Revisiting The Gunslinger by Richard Chizmar
THAT WAS THEN…
An admission: despite being a lifelong Stephen King fan, I didn’t read The Dark Tower series until just about ten years ago.
I know, I know—I should be ashamed of myself.
To make matters worse, the long delay made absolutely no sense.
I loved Stephen King books. I devoured each new title as soon as they were published.
I loved westerns. Especially movies like The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly. Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. The Wild Bunch. The Unforgiven.
And, of course, I had read and heard all the rave reviews (especially from trusted readers, Brian Freeman and Bev Vincent). Heck, I had even published a bunch of those reviews in Cemetery Dance.
But for some reason, I still wasn’t sold on The Dark Tower.
Something kept making me hesitate. Maybe it was all that chatter about talking trains and crystal balls…
Anyway, it wasn’t until my writing partner, John Schaech and I were working on a screenplay for King’s From A Buick 8, and getting a lot of advice from writer/director Frank Darabont that I caved in and started reading The Dark Tower series.
Frank is one of those rare movie guys who appreciate books as much as films—and he absolutely insisted that I read the series. Frank’s like that; he talks and people listen. Or as least they should.
So, off I went. I picked up a copy of The Gunslinger and ripped through it in a matter of days.
Then, I jumped right into The Drawing of the Three.
A week later, I was already into The Waste Lands.
You get the picture, right? Once I had started, I couldn’t put these books down. I read them on airplanes criss-crossing the country. I read them at traffic lights sitting in my car. I read them at my desk when I was supposed to be doing other work. I read them at the dinner table and long into the night in bed. I flew through the entire series – all seven volumes – in the space of two-and-a-half months.
And I loved them all. So much. Even Blaine, the talking train!
The Dark Tower series seemed, to me, like a sprawling celebration of sheer imagination and storytelling—the kind that only Stephen King could dream into existence.
To put a finer point on it…The Gunslinger wasn’t exactly fantasy, and it wasn’t exactly horror or western or straight adventure.
It was simply…Stephen King.
I won’t get into the other volumes here, but suffice to say I have many wonderful memories of my first reading of The Gunslinger.
Starting with Roland himself. To me, he will always be Clint Eastwood; tall and lean; face tanned and leather-tough from the unforgiving sun; eyes squinted into dark slits and hidden beneath the brim of his hat; hands at his side, itching to draw iron.
I was enchanted by the stories within the story regarding Roland’s past—his wild adventures and violent departure from the town of Tull, and especially the lengthy flashback to his childhood days and the showdown with his teacher, Cort.
I also fell in love with the charismatic and mysterious Jake—and was devastated when he fell to his death near the end of the novel.
And, finally, there was Zoltan. Whom can resist a talking black crow who spouts:
“Screw you and the horse you rode in on.”
Or even better:
“Beans, beans, the musical fruit. The more you eat, the more you toot.”
I wish I had a crow like that buzzing around the Cemetery Dance offices.
And, oh yeah, that long delay ended up being a blessing in disguise, didn’t it?
Because I had waited so long to read the series, I found myself with thousands of brand new pages just sitting there waiting in front of me. I didn’t even have to hold my breath (unlike most of you poor, impatient readers) for each new volume to be published.
If it seems like I am being boastful…trust me, I am.
* * *
THIS IS NOW…
This was only my second reading of The Gunslinger, so it still held some interesting surprises for me—namely the language of this relatively short novel.
The first time I read the book, I think I was so caught up in the storyline that I didn’t pay much attention to the writing. This time around, it felt like I did the opposite.
The little voice that kept whispering in my ear the whole time I was reading The Gunslinger had this to say: this is Stephen King painting with a different brush.
Take the following passage from page one of The Gunslinger for example:
The desert was the apotheosis of all deserts, huge, standing to the sky for what might have been parsecs in all directions. White; blinding; waterless; without feature save for the faint, cloudy haze of the mountains which sketched themselves on the horizon and the devil-grass which brought sweet dreams, nightmares, death. An occasional tombstone sign pointed the way, for once the drifted track that cut its way through the thick crust of alkali had been a highway and coaches had followed it. The world had moved on since then. The world had emptied.
Hypnotic, poetic, and unlike anything you will find in any other Stephen King book—save for The Dark Tower series.
Stephen King painting with a different brush…
Here’s another favorite, this time from the last page:
There the gunslinger sat, his face turned up into the fading light. He dreamed his dreams and watched as the stars came out; his purpose did not flag, nor did his heart falter; his hair, finer now and gray, blew around his head, and the sandalwood-inlaid guns of his father lay smooth and deadly against his hips, and he was lonely but did not find loneliness in any way a bad or ignoble thing. The dark came down on the world and the world moved on. The gunslinger waited for the time of the drawing and dreamed his long dreams of the Dark Tower, to which he would some day come at dusk and approach, winding his horn, to do some unimaginable final battle.
This reads to me like the beginning of an epic fairy tale or folk tale – which, in a way, it is – and I gotta tell you, no matter how many times I read these words, they leave me breathless.
Stephen King painting with a different brush…
It would be too easy to pawn off the notable difference in language on the fact that King wrote The Gunslinger while such a young man. It would also be inaccurate. How else would you explain the similar style employed in the rest of the books in the series?
I think the answer is a simple one: I believe that King goes to a different place in his mind and heart and imagination when he writes about Roland and the Man in Black and the Dark Tower.
Are there still plenty of the usual Stephen King traits present in the Dark Tower series? You bet there are: his memorable characters, his dark sense of humor, his ability to paint a complete picture of a place or person or moment in time with just a handful of words. It’s all there.
But, I’m telling you, this time around he’s painting those pictures with a different brush—a different voice. One that is particularly lush and poetic and lyrical.
Of course, this is all just my opinion, and that and a nickel will get you not a damned thing. King reads many of these essays, so perhaps he will tell me if I’m correct or not. We will see…
In the meantime, I hope this short essay inspires some of you to revisit – or, heaven forbid, pick it up for the first time – The Dark Tower series yourselves. In the opening volume alone, you will meet Roland, Brown, Zoltan, Allie, Nort, Kennerly, Sheb, Sylvia Pittston, Jake, the Oracle, Hax, Roland’s mother and father, Cort, David, Marten, the Slow Mutants, and of course, the Man in Black.
They’re all there waiting for you, folks.
I envy you the journey.
* * *
I’ve got three words for you: The Slow Mutants.
There was a rotten jack-o-lantern greenness below and away from them, circular and pulsating faintly. For the first time he became aware of odor—faint, unpleasant, wet.
The greenness was a face, and the face was abnormal. Above the flattened nose was an insectile node of eyes, looking at them expressionlessly.
One of the forms broke free and shambled toward them, glowing and changing. The face was that of a starving idiot. The faint naked body had been transformed into a knotted mess of tentacular limbs with suckers.
One of the tentacles pawed across the flat platform of the handcar. It reeked of the wet and the dark and of strangeness.
Anyone else thinking about The Mist? From A Buick 8?
Yeah. Me too.
I adore the scene where Roland first meets Jake at the way station. In a handful of pages, as Jake nurses a near-dead Roland back to health, we learn that Jake has no idea how long he has been at the way station or how he got there. We also learn that he died in a world…
“…before this one. A high place with lots of rooms and a patio where you could look at tall buildings and the water. There was a statue that stood in the water…a lady with a crown and a torch.”
A short time later, when Roland hypnotizes Jake with a shell from his gunbelt, he discovers that Jake was killed when he was pushed in front of a speeding car in a place that sounds very much like New York City.
This entire sequence is a stunning example of a young Stephen King’s brimming imagination. The fact that he wrote it while still in college makes it that much more astounding.
Of course: The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed.
Second place goes to: “Go then. There are other worlds than these.”
SCENE THAT STILL MAKES ME CRINGE…
There is a pivotal scene near the end of “The Slow Mutants” that never fails to reach into my heart and twist.
Roland and Jake have just finished fighting off the dreadful Slow Mutants when the Man in Black surprises them, causing Jake to stumble and nearly fall into the dark pit below. Jake dangles from the trestle and begs Roland to help him, but the Man in Black has other ideas:
Booming, racketing: “Come now, gunslinger. Or catch me never!”
All chips on the table. Every card up but one. The boy dangled, a living Tarot card, the hanged man, the Phoenician sailor, innocent lost and barely above the wave of a stygian sea.
The choice is Roland’s to make: save Jake or continue after the Man in Black.
Roland picks the Man in Black and with these parting words – “Go then. There are other worlds than these.” – Jake plummets to a silent death.
A shocking, memorable, and deeply troubling scene for this reader.
CHARACTER I WOULD LIKE TO KNOW WHAT HAPPENED TO…
My vote goes to Brown, the kind farmer with the “wild shock of strawberry hair,” and his foul-mouthed, black crow, Zoltan. Brown is a minor, yet memorable character in The Gunslinger, and I’d love to hear what the future held for him—after he finished eating Roland’s mule, of course.
(For obvious reasons, I plan to stick to minor characters for this particular feature. Of course, we all want to know what happens next to Roland and the Man in Black and the rest of the gang…)
START DATE – August 17, 2015
FINISH DATE – September 2, 2015
The complete list of the books we’ll be reading can be found on the Stephen King Books In Chronological Order For Stephen King Revisited Reading Lists page. To be notified of new posts and updates via email, please sign-up using the box on the right side or the bottom of this site.
Nice write up. You hit on all the wonderful things about this book. In this slim volume King delivered in a big way. It was a starting point and an ending. This book to me has always been magical. I’ve read it countless times over the last 25 years or so and it never fails to bring me back to that intriguing and intangible place that we all have felt at one point or another from our childhood. That place where fiction becomes real and reality is forgotten while we are in “that” moment…whatever that moment is.
I agree Richard. I bought The Dark Tower series as it was published, read most of the other King books but was not hooked enough to to start DT a) it wasn’t finished yet b) a cowboy story? But I had to start and once started read them all and found it interesting, clever, rewarding, and many scenes and stories and many characters/beasts/things stay in my memory all the time. It’s a must read.
I recently revisited this novel as well via our library’s audiobook version. For such a slim volume, it is rich in detail. Enjoyed it again.
Well done, Richard. I remember getting my hands on a hardback copy of the book, before there was a paperback. Immediately upon finishing it, I went back to the beginning and started over. By the time The Drawing of the Three came out, I had read The Gunslinger five times.
The Gunslinger was the second King book I ever read back in December of 1998 when I was 15 years old. I checked it out at my local public library, took it home and started to read it and found it very difficult to get through. I spent the next few weeks reading it a little bit at a time and I was just confused by the whole story. The way it kept moving backwards for the first part was very confusing to me. I loved the idea of the story, and I really enjoyed the final part when Roland finally meets up with the Man in Black, but the rest of the book I was just confused by.
All that being said, I went back years later after I had read volumes 2, 3, and 4 and re-read the revised edition and I already had a better understanding of what the story was and I thought the revised edition was the superior version and the one I recommend to people who are starting the Dark Tower series. And The Dark Tower has gone on to be my favorite thing King has ever written. The series really starts to find its voice and pick up the pace with Drawing of the Three. After revisiting the “original version” this time around for SK Revisited, I discovered that after all of these years I enjoy this book so much, and I love the characters and the setting. I just wasn’t ready for it when I originally read it. I was way too impatient of a reader and too immature. But the thing I’ve been looking forward to most with the Revisited journey is re-reading all of the Dark Tower books because I get to see all my friends again and relive the journey and quest one more time!
Well done. I read them as they were published. I loved the series but really did not like The Gunslinger when I first read it. I always felt that reading the Drawing of the Three before Gunslinger made it better.
Great job Richard. I loved The Gunslinger, and I could read it again, and again. And I, like you, devoured it and all of the other volumes too. What made The Gunslinger so exciting to me was to have a gunslinger among wizards and crystal balls. I think that was what hooked me deep into those volumes; plus Roland also reminded me of my favorite actor, Clint Eastwood. My hero!! when it comes to westerns.
I like The Gunslinger well enough as a stand alone book and agree with Nancy that The Drawing of the Three made this book seem retroactively better. The original version of The Gunslinger had an old school archetype vibe to it much like Tolkien’s – The Silmarillion.
The original version had a stand alone vibe to it while the revised edition feels more accessible as a single piece of work and, of course, as part of a larger series. It’s a masterpiece of revision that any aspiring writer should draw from. The two versions are so similar but invoke such different reactions due to the surgical precision of King’s edits.
Your thoughts echo that of a lot of King readers, Richard, which is why it is not as widely read as King’s other books. Sad, because it’s one helluva of a tale.
Love that cover art!
I am curious, which book did you read now that you revisited The Gunslinger? The original or the Revised version?
I have an admission to make – possibly even greater than your’s: the only Stephen King book that I can swear to have read is ‘The Stand’ (the original version). It’s possible that I’ve read others (no memory of them so unlikely) and I know that I had for years and years a book club edition of one volume of ‘The Dark Tower’, unread as it wasn’t the first and I had no real yen to read another King book. However this post has made me want to read the series! I was intending to ask which version i should select, as a ‘new’ reader but I guess that’s been answered in the comments , so I’ll look out the revised edition.
If nothing else this series of rereadings, comments and the guest essays must be regarded as a success. Even though I’m not a devoted King reader I have enjoyed the considered look as his works and look forward to the rest. Who knows – I may be tempted to bag the lot and embark upon my own readings!