Posts Tagged ‘Dark Tower’

I enjoyed the first book in Stephen King’s Dark Tower fantasy series, with its broken narrative and its intriguing ideas. I loved the second volume, with its intense study of a small group of characters, their personal struggles and their developing relationships. So I was really looking forward to the third volume.

Unusual setting, decent story

This story, which follows the Gunslinger Roland and his companions on the way to the Dark Tower, is very much a quest story. More coherent than the first volume, and a more conventional fantasy narrative than the second, the most interesting aspects lie in the details of the world. The characters take a familiar journey from A to B through various dangers, but the details of the world are unusual. It’s a mishmash of fantasy, science fiction, western and modern settings, with some horror elements in the mix.

More conventional makes for less interesting

The problem for me lies in the expectation set by the previous two volumes. By comparison with the intense character studies of the The Drawing of the Three, the familiar quest narrative is just OK. Like Robert Kirkman’s Walking Dead comics, this is combining familiar and comfortable structures with more unusual elements, but in a way that doesn’t excite me.

If this had been the first volume I probably would have been excited by the novelty of the setting, and let the quest story carry me through that. But as a third volume it felt disappointing.

The awesome bits

I still enjoyed this novel a lot. It may not be great, but it is good.

And King’s ambition here is great. Like the new weird, this combines elements in unexpected ways. Questions are raised about the relationship between the real world and that of the Gunslinger, a relationship which is complex and currently unresolved. We see how people respond when their world falls apart. The disparate genre elements unsettle and excite, promising exhilarating new experiences that they come within a hair’s breadth of delivering.

I read a blog post yesterday in which Jacqui Murray identified an optimistic view of the future as a feature of steampunk. While I’m not sure that optimism is essential to steampunk it is a common feature, a way of making the problems of Victorian society comfortable, shunning the darkness of colonialism and factory labour in favour of bold excitement. Steampunk can explore darker places, and can become more interesting by doing so, but it’s a more risky approach, and so less common.

In the same way, it feels like King has taken the safe route with this volume, and in doing so created something I enjoyed but wasn’t blown away by. I’m hoping for more next time.

Anybody else read this book? What did you think?

Whether or not you think that characters are defined by their conflicts, those conflicts are clearly important to telling a good story. Internal conflicts and struggles make characters more interesting, and make it more difficult for them to face their external conflicts, adding to the tension in a good plot.

Stephen King’s The Drawing of the Three, which I talked about in general terms yesterday, is a great example of this, and of how to create these conflicts in different ways.

Dark Tower 2a

Physical challenges – Roland’s fingers

Roland, the protagonist of the book, is a gunslinger. His skill set, his confidence, even his sense of identity is built around that role. And straight away, within a few pages of the start of the book, his gunslinging ability is impaired when a lobster monster hacks off two fingers from his right hand.

Suddenly Roland is in conflict with his own body and his own instincts. He has to learn to function without wielding a gun in that hand, to re-make the habits and ways of behaving that keep him alive. King has inverted a common trope of both fantasy and westerns, where the hero shrugs off and forgets serious wounds, and instead made his hero’s struggle with his own body a major plot point.

Challenges of will – Eddie’s addiction

Eddie, the first of the three characters Roland draws to him, is an addict. His drug habit defines his whole life – his friends, his enemies, the trouble he’s in as we first meet him and the far greater trouble he gets into later on. But this is about more than providing external threats, it’s about defining Eddie’s internal conflicts.

King provides a compelling picture of a man facing that addiction. Eddie wants to be free of the drugs, yet at the same time he doesn’t. It’s a conflict that highlights the complexity of human will. Not all of our conflicts are as straightforward as wanting something and striving to make it happen. Desire is complex, willpower can be hard to muster, and that battle for will is Eddie’s conflict. It makes it hard for him to achieve what he needs to at times. It breaks both his body and his mind. But it also allows us to see Eddie’s strength, the battle showing that he might have the will to get through this, and through the other challenges on the way to the Dark Tower.

Odetta and Detta – extreme internal conflict

Then there’s Odetta and Detta, two personalities inhabiting the same body, both in denial about the other’s existence. It’s like King has taken the idea of internal conflict and pushed it to the greatest extreme he can think of. The two personalities are so distinct it almost becomes an external conflict, as we wait to see whether Odetta can fight off her dark self and retain not only control of her own body but continuing existence within her own mind.

The whole spread

King shows us a wide range of internal conflict in The Drawing of the Three. Each character faces a different sort of major conflict, and lesser struggles deriving from that. These conflicts are externalised through the character’s actions, not just dealt with through paragraphs of inner monologue. They make everything else more difficult and more interesting.

If you’re thinking about how to write internal conflict and so make interesting characters then I really recommend reading this book. And if you’re reading it already then keep an eye out for internal conflict, both as a writerly tool on display and as a theme of the story.

Enough from me. If you’ve read the book what did you think of its exploration of these characters? And even if you haven’t, what other great internal character conflicts can you think of?

I’ve never read Stephen King’s horror books. It’s not that I have an aversion to horror – I’ve enjoyed quite a few horror films and short stories – I’ve just never been interested enough to read a whole novel. So while King is widely regarded as a literary master craftsman, most of his work has passed me by.

So it’s a good thing he likes cowboys, because few things pique my curiosity more than cowboys appearing in genre fiction.

Dark Tower 2

Smooth prose

The Drawing of the Three is the second of King’s Dark Tower series and, not coincidentally, the second of them that I’ve read. It’s the continuing story of the gunslinger Roland, cast adrift in a world that in strange to the reader and increasingly distant from Roland’s own familiar life. He’s a man on a mission, though what that mission is remains elusive, and to fulfil that mission he has to reach the Dark Tower. But first he has to ‘draw the three’, bringing allies to him from our world.

At least they might be allies. And it’s probably our world. And meanwhile there are hideous lobster monsters prowling the beach, looking to make a lunch out of Roland.

As with the first volume, there’s a smoothness of prose on display here that’s very pleasing on the mind. While King summons up powerful images he doesn’t do so through reaching for the thesaurus or trying to impress us all with wacky metaphors. It’s the details of place, of character, of action, that make this story come alive.

Hooray for coherence!

The Gunslinger, King’s first Dark Tower novel, showed its origins as a series of short stories. It was disjointed in places, both in story and tone, held together by the thin thread of Roland’s pursuit of the Man in Black.

This is a far more coherent whole, clearly written as a single piece. Structure, characterisation, foreshadowing, it’s all that bit more connected. That, along with King’s smooth prose, kept me completely engaged in a story that goes in some weird directions.

The characterisation helps. The three people Roland draws to him aren’t empty plot vessels. They all face interesting personal challenges and are fascinating characters from diverse backgrounds – more on that tomorrow.

Expanding the range of fantasy

I’ve written elsewhere about the stodgy repetitiveness that sometimes overtakes fantasy. But The Dark Tower, a series that has been slowly growing for decades, is a reminder that there have always been innovations with the genre. That for all the snobbery we sometimes face, and the familiar tropes we sometimes trap ourselves in, there have always been writers who will say ‘I don’t want elves and orcs, I want a cowboy, a schizophrenic, giant lobsters and portals into people’s minds’. The new weird isn’t all that new. It’s right here in a novel from 1987.

I think this is a great book. Tomorrow I’m going to get a bit more analytical and explore one of the things it does particularly well – internal conflicts. In the meantime, here’s some listening to go with your Dark Tower reading – music inspired by and composed to accompany the first book, because when work in one medium inspires an artist in another that’s pretty cool.

Have you read this book, or others in the series? What did you think?

 “Man walks down the street in a hat like that, you know he’s not afraid of anything … ” – Mal, Firefly

Straight up westerns aren’t all that popular these days. Despite the success of the magnificently dark Deadwood and Hell on Wheels there are very few on television, and even fewer in the cinema. Yet in sf+f we’re seeing western elements find their own growing niche. Not since Clint Eastwood sang his way through Paint Your Wagon have western mash-ups been so popular.

 

Science fiction westerns

It all seems to have started with the science fiction westerns. Star Trek was famously sold as Wagon Train in space, and while it may not have had many western trappings it certainly dealt with many of the key themes – wild frontiers; manly men in the rugged outdoors; civilisation transformed in the face of the other.

More recently Joss Whedon put the western elements front and centre in Firefly, possibly the most mourned show ever to face early cancellation. Again he explored themes of civilisation and borderland living, along with outlaws and the lingering divisions that follow civil war. But this time there were cowboys, shootouts and even a train robbery – yeehaw!

Steampunk westerns

In many ways steampunk’s a great fit with westerns. You’ve got the nineteenth century technology, outfits and attitudes. You’ve got frontier living again, combining technological and geographical frontiers. You’ve got dreams of a greater future twisted round with dark consequences. OK, so all of this was pre-empted by Wild Wild West, but now that steampunk’s properly emerged as a genre you can see the two being combined to good effect. That’s why the likes of Josh Stanton are scribbling away at steampunk westerns. Even I’ve had some success in that area.

Fantasy westerns

Now we’re seeing fantasy influenced by westerns as well. Of course Stephen King’s Dark Tower has been kicking around for a while, and is something of a favourite work for King himself. But Joe Abercrombie‘s also done it with Red Country, stripping away the technology of the western but keeping its tension and drama, from the grand conflicts between settlers and governments back home to the intimate brutality of the pre-shoot-out stand-off. It’s the social side of the old west, the behaviours and the social structures, rather than the technology and fashion, and it’s utterly compelling.

Back to the beginning

It’s great to see all these mashups. I love westerns and I love to see them combined with other genres in this way. It’s why I’ve written things like A Sheriff In The Deep and The Cast Iron Kid. But you can still never go wrong by going back to the classics. So if you’ve enjoyed any of the stories I’ve mentioned above then do yourself a favour and go watch some Clint Eastwood too. Pick up Pale Rider or The Outlaw Josey Wales. They’re exciting, evocative films, and worth every moment.