Stephen King was an oft-read author during my teen years, primarily because he’s one of my father’s favorite authors and his books were in our home library. King’s dark imagery has the infinite power to draw the reader in, like a spider luring a fly, and snare the imagination in the vividly drawn worlds he creates.
The Gunslinger in its revised and updated version is no different. While King readily admits in prefatory comments to updating the language of this, one of his earlier works, the story itself, at its core, remains the same.
Roland, the titular character and the primary narrator, is a gunslinger whose attitude and manner echoes the bygone era of the Old West. He is the last of his kind, a remnant of a higher culture, forced by fate and circumstance only partially explained in The Gunslinger to journey alone in search of the Man in Black and the Dark Tower.
The Man in Black is a sorcerer who assumes many forms during the drawn out chase. In flashbacks, he is the man cuckolding Roland’s father and the same’s murderer. In the story’s luridly described present, the Man in Black is a setter of traps and the servant of the entity ruling the Dark Tower.
Roland and the Man in Black are by and large the most well crafted and, therefore, most easily understood characters populating The Gunslinger. Other characters fare almost as well, like Alice, the owner of a saloon-esque establishment who becomes Roland’s lover for a time. In Alice, King captures the futile desperation of life for a woman living in a remote settlement, cut off from the society of decent folk and men.
Other characters are shortchanged. Jake, an orphaned child yanked out of time and place by the Man in Black, is by turns loved and hated by Roland. His past is teased out through hypnosis and his emotions are evident, but he is only a tool within the plot rather than a fully drawn character.
And that tool to the plot feeling lingers in other important characters: Roland’s parents, high society hobnobs who deliberately and otherwise distance themselves from their only child by having him trained as a gunslinger, in a manner similar to the Spartans; Roland’s early ka-tet, his training group with whom he should have the most in common, but from whom he remains separate; and other characters whose roles seem to be in spurring Roland toward his ultimate destiny rather than having any internal or external motivation of their own.
In spite of this and the often overblown descriptions, The Gunslinger is a wonderful introduction to a story world that is by turns surreally antithetical (in its reversion to an almost feudalistic treatment of individuals) and eerily similar to our own. Recommended to all readers of Fantasy and fans of Stephen King. (Paperback, Kindle)