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The Dark Tower (The Dark Tower, Book 7) by Stephen King
Review by John Berlyne
Scribner / Hodder & Stoughton(uk) Hardcover  ISBN/ITEM#: 0340827211
Date: 21 September, 2004 List Price ?25 Amazon US / Amazon UK /

It's easy to forget that there's so much more to Stephen King than "Horror". When I submitted my review a couple of months ago of the sixth volume in Stephen King's Dark Towerseries, The Song Of Susannah (See Review) my editor reminded me that horror wasn't necessarily our thing here at SFRevu - in doing so (and he'll forgive me for saying this - I hope!) he fell headlong into this pigeon-holing trap. Yes, I argued - naturally King will be remembered as a horror writer long after he's dead and buried, but this series (scary moments though it certainly has) is Fantasy. With a definite capital "F". And not just any old fantasy, but one of the very best examples of how varied and sweeping and innovative it can be as a genre.


The Dark Tower: US Edition (Donald M. Grant) $35
Isn't it universally acknowledged that King has earned his forthcoming beatification as the master of modern horror? He's churned out some electrifying stories over the years (and one or two, he'd be the first to admit, that read like contractual obligations) but it is this work; this huge, extensive epic; this sprawling, painful, magical, gruelling, heart-rending, and above all, intensely personal work that ought to be the one acknowledged on King's headstone. "Here lies the author of The Dark Tower". (Now I see that phrase, I'd like to allude to some wordplay about lying - but I feel quite the opposite about King and The Dark Tower. It is nothing if not an honest work - at times perhaps too honest as you'll see later.) The Dark Tower underpins much of King's canon. It has, we now see, been present in some form or another, in most his fiction - sometimes overtly so, but the hitherto hidden links have now been clearly revealed by the completion of the saga. It is clear also that it has dominated his thoughts for decades, and perhaps his life also. And, if you have journeyed as I have through all seven books, this story has dominated your thoughts for a good while too.

With this final volume, entitled The Dark Tower, the journey comes to an end - for King, for the reader and for Roland of Gilead and his ka-tet. I'm not giving anything way in telling you this. (Anyone who picks up this book, not hungry for resolution and finale should be forced to go back and start again!) Of the story itself, I dare not tell you more. What the ending is and how it comes about is something you'll want to find out about for yourself. In view of this, any review of The Dark Tower must be utterly spoiler-less. However, with the winding up of this long tale, there are some thoughts which spring to mind, and rather than summarising or indeed appraising the story, I take this opportunity to explore them here.

With The Wolves Of The Calla(See Review) and particularly with book six, The Song Of Susannah, we saw the author weave his own presence into his narrative, thus making Stephen King a key character in the story. This use of metafiction - fiction about fiction - is hard to pull off and can be clumsy (or brilliant, in the case of Jasper Fforde) but since the tale took this turn, I felt the story much more compelling that it had hitherto been. As most readers will know, back in 1999, King was almost killed when he was hit by a van whilst out walking near his home in Maine. The accident as well as being a pivotal life-changing moment for King, was also a watershed moment in his fiction - for a man with his fertile imagination to experience something so profoundly shattering as that, it is inconceivable that he wouldn't chose (or be compelled) to explore its effects through his writing.

No doubt the experience of that accident will permeate into all King's writings from now on (and it may, in time, be responsible for there being less of that writing being written) but it is The Dark Tower that King has chosen as his main venue for self-examination. In this last volume, the accident itself becomes instrumental in how Roland's journey turns out and this leads me on to wonder what would have happened to this story had Bryan Smith's van not careered into the author whilst its driver was distracted by his two dogs in the back seat. Should we readers who have so enjoyed this series be thankful that King was nearly killed? That would surely expose our ruthless greed for his stories and show that we think of him as nothing more than monkey at a typewriter. But had he not been hit by Smith's van, would King (who has been known to describe himself as a lazy writer at times) have ever got round to finishing this epic? In which case, how dare he start the story off and not deliver an ending? It's a provocative conjecture which leads on to make me think that if he hadn't had his accident, but had finished the series, it would have been a very different experience for the reader. Better or worse?

It's fun, if somewhat disturbing, to speculate about this, but in this world at least, as oppose to the many others that lie along the path of the beam, the journey ends as it does in The Dark Tower. I can tell you that I found the series to be an immensely satisfying read and recommend it unstintingly. King, who has a knack like no other of keeping you turning those pages, (and there's a lot of them in the novel) shows he is as much of an engaging storyteller as he ever was.

There is though a sour note to the way this series ends, and it comes in the form of the author's afterword. Having stayed faithful to King all along this journey, part of his tet of reader's if you like, I found myself profoundly irritated by the lofty tone of his ending comments. It was as if he was saying "Right you lot! There's your story. Now fuck off and leave me alone!" Now it's fair enough that he's been struggling to finish this thing for nigh on thirty years, but his readers (if not his critics) have always kept faith with him and though it may be a relief for both parties to complete the quest, I felt that it should have been a cause for celebration all round - a mutual slapping of backs. "I wrote it and you read the whole goddamn thing! We should all be congratulated, because, let's face it, both things are a hell of an accomplishment!"

Instead, King's comments reveal the writing to have been a bitter experience, fuelled by personal demons both before and after the accident, and his relief in crossing the finishing line, in having been alive to cross the finishing line, is clear. I may have got the wrong end of the stick here, but though I admire the author's honesty, simply because I was one of those eager to find out how the story finished should not make him consider me a monkey on his back.

Afterword aside, I wasn't disappointed in how it all turned out and you won't be either. The Dark Tower is published worldwide on September 21st. I read the UK edition published in hard cover by Hodder & Stoughton.

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