SUPERVERSIVE: Why I Don’t Plan to Read King’s “Dark Tower” Series

Tuesday , 15, August 2017 14 Comments

I’m just a little behind, I know. But sitting next to me right now is a great book called “Wonderbook: The Illustrated Guide to Creating Imaginative Fiction”. In there a writer named Deserina Boskovich says this about the ending of the Dark Tower series (so, SPOILERS! from here on out):

It took courage to write that ending, I think. It took nerve to carry the story through to its inevitable conclusion. The top of the tower was always meant to be empty [this is in reference to the moment when the protagonist reaches the titular Dark Tower, and finds none of the answers he is looking for, but only his own destiny staring back at him – a paraphrase of Boskovich’s words]. There is no god, there are no final answers; there is only us, and our endless quest. But our search for answers – it’s how we save ourselves. It’s how we save the world.

Look: I know this doesn’t sound very superversive, but in theory, I have no issue with nihilistic novels, and I say this because there really are good ones! I’m thinking in particular of “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy”, of which the clear message is, “There is no meaning to anything, and nothingness is all you have to look forward to. The only way to cope with this is to laugh about the absurdity of it all.” And laugh we do. “Hitchhiker’s” is a riot.

(Bear with me – I’m coming full circle.)

Even so, people seem to have a problem with the ending of “Mostly Harmless”, where Adams kills off all of the main characters but Zaphod by destroying every incarnation of Earth in all possible parallel universes. They shouldn’t, because it’s a perfectly logical extrapolation of the series. How else could it possibly end?

But I get it. When you read a book, you want what happens to the main characters to mean something; you feel cheated when they don’t. That’s why nihilist literature is very, very hard to pull off well. It’s also why the the third book, “Life, the Universe, and Everything”, is probably my favorite – it’s the closest to having a traditional, if zany, plot.

And King’s brand of zen koan nihilism, if we are to trust Boskovich’s characterization of it, is actually dumber than Adams’. Adams, at least, was honest enough to realize that there’s no “saving” in nihilism. The quest doesn’t matter. Nothing matters. And King, by having the meaning of the book be “the search” is opening up a very simple question: If the whole meaning of the book is “the search”, but the answer to “the search” is that “the search” is the meaning…what are you searching for?

Image result for the great divorceC.S. Lewis, as always, put it far more succinctly than I can. From “The Great Divorce”:

For me there is no such thing as a final answer. The free wind of inquiry must always continue to blow through the mind, must it not? Trove all things’ . . . to travel hopefully is better than to arrive.”

“If that were true, and known to be true, how could anyone travel hopefully? There would be nothing to hope for.”

The search simply can’t be the answer. It’s like asking wet to be dry (another “Great Divorce” reference). If you don’t think there’s an answer, there’s nothing to search for; and if you’ve found the answer, there’s no reason to search it. It’s simply, almost tautologically, self-contradictory.

As for whether or not her characterization is accurate, this is coming from a fan of the novel. If this is how people who LIKE it describe it, well…consider me officially not interested.

14 Comments
  • ScuzzaMan says:

    The Dark Tower series is what happens when a writer has an intriguing idea and turns it into a story, but has no idea how the story ends.

    There’s nothing brave about the ending; it’s as poor and pathetic as “then the alarm rang and I realized it had all been a dream”.

    That’s not brave, it’s stupid.

    And you should wonder why people rave about a story with a stupid ending? I’ll let you in on a secret;

    Before the stupid ending, even before the increasingly obvious desperation of the middle, the searching for a good way to draw to a close a story with such momentously pregnant and ominous beginnings, before all that, the beginning is absolutely brilliant.

    If you refuse to read the first three books because the ending sucks, you’re depriving yourself some of the best imaginative fiction of our time, written by a master at his peak.

    It’s like refusing to read Dune …

  • caleb says:

    First book is worth reading. It is bleak, depressing but not nihilistic, dealing with a promise of purification and regeneration. Its world is pagan (as other article here described it) only in that it is utterly fallen and is at the end of one its cycles, being locked in a pagan cyclic time. Drop it all after the first book, second one is already written by a very different human being with a very different view of the world around him. Nothing of original’s atmosphere and occult/metaphysical undercurrent remains and, by the series’ end, nothing is made of the promise of its quest.

    • jaericho says:

      “Drop it all after the first book”

      I agree.

    • B&N says:

      “First book is worth reading. It is bleak, depressing but not nihilistic, dealing with a promise of purification and regeneration.”

      I agree. Genesis is worth reading precisely because it is bleak and depressing (Noah’s flood?), but then skip straight to the New Testament for the meat and potatoes. The Old Testament, like Deuteronomy and Leviticus, is just broccoli and lettuce.

  • john silence says:

    I’d say that first four books are more or less worth getting into. First one is the best, by some margin, and then in the fourth book he returns to his sorta melancholic fantasy-western combo (compared to modern day setting of the large portion of the second book or the more formulaic post-apoc of the third one).
    Everything after that may cause serious brain damage.

  • Rufusdog says:

    First book was great. He lost his way after that. Sad really. Someone should pick up after book one and not fuck it up.

  • Mark McSherry says:

    All this talk of despair and nihilism brings to mind Mark S. Geston’s LORDS OF THE STARSHIP (1968). It is the first of a trilogy, all available in an ebook from Baen Books called THE BOOKS OF THE WARS.

    http://www.baen.com/the-books-of-the-wars.html

    The first 26 (of 46) chapters of LORDS are free to read. But many are only a paragraph or two in length. The first chapter is one of the longest but if you finish it you will be hooked.

  • John E. Boyle says:

    No thanks.

    • Mark McSherry says:

      Forgot to mention, from David Drake’s intro to THE BOOKS OF THE WARS-

      “In 1991 John Douglas of Avon, a house I’ve never worked for, sent me for quote the bound proofs of Mark Geston’s first new novel in over a decade. I knew John only well enough to say hi if we happened to be standing in front of a hotel at the same time.

      “I quoted enthusiastically.

      “Years later I ran into John (in front of a hotel) and asked him how he’d happened to send the proofs to me. There weren’t, I’d have thought, many obvious clues that I’m a Geston fan.

      “John explained that he knew I’d started writing at about the time Lords of the Starship appeared. He assumed that anybody from that period would not only be familiar with Geston but be an enthusiastic fan.

      “He was certainly right about me.”

  • Ingot9455 says:

    I find that most people look to misunderstand the ending of Stephen King’s THE DARK TOWER. It looks to be a basic Western Occultist ending, and it goes like this:

    Here is the basic supposed secret of Western Occultism: “You are God.” The problem is that you just don’t know it – most of the time you are asleep, fumbling your way through life. those rare moments of triumph you have – when you are ‘in the zone’, acting at your best ability, and everything is going right – that’s when you’re almost awake, just barely using your godlike powers to affect the world about you.
    Western Occultism is about trying to wake yourself up and access that Godlike spark of awesomeness inside you, whether you do it through meditation, through abstract symbolism, or through a focus on sex.

    In this metaphor, when we talk Odinist Western Occultism, the Bifrost Bridge is the symbol of the connection between the world of Man and the world of the Gods. When we look to the Bible, we see the Tower of Babel as man’s attempt to reach up to the heavens and become as gods. And so on.

    And so when Roland enters The Dark Tower in the coda at the ending, he starts recapitulating his life – every memory, every decision good and bad, one level for every year he goes up. And he has to resist the temptation of each time, of dwelling in each place too long, savoring a success too much or getting too linked to a failure. (These are standard challenges in Western Occultism/meditation stuff – you even see them in Avatar: The Last Airbender in the sequence when Aang is trying to unlock his blocked chakras and achieve a clear state.)

    The Crimson King, for all his power, fails this test, and ends up stuck on a level of the tower, looking out a window, and throwing stupid grenades at Roland.

    Roland succeeds, and makes it to the top of the Tower. It’s not that the Tower is empty. It’s that the top of the tower for Roland is Roland, the best Roland that Roland can be, in that moment, in that place, and that Roland heals the Tower.

    Then normal-Roland rolls over, and wakes up at the beginning of his quest again, rapidly forgetting his previous quest just like we forget a dream just as we are waking up. Except he looks down and he has his famous Horn, the Horn of Roland, which he had lost earlier in the backstory. He, himself, has progressed from this experience, become a better person, more enlightened, closer to his ideal; and that’s the symbol of it.

    Because time goes on after Roland reaches the top of the Tower, we know that Roland has saved it. It’s just that for him, he is forced back to the beginning of his quest, like the magician rolling over in his sleep.

    • john silence says:

      “You are God” certainly isn’t universal. Back when I was going through that… “phase”… I’ve read writers like Vladimir Tomberg and Dion Fortune who were quite adamantly against the identification of higher self with God. Tomberg’s essay on “The Chariot” is something that stuck with me, in that regard.

    • ScuzzaMan says:

      Don’t imagine that knowing some obscure occult doctrine makes up for really bad storytelling.

      It doesn’t.

  • DanH says:

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

    That sentence has stuck with me from the first time I read it.

    I first read an excerpt of The Dark Tower in Omni magazine back in the late 1970’s, the book had not been published yet. The story was the scene where Roland has to shoot his way out of a town.

    I have only read up through “Wizard and Glass” and have not picked it back up since then.

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