Tuesday, September 18, 2012
100 Books #88 - Stephen King's WOLVES OF THE CALLA
After two entire novels that are supposedly part of this giant, sprawling series but that did pretty much nothing to advance the plot, it is a great relief to be "back on the Beam" in the parlance of these Gunslingers and their world. I find this a little ironic, since an element that has annoyed me about this series is precisely the kind of thing the Beam represents: the author appearing to mistrust his characters so much that he has to keep sending them message dreams and cripple them with artificial obsessions and things they "just know", of which the Beam -- sort of like a ley line except even the clouds in the sky move according to its dictates, to make sure everyone keeps going the right way -- but it is so.*
All of which basically means that Wolves of the Calla is probably my favorite of these damned things since The Drawing of the Three, although I found nothing in it that could replace the Lobstrosities in my heart. Our ka-tet has come across a town -- really one of many towns and settlements in a well-cultivated agricultural region, all of which share a unique problem -- that sort of, kind of, thinks that maybe it needs their help, but doesn't really want to commit to asking for that help because of the trouble it might stir up. It's a classic plot from Samurai stories to the medieval tales of chivalry to westerns, given an interesting twist here by its placement within the Dark Tower arc, and by the mystery of what exactly these "Wolves" are that plague the Calla by somehow changing the reproductive norms of these communities so that twins are rampant and singletons extremely rare, the better to carry off one of each pair sometime in childhood, do something unspeakable to him or her, and send him or her back a complete simpleton with a tendency towards giantism. The children are collected a little more frequently than once a generation; the people only get 30 days warning of their coming via an android (named, of course, Andy) who just suddenly knows one day that they're enroute. He's given the latest warning just in time for Roland, Eddie, Susannah, Jake and Oy to happen along.
What really made this one stand out for me is the same kind of thing that almost redeemed Wizard and Glass: King's amazing ability to create amazing podunk cultures (though, again, the folk speech of the Calla is wearying, full of "if it do ya fines" and "I begs" and excessive use of the do+infinitive construction, e.g. "if you do want to eat" "he did dance that dance"**) complete with intricately fascinating agricultural/fertility rituals. This time around we encounter something called The Rice Song, which joyously celebrates the life cycle of the paddies in song, labor, movement and dance, the dance having at times an intriguing supernatural element as made stunningly plain when our man Roland, taking up what manifests as a heretofore unknown but deeply important traditional role, performs on stage, half Green Man, half "Boot Scootin' Boogie", all uncanny. It's an arresting scene.
Accompanying this new version of King's version of the whole fertility/death cult thing is, well, the death side of it, which is in the hands of the women, at least until they shriek a prayer to the Rice Goddess and fling it with deadly accuracy. Do not mess with the ladies of the Calla, y'all. Do not.
And speaking of women, there is an extremely well-handled sub-plot involving the unintended consequences of everybody doing what they had to back in The Waste Lands to bring Jake back into the Gunslinger world, and the Black Loc-nar that has been hidden in the Calla all this time by one Father Callahan of Salem's Lot fame, which sub-plot lends extra tension to a main plot that, for once, is not lacking in tension really at all, but I'm not complaining to have it there.
What I might complain a bit of, if I thought it would do any good, is the nugatory pop culture references that got dumped in again. They're ladled out rather than dumped on this time, which is an improvement, but all they accomplished for me is to drag me out of the story to rub at my sore ribs, still tender from all the Oz-reference digging they got at the end of Wizard and Glass. And no, I'm not talking about all the Salem's Lot stuff. That's kind of cool. I was expecting Wolves of the Calla to be many things, possibly even many awesome things, and I was right so to expect, but I was not expecting it to also be a sequel to Salem's Lot. Which it kind of is and kind of isn't. The weird ways King found to inter-relate that story with this one made my jaw drop, and made the ghost of the 12-year-old Kate who first read SL jump up and down and point and yell happily. Bravo, there. Bravo.
And of course there's a damned cliffhanger, which must have driven all of you original Dark Tower nerds crazy, but which I get to have resolved for me right away. Song of Susannah is already sitting in my Kindle awaiting my pleasure. But first, I need another break from this stuff. Maybe even some nice non-fiction.
*And of course, it was their Mighty God-King who yanked them off the Beam, so, irony squared, as such.
**These are not direct quotations, just examples I made up. I don't ever want to read this kind of dialogue again, not even to hunt up actual examples. Just ugh.