Stephen King, The Gunslinger: The Dark Tower I (Viking, 2003)
"The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed."
With those deceptively straightforward words, world-renowned horror writer Stephen King launches (and rather neatly sums up) the first volume of his sprawling epic fantasy series, The Dark Tower. Setting the stage for publication of the fifth book in the series later this year (2003), Viking has republished a revised hardback version of the first book soon to be followed by books two through four complete with a new introduction and forward by King ... and thirty-five pages worth of brand new text scattered throughout. The Gunslinger's genesis dates back to the early days of King's career, around 1970 or so, and was first published in 1982. In King's own words, the original book was the work of a young man, and out of step with the series as a whole, so he revisited it to tighten up the language, plotting and characterization. (As a side note, in a recent interview with Borders Books, King indicated he'd eventually like to repeat this process with the other books something to look forward to indeed.)
King's other well-known forays into straightforward fantasy are much tigher in scope 1984's The Talisman and its sequel, Black House written with fellow horror writer Peter Straub, and 1987's standalone novel Eyes of the Dragon though astute readers of the Dark Tower series will see the connections between these (or just about any other King novel, for that matter) and this series. Unlike any of those novels, The Gunslinger is not intended to stand completely on its own. It has to be read for what it is, our first tentative steps alongside the gunslinger Roland as he strives towards the man in black, and the world-spanning Dark Tower.
Roland is the last of a dying breed, the last of a dying age: a worn and weathered man with naught left but his guns, his memories and an unyielding desire, nay, overweening need, to overtake the man in black. We meet Roland as he's chasing his quarry across a nameless, faceless wasteland, always behind, but slowly, inexorably closing the distance.
While we know little about Roland at this point, we discover quite quickly that he's good at dealing death with those guns of his. Exceptionally good. Despite this skill, Roland is not yet without the ability to care. There is some small affection between him and the saloon-keeper Allie, whom he dallies with in the miserable town of Tull, and something akin to familial love blossoms between the gunslinger and the boy Jake, whom the man in black maneuvers from New York City to Roland's side in this strange land. But it's not his strong suit.
Roland's tale switches back and forth between his present-day journey across the desert and his remembrances of the past. Through his memories we begin to learn of Gilead, his childhood home; how he came into his birthright, and of Marten, who cuckolded his father ... and who is either the man in black's underling, or one and the same as him. Present day Roland works his way across the desert, joined after a time by Jake, who will serve as his key to palaver with the man in black at the end. Before that meeting, though, Roland must learn of his ka-tet, those who will be bound to him in the longer journey to come, thus setting up book two of the series, The Drawing of the Three. His meeting at last with the man in black is not quite what Roland expects. For rather than the end of his journey, the culmination of all his efforts, Roland finds himself instead embarking on the beginning, as his opponent reveals the existence of the Dark Tower itself, nexus to all worlds. And though he hadn't really known it until now, it's the Tower Roland seeks.
Robert Browning's "Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came" (you can find a copy of the text here) is an obvious inspiration for King, but the story, and this Roland, are all his. The Gunslinger is light on actual action, but makes up for it with King's extraordinary characterization of Roland. Roland is someone to fear, admire, love and ... follow. And those in search of a fine story will follow Roland to the ensuing volumes, to the bitter end.