This isn’t going to be so much of a look at the first novel of The Dark Tower series, The Gunslinger. Instead I’m going to get a little more personal about it. I think its safe to say that The Gunslinger really changed me as a writer.
First a quick examination of the novel. This series of stories were written by Stephan King when he was young, around 19 or so. As he points out in his new introduction, there was a zeal to the writing that he doesn’t have in his prose any more. But there is also a lot of stuff a young writer does that just doesn’t add to the story. In 2002 King went back to the work and did some editing and modifying to allow this book to feel more at home in his seven book epic. Reading this version, I have to say it is a smoother read and flows a bit better with the rest of the series. But I grew up with old version, over-elaborate prose and all.
I remember someone recommending the book to me, but I don’t remember who. It was in high school, I wanna say sophomore year or so. I knew King more from the movies based on his work, but I believe I read Cujo and maybe It. Anyway, I thought I knew what I was in for, but man was I blown away.
Here was a world that combined so many disparate elements and yet it all worked. Your main character was a cowboy, cool as the devil and twice as dangerous. He’s travelling across a world that hints at apocalypse. We see ruined machines, and technology. But the people all seem to have stepped out of the 1800’s. They talk funny, a kind of mix between olde west and a formal speech you’d find in a medieval film from the 50’s. Roland, our gunslinger has flashback to his youth, where the cowboys live in castles. There’s a strong sense of the feudal in these memories. The gunslingers world is filled with perils including demons, wizards, mutants and strange technology. Finally there is Jake, a young boy who is pulled into the Gunslinger’s world from ours. When he describes his home we recognize it immediately as a modern city street.
I’d never read a book like it, and the setting and characters just clicked with me. I picked up the rest of the series (up to the third book at the time) and was hooked. This was a classic adventure story with our heroes on the quest, travelling the land and facing all kinds of characters.
Let’s get back to The Gunslinger. Up to the point of reading that book, Tolkien heavily influenced my writing. Lord of the Rings was a focal point as a writer. I loved the depth, the characters and the adventure. All my writing was based around this basic fantasy model. But when I read The Gunslinger I realized that fantasy was just that – fantastic. You could do anything with the characters and world, and if you did it right it would all flow together creating something unique and powerful. C.S. Lewis did something similar with his Chronicles of Narnia, but this being Stephan King was a darker more cynical world – one that H.P. Lovecraft would appreciate. That darkness was what really got to me. There is a melancholy to the series, a tale of endings, which really hits home to me.
I didn’t immediately begin writing fiction in the style of The Dark Tower, I was too in awe of it. But it opened my eyes, and The Gunslinger in particular. It feels more dreamlike than the following books. It ebbs and flows in ways that make sense on a primal level. Even the overwrought prose of the original version adds to this, seeming to create an off kilter feeling. That’s what got me – the feeling of being in a dream. I love dreams and writing and stories that are immersed in them. This was the first book I read that came anywhere close to matching that feel, and while I’ve explored more examples since then, I keep coming back to this book.
It wasn’t till nearly five or six years later that I used The Dark Tower as one of my main influences on my first novel. That story was influenced by so many things spanning Japanese anime to the action film Ronin that it’s kinda funny to read now. But that wide swath of influences and the dark nature of the story is definitely based in The Gunslinger. I even tried a version of the ending of that novel with my main character – having her face a nemesis and receive a revelation at the same time. I read it now and its clunky and not effective at all. But I can see the seeds of the inspiration there.
My dark fantasy fiction has not strayed much since. When I do delve back in, I find elements of King’s work in mine, as well as influences by film maker David Lynch and of course Lovecraft. But I think my characters have gotten a lot better and I’ve created a plot that is more fluid and less locked into its influences than the original. Maybe one day I’ll fee comfortable enough with one of the tales to unleash it on an unwitting public (as Dr. Forrester would say). But for now those dark tales remain mine to polish. I love them, but they aren’t ready yet. But each time I revisit my world it gets a little better.
And so thank you Mr. King for creating a fascinating story and providing a spark of inspiration for my fantasy writing, taking me into a direction I never thought possible and allowing me to see possibilities in my fiction.
Do you have a book or film that really triggered a direction or change in your writing? Do your early attempts to matching it show how much you’ve grown as a writer? Have you read The Gunslinger?