I managed to surprise myself earlier this week by picking up to read Stephen King’s new Dark Tower story. I was looking for some light reading and the nostalgia factor kicked in, I guess, sealing the deal. The Dark Tower books are special for me in the way only stories read in teenage years can be. For when you are still that young and feel nigh immortal, you read differently, don’t ya, sai? You tend to imagine and live through worlds and characters more intensely, you empathize more on a purely gut level. Even though you still have much to learn about the arts of reading and living, or maybe exactly because you are still so unburdened. Some of those worlds, not necessarily conjured by the best of writers, live on in your mind with greater vividness, fading with time, but potent nevertheless. For me, Mid-World, Gilead and the Dark Tower multiverse as a whole are such worlds. I always associate them, through the eyes of Roland and his ka-tet, with psychological images of particular poignancy, archetypal and mythical even.
So, is The Wind Through the Keyhole a worthy addition to the DT epos, does it evoke the same magic as its predecessors? King’s new book is advertised as The Dark Tower 4.5, chronologically situated between Wizard and Glass and Wolves of Calla. Some time after surviving Blaine the Mono, Roland, Jake, Eddie, Susannah and Oy are forced to pause their journey and seek shelter from an apocalyptic storm called “a starkblast”. Huddled in a stone building in the deserted village of Gook (how touchingly rustic a name, in an authentically DT way!), the ka-tet members have to somehow pass the scary hours and shut out the maddening howl of the wind outside. To those ends, the rest bid Roland, their dinh, to tell them a story of olden times and far-away lands, much like he did in Wizard and Glass. He complies and weaves not one but two tales for them, one embedded inside the other. The outer layer, called “The Skin-Man”, takes us to Roland’s youth, soon after the tragic events in Mejis and those following the gunslinger’s return to Gilead. Stephen Deschain sends his heir and another peer of Roland, Jamie de Curry, to the town of Debaria, allegedly ravaged by a mysterious shape-shifter wreaking havoc and spilling the guts of the innocent. Amid that story young Roland tells yet another one, to an eleven-year-old boy, scared to death and in need of distraction from his own nightmares. That innermost tale gives the book its title. It tells about young Tim, living with his family on the periphery of Gilead-protected lands, and of their tribulations involving betrayal, ancient ironwood forests, dragons, Maerlyn, fairies and, of course, Randall Flag, the all-time favorite villain.
On the one hand, I appreciate what King has tried to do here. The Wind Through the Keyhole is not meant to be just another DT novel. It is much more about the telling of stories, the continuities between them and what they mean to tellers and listeners both. The titular story in it reads much like a fairy tale, and even Roland and Jamie’s own adventure resembles it, for it is not told from the third-person perspective, like W&G, but from the first-person, and it is meant to sound like a tale told around a campfire. Consequently, much of the psychological richness and density of description that one could expect are excised from the narrative. So no, there isn’t much of that poignant imagery (physical and psychological) that easily snares the young and impressionable mind and lives on in it.
On the other hand, that familiar melancholy after a lost, strange and terrible world is recognizable in this tale, too. Maybe it is not as intimately felt and as forceful as in the previous novels, here present in a more oblique way. It echoes through the frequent references to the DT mythos, through Roland’s distinct narrative voice and the multiple pieces of ole’ times wisdom scattered throughout the text. Like:
The salt ye take is the salt ye must pay for, as anyone from these parts will tell you.
Ka is a wheel, sai Deschain.
Many lions is a pride; many crows is a murder; many bumblers is a throcket; many dragons is a bonfire.
Marry in haste, repent at leisure, the old folken say.
And so on. As usual, King works well with the narrative voices in his employ and convincingly tricks the reader into believing that the authorial task is only to excavate already extant fossilized wisdom (and we DT fans know well how important it is to believe that Mid-World does exist, a door away from ours). So yes, this particular element works pretty well, maybe not W&G-well, but at least as well as in the graphic novels.
My other major disappointment with The Wind Through the Keyhole is that it is not really a story about the familiar ka-tet. It is not even a story about another ka-tet of gunslingers, like that of Roland, Alain and Cuthbert. Instead it is a clever and pleasing interweaving of stories, which is ultimately a much blander glimpse at that magnificent world of impending doom, valor and ka. As a loosely connected compendium of side stories it is a decent work; as a Dark Tower novel, for me personally, it doesn’t hold up too well. It is by no means a necessary read even for dedicated fans; spending twice the time rereading W&G is probably the better idea. However, if you are merely looking for a couple of decent, fast-paced tales, then this book might be a good fit for you.