Aesthetic Drift #16 by Don Peteroy
How to Read the Entire Dark Tower Series while Still Having a Life
I’ve already lied to you.
This essay’s title has little to do with what I’ve actually written.
I was thirty-seven when I decided I’d attempt to read every Stephen King novel. I’d made a half-ass effort to do so when I was in my early teens, but I’d abandoned three-quarters of his books after about twenty pages. At that point in my life, I hadn’t yet received my hard-earned Dyslexia Detection Award yet. I just assumed that I’m dumb. Most of my teachers held the same impression. The last King novel I’d failed to finish was his then-current Gerald’s Game.
My desire to initiate the King Marathon returned the day after my friend—I’ll call him Ken—killed himself. It happened a couple of weeks before I took my qualifying exams for PhD candidacy—a series of written and oral exams built off of a massive reading list. I’d had eight months to get through more books than most people would read in a lifetime or two.
The last time Ken and I were together, before his suicide, he’d had a book with him. That wasn’t unusual. Initially, our friendship developed out of common literary interests. He was reading Stephen King’s latest release, Dr. Sleep.
I rolled my eyes when Ken recommended it to me. Although I didn’t think King was beneath me, I’d maintained the opinion that the Master of Horror had mastered a one-trick pony. My opinion changed. I opened Dr. Sleep on the day Ken’s father closed the casket.
A week after the funeral, I finished the novel.
I’d started it because I’d loved and missed Ken. I finished it because I loved the book.
When I passed my exams —just barely—I had a genuine crisis: I didn’t know what to do with myself. I’d become too dependent on following a book list. The solution was to make more book lists. I was curious about the ancient Gnostic religion, so I made a Gnosticism list and got a suitcase full of books about it. Another list was comprised of every Stephen King novel—about five suitcases worth.
By Christmas, I’d gone though two suitcases of King’s novels. Upon finishing It, I moved onto The Gunslinger, the first book in The Dark Tower series. I know better than to incite the rage of Stephen King fans, so I must (dramatic pause) be careful here. It took me a year to slog through that repulsive novel.
Admitting that may cost me some good friends. Admitting that may make me an enemy to legion Stephen King purists.
I’ve got justifiable grievances.
Long ago, I had a drinking problem, and now, The Gunslinger made me feel like I’d had a relapse. That novel is, in and of itself, an alcoholic with late-stage alcoholism. It’s emotionally numb; it’s sick and tired of being sick and tired; it rambles; and occasionally, it pukes a scene onto your poor, unsuspecting lap. Whether King was drunk when he wrote it, I can’t say (probably), but the novel’s tone carries an air of drunken confidence and cockiness. This is an irresponsible and sophomoric way of commenting on a novel. But, having debated the aesthetic merits of this novel with others, I’ve failed time and again to justify my disdain through sophisticated, PhD-level argumentative strategies. You’re less likely to be wrong about a judgment that’s personal.
Over the course of a year, I’d read fifteen pages, put it down, start and finish a different King novel, return to The Gunslinger for a few pages, and repeat the process. I should have read the plot synopsis on Wikipedia, instead. Every time opened the book again, I felt like I was banishing myself to a place drearier than hell. The novel’s hero, Roland, lives in Mid-World, a dusty, dismal wasteland. Imagine that it’s 1:30 AM, and you’re at a movie theater, watching a low-budget film. You’re alone; there’s no one else in the theater but you. Your seat smells like old cigarettes, and the floor is sticky. The air is stuffy, hot, humid, and it’s hard to breathe. That’s Mid-World. Or perhaps a better analogy is Mid-World is your sixth hour sitting on an old, musky-scented couch in a waiting room at a hospital’s cancer ward.
If you’ve seen the Dark Tower film trailers, or, alas, the film, you know that modern-day Earth is part of the story. In The Gunslinger book, however, the connection between Mid-World and Earth remains undeveloped, vague, and of questionable importance. I’m not sure if King had even known where he was heading with the Earth-connection, because, as revealed in one of the later books, he’d had no aspiration to write a follow-up to The Gunslinger. My point is this: in the book, you’ll receive no Earthly solace or respite. Our world is but an afterthought.
When I finally did complete The Gunslinger, I reasoned with myself, “Maybe I should add a proviso to King List: the Dark Tower books are optional.”
I planned to move onto The Regulators, next, but that would require another trip to the bookstore. I’d just purchased a bunch of graphic novels, and I was out of book-spending-cash. At that time, I was Assistant Editor at a literary magazine. I was at the office one afternoon—reading hordes of submissions by writers who’ve been taught that a story’s greatness is inversely proportional to its use of plot—and my phone rang.
It was my sister, calling to tell me that out mother had been diagnosed with cancer. I booked a flight to New York, and decided to borrow my wife’s Nook, since I wouldn’t have time to make it to the bank and then Half-Price Books.
While I sat at the boarding gate, I scrolled through the Nook’s library, looking for the e-book I swore I’d downloaded the night before: Henry Chadwick’s translation of Origen: Contra Celsum. How the second Dark Tower book, The Drawing of the Three, ended up in my library was eerie. Maybe I’d downloaded it a while back, when I was in a state of Gunslinger-induced drunkenness?
Here’s my advice for those of you who wish to read the series, but can’t find the time. If you force yourself, if you approach it as a goal, you’ll likely fail. What you need to do is wait. The timing has to be perfect. You’ve got to let the books find their way into your life.
I started The Drawing of the Three because I needed to read something, otherwise, I’d fall into morbid reflection and panic about my mother’s condition.
By lift off, I realized how downright amazing this second Dark Tower book is. Stephen King had done something tricky: He’d changed the rules. And he pulled it off in such a way that it seemed plausible, inevitable, real. I’d fully expected to spend 400 pages in the claustrophobic hell of Mid-World, so when King heaved Roland’s consciousness into the body of Eddie, a “modern day” heroin addict in Manhattan, I was startled. I bet King was, too. His excitement, I believe, carries over into his readers, just like his drunkenness. By making Earth the dominant setting in this novel King had effectively brought upon a massive change in air-pressure. The world had opened, and I could breathe.
Also, King had defied the narrative rules that characterized the first novel. For writers, doing something like this; that is, dismissing consistency, is akin to violating the laws of nature. Yet, it felt natural. Roland’s possession of Eddie introduced a new element into the Dark Tower world. I’m not sure if there’s a word for it, but I think “heart” will suffice. The Gunslinger the book, and Roland the character, for all their intrigue, lacked heart.
A closet King-fanatic friend of mine, who carries an MA in English, an adjunct opinion, and a sixteen-year AA medallion, told me that King intended for the first book to be emotionally cold. He insisted that I need to—that I damned well better—appreciate The Gunslinger for what it is.
Whenever I’m constipated, I don’t ever think, “I should appreciate and try to enjoy this.”
Because The Drawing of the Three had heart, I started to root for Roland. The hope and I felt for the fictional character resonated outward into my nonfictional life. Up until that point, my mind had been looping with bleak, existential despair in response my mother’s condition. Roland—and his new friends—ignited the optimism in me, thereby drowning out all the defeatist noise that had been occupying my inner world. If I could root for Roland, a make-believe interdimensional cowboy, I sure as hell could root for my real and present mother.
When I care for others, imaginary or real, I start to see the contents of my own heart. That’s where the Dark Tower was taking me.
And that’s the sappiest thing I’ve ever written. I’m not going to delete it. Excessive self-consciousness is my downfall; I haven’t written anything new in three years. I need to be OK with being corny sometimes. There’s sappiness and gushy material dispersed across Stephen King’s cannon, and he doesn’t apologize.
He also shows that plot is crucial, not heretical, despite the growing skepticism and disdain many writers have toward plot. How on Earth did I ever fall into the habit—or trap—of leaving half of my stories unfinished because they “rely too much on plot”? I should go finish those motherfuckers.
Mind you, the anti-plot movement is not something I imagined. Each year at the magazine I worked at, nearly 4,000 fiction submissions and 18,000 poems crossed our desks. I’d review roughly 700 to 800 of them. While reading, I’d often ask myself, “So, is something, like, going to happen?”
I know how that sounds… like my biases determined the fate of manuscripts. That is incorrect because most of the stories I passed up the chain were the most interesting stories of the tons of stories that weren’t interested in plot.
The problem with the majority of the anti-plot stories wasn’t their plotlessness, but their failure to offer some aesthetically pleasing compensation. If a story has no plot, but also banal imagery; prose that’s barely alive and doesn’t really want to be alive; television- ready dialogue; the kind of derivative narrative voice that emerges after a writer has just discovered Raymond Carver or David Foster Wallace; a dead animal—there’s a ton of “I hit a deer” or “we had to put the dog down” stories being written; a catalogue of sexual encounters; Alzheimer’s; travelling (don’t dare say vacationing) in Europe or India, then what am I supposed to make of it? Am I supposed to admire its breadth of constipation? Maybe I was reading these… vignettes and prose (anti)poems wrong. With a plotless prose piece, I cannot ask, “What will happen next?”or, “How and why is this happening?”—given the nature of this genre, such questions are as meaningless as asking how many miles are in the color orange. But since I have a reading disability, I’m going to assume that I’d been misreading these “stories” all along, that I was supposed to have been on the edge of my seat in anticipation of which element of fiction the writer will show indifference toward next.
I’m nearing 2,000 words here, and I’ve done the same bothersome thing King did in The Gunslinger. He’d chosen to avoid, or merely imply, a specific and vital relationship between Mid-World and Earth. The connection had to be important because Jake, an Earth kid, lands in Mid-World. Yet, the mechanics of this transaction are treated like afterthought.
A Gunslinger advocate explained the reasoning behind the novel’s callous atmosphere. King had created compatibility between the narrative tone and Roland’s seen-it-all-and-I-don’t-care attitude. Jake’s displacement afforded me a quick glimpse of the novel’s most fascinating puzzle, but thereafter, all access to the mystery at the heart of the book is denied.
Right now, I’m in awe of my own frustration. Remember what I said about how, if you’re going to read the Dark Tower books, the timing has to be perfect? I’m considering the possibility that there actually isn’t anything wrong with The Gunslinger, that maybe I’d picked it up at the wrong time. When I’d opened that book, I was still rather beaten down by the PhD exam process, and the four years of graduate course-work leading up to them. At the time, I was experiencing existential exhaustion, and that’s precisely Roland’s major issue in that novel. Did I dislike Roland because he was—to borrow my own terminology—a reflection of the empty contents of my heart? Post-exam depression wasn’t my only problem back then. I’d allowed myself to slip into self-centeredness, a state of irritability and discontent that I embraced like a drug. In fact, I was what people in recovery from alcoholism would call a “dry drunk.”
I take back everything I said earlier. The Gunslinger wasn’t a drunken novel that had made me feel like I’d relapsed; rather, I was a self-centered dry-drunk reader, secretly hoping to find a consequence-free way to start drinking again.
Ken had been a recovering alcoholic. He committed suicide after a relapse. Sometimes, addiction and recovery shows no allegiance to obeying the comforting narrative of fall and redemption. Sometimes, it doesn’t have a plot—a logical sequence of events arranged in accordance to good old Aristotle’s formula of complication, crisis, and solution.
I wanted to drink, but it had nothing to do with external “triggers.” I simply wanted to drink, and wished to blame it on exams and academic alienation and depression and existential exhaustion. Alcoholism is irrational.
I take it back. I read The Gunslinger at precisely the right time. Roland made me remember the face of my master.
Three hours before the beginning of my mother’s surgery, I finished reading The Drawing of Three. At 6:00 AM that morning, I cried and said goodbye to my mother. The orderlies wheeled her off to surgery, and I went to the waiting room. There, I began reading the third book, appropriately titled The Waste Lands. Later that day, when my father and I were alone in the house, and terrified, I read for eight continuous hours.
My mother was facing death. A character in a book was given a heart, and he was only just beginning to figure out how to use it. I was confused. These Dark Tower books kept telling me to abandon my pessimism, to embrace hope.
Occasionally, when I read King, I have to flick the mental switch that powers-down the Literary Theory department of my brain. The switch labeled “PhD ABD.” That’s not hard, though sometimes, it turns itself back on again. There’s nothing wrong with Theory Brain, in and of itself—it’s not some form of demonic possession, or something I wish to be rid of entirely. But when Theory Brain is activated, it’s hard for me to escape skepticism and sarcasm.
We’d moved to a different waiting room—a special, more focalized one for post-surgery updates—and had been waiting several hours for the doctor to explain the details about chemotherapy. I was reading The Waste Lands, and Theory Brain had subconsciously switched to the “on” position. I suddenly felt repulsed by what I was reading.
I no longer have a copy of The Waste Lands, so I can’t locate and quote the exact passage, but it was one similar in sentiment to the following, which is from The Dark Tower, the seventh book. It concerns Roland’s departure from his quest companions, his best friends:
It occurred to him that if he had never loved them, he would never have felt so alone as this. Yet of all his many regrets, the re-opening of his heart was not among them, even now. (749).
My response was, “Such a sentimental idealist!”
If there’s one thing you’ll encounter over and over again in the Dark Tower series—and in pretty much all of King’s works—it’s the notion that at the core, humans are kind and loving. We’re hardwired for compassion, selflessness, and love, though we often forget that. The bitter skeptic in me insisted that human do not possess any essential qualities, whatsoever, let alone “good” ones. My mind argued, “Does he not realize that an individual’s ontological experience, as well as capacity to be compassionate and loving, are predicated upon and determined by cultural, economic, and biological conditions? That benevolence, love, and virtue are socially constructed positions for the privileged? King’s universe is awash with universals and misinformed ideals!”
I turned the switch off. I looked at my surroundings, then looked into myself. I was in a hospital waiting room. I was angry at cancer. I was scared at my helplessness. I suppressed every sob that bubbled up my throat. I missed my mother, even though she was here. I was scared of how I reacted to cancer. I was scared of how not being a pessimist made me vulnerable. I was scared that she might leave this world, and that she might not know the extent of my love. Because expressing love is good, and if I lead people to believe that, at my core, I’m good, then they might expect me to provide something I worry I’m incapable of providing with consistency. A distant part of me—as far away as all of the Dark Tower’s many realms—always wants to live in pure selfishness. It wants to alienate, drink, not feel. It wants to not care about your depression, or your relapse, your cancer. Why I wished to protect that inner waste-land is beyond me, but I knew, the minute I open my heart and show its core reality of love and connection, to myself and everyone, I might change. I might be a differ person than the one who began this quest toward humanity.
The waiting room: a place where people are forced to acknowledge, often painfully, the human capacity to love. I looked at my tense father, and then my sister, whose eyes were red. My love for my mother wasn’t my own. It was my father’s, my sister’s, my wife’s—everyone whose lives my mother touched.
I know this: The quest to become fully human—unconditionally loving and compassionate—is terrifying and difficult. I knew very little about The Dark Tower books before I started reading them, but I sensed (correctly) they had to do with just that. I’d avoided them because of their total length, and the commitment required to read them. That’s what I’d told myself. But I think that unconsciously, I knew the books would somehow reverse the highly addictive trajectory toward alienation I was on during that moment in my life. The prospect of changing—for the better—is terrifying. Sometimes I’d persist in my alienation and destruction because it’s familiar. But as I ventured into the forth and fifth books, I saw how Roland, too, faced the same personal obstacles, and had to chose between the uncertainty of change, and the familiarity of self-inflicted suffering. Roland, I’d come to learn, was a stand-in for everyone. I wasn’t the only person terrified of how opening the heart can change you.
Devoting months—was it nine?—of my life to The Dark Tower wasn’t as massive a task as I’d envisioned it. I haven’t been completely honest with about how I went about it, only because I’ve wished to avoid the diversion that’d come with full disclosure.
Not long after I’d tossed The Gunslinger aside, I’d purchased the Marvel Dark Tower graphic novels, which essentially cover the story of Roland’s youth, as depicted in The Gunslinger and Wizard and Glass, the fourth book. I loved the graphic novels, and maybe it was during that time that I purchased The Drawing of the Three. I just don’t remember. But even after reading the graphic novels, I had no intention of returning to the books.
If you are a Stephen King fan, your time will come to read The Dark Tower. Don’t force it. Don’t decide. When it’s your turn to change, it will find you.
After it found me—after The Drawing of the Three—activated and inspired the part of me that wished to change, I sought everything Dark Tower-related with a fervor. Knowing that Father Callahan would become essential to the plot by the time I’d reach Wolves of the Calla, I interrupted my progress to read Salem’s Lot, of which he is a central character. Hearts In Atlantis also stands on the periphery of the Dark Tower series, and I read that prior to the final novel. In short, I sought out and read almost every story and novel connected to the series in some way.
I interpret my zeal as a sign of how deeply I seek change.
I don’t believe there’s a universally-applicable order to reading these books, and the only thing I can suggest is that you follow you heart and intuition.
I suppose the big question is did I change? My answer is Yes (No). In fact, I feel like my quest has “ended” much like Roland’s. I have to be vague about that, of course, in case the books find you.
My mother survived. I told her I love her. But I’m not done telling her that. I’m doing it now, and if I’m fortunate, I’ll get to tell her again and again, in the million different ways I could never have imagined.
My editor tells me that I owe you readers something more than the evasive bullshit at the end of part 11, so here are The Twelve Steps for Reading Dark Tower Series, My Way.
- Begin reading the first 150 pages of The Dark Tower I: The Gunslinger. This should take roughly four months.
- Put The Gunslinger aside for a month, unfinished. Go to your local comic-book store, or order online the graphic novels The Dark Tower: The Gunslinger Born, and The Dark Tower: The Long Road Home. Complete these in one to two weeks, and then take a break by reading King’s Mercedes, which is unrelated to the Dark Tower.
- Now that the graphic novels have provided you a deeper appreciation of the Dark Tower universe, spend three months reading the last 150 pages of The Gunslinger.
- Wait until disaster strikes in your life. During this period, you should be too busy to read anything. That’s when you will want to start The Dark Tower II: The Drawing of the Three. Finish it in less than a month. Two weeks is reasonable.
- Begin reading The Dark Tower III: The Waste Lands If you feel temptation to take a break and maybe read some Joe Hill, don’t give in. Save Joe Hill for next year. Finish The Waste Lands in three weeks, tops.
- You’ve earned the right to divert from the series-proper, and can now start exploring books that are related to The Dark Tower in some way or another. Consider The Eyes of the Dragon. If you are unsatisfied with it, read Salem’s Lot. One of its primary characters will play a major role in The Dark Tower. Spend no more than a month of this diversion.
- Read The Dark Tower IV: Wizard and Glass. It is long, but so excellent that you won’t put it down. You will finish it in five days. You might lose some friends; you might end up using all your sick days at work, but it’s worth it.
- It’s time to take a relaxing diversion. Read “The Little Sisters of Eluria” from Everything’s Eventual, and then take the rest of the month off to recuperate. At this point, you might want to buy Stephen King’s The Dark Tower: A Concordance, by Robin Furth. It’s a highly-useful encyclopedia of the series, and great for people who have memory problems.
- Read The Dark Tower: The Wind Through the Keyhole, which, although it is a Dark Tower book, King wrote it after the final novel. Chronologically, it takes place between parts IV and V. It’s short. You should finish it in a week.
- Read The Dark Tower V: The Wolves of the Calla. This should take you all month.
- Read The Dark Tower VI: Susannah, which is short. Read the novella, “Low Men in Yellow Coats” from Hearts in Atlantis. Read “Everything’s Eventual” from Everything’s Eventual That should take about five weeks, but if you’re really picky, read the non-required novel, Insomnia, and add an additional month.
- Brace yourself. Read The Dark Tower VII: The Dark Tower. That should three weeks, but you might be so into it that you’ll finish it in a week.
Don Peteroy (Episode 19) is the author of the novella Wally (Burrow Press 2012). His story “The Circuit Builders” won the 2012 Playboy Magazine College Fiction Contest. His stories have appeared in Florida Review, Arcadia, Eleven Eleven, New Orleans Review, Cream City Review, Chattahoochee Review, Permafrost, Yemasssee, and others. He teaches at UC Clermont College, in Cincinnati, Ohio, and is currently working on two novels.