Stephen King's The Dark Tower I: The Gunslinger

Cover art to the revised edition of the Gunslinger
"The man in black crossed the desert and the gunslinger followed." 
- Opening line to The Gunslinger

"You want to know about death. I left him a word. That word is NINETEEN. If you say it to him his mind will be opened. He will tell you what lies beyond. He will tell you what he saw. 
The word is NINETEEN.
Knowing will drive you mad.
But sooner or later you will ask,"

- Letter form the Walter o'Dim to Allie, The Gunslinger

"My first thought was, he lied in every word,
That hoary cripple, with malicious eye
Askance to watch the working of his lie
On mine, and mouth scarce able to afford
Suppression of the glee, that purs’d and scor’d
Its edge, at one more victim gain’d thereby."

- Opening lines of "Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came" by Robert Browning

I first encountered The Gunslinger in my junior year of high school, in spring of 1988. I borrowed it from a friend though in short order I obtained my own copy from the local Waldenbooks as well as a copy of the only other Dark Tower book, The Drawing of the Three. It was in that year of school that I first discovered Stephen King, working my way through books like Pet Sematary, The Shining, and The Stand. I began reading It though truth to tell its thousand+ page length defeated me. Interestingly when I first tried reading It I was only a few years older than the protagonists were in the sections that featured them as children while when I finally read it again and in full I was about the age of the protagonists in the sections that featured them as adults.

But let us talk about The Gunslinger. It is a bit different from the other Dark Tower books which followed. While the other books in the series were all full novels The Gunslinger is a collection of five novellas dealing with the titular Gunslinger, far more often referred to as his title rather than his name, Roland, pursuing his nemesis, the man in black, Water o'Dim, a sorcerer who once served his father. There are two versions of The Gunslinger, the original (released in limited edition in 1982 and as a trade paperback in 1988) and the revised edition, released in 2003 to address inconsistencies in it with other books in the series. While there certainly were inconsistencies, I have a slight preference to its original version, though to be fair that may be due to its connection to my childhood.

For this review, I am going to discuss the individual novellas. I'll do my best to avoid spoilers and paint the plot in very broad strokes. One of the things I take away from The Gunslinger is its feel, its atmosphere.

"The Gunslinger"
Originally published in the October 1978 Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction

The novella "The Gunslinger" is notable in the way it handles things in a reverse chronological order. It begins by introducing us to the gunslinger, pursuing the man in black across the desert - though really at this point we are at the fringes of the desert - still quite arid and dry, but not as deadly as the true desert which will follow. We don't know yet why he is following the man in black. He can't quite see the man in black but he does see signs that he is still on his trail - remnants of campfires for example.There was something appealing to me in visualizing the gunslinger in his pursuit. We don't know just how long he has been pursuing the man in black, Walter o'Dim, at this point, but we feel it has been a while. I picture the gunslinger a a very stolid figure at this point, trudging along, almost like one of the Terminators from the James Cameron movies. We can sense this is a man who does not give up early.

The gunslinger works his way to the hut of a farmer at the fringes of the true desert who had encountered the gunslinger's quarry. They talk and the gunslinger tells the tale of his passing through the town of Tull. In this tale he talks with the owner of the saloon in Tull, Allie, who in turn tells him of Walter o"Dim's visit to Tull.

His tale told, the gunslinger picks up his pursuit of the man in black.

As I mentioned above, the tales in The Gunslinger are for me about how they feel. This story feels very much like an American Western. We don't know much about the gunslinger beyond he is pursuing the Man in Black and he is quite deadly with his guns. We're getting hints of his world. It is a world that has "moved on". None of the characters he meets are able to give good estimates as to when any given event has taken place. Two weeks ago? Six weeks ago? Time is funny. There are hints of some disaster - we get suggestions of mutant animals people. There are suggestions that things were certainly better. There are hints this might be our world or somehow connected to it, with music that can be heard as well. And we get to see examples of magic, courtesy of the flashbacks to Walter o'Dim.

"The Way Station"
Originally published in the April 1980 Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction

The gunslinger continues his pursuit of the man in black, nearly dying in the desert, barely making it to an abandoned way station. Though not so abandoned, as he encounters Jake Chambers, a boy from our world. The gunslinger learns of how Jake made the passage from our world to his own.

We also learn through flashbacks of the gunslinger Roland's childhood, as he and his friend Cuthbert made their first steps towards manhood.

This story is notable for establishing the first definitive link from Roland's world to our own, though there were hints of it in the previous tale. With this story our gunslinger seems a little bit human, someone with a past and a childhood.

We also learn more about Roland's world. We get the sense of how advanced the technology once was, with an "atomic slug" being used to power a water pump.

For those of us who are gamers "The Way Station" offers an excellent depiction of a ruin - the way station where the gunslinger meets Jake is very, very old. It is not sturdy and it has dark secrets that are revealed gradually. The way station itself is not very large but nevertheless we see how to get a lot of mileage out of a small location.

"The Oracle and the Mountains"
Originally published in the February 1981 Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction

We finally leave the desert behind, entering into green lands for the first time in this book. We see more hints of magic as the gunslinger consults with an oracle demon and learns where he is headed. The oracle's prophecies give hints as to what is to occur in the next novel and, in the newer version of The Gunslinger, later.

Armed with prophecies we continue our journey in pursuit of the man in black.

"The Slow Mutants"
Originally published in the February 1981 Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction

This is a tale which gave me the creeps as a teenager and still can put a shiver up my spine. The pursuit of the man in black takes us into tunnels underneath mountains. Days and days or darkness. It is an overused title, but King is indeed a master of horror and his skills are put to use here. I remember reading this in bed late at night. The light was bright above my bed but despite that I could feel the oppressive darkness.

Reading this book in the light I nevertheless found myself yearning for light.

And of course the darkness the gunslinger journeyed into was not empty.

During this tale we have more flashbacks where we learn more of Roland's childhood and how and why he faced his rite of passage to become a gunslinger.

"The Gunslinger and the Man in Black"
Originally published in the November 1981 Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction as "The Gunslinger and the Dark Man"

Not to give anything away, but after an entire novel of pursuit the gunslinger reaches his quarry. This is one I cannot say much about without spoilers. It will suffice that we begin to understand just why the gunslinger was pursuing the man in black and we begin to understand what the "Dark Tower" is.

Overall Impressions

Most fans of the Dark Tower series consider this book a somewhat weak introduction to the series. I'm probably in something of a minority it that it is one of my favorite books, period. Don't get me wrong - the entire series is, in my opinion, well worth your time and the later books are clearly better written. The original version of The Gunslinger is very raw, written by a young man at the start of his career, one who while brilliant has not yet mastered his craft. The revised edition cleans it up a little but King felt, wisely in my opinion, that it was important to respect voice of the young man who began this series.

Did this book influence early D&D? No, it came to late for that? Did it influence my gaming? Most certainly. As someone who has only recently began deliberately seeking out books in the 1st edition Dungeon Masters Guide bibliography, it illustrated how to effectively tell a take on multiple words and with artifacts and people from one world crossing over into another.

In the previous fiction reviewed, Andre Norton's Witch World, we see similar concepts explored. There are several early  TSR products I can think of which embraced connections between the world of D&D and with our word and others. The 1st edition Dungeon Masters Guide featured rules for making crossovers with Gamma World and Boot Hill. The famous Expedition to Barrier Peaks featured a spaceship, a smaller cousin of Metamorphosis Alpha's Warden. The World of Greyhawk featured the wizard Murlynd who bore a pair of Colt revolvers. Later books in the Dark Tower series deal with the importance and "reality" of fictional tales while AD&D featured adventures taking place in Lewis Carrol'ls Wonderland.

Beyond the connections between worlds introduced in The Gunslinger the atmosphere alone is worth taking note of, especially in The Slow Mutants. As we game in well-lit rooms it is easy to lose sight of what exploring a dark and hostile underworld labyrinth must be like. The Slow Mutants makes for great reading for anyone wanting to experience a depiction of a true descent into the depths of the Earth.

Does The Gunslinger bring anything new to the ideas I've mentioned above? I will preface my answer with my agreement with those who feel that the challenge in good fiction, whether for a novel or a game, is not in coming up with good ideas. It is in implementing those ideas. People had told westerns before, people had told tales of parallel worlds before. What King brings to the table with The Gunslinger is his unique mixture ideas and what he did with them. A lonely world that has moved on. A hero who, truth to tell, should frighten us at least a little. Horrors in the darkness. No one but King could have produced this tale.


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