Authors of the Amorphous: Stephen King
The Master of Succinct Dread
Navigating the Bleeding Edge: The Dark Tower
I remember back in 1991, lying in bed having finished reading the latest installment of a series which had utterly captured my imagination, one which felt from first reading that it would be epic in every sense of the word. Imagine my surprise when, inside the back of the book, I saw a publisher’s note printed on a bit of card-stock kitsch (I think it was supposed to be a bookmark) indicating that this third book, which ended on something of a cliffhanger, was the third and final portion of a trilogy. I read that card and felt deeply betrayed, for as a fan of science fiction and fantasy who had, for the most part, totally eschewed horror, I did not realize the depths of prolific and legendary American author Stephen King’s commitment to his vision. As a complete ingénue regarding publishing, I also completely underestimated the power of sales numbers like Mr. King’s. Suffice to say the series did not end there, but rather went on to be a tale as epic in scope and grandeur as my young-ish heart could desire.
Today we’ll be talking about that series, and the man’s work in a more general sense. While, as I’ve alluded to above, Stephen King is typically thought of as an author of horror novels, his magnum opus, The Dark Tower series, sits firmly in the New Weird, and through it much of the rest of his work is pulled closer to the New Weird as well. Whether it’s the mix of fantasy, science fiction, and horror, the existence and exploration of multiple worlds existing in the same space in different dimensions of reality, or even the idea of what it means to be, The Dark Tower covers them all [ 1 ].
Genre-Defining by Standing on the Shoulders of Giants
In some ways, as King’s writing predates the New Weird genre in a proper sense, he could be said to be a precursor to the genre, an inspiration, and a pioneer. His novels and short stories—and the films and television series these works have inspired over the decades—have helped define a genre of modern storytelling like no other.
Yet even King’s contributions to genre fiction, as lofty as they are and continue to be, are only due to how he stood on the shoulders of the giants that came before him. Throughout his work he makes oblique references to the Lovecraftian Mythos—one of the most well-known fonts of existential horror in recent memory. Equally well-seeded throughout his other books are references to things seen in The Dark Tower; occasionally a particular reference (such as the perennial antagonist character, Randall Flagg) references both the Mythos and the Tower, intertwining the two further. In this way King was one of the key authors involved in tying the New Weird to its spiritual precursor, Lovecraft’s Mythos Horror [ 2 ].
King’s fertile—dare I say febrile—imagination provides not just pathways and links between the body of his works in this manner. Characters, settings, plot points, and events occurring in one novel or short story are interconnected with others. Sometimes these connections are overt; at other times, they are oblique, even nearly impossible to identify. The framework for this overarching network of connections, like the proscenium of a stage, is inspired most undoubtedly, at least in part, by the collective authorship of the Cthulhu Mythos.
A note, King tends to appear in many of the movies based on his work. That doesn’t always mean he likes the adaptions, but he’s not distancing himself desperately like so many authors do when a film is based on intellectual property they already sold off to a publisher [ 3 ]. So… let’s call that tacit approval? Hopefully, the state of Maine agrees and won’t ban him if they film there.
Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came
The series, for those of you who haven’t read it, is the story of the journey of The Gunslinger, Roland Deschain, as he embarks on an epic journey through time and space in search of the Dark Tower, wherein, he imagines, resides the architect of all his life’s woes. While I try to avoid too much in the way of spoilers as we navigate the amorphous, suffice to say that his journey is neither uneventful nor exceptionally pleasant. It is, however, a fantastic read.
The story starts with The Gunslinger, which focuses on Roland himself, painting a vivid word picture of a man who is part Wild West sheriff, part knight of the Round Table. This first book has several vignettes where King takes time to showcase Roland’s deep commitment to his quest, as well as the lengths he will go to fight against that which he perceives as evil. This commitment is single-minded in the extreme, as he is wholly prepared to sacrifice anything—and anyone—who would delay him in his task. It then moves on to The Drawing of the Three, wherein Roland is joined in his quest by an unlikely group of misfits. While that sounds trite and comedic, King plays it completely straight, with any comedic relief coming in the form of oblique references to modern (at the time) pop culture; if you’ve never read a comedic proposal written without comedy, trust me that it becomes horrifying very, very quickly, without any need to “push” the horror.
The journey continues through five more books, plus one sequel added on significantly after the publication of book seven. With each book, every character becomes deeper, more nuanced, and in many ways more horrifying; the terrible things which happen to each of the group would be disturbing had they happened to the typical mannequins seen in less well realized horror. Seeing them happen to characters as well-developed and three-dimensional as any human you’d meet on the street is worse.
Realizing that the scene you might have seen in a gore flick that seemed “dark comedy” funny, which you chuckled at just a little before you got to know this person, happened to someone with hopes and dreams and fears and an apparent sense of self? That can shake a reader far more deeply than any jump scare or gore fest. It can make the reader question what they know about themselves, let alone what they thought they knew about the world, fictional or real. King is a master of building characters in this way and has gained notoriety for then maiming or outright executing these highly developed characters across all his works, making it an excruciating and tense experience for readers that are constantly worrying when their favorite character is about to get the axe.
Shaken and Stirred
As noted in our series intro, “Navigations,” one of the key portions of the New Weird is the mixing of science fiction and fantasy tropes. King does this in a way that makes the two seem seamless; the characters meet deities from their own mythology only to find that the deities are complex artificially intelligent machines, only to find later that all the machines were once real guardian deities which were replaced with replicas arguably as powerful as the originals. It’s one of the most interesting subversions of deus ex machina I’ve personally seen, with the gods not only being in the machines but the gods being the machines themselves.
Subverting or otherwise playing with tropes, both with and without lampshades, is another thing King does which plants the series firmly in the genre, although I suppose one could argue he put the technique into the genre and others simply followed the pattern he set. Knights with guns as holy to them as any paladin’s sword; people of color who are neither stereotypes nor saints, but who have some of the features of each, and are still just people with a differing genetic and cultural background; addicts who, when freed of their addiction, are neither joyous at being healed nor immediately pulled back into it; The Dark Tower has all these things. What’s more, none of those things is a focus or a plot point. They are simply well envisioned, beautifully implemented pieces of setting and character that deepen the worlds King creates, imbued with a life of their own.
As I mentioned before, the series occurs on multiple planes of reality. It occurs mainly on a reality which seems to be Roland’s home, but travels frequently to other places, times, and planes. Their final goal is not just a Tower, but a meeting point for all places, all times, and all planes of existence—the epicenter of all worlds connected to King’s multiverse. The members of Roland’s group are pulled from Earths surprisingly like our own but different in subtle ways which appear to be connected yet not the same worlds. In one instance, two natives of New York City discover that in one world the Co-Op City development is in the borough of the Bronx, while in another it’s located in Brooklyn (check your own map to discover which reality you’re in).
Finally, merging the ideas of playing with planes of reality and the Borgesian Conundrum, his characters come calling on a fictionalized version of King himself in one of the later books, meeting him while he is in the process of writing the first book of the series and creating a truly dizzying meta-narrative: is this fictional King aware that he is a character in another reality where a different version of himself is writing a novel series that he appears in? Is the “fictional” King in the novel any less real than the characters he meets and is in the middle of supposedly creating? Is there yet another reality, the one created by the reader, where all is fiction and open for interpretation?
Making Tired Tropes New Again
What I simultaneously find most appealing and impressive about The Dark Tower as a whole is how King manages to, time after time, take tired tropes which ought to be cliché and proceed to infuse them with new life, either by inversion, subversion, or, and this is the thing that makes me both awed and surprised, playing them absolutely straight, yet with such incredible writing skill that I don’t realize until later that the technique was one I’ve seen hundreds to thousands of times before. That’s the sign of solid storytelling; you don’t mind the trope if it’s handled well.
When I talk to friends who are tangentially familiar with King’s work, they normally assume he just does horror. Introducing them to The Dark Tower series is certainly an eye opener for a lot of them. What amazes them more, oddly enough, is finding out that the man is the creative mind behind The Green Mile as well. Some days an established artist can surprise you, such as when Steve Martin begins writing plays he’s not in [ 4 ], or Ed O’Neill doing dramatic pieces [ 5 ]. Never pigeon-hole an actor or a writer; they’ll subvert your expectations on a shoestring budget out of spite.
Should you have the time to dive into a world that took King almost 30 years—start to finish—to put on paper and might wind up taking almost that long to read, digest, and fully appreciate, get yourself copies of King’s Dark Tower, say goodbye to your free time to the foreseeable future, and I’ll see you next time as we continue to Navigate the Bleeding Edge.
- “Michael Whelan’s vivid illustrations of Roland’s journey have imprinted upon generations of readers and bookstore browsers.” King, S. (2004, September 21). THE DARK TOWER VII: The Dark Tower. Cover. Donald M. Grant/Scribner. https://www.michaelwhelan.com/galleries/dark-tower/. Cover illustration by Michael Whelan.
- “King’s Dark Tower sequence interconnects with much of his body of work.” Dennizn. “Montreal, Canada – October 23, 2019: A hand holding a Stephen King book The Dark Tower. Stephen King is an American famous author of supernatural fiction, horror and fantasy novels..” Shutterstock. 23 October 2019, shutterstock.com/image-photo/montreal-canada-october-23-2019-hand-1566093268.
Having wandered through multiple careers, hobbies, and educational paths over five decades of life, Robert’s body of work has ranged from systems analysis, work a butcher, a baker, a professional educator, and published author. A regular speaker at PhilCon and other events, he’s been a force multiplier for community youth outreach. Steam-Funk Studios senior creative staff, his insights helped shape both The Unconventional and The Living Multiverse punctuated by his dry pronouncement, “Boom.”
- “The Dark Tower: Books,” StephenKing.com, 1 Sep 2020. stephenking.com/darktower/book/. Accessed 2 Nov 2020.
- “Franchise / The Dark Tower.” TV Tropes, Creative Commons, tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Franchise/TheDarkTower. Accessed 24 Sept. 2020.
- Kaye, Don. “Every Stephen King Movie Cameo: From Creepshow to It Chapter Two.” Den of Geek, Dennis Publishing, 11 Sept. 2019, denofgeek.com/movies/every-stephen-king-movie-cameo/.
- Rizzo, Frank. “Steve Martin Talks About His Plays, Including ‘Picasso’ At Long Wharf.” The Hartford Courant, 4 Dec. 2014, courant.com/ctnow/arts-theater/hc-steve-martin-picasso-1130-20141205-story.html.
- Andreeva, Nellie. “Sissy Spacek & Ed O’Neill To Star In ‘Lightyears’ Amazon Sci-Fi Drama Series.” Deadline, 1 Mar. 2021, deadline.com/2021/03/sissy-spacek-ed-oneill-star-lightyears-amazon-series-1234704089.