He gathers supplies, makes himself a hamburger and has three beers, before sleeping dreamlessly in the bed he shared with Allie previously. He then concludes his tale, and in the present day of the continuity, finds his mule dead, and continues his pursuit on foot.
Roland looks back on the massacre with some regret, as begetting of anyone who has wiped out an entire town, I would hope, but ultimately, it was another stop in part of his chase. We are left with some ambiguity at this point, as to whether it was due to Allie’s speaking of the word, or the leader of the church rallying the entirety of the town to kill Roland, which is what makes the scene so memorable.
The chapter is simply the culmination of the introduction, but it introduces everything with such perfect precision. The setting and the world at large, the machinations of the enigmatic Man-In-Black Roland is desperately hunting for, and of course, The Gunslinger’s own determination and Darwinist instincts. It sets the pace for what is to come, as we are now, fully sure of who Roland is, and we are now following along with a story about this man who we now know completely, and we are compelled to follow the ride, and desperately hope he catches up with his quarry.
What we can learn
This chapter is an immaculate example of executing perfect set-up and pay-off. The previous chapters on the book doubled-down on the slow build-up, allowing us to see how the town inhabitants live everyday life and how they interact with Roland’s appearance, before culminating in an explosive gunfight. The pacing is sublime, being relaxed enough in the beginning as Roland listens to Allie’s information about the town and it’s inhabitants, with sprinklings of mystery and conflict in between, while the build-up to the trap being swung is given time to breath and develop in the reader’s mind, it’s action is immediate.
The action scene is short, only being a few pages, kept with some of King’s prevalent ambiguity all the way through. Each attack and gunshot isn’t intricately and intimately described, we’re not told what parts of the body are blasted by gunfire, or how many fall, and this leads to the fluidity of the scene. As Roland and his revolvers move rapidly, so we too follow him. We are kept with vague descriptions of Roland shooting into the crowd, and so the pace never has time to slow down. It’s immediate and visceral without having to rely on grotesque details continuously. If action is more personal and intimate, then it sometimes benefits greatly by having specific details in every little action, as it paints a far more intricate picture in the mind’s eye, but here that is wholly unnecessary, the action is rushed and desperate, and to a degree, the writing and descriptions are perfect for it.
This first instalment of The Dark Tower was published originally in 1982, which I think is an interesting nexus point for protagonists in fiction, particularly movies. While obviously inspired heavily by both fantasy works and ‘Spaghetti-Westerns’, Roland is of course portrayed to be a similar figure to Clint Eastwood’s reoccurring “The Man-With-No-Name”, a survivor and skilled marksman living in a dangerous world. After the Westerns died out in popularity, they would make way for a multitude of action films in the ’70’s and ’80’s, where the protagonists are often in stark contrast to these. Large, macho as hell, but often with a soft side. There would soon be a trend in action films for a long time where the protagonist could never directly kill the antagonist, but would usually leave them in an unescapable and occasionally ironic fatal situation all the same. Roland is not one of these characters. Of course he eventually softens his edges throughout the series, but that is an arc we are pleased to watch unfold gradually over time, as he bonds with his ka-tet companions, but in this chapter we are immediately and effectively shown a ruthless and brutal hunter on the trail of a dark and powerful magician, and that’s why this chapter always sticks out in my head as one of my favourites from Mr King.
What are your opinions on the Dark Tower and this chapter? Are there any others that stand out to you? Let’s talk about it!