“Stories take a person away. If they’re good ones, that is. Is it a good one?”
After concluding his Dark Tower magnum opus in 2004 with the publication of the seventh and final novel, The Dark Tower (click here for my review), I suspect that Stephen King did not intend to ever return to that series. Certainly the story had come to a very definitive conclusion. But I wonder if perhaps his involvement, over the past several years, with Marvel Comics’ comic book series (set during the youth of Roland of Gilead) didn’t spark something in Mr. King. Whatever the origin, Mr. King surprised his readers last year with the announcement that he was working on a new Dark Tower novel. The Wind Through the Keyhole was published last spring, and after re-immersing myself in the world of the Dark Tower via the Marvel Comics this summer, I was extremely excited to read Mr. King’s new novel.
The Wind Through the Keyhole is a terrific novel, but let me say from the outset that I think it’s a mistake to consider it a Dark Tower novel. Well, it’s set in the world of The Dark Tower, that’s true. We get to spend a little more time with the ka-tet from the original novels: Roland, Jake, Eddie, Susannah, and Oy. We also get to spend some time with the youthful Roland (who has been the chief protagonist of Marvel’s Dark Tower comics), and the novel is replete with little references and nods to various Dark Tower characters and phrases. But the story doesn’t really have much to do with Roland’s quest that was so central to Mr. King’s original novels. The events in The Wind Through the Keyhole are interesting, but they don’t really impact Roland or his ka-tet in any significant way. Frankly, the events of the much-shorter novella The Little Sisters of Eluria (click here to read my review) are much more significant to Roland’s over-all story.
But while I can’t say that The Wind Through the Keyhole is a tale of great significance in the larger Dark Tower epic, it is nevertheless a marvelously entertaining story. The book has an interesting structure, in that it is three stories nested within one another. We open with Roland and his companions from the Dark Tower novels. This sequence is set immediately after the events of book IV, Wizard and Glass, and before the start of book V, Wolves of the Calla. But after only a few pages with our old friends, they find themselves trapped waiting out a terrible storm, and Roland begins telling a story of his youth. Not long after having earned his guns, but before the death of his father and the fall of Gilead, Roland and his friend Jamie De Curry are sent to a little town called Debaria in an effort to stop the shape-shifting “skin-man” who has been terrorizing the townsfolk. Roland arrives to late to stop another series of grisly murders, but after rescuing a young boy whose father was killed, young Roland begins telling him a story to calm him. And thus we launch into the third story of the book, what is probably the centerpiece story: a Mid-World fairy tale called The Wind Through the Keyhole.
All three stories in the novel are interesting, but it’s that Mid-World fairy tale, The Wind Through the Keyhole, that really fired my imagination. It’s a wonderfully imaginative story, and like all the best fairy tales it contains tragedy and terror, but also incredible adventure and hope. Mr. King walks a clever line with the tale, allowing us to consider that it just might be a true story from Mid-World’s past, or something with no truth to it at all. Like most stories, the truth probably lies somewhere in between. I was most intrigued to meet Maerlyn in the tale. The powerful wizard was mentioned periodically in Mr. King’s original Dark Tower novels, though it’s been in the back-up features of Marvel’s comics where Maerlyn has been discussed at great length. I want to avoid spoilers, but the Maerlyn described in those features, written by Robin Furth, seems like quite a different character than the Maerlyn we meet here.
Speaking of the Marvel Comics, I had a hard time jiving the continuity of the comics with the story of Roland’s youth we read here. In the comics, once Roland, Cuthbert, and Alain returned from Mejis with the Wizard’s Glass, events unfolded at a feverish pace leading to the death of Steven Deschain and the fall of Gilead. But this story seems to suggest that many months passed after Roland’s return, and that Roland had time to go off on this other adventure with Jamie before Gilead was attacked by John Farson’s forces. Considering the Dark Tower comics have been overseen by Mr. King, it’s a curious bit of discontinuity.
But not one that bothered me overmuch. It’s fascinating to see Mr. King himself tell a tale of young Roland, the character who Robin Furth and Peter David have been depicting as their main character in the Marvel comics for the past several years now. Mr. King’s version of young Roland, though inexperienced, seems a bit more capable and more dangerous than the Roland of the comics. I was also a little surprised that, in a story set so soon after the terrible death of Roland’s great love, Susan, that he didn’t seem to flinch at the thought of a dalliance with a woman in Debaria. But while one can pick at what might be a minor inconsistency here or there, I loved getting to read another of Roland’s adventure, and his pursuit of the mysterious skin-man was an entertaining, intriguing adventure indeed.
But as I wrote above, it’s the fairy-tale of young Tim Ross that really is the heart of the book. His adventure with sorcerers, sprites, swamp-men, magical tygers, and vengeful step-fathers was gripping and wondrous, all the way through. Although I enjoyed the two other stories that surrounded this one, I think The Wind Through the Keyhole probably could have stood on its own, though of course it’s fun to see the connections between that fable and the other two stories, as they each draw toward their conclusions.
And while none of these stories can be considered essential in terms of Roland’s quest, they do serve to shine some light onto previously unexplored areas of the Dark Tower universe. It’s easy to guess that the Covenant Man is most likely a familiar character from the original books, and I loved getting to see another Dogan as well as another piece of artificial intelligence from North Central Positronics. And I positively hooted at the revelation of the true name of the lion Guardian of the Beam (a clever connection with a famous story written by someone other than Stephen King).
If I really have any complaint, it’s that the few pages we spend with Jake, Eddie, Susannah, and Oy are really just a tease. I wish we could have had a more substantial additional adventure with them, even though I realize it would be hard to fit such an additional story into the tight continuity of the original seven books. I guess I should be thankful for this additional visit to the world of The Dark Tower and, as usual, Mr. King puts it best. In his introduction, he writes:
As for me, I was delighted to discover my old friends had a little more to say. It was a great gift to find them again, years after I thought their stories were told.
I wholeheartedly agree. Thankee, sai.
Josh’s Dark Tower Reviews: Entering The Dark Tower — The Dark Tower Book I: The Gunslinger – The Dark Tower Book II: The Drawing of the Three – The Dark Tower Book III: The Waste Lands — The Dark Tower Book IV: Wizard and Glass — The Dark Tower Book V: Wolves of the Calla — The Dark Tower Book VI: Song of Susannah — The Dark Tower Book VII: The Dark Tower — Return to the Dark Tower — The Little Sisters of Eluria — Marvel Comics’ Adaptation of The Gunslinger