The Gunslinger (Stephen King)

  Now that I’ve progressed far enough in the 95 Books challenge to feel confident I can read 95 books before the year is out, I decided to take on a sub-challenge: completing Stephen King’s lengthy multi-book epic The Dark Tower (the entire series is not too far shy of 4000 pages).

Great minds think alike, and fellow 95-Book-er William Neil Scott is also reading the series, although he’s reading it much faster than me. His own take on The Gunslinger is here.

Neil calls Roland “relentless” and singles his character out as the most interesting thing about The Gunslinger. I’d agree with everything Neil says on Roland and his overall praise of the book. The Gunslinger is one of my favourite (if not my favourite) of Stephen King’s books. That’s saying a lot, because despite his many flaws as a writer, he remains one of the writers I most admire and enjoy. Not because he’s the greatest (he’s not), but because I discovered King young—I started reading Stephen King and Salman Rushdie in grade school, and in-between King and Rushdie I decided that I wanted to write broad, sweeping, ambitious books as well, books with lots of thrills and chills. My tastes have changed, and I don’t go in for the broad and sweeping as much as I used to (I’m more partial to the focused and stripped), but I still maintain a love for both King and Rushdie—so I’ve decided to catch up on my King/Rushdie reading, since I haven’t bothered to check out much of what they’ve been up to for almost a decade now. Why not start with The Dark Tower, King’s epic? If you’ve read any King, you’ll know that The Dark Tower resonates throughout books and stories that appear on the surface to have nothing to do with one another or the series itself.

I read half of this book and then stopped and went back to reading it from the start—because I was at a garage sale and bought a nice hardcover reissue, the “revised and expanded edition.” I thought it’d be curious to see how exactly King had revised and expanded the book. The idea of going back to a published book and rewriting it is either an author’s dream or nightmare, depending on the day. I tinker endlessly with things but am pretty good of letting them go once they’re published, so I thought it would be interesting to see what was different between the two versions of The Gunslinger, what King just couldn’t leave alone.

It’s a very different book from the original, in many ways. Basically, it boils down to this: the original version is better as a series of related short stories and as a unified, self-contained book. However, the revised version is better as the first book in a series and gives a fuller sense of the story’s world. Neil complains that King seems like he was “making it up” as he went along—and he was. He’s admitted to it in print (aside from having a rough idea of the whole) and it’s obvious if you just go back and read The Gunslinger after reading a few other books in the series (while young I read I-IV, although I didn’t finish IV).

Most of King’s changes are embellishments meant to more fully paint the world of the story for us, now that King has written the other books and crafted the world and isn’t any longer “making it up” as he goes. For example, early on in the book the Man in Black raises Nort from the dead. In the revised edition, he also implants into Nort secret knowledge of what it was like in death—and leaves a note for a barmaid taunting her and stating that if she says the word “Nineteen” to Nort he will tell her of death, and that this knowledge will drive her to madness. This helps to motivate the scene that occurs later, where the townspeople all seem to lose their minds and attack Roland, which always struck me as odd and somewhat unmotivated in the original. Instead of the barmaid Allie begging him not to shoot, she begs Roland to kill her—a real shift that makes his later betrayal of a companion in the book carry more weight since it appears as his first such betrayal.

Other revisions are basically corrections—fixing things in the original that later books contradicted. King cut a reference to Roland reading a magazine, because later books establish that paper is prized and rare in this world, for example. A reference to Roland not knowing where Cort was is changed to a statement that Cort was dead. A lot of small words and references are changed or added to, again, flesh out the world since it’s more clearly defined by the time of this revision.

You can argue that King is a messy writer and nobody should need to make revisions like this. But consider that the series developed organically—King has always despised outlines and even openly despised over-emphasis on plot, unlike most so-called “genre” authors—so this shouldn’t be a surprise or a disappointment to his readers. And consider that he began writing The Gunslinger in 1970, only published it in 1982, and only finished the series in 2004—writing it over a 34-year period and publishing it over a 22-year period. These kinds of inconsistencies are inevitable with this kind of a process, and in fact we should be shocked that there aren’t even greater inconsistencies and that the book doesn’t need more revision.

Should King have had a clearer plan when he began? Probably, but sometimes that’s just not how the stories work or even how they grow and refine themselves. Until I finish the series and reflect on it as a whole, I don’t think I’ll be able to make real judgments on it. However, as a single title, The Gunslinger is, for my money, one of King’s best books and worth reading by itself, even if you never intend to follow the story further.

— Jonathan Ball