Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came: How Stephen King’s Imagination Broke My Heart

First off, I seek your pardon, Gentle Readers, for my absence. I have good reasons.

  1. PitchWars: I submitted my speculative science fiction novel and got requests for full manuscripts from two mentors. While I ultimately wasn’t chosen, I got some good feedback which lead me to participate in #PitMad.
  2. #PitMad: I tweeted twice an hour every hour (incredibly exhausting, let me tell you, I never knew half hours could fly by so fast when you’re working full-time and triple-checking your spelling, spying on others and getting inspired, and cursing behind the scenes when you realized changing a few of your tweets made them a few characters off. Foolishly, I did not use a Twitter platform, something I totally now understand why people have them). I got two small publishing company likes and one from an honest-to-god literary agent. I sent my package off to the agent with crossed fingers. If I haven’t lost my chances with the small publishers, I’ll seek them out after I hear back from the agent. I guess I really want to find the right agent.
  3. Speaking of agents…I’ve been sending out query letters like a madwoman and have had a few partial requests. After I sent the partials, I of course, decided my package was complete trash and my dreams dashed; yet the email was sent. It was out of my hands and now I hope that ka will be in my favor and something profitable will come from it. Nevertheless, I’ll be participating in #SFFpit put on by Dan Koboldt December 10.
  4. Speaking of ka, one of my short stories (that I unbelievably love and half-wrote hiding in the bathroom on the toilet because…reasons? I’m not sure what happened there. It seemed like a safe place) actually placed in the semi-finals of the Writer’s of the Future Third Quarter. Incredibly unexpected after getting so many rejections. The deadline for the next Quarter was right on its heels so I quickly wrote some alien story that turned out 100% different than I thought it would. Sent it off. The day I found out about being a semi-finalist, I connected with some freelance editing people at a book festival and sent my first chapter to them for evaluation. It was returned edited along with a quote of how much it would cost to do the whole book. Some of the suggestions I agreed with and some I didn’t, but overall found the critique helpful. Enter panic mode about my agent partials: how I won’t land an agent now because the partials are terrible pieces of work because I didn’t have these new edits. Ah, life. Thank god for soothing tea.
  5. Speaking of freelance editing, I got my dark fantasy novel back from the freelance editor I actually did hire. She ended up commenting on things I didn’t expect and didn’t touch the topics I actually thought she would, which gives me mixed feelings of despair and determination. As this book was my first book, of course it has issues. While some may advise to pack away the first novel (hide it from the light of day), I can’t let it go. It’s a good story, one I truly like, and after getting it whipped into shape again (god I feel like I’ve edited and re-edited the thing a gazillion times), I’m going to seek out potential self-publishing avenues or maybe shop it around. It’s long, probably so much so that most agents will turn it down on the word count alone, but we’ll see. My editor said there’s plot that needs to be added, arcs that need to be fleshed out more, and since the ideas came easy the first time I rewrote the novel, hopefully it won’t be like pulling teeth this time around. I have a ridiculous goal to finish editing it by the end of November (hey, can you say NaNoWriMo?) because I want to submit it to Shock Totem (November 30, 2015 deadline for those of you interested). I considered submitting my speculative science fiction novel, but Shock Totem is a dark fantasy/horror gig and it wouldn’t be the right fit.

That was this weekend’s goal: to be incredibly productive. I was, but in unexpected ways. I had researched a few agents, sent off a few queries, and then kept sidling over to the couch to read one more chapter in the last Dark Tower book.

For me, the Dark Tower works best when binged. I’ve been reading it little by little over the autumn months and while I had planned to binge read Odd Thomas, the Dark Tower beckoned. As it turns out, I’m weak-willed when a book calls, so around 8:30pm I got my pillows, blankets and my couch spot all comfy and read straight on till morning. My boyfriend came up to me around 2:30am and asked if I wanted to take a break and go to bed, but thirty pages remained. Thirty pages. Outside the book, reality seemed like a lie. My eyes were blurred, I had a growing headache, and looking away from the pages took effort, like coming up for air and wanting to immediately submerge again.

From here on out, there will be nothing but spoilers and gushing. The Dark Tower broke my heart multiple times and hurt in ways only the imagination can.

So much happened in this book. Looking back from page 800, I couldn’t believe I was in the same book. Our story picked up right where it left off where Father Callahan, the first of the doomed ka-tet, met his death by eating a bullet instead of letting the low men and taheen make a meal of him. Jake and Oy survived, but both were shaken. I was too. Twenty pages in and already the Pere had passed into the clearing (with a good death)? What awaited me? Jake and Oy defeated the mind-trap that brought a Tyrannasorbet Wrecks alive and were able to make it the door where Susannah waited.

Mia had birthed Mordred, a terrible half-human half-god from the Prim, who devoured his mother like a spider would: sucking her dry. Mordred’s a-hungry. Susannah managed to shoot off one of his legs but the baby spider got away, with the image of his bombardier’s eyes (Roland’s eyes) on his black back. Susannah escaped and saved Jake at the last moment by getting him through the door. The man in black, Walter, died soon after and while the Pere’s felt right, his felt hopeless, kind of unworthy of the man Roland chased across the desert. It was a terrible death (Mordred’s a-hungry) and I can’t discredit the horror of it. There’s just something twisted about losing your senses, particularly the eyes, before the end, especially when you know the end comes at the mouth of a baby god-spider.

While most of the Blue Heaven section dealt in the backstory of Sheemie, Dinky Earnshaw and Ted Brautigan (I can’t tell you how infuriated I was when I ran into characters I didn’t know, it’s like being on the outside of a good inside joke. I had to go and look up who the hell these people were just so I could move on in the story. Bitter, yes, but it has nothing to do with the book itself, only my ignorance). While that story part was good, I was actually more immersed in the friendship between the villains of Blue Heaven: Security Chief Finli the Weasel and Master Pimli Prentiss. The two main managers of the Breaker’s palace, the two heads of the snake our ka-tet had to kill. They were incredibly close—best friends—and shared their fear of the end, how they had to stick with the job, and the uneasiness about something going wrong. When Finli tried to strike up a conversation with Dinky about a book (the taheen was proud of his ability to read and appreciate hume literature, that much Pimli knew), Dinky told him to Take your copy of The Collector—hardcover I hope—and stick it up your furry ass. Sideways. Pimli and Finli left with as much grace as they could muster and then this happened:

There was a period of silence during with the master of Algul Siento tried out different approaches to Finli; wanting to know how badly he’d been hurt by the young man’s comment.

Oh god. The bad guys have best friends. The bad guys have feelings. So when this happened, I actually grieved for that lost friendship:

And there he was, thank the gods and Gan—said Pimli Prentiss, staggering and winded and clearly in a state of shock, with a loaded docker’s clutch swinging back and forth under his meaty arm…He went to the Weasel, waving slightly from side to side…their short but fervent embrace, both giving comfort and taking it, told Roland all he needed to know about the closeness of their relationship. He [Roland] leveled his gun on the back of Prentiss’s head, pulled the trigger, and watched as blood and hair flew. Master Prentiss’s hands shot out, the fingers spread against the dark sky, and he collapsed almost at the stunned Weasel’s feet.

The path to the Dark Tower is full of death and it wasn’t contained to just the bad guys. The death of the ka-tet couldn’t have been more heart wrenching. I knew Eddie’s death would destroy me, but it was actually Susannah’s cry, “Eddie? Sugar?” that really made the tears flow.

We weren’t even halfway through the book so I believed Susannah when she said he’s not hurt bad, not hurt bad, dear God don’t let my man be hurt bad—and I believed that he might miraculously recover when he lingered, chanting nonsense and prophecy, just like Jake believed (Eddie’s Eddie! Besides he’s ka-tet. He might die when we reach the Dark Tower, but not now, not here, that’s crazy). Jake, who was scared of Susannah’s wrath, terrified she would blame him for her husband’s death. I prayed to the writer just as Jake prayed (save my friend’s life and we’ll save yours. Save Eddie and we don’t let that van hit you, I swear it), but the wind blows.

Jake thought of Susannah screaming Eddie’s name, of trying to turn him over, and Roland wrapping his arms around her saying, You mustn’t do that, Susannah, you mustn’t disturb him, and how she’d fought him, her face crazy, her face changing as different personalities seemed to inhabit it for a moment or two and then flee…Let me go, mahfah! Let me do mah voodoo on him, make mah hougun, he goan git up an walk you see!

And the moment before Eddie he passed (because miracles and destiny are not the same thing in the Dark Tower), when he said his final goodbyes:

To Susannah: I…will…wait for you. In…in the clearing.

To Jake: Protect…your…dihn…from Dandelo. You…Oy…Your job.”

To Roland: Thank you for my second chance.

In all honesty, I handled Favorite Character’s passing far better than I did Jake’s.

Jake’s death was unexpected. Out of all the characters I thought would make it to the end, I was convinced Jake would be one of them. But the ka-tet had broken, Roland’s harsh composure had broken, he mourned Eddie’s loss, and I should’ve seen it coming. Jake and Roland went back to Maine to save the writer from being killed by a van. Roland went to knock Stephen King out of the way but Roland’s bad hip him betrayed him and then Jake leaped over him without so much as breaking a stride and the boy he thought of as a son disappeared beneath the blue vehicle.

 Jake had been crushed, something had collapsed in his chest and Roland wouldn’t leave Jake’s side until Jake commanded that he Go and see to the writer. Roland’s horrified bitterness, clinging to an illusion of hope that Jake would be okay, his hatred of the writer for making him miss Jake’s last moments on this earth because by the time he talked sense into Stephen King about his purpose of holding up the Beam by telling the story, while he had been talking to two men he didn’t like, the boy whom he loved more than all others—more than he’d loved anyone in his life, even Susan Delgado—had passed beyond him for the second time. Jake was dead.

My life was ending one character at a time. I needed the tissue box. Because once Roland hand-dug Jake’s grave and wrapped him in a blue tarp stolen from the truck:

He knelt a moment longer with his hands clasped between his knees, thinking he had not understood the true power of sorrow, nor the pain of regret until this moment. Roland opened his eyes and said, “Goodbye Jake. I love you, dear.” Then he closed the blue hood around the boy’s face against the rain of earth that must follow.

Jake died in the Keystone World. Once something was done, it couldn’t be undone. This was the world where time ran just one way. Poor Stephen King, what must it be like to have your characters so angry with you? I can’t imagine what that must feel like, to have your imaginary friends hate you.

The rest of the story felt oddly…empty without Jake and Eddie, the kind of emptiness that you feel when someone so integral to your life leaves. It’s not that the story went wrong, if anything else it remained amazing, but I felt such grief without Jake and Eddie. Roland managed to make his way to New York City in the company of Irene Tassenbaum, a middle-aged woman pulled into ka’s wheel. She wasn’t some hot thang or some put-together broad, she wasn’t a Victoria Secret model even in her prime, she was lonely, married to a creator who’d accidentally forgotten why she was important in his life, and she was looking for adventure even if she didn’t know it. She gave Roland comfort when he needed it, asking “Would it help if I lay down with you” when Roland told her, “I’m afraid to sleep. I’m afraid my dead friends will come to me, and that seeing them will kill me.” Roland’s never been so open, so raw. So human.

He made it back to Susannah after palavering with key figures in America-side (annnnd now I have to read Insomnia, thanks a lot) and Susannah and Roland made their way across the desert into the White Lands of Empathica. I’ve felt the cold that ate into them during their crossing only twice in my life: once when the Missoula Hellgate Canyon winds roared and the second camping on the beaches of Long Island in October. They had no fire, no warm clothes, and always Mordred waited in the background, ready to kill Roland, wanting to feed, but still just a child trying to survive in a harsh land that would kill anyone else. Killer Mordred became a character to be pitied. He may have been evil, but he was also just a child alone and scared in the dark, unsure how to survive, living off of scraps. At one point, so cold and sick, he cried in the darkness.

Roland and Susannah defeated Dandelo (goddamn that part was good, Roland was weak and Susannah so strong and Stephen King poking at his own deus ex machina) and found Patrick Danville, the boy without a tongue who could draw things into existence. Soon, Susannah’s dreams warned her that she must leave Roland. She had Patrick draw her a door to another when. I can’t tell if Susannah regretted her life, but I could feel her bitterness toward Roland at how things turned out. She loved him, of course she did, she followed him this far didn’t she? But she couldn’t make it to the Dark Tower with him. Ka told her he must do it alone. She left, gave up the gunslinger life.

When Mordred killed Oy, I sobbed another time. When Roland killed Mordred (who would have died of food poisoning even if he succeeded), I think inside he felt regret. What did Roland bring if not death to everyone who crossed his path, foe or friend alike?

Roland reached his Tower and spoke the names of his lost ones after he defeated the Crimson King (a good battle, but it didn’t move me as the other scenes did. After the Crimson King was described, I had this image of him as like a weird fat cartoon character and that kind of took all the seriousness out of it). The epilogue followed with Roland entering the Tower and Susannah in another when meeting Eddie and Jake Toren (now brothers) in Central Park and Eddie telling her that voices told him about her, that he had to be here to meet her and while this was supposed to be our happy ending (our consolation prize) it made me even sadder because while she had Eddie and Jake back again they weren’t her Eddie and Jake. She didn’t see it that way, but in truth Eddie Dean and Jake Chambers had died and could never be resurrected. She had shades of them. She would fall in love with Eddie again, kiss him again, which I suppose is a kind of happy ending: a chance to re-live your life with those you love even though they may not be exactly the same person.

King begged me to stop at this point. He told me not to read further, to leave it at that and not pass onto the Coda. But I am ever a Tower junkie and I am the grim, goal-oriented one who will not believe that the joy is in the journey no many how many times it has been proven to me. I don’t think I’m completely a cruel one who denies the Grey Havens where tired characters go to rest (because there are times when a story must end else it become terrible and wrong), but I wanted to follow Roland into the Tower.

Endings are heartless. Endings are just another word for goodbye. This ending was haunting.

“Oh no!” he [Roland] screamed. “Please, not again! Have pity! Have mercy!”

Horrified shock. Roland is in hell, has been damned for the deeds he did in his life, for putting the Tower above anything and anyone else, painting his life in death for a cause, and because of that and to find redemption he must climb out of hell—a repetitious hell—where he must re-live the same quest over and over again. When, and if, he can decide to let the Tower go, or somehow show he gained compassion that overcame his obsession or sacrificed the Tower for love, to let it fall, only then will he be released from his damnation and be allowed to go into the clearing.

But if he did, what could possibly remain? Would the Prim take over? Was this nothing but his personal hell and the real Tower (the real world) was safe? Gan, what a hard lesson. What a terrible lesson.

Death. But not for you, gunslinger. Never for you. You darkle. You tinct. May I be brutally frank? You go on. And each time you forget the last time. For you, each time is the first time.

How many times has Roland been to the Dark Tower? How many times has the wheel of ka turned? How many ke-tets has he drawn?

There was hope. Roland changed. He was no longer the creature I once distrusted. He learned about love and remembered it. After all, when he stepped on the desert, he had earned the Horn of Eld, showing that at some point at the Battle of Jericho, he chose to pick it up like Cuthbert asked instead of letting it remain on the ground. I do not think this will be his final wheel turn. I think he will need to do a few more hellish quests, save more people, either bring his ka-tet whole to the Tower or refuse to go at all, and maybe then he’ll die. Maybe then, he’ll be saved.

Maybe, when the man in black flees across the desert, the gunslinger will not follow.

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