The Dark Tower: The Gunslinger by Stephen King
Illustrations by Michael Whelan
Published in 1982
Genre: Fantasy, western
“The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed.”
It is difficult to find a more enigmatic line among Constant Readers (Stephen King fans) than the opener to The Dark Tower: The Gunslinger. Beginning the tale of the eponymous character and his trek toward the mysterious Dark Tower, The Gunslinger combines the genres of high fantasy, Westerns, and horror to create an earnest, if somewhat problematic, introduction to King’s magnum opus.
King gives as little information as possible at the beginning of the narrative in order to allow the reader to gradually explore and uncover more of the world as they read. The gunslinger chases the man in black across the desert; that is all we are given, and all that is required as a setup for the book. The gunslinger eventually comes to rest at a hut occupied by a man and his fowl-mouthed raven (pun slightly intended).
The Gunslinger is a traveling story comprised of tales told around campfires in each section; the aforementioned hut is where the first of the flashbacks comes in as the gunslinger tells his host of the massacre in the town of Tull. Death comes to the people of Tull from the barrels of the gunslinger’s six-guns as we see the magic and malevolence of the man in black at work. Despite patronizing the establishments and shacking up with the local tavern owner, the gunslinger must escape the town doing what he does best with two fists spitting iron.
While the action is told very well, the descriptions of the gunslinger and the world he inhabits evoke more visceral emotions through their clarity. The broken down, near ghost-town of Tull and the endless desert that seems to exist outside all notions of time brings the reader into the mind and experiences of the gunslinger as he continues his seemingly impossible pursuit.
After finishing his story and leaving the shack, the gunslinger comes upon a boy named Jake at a way station. Jake was transported to this world after the man in black pushed him in front of a taxi in the New York City of our world. The gunslinger believes the man in black has done this as a way to test or hurt him and is wary of becoming fond of Jake.
However, it is difficult for him to keep from developing a bond with the boy. Jake and the gunslinger share many similarities; they are both pragmatic, survivalists who adapt well to strange circumstances since they are quick to understand changing situations. Despite these shared traits there are obvious differences in age and how Jake is softer, having grown up as an upper-middle class child in New York City, while the other world has made the gunslinger into a cold person who is able to deal death when necessary.
The characters of the gunslinger and Jake are well-fleshed out and explored intimately, but female characters in The Gunslinger are primarily, if not completely, defined by their sexuality. Allie, the woman the gunslinger lays with in town, and Sylvia Pittston (a crazed religious archetype that shows up in many of King’s stories) are both referred to by their physical attributes and how they affect the gunslinger’s libido. He and Jake come upon an oracle later in the story which happens to be a succubus (a female demon that has sex with men against their will), who the gunslinger must satiate in order to wrestle a prophecy from her (literally). This is a very masculine tale that leaves little room for females in a capacity other than as betrayers or sexual objects.
Everything in the world of The Gunslinger points to a larger conflict and higher stakes than just catching the man in black. Characters say that “the world has moved on,” referencing machinery that is deteriorating due to disuse. There is a mingling of the old west and Medieval knights in the gunslinger’s world which overlaps with our own; songs such as “Hey Jude” by The Beatles are sung in the taverns and there are numerous Biblical references throughout the story.
This is the third time I have read The Gunslinger, but the first time reading the original edition from 1982. This printing is a good record of how King started the series: he wasn’t sure where it was going and The Gunslinger began as a connection between five individual stories he had written about the character. King released a revised and expanded version in 2003 which ties into the subsequent books better and carries refined themes as well as characters in order to fix some of the issues of the original and create a more seamless narrative. I have already read the entire series and, knowing the path ahead for the gunslinger and his companions, can say that the story does get better and more interesting, but this is a solid, if imperfect, introduction to a famous author’s defining work.
Verdict: 3 sandalwood six-guns out of 5
Recommended for: Fans of westerns, fans of Stephen King, Constant Readers, those who enjoy epic fantasy with a bit of grit, and people who like reading scenic descriptions.
Not recommended for: Fans of three act structure, people who dislike Stephen King and his writing, readers looking for a nice and neat ending, or those who hate anachronistic musical references to the Beatles.