on 17 September 2012
He is back, the master gunslinger of realistic fantasy. With him we are not getting down into some world of a nightmarish imagined fictionalized past, but in a world we are a part of. Stephen king does it with a very effective method that he is not the only one to use but he uses it with such an art that this novel becomes both a thriller and a treatise in philosophical and practical ethics.
First of all we are so happy to meet with Roland, Eddie, Suzanna and Jake again, plus of course Oy, the smart wild furry pet of theirs. This pet is useful in the first layer of the three-tiered story since he is the one who felt the coming of the starkblast, a special meteorological phenomenon of the Middle World: a wind tornado that sweeps a swathe of land with hurricane-force wind and cold that can freeze dead any living organism and explode any tree into splinters.
And that's the first quality of Stephen King's multi-layered story telling. He takes us into a world that has several layers too. In this novel the top layer which is our modern world is hardly present except with the three characters that have been napped from it: Eddie the weaned and reformed drug addict, Suzannah the female black lady crippled by a subway accident in New York, and Jake the young teenager escaping his stifling family. Then a few allusions, to Gary Cooper or who knows what or whom that comes like an ugly duckling in a batch of swan chicks.
Deep under the story-telling present which is nearly ours, at least simultaneous to ours, the old dead world of super-advanced technology that has left behind some artefacts, machines, some technology that is often going berserk or is already out of order. In this episode we do have some allusions to some of that technology, satellite communication, cloud computing and a few others, but always emerging from that old world that has gone to rot. This technological, blind, inhumane and non-human world survives as a danger, a menace, the attempt by survivors or pirates who took control of what's left of this world to take over time and history and hence the worlds that came after this technology. In other words this deepest layer is the advanced world that existed before an apocalypse that destroyed it leaving behind ruins and desolation.
We have to understand here both the top modern world that is ours and this deepest technological world that has died and is only surviving archaeologically are embracing the Middle World with two destructive influences. Everything that dies in the deepest world causes devastation and death in the Middle World, and everything that goes wrong in our world, especially due to careless pollution and the unsustainable race to easy profit, even if that means exploiting or killing human beings, causes negative phenomena in the Middle World.
Finally the Middle World, just under ours, with doors here and there to cross from one to the other, and more por less over the oldest dead one, is a fantasy world, feudal in organization and very close to some 19th century western saga. It is the main locale of the Dark Tower novels. But this world has history and the story telling technique used by Stephen King in the Dark Tower novels is to intersperse the picaresque voyage through this Middle World, along the Path of the Beam to the Dark Tower where the Crimson King is locked up in his insane but power-packed senility, with stories told by Roland, the dunslinger from Gilead, a dead kingdom of the Middle World, about his own youth and experience.
In this novel the voyage and discovery in the Middle World is very limited since the seven Dark Tower novels have already taken Roland and his friends to the Dark Tower itself, hence to the end, which is nothing but a new beginning, of course should I say, since the end is always the beginning. So the essential part of this novel is a long story told by Roland, and this story told by Roland contains a story that his own mother used to tell him, the eponymous story of the novel, a story that took place in the distant past of Middle World embedded in the story of one of the very first missions Roland got from his father as a gunslinger.
Hence in a universe that has at least three layers Stephen Kind embeds a story that itself has three temporal levels. This multiplication of levels within levels is the originality of this novel and all Dark Tower novels. Other novelists use this technique, Anne Rice for instance, but this triple time strata within this triple space strata is definitely original. And it is fascinating since we are taken away from our present by so many layers of distance building fantasy, the top layer being our own world, that we feel the deepening distance as natural and not some illusion. This deep and distant worlds become all the more real.
Yet Stephen King though is a lot more than a simple story teller. He is a realistic author who speaks directly and/or allegorically of our problems in our world in our time. What are the problems he is speaking of here? They are essential in many ways.
He speaks of love and of the very bitter experience Roland went through with his mother he adored and still adores, though he killed her himself, by accident in a way, but his guilt is constantly over-brimming. In this experience Roland learned that the most powerful love between two people can just be terminated by any event and one of these people moves into another adventure, love affair or whatever, and leaves the other person and eventually their offspring stranded in frustrated love. In this case it is Roland's mother who moves on and we already know from another novel that Roland killed his mother. We are confronted to his guilt, though he could not know he was actually killing his mother, but we are also confronted with a note she left behind for him and her demand, request, prayer, begging that he should forgive her. And here I must say Stephen King must have changed with age. Under the name of Richard Bachman he would never have answered yes to this question, and I must say that even under Stephen King's own name he extremely rarely got to such an ending.
A crime leads to a crime which leads to a crime, with no possible outlet, evasion, escape from this curse, fate, course of affairs. To evade a curse at the least and at the best Stephen King has always required a human sacrifice of some sort. Think of Thinner in which the main character is saved from the curse by having his wide and daughter cursed I n his place. Think of The Stand in which three innocent sacrificial human beings are burnt to death by an A-bomb to push aside for a while the Black Man, the forces of evil. These are only two examples, and even Christine, the devilish car survives after being crushed into the size of a shoe box.
But that leads to another element that is fascinating. Stephen King had always been a very little empathetic and emotional author but in this latest novel the empathetic emotions we feels all along are numerous and so powerful that at times we have to stop reading just to digest the emotions. In the old days Stephen King was a genius of terrorizing, horrifying or grossing-out his audience with his tales. Here there is another dimension which is reaching the emotional power of empathy. If you think of Misery there is no love wasted anywhere and there is no empathy either required from the readers for the fictional author or for the nurse. The fictional author is a cold, cruel insensitive man totally deprived of sympathy or empathy for anyone and the nurse is a paranoid schizophrenic torturer.
In this novel, more that in any of the other Dark Tower novels, there is a tremendous level of emotional empathy, probably because the hero of the central story is an 11 year old boy.
What's more the novel is constantly crossed with class distinctions, class segregation, class exploitation at a level that is so intense that we are surprised by this discourse in Stephen King. This is a sign of his period, of the enormous human suffering the present crisis is imposing onto the world in general but also on to the weaker and weakest strata of society. It is not new in Stephen King. It is only a lot more intense than what I seem to remember from all the novels and short stories I have read.
Yet do not turn Stephen King into a social writer. He is not. A social writer could not have resisted making the shapeshifter be the owner of the general store of the mine, of the bars and whorehouse of the mine, the direct and main exploiter of the miners in their everyday life though not in their work since that man is not the owner of the mine itself. He is only the parasite exploiter of an exploitative situation and an exploited bunch of miners. The second generation exploiter, the second tier of exploitation. In other words Stephen King avoids the easy social depicting and caricaturing of humanity. Evil is NOT ONLY the result of exploitation and the deed of exploitative businessmen and industrialists or even shopkeepers. Evil is a deeply human "quality" that is absolutely shared by everyone and if some manage not to be evil, at least not most of the time, it is because they use their heads first and their instincts and impulses only second.
And there Stephen King is a tremendous ethical author and it is a real pleasure to read such horrible stories because they are profoundly human and even humane.
Dr Jacques COULARDEAU