The Gunslinger

November 15, 2017 at 7:00 pm (Reads) (, , , )

gunslingerThe Gunslinger by Stephen King


This will be my (at least) third reading of The Gunslinger. I read it a few times in high school, and then again when Wolves of the Calla came out, and I figured re-reading the preceding books would be a useful exercise. At that time, I read King’s revised version, which annoyed me. I don’t begrudge him correcting the small continuity errors, like removing the magazine he reads because King later suggests paper is as valuable as gold, or adjusting Jake’s age to match his age in The Waste Lands, but he went and retconned a lot of other parts of the story to match up with what he wanted it to be by the time Wolves was published. It annoyed me, enough so that when I decided to re-read the series leading up to the movie, I opted to read the original edition, warts and all.

With the series, I want to review them in light of the total story, and in the case of The Gunslinger, I also want to review the book as a series of stories, as they were originally published. The first section, “The Gunslinger”, is the only one in the book that can be considered a short story. It establishes the gunslinger’s character (he remains unnamed here), and presents him as something old and revered. The man in black is also unnamed, and is presented as someone magical and mystical. The story serves to build the world they live in, and makes suggestions that this is our world in a much later time, and presents a showdown between the gunslinger and the man in black, though they don’t meet in person. It’s a good story, by itself, and even though it suggests a larger story to come, King could have ended it here and had a compelling, interesting story.

It wasn’t until two years later that King returned to this story, publishing “The Way Station”, the story that introduces Jake and gives us our first look into Roland’s life before the start of this book. Roland is named in this story, and the Tower is mentioned for the first time. King continues to build the world, making further indications that this is our world, or at least one similar to it, but there’s not much conflict happening here to define it as a standalone story. Instead, it serves as a start to the larger, overarching story that would become The Dark Tower.

“The Oracle and the Mountains” (and the remaining two stories in this book) were published the same year as “The Way Station”, and continue to serve as a setup for something larger. King expounds on that plot, and shows an indication that he’s already plotting out The Drawing of the Three, since the Oracle makes a prophecy about those he will draw into his world. This is also the story where we learn more about Jake and Roland’s relationship, and it’s the time when Jake comes to know he will die on this journey.

That story segues straight into “The Slow Mutants”, the longest story in the book, and nothing at all like a standalone story. Roland tells his coming-of-age story in the middle of the story, which could serve as the plot here, but it doesn’t do much to progress the story, other than to give further insight into Roland’s character. It foreshadows Wizard and Glass, in that it’s more a story about Roland than it is one of the Dark Tower. The parts of the story that take place out of flashback do more to build the world and cement it as ours in the future (though, honestly, his use of “Hey Jude” is a subtler, more effective way of doing it). There were some odd word choices in the similes here, especially when you consider that the story is told from Roland’s perspective: once he compares something to baseball, and another time he references deep-sea creatures. Does Roland’s world have either of these things? My guess is no, so why would he think this way?

Finally, the book closes with “The Gunslinger and the Dark Man”, the story that paves the way for The Drawing of the Three. The prophecy from the third story is reiterated through the Tarot reading, and even though King’s afterword suggests that he didn’t have clear ideas of how the story would proceed, he at least had ideas for the second book. It doesn’t define the Tower, nor the Dark Man, both of which he defines later in the series to suit his purposes. Here, the Dark Man is Walter, but I know later he’ll become Randall Flagg. It’s more retconning and hand-waving, even though I feel like King manages to pull in all of his points well enough to support his story, but to suggest he knew where the story would go at this point makes as much sense as suggesting George Lucas knew what he was going to do in Return of the Jedi when he was filming Star Wars. He may have had ideas, but there’s no way he had the details of the plot formed, especially when the later books reference 9/11 and King’s own auto accident as major plot points.

I liked this book when I was younger, but it isn’t the strongest book in the series. It sets things up for the rest of the story, but it has a few foibles due to the uncertainty King had regarding the story at this point. It’s where everything begins, so of course it’s required reading for anyone wanting to read the story, but for new readers, I’d suggest getting the revised edition to read first, and then coming back to read this if they want to see how they compare.

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