Reviewed by: Kev Quigley -- webmaster of Charnel House (bookmankev@aol.com) (Wed, 28 Jul 2003 00:00:01)
Rating:

**The following review was used here on The Dark Tower Compendium with permission.


When I was fifteen years old (over a decade ago now, how the world does move on), I received The Gunslinger as a Christmas gift. Fifteen was my King turning point, the year I graduated from fan to fanatic. That Christmas also brought in The Stand and Four Past Midnight – my first two hardcover books – plus Christine, and Danse Macabre in paperback. During that tender age, I was progressing out of the concept that I would only read the King books whose subject matters appealed to me via a quick glance at the blurb on the back. No, I wanted to read everything by King, and right now, please.

So it was with great aplomb and anticipation that I picked up The Gunslinger (after, of course, reading those two hardcovers and tumbling deeper into my King obsession.) I’d been reading King with increasing excitement for three years, and here was yet another world I was going to get lost in, another world I was going to fall in love with.

Can you guess what happened?

That’s right, I couldn’t get into it.

Now, let’s just review my King history a moment. I read Cycle of the Werewolf and Creepshow when I was nine. Progressed to Pet Sematary and Night Shift and Rage and actually journeyed into the lands of It before I was fourteen. I read The Stand – the big one! – and gulped up every page. And yet … and yet, the world of The Gunslinger eluded me.

Yes, I’m one of those people.

Because of my completist’s personality, the fact that I’d never finished The Gunslinger (I gave up halfway between The Way Station and the mountains) gnawed at me, in that tender squishy part in the back of my mind. Eventually, I broke down and went the business-traveler’s route: I bought the audio book. I saw an advantage here: one, it was King himself reading it, and at that point in my life, anything King said or did was gospel. Two, I was having a story read to me, and there’s always something comforting in that. Listening to a book taps into that small, tired child in all of us who want Mom to read us just one last story before heading into the Land of Nod.

Well, the ploy worked … but barely. The masterful tone King eventually took on when reading his stories on tape (the one he employs so well in Bag of Bones and the unexpurgated Desperation) had not yet been fully formed. King is certainly having fun with his reading, but he’s not quite an expert yet. Plus, the story remained (for me, at least), as dry and arid as the Mohaine Desert. I got through it, but I fought through it.

What amazements, then, when I tentatively put in the first cassette of The Drawing of the Three, expecting more of the same … and getting far, far better.

The story continues in more detail elsewhere: I listened to, then read, both The Drawing of the Three and The Wastelands, and was among the first in the world to get my hands on Wizard and Glass the day it came out. I thrilled at the Dark Tower connections I stumbled across in Insomnia and Hearts in Atlantis and Black House. I became the guy who, when getting Bag of Bones signed in Cambridge, asked Stephen King probably his most hated question: “When’s the next Dark Tower book coming out?”

And still. And still: The Gunslinger remained The Great Unloved. I’d listened to it. Liked it to the degree that it started a story I was enthralled by. When I tell people about The Dark Tower series, I always urge them to start with Drawing. The gaps will fill in themselves.

Yeah. I’m one of those people.

So when King announced that, in anticipation of Wolves of the Calla, he would be re-releasing The Gunslinger in a revised, expanded version … well, my heart kind of leapt, fannish as that sounds. He explained in interviews that he was doing this, actually, for people like me: to give folks more of an easy in. There were a lot of people – fan people – who had not read the Tower books specifically because the first book was so obtuse. King was going to help us out in that respect. Not only that, but he was going to expand the text. Not as extensively as he’d done in The Stand, of course, but he’d definitely be doing some retouching: lengthening some scenes, trimming others, and then glossing it all over by connecting it more fully with the remainder of the series. No longer would The Gunslinger be the odd man out, so to speak. It would be a fully integrated, fully functioning member of the Dark Tower family.

Now the big question is: does the book itself live up to the hype? Gods, yes.

The second I opened the book, I became that scared fifteen-year-old again: a little frightened that I would again be unable to delve into a book by my favorite writer (when you’re a book nerd like me, this is an actual fear.) King assuaged that fear right off the bat, by doing one of the things King does best: talking about his own work. Whether it’s the afterward to Different Seasons or “Why I Was Bachman” or the book-length look into the life of the mind, On Writing, King has never been short of fascinating when discussing the whys and hows of his fiction. (To those asking that oft-repeated dullard’s question “Where do you get your ideas?” look no further than here.) At the opening of The Gunslinger, King has inserted both an introduction (“On Being Nineteen”), explaining his influences and thought processes surrounding the initial set of stories involving our favorite gunslinger, and a Foreword, discussing why he’s decided to “fix” The Gunslinger. To read these short essays is to remember why you came to King in the first place: entertainment of the highest order. Turn to chapter one, and you’re faced with that epic first sentence: The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed.

From there: well, magic.

King has taken his own On Writing advice and removed many unnecessary adverbs (oh, how King hates adverbs. Recently, in a favorable review of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, King took JK Rowling to the woodshed for her adverb abuse.) He’s moved sentences around so that they flow better. Plotlines that never went anywhere are gone. And, best of all, there are some new scenes. One in particular, involving the town of Tull and the massacre that takes place there, not only manages to present Roland the gunslinger in a far more favorable light (trust me, it’s not a cop-out), but also deepens the mystery of The Dark Tower. Suddenly, there’s a new morsel to chew on; the mysterious appearance of the number nineteen (which also prefigures the text of The Gunslinger. After a new epigram from Thomas Wolfe’s Look Homeward, Angel, we turn the page to see the numeral 19; opposite is a single word: “RESUMPTION.” King seems to be continuing this trend with the remaining books in the series as well, with the re-release of Drawing of the Three featuring the 19 as well as the word “RENEWAL,” etc.) One can only wonder how this will work into the final three volumes, and if the title of King’s introduction, “On Being Nineteen,” might not just be a sly clue.

Some readers have taken to the re-release of The Gunslinger unfavorably. Dark Tower expert Anthony Schwethelm believes that the original was wonderful just as it was, and retooling the work was unnecessary. Undoubtedly, most Dark Tower purists will agree: the first incarnation of The Gunslinger was the one they fell in love with, and the one that they will continue to think of as the “true” version.

For the rest of us, there’s a brand-new Stephen King book out there for longtime fans and newcomers alike to get lost in; a door, if you will, into a brand-new landscape. My advice: shake a mile. That desert’s long … and you won’t believe what’s on the other side.




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