Friday 19 November 2010

Dark Tower Readalong: The Gunslinger Part 1

Welcome one and all! Roll up to the Dark Tower Readalong - all welcome. Every Friday I will be posting my detailed thoughts and commentary on a section of the Dark Tower, starting with The Gunslinger. Now, some idiot (not me, definitely not me) declared proudly that it would be one chapter per week - and then I actually checked the book this morning and found it involved what I shall now refer to as chaplets - the smallest chapters in the world. So, in the revised edition, I am going to be tackling the first five chaplets - which comes out at approx 30 pages. Be warned, I shall be quoting from the book and shall not hold back on spoilers - please don't read on any further if you don't want your reading experience completely spoiled!

With each section I shall first summarise the key events and, following this, will provide my commentary.

Without further ado, let's kick off the first part of the Dark Tower Readalong...


The gunslinger pursues the man in black across the desert, reaching the point where his quarry had camped and musing on the fact the remains of the campfire are still cold. He knows he is closer to the man in black.


The gunslinger suspects that he has reached the last dwelling, but he comes to another hut where he discovers a blue eyed man weeding a stand of corn. The blue eyed man asks the gunslinger if he is alive or dead. He also says that he thought the gunslinger's "kind" were gone. It is revealed that the man in black is a sorcerer and passed through sometime between two weeks and two months ago. He is exhausted and falls asleep as the man, Brown, cooks for him.


Brown wakes the gunslinger and tells him his mule has passed on.


The two men sit after dinner has been consumed and talk about the fate of a town that the gunslinger travelled through. The gunslinger wonders if Brown is but an illusion, a trick of the man in black. He debates killing Brown, but ends up telling him about Tull.


We flash back to Tull and the gunslinger's arrival in the town. He is treated with suspicion. When he asks some kids to direct him to a local cafe, only one is brave enough to talk to him. When he enters the bar, he orders rich food and is able to cow one of the bar thugs with no more than a few words. While he is eating, the gunslinger is disturbed by a man who speaks to him in the High Speech - he asks the gunslinger for some gold and receives it. While this is occurring the bar empties of trade. The heavily scarred female bar owner accuses the gunslinger of driving away her customers - when the gunslinger asks for knowledge about the man in black, the bar owner names her price as him "scratching her itch".


"The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed."

As opening lines go, it's pretty damn powerful. If someone just gave you that line, you (if you're anything like me) would have a multitude of questions. Who is the man in black? Who is the gunslinger? Why is one pursuing the other? Why is he fleeing into the desert?

Unlike other authors, King doesn't immediately move to describe the gunslinger. At the end of the section I've completed here, we still don't know the name of the gunslinger. We still don't really know why he is chasing the man in black. We only have hints about who the man in black is.

Instead, King shows us the land these strange men - hunter and hunted - are racing through. The desert is presented as barren, with only the deadly devil-grass (a drug of sorts, that can be smoked or chewed) changing the nature of the featureless plain. We learn a little about the situation in this land - there used to more people travelling roads through the desert; there are Manni holy men and followers of the Man Jesus, so at least two religions; the gunslinger's title and clothing gives an extremely strong Western flavour to the book.

"His hat was gone. So was the horn he had once carried; gone for years, that horn, spilled from the hand of a dying friend, and he missed them both."

Mystery atop mystery. What horn? What friend? Clearly the back story here is extensive.

Although I find myself mystified by what is going on, I am being irresistibly drawn into the tale thanks to King's language which evokes an old and tired land that God has deserted and doesn't divulge anything about the main protagonists.

The gunslinger is a remote and resigned character - feels like the Man With No Name. In fact, he is the archetypal nameless man from Western films. "There would be water if God willed it, even in the desert."

In these first few pages, as well as hearing about the gunslinger's horn and dead friend (and his father's guns) we also learn about a momentary lapse, a dizziness that makes him feel adrift from the world. Not sure if this will prove to be important going forward, but probably worth pulling it out.

"It spoke of a man who might straighten bad pictures in strange hotel rooms."

This line is a little jarring. Up until this point, we have only a very nebulous idea of the world in which the gunslinger lives. It seems either a time in history or possibly post-apocalyptic, but here we have mention of hotel rooms! It throws out all of my preconceived notions. Also, how autobiographical is this statement!

I like the harsh humour that jumps out: "The huddles had degenerated into single dwellings, most inhabited by lepers or madmen. He found the madmen better company."

This mention of a taheen is quite chilling - a man with a raven's head. While I dwell on the taheen, let's address the fact that King is using quite a number of words that feel authentic, but aren't real. I like the flavour that they add, but my copy of the novel doesn't have a glossary so in most cases you have to guess what is meant. Don't get me wrong, it is usually quite easy to tell from the context of the sentence, but a glossary might have proved helpful.

This might come across as a little dumb, but I did not realise that chaplet two actually took us back in time to before the gunslinger started out into the desert. Chaplet three and four continue on directly from two - but then five takes us back in time again to before the gunslinger reaches Tull. This structure is a little bewildering to begin with, but then feels very natural as you begin to be immersed in the tale.

The taheen claims to be looking for a place called Algul Siento, or Blue Haven, or Heaven - you'll have to excuse me pulling out this very random line! I'm used to over-analysing every last sentence of Steven Erikson, so it has become second nature to take out lines that might end up being important at a later stage!

I love the raven Zoltan who belongs to Brown, with phrases like: "Screw you. Screw you and the horse you rode in on."

This is an interesting exchange between the gunslinger and Brown:

"You're a gunslinger. That right?"
"Yes." [...]
"Thought your kind was gone."
"Then you see different, don't you?"
"Did'ee come from In-World?"
"Long ago," the gunslinger agreed.
"Anything left there?"

Just a couple of things to mention from the above - the first is that by calling the gunslinger 'your kind' it sounds as though he isn't quite human. The second is the use of In-World - this could be a country. It could be another planet. It could be another dimension. It could be many things, in fact, and I'm guessing it's something we'll find out as we get to know the gunslinger.

Almost immediately afterwards we find out that the man in black is a sorcerer - "among other things". Doesn't this make you even more intrigued about who he is and why the gunslinger is chasing him?

The gunslinger is suspicious and always on edge. He trusts Brown but knows he is vulnerable to the dweller. He wonders whether the man in black has cast an illusion and set him a trap. "It wasn't beyond possibility that Brown was the man in black."

One thing that springs out from the gunslinger's encounters with Brown and the people of Tull is that he is an enormously dangerous man:

"I don't want nothing from you, gunslinger, except to still be here when you move on. I won't beg for my life, but that don't mean I don't want it yet awhile longer."

In chaplet five (the last part of this readalong today), we go with the gunslinger to Tull. The first aspect of this chaplet that jumps out at me is the fact the gunslinger can hear a honky-tonk piano playing 'Hey Jude' by The Beatles! This just gives me more confusion about the fantasy world we're travelling through...

In the town of Tull, the inhabitants treat the gunslinger with both fear and disdain. We have the cliche of the gunslinger stepping into the bar and having all go quiet - this is such a key moment in many western films, and King wrote it well - up to and including the gunslinger's quiet ordering of food and his intimidation of a bar thug.

From this typical western environment, we then slide sideways into the fantasy aspect of it by meeting Nort - the devil weed abuser who has been brought back to life by the man in black. The mysterious Nort speaks to the gunslinger in the High Speech of Gilead:

"The High Speech. For a moment his mind refused to track it. It had been years - God! - centuries, millenniums; there was no more High Speech; he was the last, the last gunslinger. The others were all..."

With that rather intriguing little addition to the chaplet, I think we'll draw this to a close. My over-riding impressions so far are a maddeningly slow drip of information; mysterious and impressive back story; and an extremely harsh but realistic world.

Now over to you! What did you think of these first five sections? Can you answer any of the questions I've posed? Did you get more from the passages than I did? Have I missed anything glaring? I would love some feedback on the structure of this post as well, being the first - want it done differently?

Happy reading, and look forward to you joining me in the comment section!


  1. Unfortunately the steady drip drip of information goes on well into book 3. You don't really get a feel for the backstory until The Wizard and The Glass which is nearly entirely set in Roland's teenage years.

    As a set up The Gunslinger is perfect, and for me, the best of all the books. You get subtle introductions to the Roland and his long gone companions. There are glimpses of his life in Gilead and his becoming a Gunslinger.

    A lot of the questions raised cannot be answered without giving too much away of what comes later. As for 'Hey Jude' playing in the bar it's just a hint of the massive multi-dimensional world King has created.

  2. It's a huge world and once in which you quickly get immersed but i agree it does raise many more answers than questions.

    Post-wise, i'm note sure we needs the scene précis at the beginning of what is going to be a very long post but i like that you have picked bits out and tried to expand on themes

  3. This is going to be an interesting reread for me. I read the original story in F&SF back in '78 - '81 as it came out. Then I (and King) kind of lost track of it. I haven't read the books other than the Gunslinger stories, so I'm looking forward to this.
    I like the slow dribbles of info. At the very first it does seem like a western, but then you get the Raven headed man and sorcerers and you are thinking fantasy. Then there is the Hey Jude and you're thinking Post Apocalyptic?
    All of this serves to draw us in.
    I like the scene precis as they help see what Amanda picks out as important.

  4. Only skim reading this, as it's definitely not what I'm meant to be doing right now:

    So glad you liked that first line. I could write pages on that first line. I fell in love with that first line. It sets the tone for *everything*

    Noticed the comment about the missing horn. This is one of the things that I'm pretty sure is not in the original version of Vol. 1 - interesting! (Hope it's not a spoiler to discuss how I think this alters one's perception - not going to discuss *why* it's relevant that the horn is missing.) I think it's possibly as late as book 4 that we learn about the horn, originally, but I could be wrong about that. I wonder how it changes, reading that. I suppose it's good that you, as a fresh reader, liked it. But I'm a fan of the drip-fed mystery. Part of the beauty of these books is how rich the world clearly is, all the tantalising glimpses and things you pick up as you go along because *it's a complete world* and we're just visitors from one next door - from floor 19. I can see why King introduced the missing horn earlier once he realised it was going to be important, but I liked just... running across the problem.

    And now probably someone will say that it was in the original anyway, but ho hum.

    Note on the scene descriptions: I thought Roland flashed back to the house of the last dweller, and then flashed back again to the events in Tull as he remembers recounting them to the dweller. Could be wrong, though. It's been a while. It's such a short book, and so powerful, that I can't really bear to reread it. (Or you might have covered it in your closer analysis, as I only skim read.)

    Right! Back to work.

  5. In the Foreword to the edition that I am reading, Stephen King mentions the fact that many of his readers have never actually read any of his Dark Tower books, and it is into this group that I have to admit I fall into.

    Having read his books since I was in my early teens, I'd never even heard of the Dark Tower series until a few years ago. A friend of mine gave me a brief overview, which I am afraid put me off them (I'll go into details some other time). However, your readalong has given me a prompt to finally give them a try.

    King is brilliant at taking familiar settings (usually in Maine!) and giving them a twist, and so far The Gunslinger looks like a variation of this: the familiarity of the Western genre (and even a character reflective of The Man With No Name) seeded with references to sorcery, human/animal hybrids and unfamiliar words for which we can only guess at the meanings.

    I really like the way the narrative isn't strictly linear, with flashbacks within flashbacks, meaning that we have to pay even closer attention to the tale, as well as it mirroring Brown's words, "Time's funny out here. Distance and direction, too."

    We are obviously strangers in a strange land here, and I am certainly intrigued as I begin to journey through more of it.

  6. It's been so long since I read Gunslinger that my comments can't add much value.
    But I love Westerns, books and movies, so, 20+ years, when I saw the title, the cover, and that King was the author, there was no way I could pass up this book, even though at the time, I really didn't have funds to spend (the edition I bought was Trade Paperback).
    However, the quote about a "man who might straighten bad pictures"; I wonder if that is a referance to Jesse James - the outlaw not the estranged husband of Sandra Bullock :)? Because he was straightening a crooked picture when he was shot in the back and killed.

  7. Thanks so much for all your comments - well thought out and showing much love for the source. Hope to see you on the next post!