The Gunslinger: The Dark Tower I
Revised and Expanded Edition
Viking, 2003, $25.00, 231pp
Review by Wayne C. Rogers
I first read The Gunslinger: Dark Tower I (aka The Gunslinger) when it was first published back during the early eighties by Donald E. Grant, Publisher. This was done in the Limited, Signed edition format with a few thousand copies being printed as a trade hardcover for the die-hard Stephen King fans. I was certainly considered to be a die-hard fan at the time, trying to get everything I could of his published novels and short stories. I ended up purchasing a trade hardcover of The Gunslinger to read and a Limited, Signed edition to wrap up and to keep safely tucked away. I wish I still had both of them.
Stephen King first wrote The Gunslinger while still in college and then saw it eventually serialized in The Magazine for Fantasy and Science Fiction in the late seventies. The reason SK allowed Donald Grant to tackle the story and not a major publisher is that he didn’t think the storyline and writing was designed for an International audience, but rather for a small group of his loyal fans. Of course, as time went by, word of mouth began to spread and more and more readers wanted a copy of The Gunslinger. Too, SK decided to follow the first book with a sequel, though The Gunslinger was originally written as a stand-alone novel. What actually followed were six more books and a seventh one due out in 2012.
Though the first four novels were written with long periods of time in between each publication, the last three books were written and published quickly. Also, Viking decided to republish the first four novels in hardcover with exceptionally drawn dust jackets and Michael Whelan interior artwork as well as the artwork of other artists. A Trade Paperback followed afterwards. Because so much time had passed between the writing of The Gunslinger and the entire series, SK made the decision to go back and revise and expand on The Gunslinger. This was probably a rather challenging project for him because he wanted to retain the original voice of the young writer of the novel while at the same time smoothing out the sentence structure, expanding on the background of the characters, and connecting the first book to the other six in the series.
With the seventh Dark Tower novel coming out in 2012 and Ron Howard signing on to turn the epic into at least three films and a television series, I felt it was time for me to finally read the entire series, starting with the first book. I have to be one of the few “Constant Readers” who hasn’t read the entire collection. I read the first two in the series and then stopped with the Wastelands. I remember writing a review of The Gunslinger for the Fantasy Mongers newsletter after the book first came out, raving about what King had been able to do in this parallel universe and with a character that was similar to the one played by Clint Eastwood in the “Man With No Name” movies. As to what the book was actually about, damn if I could remember. I’m old and my memory is okay on the best of days and not worth a damn on others. Anyway, I purchased the four Viking hardcovers and the last three in the series under the Donald E. Grant publication logo. Then, they sat on my bookshelf (when I had a bookcase) for over a year while I debated when to start reading them. I mean some of these Dark Tower novels are five and six hundred pages long. This was going to be a major project for me.
Finally, I started The Gunslinger two weeks ago, reading it as a much older individual than I had been in the early eighties. Just to get this out of the way, if someone were to ask me for a Stephen King novel recommendation, it wouldn’t be The Gunslinger. I would tell them to try out The Shining or The Stand or maybe Bag of Bones. I can’t speak for the rest of the books in the series, but I don’t think the majority of readers out there would enjoy The Gunslinger as much as his die-hard fans tend to do. That said, I did like the book and it still amazes me that a twenty-two-year-old man originally wrote it forty years ago.
The Gunslinger: The Dark Tower I deals with the Gunslinger’s (aka Roland Deschain of Gilead) quest to find the Dark Tower and his pursuit of the Man in Black (nope, not Johnny Cash) who appears to be an evil magician of some sort. We don’t really know how long the Gunslinger has been after him, but I’m guessing years and that revenge is a large part of his motivation, though at the end it turns out to be more about knowledge and the upcoming future events.
As the book opens up, the Gunslinger is weeks, or maybe just days, behind the Man in Black. He is crossing the West and quickly approaching the opened desert that breeds little in the way of life. When the Gunslinger enters the town of Tull, he quickly discovers the Man in Black has already been through the tiny community and has left him a few surprises. Needless to say, the Gunslinger barely makes it out of Tull alive as the residents come alive in ways he never expected.
Continuing on with his journey, the Gunslinger soon approaches a Way Station at the point where the harsh, looming desert is about to begin. There’s a young boy named Jake at the station, and it appears the Man in Black snatched him from our own world and then dropped him off in the middle of nowhere to slow the Gunslinger down. Whatever else the Gunslinger might be, there is a sense of compassion in him that refuses to leave Jake alone at the Way Station. This compassion, however, falters at the end. Anyway, he chooses to take the boy with him on his quest, not knowing what will soon be in store for them.
The trek through the desert takes long weeks and soon leads to mountains and underground caverns that work their way through the granite and travel in the same direction as an underground river. Railway tracks and a handcar are soon discovered by the Gunslinger and Jake. This leads to a hellish journey through the blackness by rail from one side of the mountain to the other. During this stretch of time, the Gunslinger begins to tell Jake a little about his past (things he’s never told another being) and how he became a gunslinger. Also in the blackness of the underground caverns, the two journeymen will have to deal with the slow mutants (think of the mutants from H. G. Well’s The Time Machine). The mutants glow with green phosphorus and are hungry for some juicy flesh. I think the end of this ordeal through the mountains will shock you as it did me.
The final chapter deals with the confrontation between the Gunslinger and the Man in Black with long discussions about the history of the magician and why man’s finite mind is unable to grasp the mysteries of the Universe. I think it was this last chapter that was expanded the most with many thought-provoking ideas concerning our place in the scheme of things and how little we truly know of our Universe or the possibility of there being billions of universes out there. Not planets or solar systems or galaxies, but universes. Everything is eventually set up for the future volumes in the Dark Tower series, especially the second book, The Drawing of the Three.
In the reading of this novel, I could easily see the shaping of a young, beginning writer into someone who would one day become a household name. I could see where Stephen King was going with the book, even if he couldn’t when he first wrote it. I think in many ways King had no choice but to continue with the series. He had given his readers a glimpse into another world and now had to fulfill the rest of the bargain he unconsciously had with his fans.
If I have one question about the Gunslinger and the first book it’s where in the hell does the man get his bullets from? You can only carrying so much ammunition on the holsters, and I believe he went through most of those rounds trying to get out of Tull alive.
Though there are a few other books I now want to read, I feel a strong tugging at my sleeve to jump right into The Drawing of the Three to see what happens next. That, however, will have to wait a while, but it’s something to look forward to in a few more weeks.
Long days and pleasant nights.