Let’s dive into Stephen King’s evocative first foray into dark fantasy, the first volume in the Dark Tower series, “The Gunslinger”.
An oddity in Stephen King’s canon (at least at the time of its initial run), the first Dark Tower book is King at his most unrestrained, making a hard detour around the horror tenets which defined his early-to-mid career.
A cross between high-fantasy and the Wild West, and especially the lone hero archetype as established by numerous Westerns, both Italian and otherwise, The Gunslinger has a little something for everyone.
Is it a story of revenge? Most certainly. A thriller with moments of intrigue and action? Yep. A rumination on life and death, with occasional dips into terror and existentialism? Check and check.
It must also be stated that The Gunslinger features some of King’s most lyrical and evocative prose.
In stark contrast to the often straightforward and unsentimental delivery of most Western paperbacks published at the time, The Gunslinger is nearly poetic in its execution, conjuring an entirely different sense of grandeur and grit. This is by design, as the entire story was heavily influenced by Robert Browning’s 1855 poem “Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came”.
Initially released in serialized installments for The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction between 1978 and 1981, The Gunslinger was eventually compiled into a full novel in 1982, released in a strictly limited run. Another limited run of 10,000 copies followed in 1983, fueled by high demand. Publishing house Plume then issued a trade paperback in 1988, which included color illustrations by artist Michael Whelan (this is, incidentally, the copy that I have). This was the first time that the novel was widely available.
To say that I am a fan of The Gunslinger as a novel (and the Dark Tower series as a whole) is a considerable understatement.
I was twelve when Plume released their trade paperback, but already reading well above my age category. In those days of intermittent book releases, this was both a blessing and a curse.
Of course, King was already a huge name in horror in the mid-80s, with novels like The Stand, The Shining, Firestarter, and The Dead Zone establishing his bonafides in spectacular fashion.
And though I enjoyed horror as much as the next kid, I was a fantasy fan through and through. So, when I discovered that the world’s most popular author had also released a dark fantasy book, I was all in. I just HAD to have it.
Even though we barely had two nickels to rub together, my mother took me down to the local bookstore and bought me the Plume edition that very day (kudos to my mom for supporting my reading addiction all through my formative years!).
Here’s a nifty little tidbit: despite all of the moves (both local and cross-country), life changes, and various other curveballs that come at us when least expected, I still have that same copy from 1988. It is in remarkably good shape for such a well-read book!
Beginning with a minimal preamble and told in an occasionally non-linear fashion, The Gunslinger thrusts us right into the weird and dampened story of Roland Deschain, the last gunslinger, and his quest to hunt down the Man in Black.
This original version (The Gunslinger was heavily revised in 2003, changing quite a bit in both tone and content, as well as reshuffling the narrative a bit) takes place on Earth, albeit an Earth that has moved on. The revised edition of the novel removes most of the familiar terms, removing nearly all references to the world as we know it, making the setting more ambiguous.
Though I understand King’s reasoning for the changes, I still prefer my original version over the revised one.
Part adventure tale and part fever dream, The Gunslinger (at least in its original form) has moments where it feels fragmented and meandering.
It’s as if we are merely getting stolen glimpses into a much larger and grander universe.
Considering the fact that it took King over a decade to write the novel (he first began the story in 1970), this unevenness is to be expected.
It was short for a Stephen King book when it was initially released, and even with the additional 9000 words in the revised edition, this is still a quick read. It should go without saying, however, that this IS a Stephen King book from the 70s and, as such, is not intended for younger readers or folks with delicate sensibilities.
The main character Roland Deschain, aka Roland of Gilead, aka the last gunslinger, makes for a compelling, albeit flawed, wasteland hero.
Alternating between quietly contemplative and unwaveringly ruthless, Roland is a character whose actions speak far louder than his words. Though he would eventually become a mentor and surrogate father for an ever-expanding roster of interdimensional travelers in the later books, in The Gunslinger, he is primarily a solitary figure.
The interactions he does have with other characters generally end in misery or death (and frequently both). His sardonic and fatalistic views on life and death, while not outright funny, do have a wry amusement to them. His motivations for chasing the Man in Black are expounded upon near the middle of the book and make for believable motivations for vengeance.
It is also through Roland’s eyes and internal ruminations that we learn about the world he inhabits.
Most of the tidbits are imparted in a casual fashion; Roland knows much, but the readers get drip-fed information.
This is a book that requires both patience and attentiveness to enjoy fully.
While there are moments of action (the brutal gunfight in the town of Tull is a standout), The Gunslinger is a largely thoughtful affair, frequently trading violence for postapocalyptic philosophy.
The supporting cast is a varied and colorful bunch.
There’s Alice, the scarred and desperate bartender who tries to tempt Roland into domesticity. Sylvia, the impassioned preacher who had a liaison with the Man in Black, is the first of many foes Roland must face. We also have Brown the Farmer (along with his wise-cracking raven Zoltan) and Jake Chambers, an interdimensional traveler from Manhattan, who will go on to enjoy a much larger presence in the rest of the series.
And, of course, there’s the Man in Black himself, who is as enigmatic and dangerous as a King villain can be.
As for worldbuilding, it’s a healthy mix of descriptive and understated. As mentioned earlier, there’s a lot of incidental storytelling taking place, with things frequently inferred instead of explicitly stated. However, such is King’s deftness with the written word that he can make even the ugliest of locations and people seem beautiful.
The Western elements are more foundational in nature as opposed to the main thrust of the narrative.
One doesn’t need to have an appreciation of cowpokes and six-shooters to enjoy THE GUNSLINGER: the overarching themes of destiny, despair, and man’s eternal question for meaning can resonate with any audience.
As an aside, if your only familiarity with the Dark Tower is the abysmal 2017 movie adaptation, rectify that immediately. Despite starring incredibly talented actors like Idris Elba, Matthew McConaughey, and Jackie Earle Haley, the movie is hot garbage and is in no way a representation of the quality of the source material.
Certain events in The Gunslinger are referenced later on in the series, which will have significantly less impact on readers who are unfamiliar with how the tale began. And, in all honesty, it’s just a damn fine read. Bizarre, to be sure, and far removed from King’s horror output of the time, but still a great book.
Largely self-contained at the time of its publication (and relatively small in scope when compared to other King books), The Gunslinger is absolutely mandatory reading for anyone wishing to dive into the Dark Tower series.