Friday, July 20, 2012

The Gunslinger by Stephen King

While the J’s were wonderful, the K’s haven’t been so kind. I was underwhelmed by Anna Kavan’s Mercury, and whilst Guy Gavriel Kay’s Tigana was well written, it was also quite flawed. I’d read Stephen King before, nearly everyone has read at least one Stephen King book or seen one of the films, he is one of the world’s most successful novelists after all. I was largely done with King by the time people started to really make noise about The Dark Tower, although I think the series’ first book; The Gunslinger, was originally published in the early 80’s.

I wanted to like it, I really did. Stephen King’s It is one of my favourites from that genre, and I even liked things like Carrie and Salem’s Lot. The premise behind The Dark Tower series; an epic quest/revenge fantasy story in a western setting, featuring heroes that fight with six guns instead of swords, is fairly unique for the genre, although others are now starting to utilise the western setting, it lends itself to steampunk, and Joe Abercrombie has adapted it into epic fantasy for his upcoming Red Country. I’d seen The Dark Tower’s hero; Roland Deschain, rank highly on people’s lists of fantasy heroes. It all boded well.

It went wrong for me. Where and why? I think firstly it’s the style. In The Gunslinger, King tried to jam a number of types of story into the one. It contains elements of dystopia, a western, horror and quest fantasy. I’ve seen mashups done successfully, but more often they fail, and for me that happened in The Gunslinger, it couldn’t really decide what it wanted to be, and consequently came across as very uneven.

Then there were the characters. There’s really only two main characters in The Gunslinger, one is the book’s title character, Roland of Gilead, although his first name is rarely used, and he’s most often referred to as the gunslinger, which is what he is.  There are elements of an Arthurian knight about Roland, and the sections of the book that deal with his upbringing and talk about his fallen friends do have a Knights of the Round Table feel to them, he’s also quite reminiscent of The Man With No Name as played by Clint Eastwood in Sergio Leone’s so called ‘spaghetti westerns’. He doesn’t talk much and readers get to know him through flashbacks to his tragic past. Maybe it’s just the recent prevalence of this trope, but I’m, getting a little tired of the taciturn, world weary, morally ambiguous anti-hero as protagonist, and that’s exactly what Roland is. I felt he was rather one dimensional as a character so failed to get much of a reaction beyond ‘Another one of those, eh?’

The second major character is Jake. Jake’s nine years old in some editions, and he’s been aged up to be 10 or 11 in others. Roland doesn’t know what his actual age is, but in the book I read, he believes him to be about 9. Jake is from our time and our world, he was snatched from it for unexplained reasons and transplanted into Roland’s world. He’s probably dead here, as a result of being hit by a car. Up until this point I had thought the blasted surrealistic world that Roland was travelling through in pursuit of the man in black was a post apocalyptic Earth, there are certainly hints of that, with remnants of our world such as roads and rail tracks remaining, there’s also references to songs like ‘Hey Jude’ as being an old classic. However the fact that Jake comes from our time means that Roland’s world isn’t ours, or Jake was brought through both time and space, maybe this is explained in a future volume. The main issue I had with Jake is that he doesn’t behave or speak like any normal 9 – 11 year old, and this makes him hard to believe or even care about.

Some sections of The Gunslinger were very well done, Roland’s flashbacks and the action sequences when the lead is flying, were first rate, however these are brief, and King employed a different style than I had been used to from him for the book, unfortunately it did not engage me. I often found myself thinking that it was quite badly written, which from a novelist as experienced as King is surprising. He does say in his afterword that it was begun when he was still young (in college) and he added bits to it over the next twelve years before deciding to bring it altogether and publish it, that showed, and it may account for the unevenness I felt between some sections as opposed to others.

There are 7 novels in The Dark Tower series, with an 8th (The Wind Through The Keyhole) published just this year. Chronologically it fits in between the 4th and 5th book. I didn’t really enjoy The Gunslinger, so don’t feel I need to read the rest of them.

Aside from the other novels in the series things I can recommend as being similar are unsurprisingly westerns. One was Larry McMurty’s Lonesome Dove and the other were parts of James Michener’s Centennial. The two other images that continued to pop into my head while reading  The Gunslinger were the AMC western series Hell on Wheels. The hero of that show; Cullen Bohannon, is another tight lipped, gun toting, vengeance seeker, much like Roland Deschain. The other was  the iconic Kung Fu, Roland and Caine bore some similarities in background, and of course both took place in a western setting.  


  1. The rest of the books are better. Stephen King went a long time without writing another of these, because he so disliked the protagonist. The Drawing of the Three introduces three other characters who change the dynamic of the story, and who are a lot easier to root for.

    You're not obligated to read anything you don't want to, but the rest of the series is different in tone and content from this one.

  2. I wasn't super impressed with The Gunslinger either, but I'm sooooo glad I kept going. The Gunslinger is really just a collection of his short stories, but The Drawing of the Three is insane and actually gets into the full story. I would say at least try that one before you give up.

  3. Thanks for the comments, Alice and Bryce. I felt I may get a reaction a little like this. If my reading schedule eases up I may try the others, I'm trying to read a Wheel of Time book a month until I get through them, and they're all door stopper size, along with the list and my other reading. After WoT I may pick up some of the other Dark Towers.