Thursday, August 16, 2012

100 Books #75 - Stephen King's THE GUNSLINGER

I suppose it's always been lurking there at the back of my mind, this notion that what Stephen King writes isn't so much genre fiction as very old-fashioned morality plays with genre fiction trappings. It's there in the way his characters speak, so often in phrasings, if not phrases, that feel ripped right out of the Old Testament, and while yes, it is often his evil characters who speak the most like the old school Puritans of yesteryear, even that turning inside-out of the morality play's conventions doesn't change its essential nature.

I can absolutely picture King wandering around the desert landscapes and small towns of this and so many of his other books, accompanied by a small band, putting on these tales as shows, medieval style, his wife Tabitha banging on a tambourine somewhere in the background as he and their children cavort and caper and enact broad and simple narratives of judgment and redemption, exhortation and condemnation.

I don't know why I haven't really noticed this before now, though truth be told it has been many years since I read a Stephen King novel*; I prefer generally his short fiction, which, coincidentally (or maybe not) has a whole lot less of this feel to it on the whole. At any rate, the notion is inescapable in the pages of this first of his Dark Tower series, taking place as it does in a sort of afterlife of the entire world, thinly populated and despairing, through which our hero Roland strides pursuing the man in black and falling into his adversary's traps, traps that always seem to set Roland up as, and force him to be, the bad guy in order to defend himself and his mission.

And yes, everyone in it talks like a character out of 17th or 18th century New England, home of the Puritans, descendants of the people who were the most likely creators, performers and audiences for those original medieval and Tudor morality plays.

This would be a lot more tiresome than it is but for King's skill as a crafter of prose, at which he is simply nonpareil. "The wood seemed old, fragile to the point of elvishness; it was wood being transmogrified into sand," for instance. It's like a Marty Stupich photograph** made verbal, this stuff.

And then there's the last section of the novel, where our hero confronts his nemesis/mentor/foil/thing, the Man in Black, whom yes I buy as Randall Flagg from The Stand though I have as yet only seen the fun, fun (M-O-O-N My Life For You Oh Matt Frewer) miniseries of that book. But so, finally, I see what Stephen King has going on with his morality play. He's blowing his morality play apart here. He's writing his own personal version of Last Call***, wherein he invokes all the archetypes. All the archetypes, you guys. And no, I'm not just talking about the sacrifice and the tarot cards, although yes, I am talking about them somewhat.

Because really, the Man in Black is the Mandelbrot Man and I'm scared of him in a very existential way. Which is to say I get it, I get why my friends love this series so and why they urge me to keep on reading even through the annoying Puritan bits...

And so yes, I will be doing that soonish. But first I've got some beta-reading to do.

*And I'm only reading this one because my friends Sennydreadful and EssJay love it so.

**Marty Stupich, my dear, dear friend and once preserver of my very sanity, is the best photographer on this planet. The best. I know lots of greats and I retweet their work and love them to pieces but Martin Stupich is their overlord. If there is a god of photography, it is Martin Stupich. Worship him and send him all your remaining Kodachrome and other stock. Sing praise, gaudeaumus that Martin Stupich has blessed this world with his eye and camera. Am I adequately conveying his greatness in this footnote? MARTIN EFFING STUPICH, MOTHERFOLKLORES. Go click on the highlighted link if you haven't already. Oh Marty, you are the original reason I bless the evolution of the eye.

***And if you haven't read this book yet... how do you even understand anything I've ever talked about ever?


  1. Squee! You're reading the Dark Tower.

    Even though I have a soft spot in my heart for The Gunslinger, it's not the strongest work of the series. He wrote it at 19 as a study in style... I think that's where the annoying bits come from, heh. But I love the style. I love the Western meets a future of a long long time ago. (Are there robots yet in The Gunslinger? I can't remember...)

    I'm excited to see what you think of the next book!

  2. WOO! Honestly, I was on pins and needles, ready to cry at the drop of
    a "Yeah, no. This wasn't for me," from you!

    But seriously, I"m really glad you liked it. I think you'll like the next
    one even more, and the third one more than that.

    I really do.


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