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“He just didn’t trust that smile.” The Dark Tower Book III: The Waste Lands

October 8th, 2010
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I wasn’t sure quite what to expect when I began reading The Dark Tower series by Stephen King.  Could Mr. King’s “magnum opus” live up to all that I’d heard about it?  With three (of seven) books down, I can now tell you that I am unreservedly hooked.  (Click here for my thoughts on Book I: The Gunslinger, and here for my thoughts on Book II: The Drawing of the Three.)

With each of the first three installments, the novels have grown longer and the stories have grown more complex, as Mr. King gradually builds and deepens the strange and wonderful and horrifying “world that has moved on” which Roland Deschain and his new ka-tet (group of fellows) inhabit.  (Looking at the enormous Book IV which is sitting on my bookshelf, it looks like that trend will continue!)

Book III: The Waste Lands, has an unusual structure in that the novel is basically split in half.  Book One of the novel (subtitled Jake: Fear in a Handful of Dust) deals with a major dangling plot-line left by the conclusion of The Drawing of the Three.  In that novel, the third door into another world brought Roland once again in contact with Jake, the young boy he had encountered in The Gunslinger.  Except this was Jake in the past, before he had ever met Roland.  Although it’s easy for a reader to miss in the intensity The Drawing of the Three‘s climax, while in Jake’s past Roland makes a critical change to Jake’s life.  As The Waste Lands opens, we see that the ripple effects of that one change have devastating effects on Roland — and on young Jake — and the two must once again find one another in order to set things right.

That synopsis makes it sound like The Waste Lands has a story in common with a great many Star Trek episodes, but trust me that things are really must weirder than that.  Mr. King’s story has little to do with the butterfly-effect changes to a timeline caused by time travel.  Rather, this story is a vehicle for us to learn more Roland and Jake — and also about Eddie and Susannah — as all four must set their doubts aside and go to incredible lengths in order to make their ka-tet whole once again.  As a back-drop, we also gain fascinating hints about the nature of the parallel worlds in the Dark Tower universe, how they are structured and how that structure is breaking down due to the as-yet-unrevealed malady that has apparently affected the Dark Tower.

This half of the novel is absolutely stuffed with incredibly bizarre “wha??” moments.  (None more bizarre than the children’s book, Charlie the Choo-Choo, which Jake finds — a book which has frightening connections to Roland’s world and to Jake.)  These moments build and build, one atop another, as Mr. King ratchets up the tension and our characters are all backed into seemingly impossible-to-escape corners.  It’s a joy to read, and I was completely enthralled by the crazy narrative as the story rocketed along like, well, like an out-of-control freight train.

With the ka-tet reunited, the second half of the novel — Book Two: Lud: A Heap of Broken Images — presents our beleaguered band with new challenges.  Traveling through lands which Roland has never known, hoping to follow the beam (one of the connecting pillars of all existence in the Dark Tower universe) to the Dark Tower itself, Roland and his friends come across the city of Lud.  Though Eddie harbors secret hopes that this once-great metropolis will provide them with opportunities for shelter and to re-supply, the catacombs of the city contain a society that has, over the century, devolved into constant feuds between animalistic sects — the bedraggled descendants of the once-civilized men and women who dwelled there.  But the threat posed by these violent savages pales in comparison to the danger of the creature that the author of Charlie the Choo-Choo tried to warn readers about: Blaine the Mono.

Heh.  I’m laughing as I type that, because it sounds so silly — but again, here we see further evidence of Stephen King’s enormous talent, as he is able to wrap together so many outlandish concepts and scenarios and make everything feel tense and real.  Indeed, I am finding that The Dark Tower series (to this point, at least), succeeds not in spite of these crazy story-lines, but BECAUSE of them.  The series is so far off the rails (to continue using train metaphors) that it’s incredibly endearing.

As I’ve written previously, few can build a tense fantasy action/adventure sequence quite like Mr. King, but he’s also deft at creating and developing engaging characters to drive the narrative along.  He is also unafraid of slipping in a profane phrase or three here and there in a way that really makes me laugh.  I keep coming back to the description, early in the book, of the enormous, ancient bear that menaces Roland and co. as “one huge motherfucker” as a prime example of this.  Boy did that line make me laugh!  It was so out-of-place in this fantasy epic — and yet somehow so honestly human — that it well-characterizes many of the paradoxes that make The Dark Tower series so engagingly fun.

My only complaint about The Waste Lands has nothing to do with Mr. King’s prose, but rather with the presentation in the 2003 Plume softcover edition that I was reading.  This book (as did the Plume editions of the first two Dark Tower books) contains a number of wonderful illustrations throughout the novel.  However, the illustrations are all placed too early in the book — time after time they displayed images of scenes that I hadn’t gotten to yet in the story, and in at least one case (the image of the giant bear, in which the detail of the creature’s paw reveals it’s true nature) really spoiled a plot twist for me.  Shame.

Speaking of huge motherfuckers, The Dark Tower Book IV clocks in at close to 700 pages — but hopefully it won’t be too long ’till I’m through with it.  And when I am, I’ll be right back here to share my thoughts.  Have a great weekend, everyone!

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