The end is the beginning, and so it is, with me finally delving into Stephen King’s magnum opus, his ode to Tolkien masterpiece, The Dark Tower series, with the first book, 1982’s The Gunslinger. Where to even begin with the beginning of such a series? As a complete novice to it, let me offer this: It took maybe 35 pages before I was like, oh, I get it. No, I really get it. That is, why people so revere this series. I was all in, and by the end of the beginning, my mind was blown. Once you (King) starts unearthing (ununiversing?) and philosophizing about reality and existence, I’m all in. You have me.
To back up, the story follows the titular Gunslinger, or Roland, who is chasing the Man in Black through the desert. Along the way, he happens upon a town, whose inhabitants are “… only living because it was a habit,” and where he has sex with a barkeep, Alice, learns more about the Man in Black in the process and how he brought Nort, the bar drunk, back to life, shoots up the entire town once they become possessed by demonic (Man in Black?) forces, moves on, and then comes across Jake, who seems more of our world. In one particularly gross moment, Jake recounts how he came to be part of the Gunslinger’s world, and we learn he was hit by a vehicle and his “testicles crushed.” Yuck and yikes, all in one. We also learn more about the Gunslinger’s backstory, how he was raised and trained to be a “gunslinger” by Cort, until his final “rite of passage” where he bests Cort in a gruesome, hawk-pecking-his-eyeballs duel.
And Roland is an interesting figure. He doesn’t know what Jake means by “TV,” but he’s well-acquainted with The Beatles’ song, “Hey Jude.” He knows Biblical information, but not other references, like the sacrifice of Isaac, which is what ends up happening with Jake in the Gunslinger’s quest to catch up to the Man in Black. Which, it should be noted, the Man in Black is merely a “way station” of sorts on the way to the Dark Tower, the Gunslinger’s ultimate quest and journey. I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention another standout line from King, though, when Roland and Jake are trying to reach the Man in Black, King says, “They had discovered one could grow as hungry for light as for food.”
When Roland actually catches up with the Man in Black and they talk is where King’s talons became firmly entrenched within my brain with this series: the Man in Black, aka Marten (who seduced Roland’s mother and cuckolded his father, also a gunslinger), aka Walter, explains that the mystery of the universe is an incomprehension with its size. If we zoom in, or zoom out, there is no end. As Walter states, “To suggest an ending is an absurdity.” The amalgamation of all of these … absurdities, if you will, is the Dark Tower, akin to the Tower of Babel in the Bible leading to God, and in this case, also God. But our brains, finite as they are, cannot grasp these absurdities or that a God would reign supreme over them. In fact, as Walter muses (to paraphrase), isn’t it odd to think of such a being sitting at the “end” anyway in some sort of “room” at the end of a tower over all of this? It implodes our brains to try to reason to such an “end point.”
I loved this book. It is at once both simplistic and profound, barebones and bone-in carnage. I have been perplexed by the size, both inward and outward, of the universe before, of course, but I had never quite thought about it in the terms of how the Man in Black conveyed it to the Gunslinger. I am shook, as they say. And if The Gunslinger is the beginning of the end and a bid to get me to continue reading the series, mission accomplished, Mr. King. Well-done.