Stephen King crossed the desert and I followed
For a lot of people, The Gunslinger has been a barrier to entering the Dark Tower series. Not so for me. When asked to name my favorite book in the series (and I’m very bad at picking favorites of anything), I usually fall back to this one. It was the first, and for a number of years it was the only.
I was like a lot of people in that I didn’t know anything about this book until I saw it listed at the front of Pet Sematary among King’s other works. I’d only been reading King for four years at this point, but I was hopelessly addicted. I had already written him a fan letter and received a bibliography from his office, which I kept folded in my wallet for any time I went to a used bookstore so I could track down uncollected stories, essays and interviews.
Once I began my quest for The Gunslinger, I must have driven those poor bookstore owners crazy. The guy who owned my favorite, Back Pages on Queen Street in Halifax, said he thought he might have heard of the book, but didn’t know how to get a copy. I pored over the Books in Print catalogs (remember those?) in other bookstores, hoping the book would magically appear from one week to the next. I tried to get the Halifax Public Library to track a copy down. No joy in H-ville.
Finally, I wrote King. Thanks to his response to my previous fan letter, I had his office address, so I wrote to him there, instead of via his publisher, which is probably where I sent my earlier missive. I don’t have any memory of the content of this letter, but knowing me it was probably brief and to the point. How could I get my hands on a copy?
To my delight, I received the letter that is reproduced on page 11 of The Road to the Dark Tower, telling me that he’d authorized a second printing and I could get one for $20 from Donald M. Grant. It was my first purchase of a book from a specialty press and it was a major outlay for a poor undergraduate who hadn’t yet started buying hardcover copies of King’s books.
I can’t say how many times I read The Gunslinger. Delah, as Roland Deschain would say. I absolutely loved its mood. I wasn’t familiar with the Robert Browning poem, and I didn’t know much about spaghetti Westerns—I was more familiar with Clint Eastwood as Dirty Harry Callahan—but there was something about this bleak world that captivated me. Roland wasn’t as frustrating a protagonist as Thomas Covenant (I was immersed in the Second Chronicles at about this same time), but he was a hard guy to like. But I was in awe of him, nonetheless.
I read the afterword in which King laid out his somewhat vague vision for the larger series with interest, but without any sense of urgency. It didn’t matter to me when or even if he got around to writing the next book. I was perfectly content with what I already had, even though the story was clearly incomplete. It would never have occurred to me to query the author to find out when he was going to write the subsequent volume. Over the course of the next twenty-some years, I was always happy to receive the books when they became available. King was on his halting journey across the desert of Mid-World and I was on board to follow him wherever he went. He had me at “The man in black…”