‘The Dark Tower’: A Lesson In Failed Potential From Stephen King

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The Dark Tower series was a real push and pull with me, where the adventure and philosophical side of Stephen King waged war and made a series that just never amounted to the potential he set forth in the first few books, and entirely at his own fault. It’s clear early on that Stephen King sets out to make his own version of an adventurous Clint Eastwood western story tinged with his usual haunts of supernatural and horror elements. It gets off to a raucous start in the second and third books (I’m throwing away the first because although it’s good, it’s largely just set up and almost its own thing), with high adventure and thrills with the perfect balance of fantasy and mystery that puts this western world on edge. But, then as is so often the case with King, he starts to beat over the head his philosophical themes and his ideas get a bit much, all in the face of grinding this series to a halt.

My theory is that King knew a lot of the story he wanted to tell for the entire series arc, but he blew so much of that wad in the second and third books that he had to bring everything to a standstill and stretch over four more books just to fill out this “epic, long” series he wanted to make. That’s one of my biggest problems with King is that he seems to make long books just for the sake of long books. Yes, sure, hearing about Roland’s backstory was interesting and a pretty crucial part of the story, but to screech everything to a halt the way he did after the freight train of the previous two novels was baffling to me, and something that he would never recover from. The first two books include a cool device where Roland could teleport himself in another body in a different world and control it and a literal freight train that holds them hostage over riddles, while the fourth and fifth books are largely just relegated to backstory campfire tales.

From Under The Dome, 11/22/63 and The Stand among others there’s just so much beyond the meat and potatoes that King leaves in that once it reaches a certain level it just becomes excessive where even a scapegoat of “character development” no longer holds much credence. It was just frustrating to me how great the second and third books were and how much they pushed forward all this great momentum that was building up to a great adventure story only to get railroaded by these two books. It just becomes pages and pages of introspective talking and mulling around until the literal last 50 pages or so when something finally happens and then everything turns out all well and good except for the tiny bit of cliffhanger to get you to the next book.

I don’t know why King thinks this is a good strategy, where sure it’s world-building and filling in some blanks, but the excessiveness and dragging on of it for hundreds of pages when the same end could’ve been met in a way shorter form. He actually could’ve provided some interest in the main story that made you want to flip to the next page instead of knowing you’re in fo r another flashback story that really does nothing except highlight that King has very little story to actually cover all these book he intends to write, because as you know he has to write long and numerous books for some reason instead of consolidating them into fewer, more tense and engaging novels, but that’s just me.

The sixth book was a step above the last two books because it actually starts pushing towards a conclusion. The inclusion of Stephen King himself as a character is something I respect on one hand because of how weird and audacious it is in this sort of story, but on another I would’ve liked to see the story played more straight and stick to its own weird world without bringing this whole new totally different element to these stories that now make it something else completely. Building off this it’s quite clear a lot of the problems in storytelling and momentum come from King having no clue how these books would end when he first started and when he came to tackle the series years later he obviously had vastly different ideas on how this story would go. One wonders what they would’ve looked like if he wrote them all in his 1980s mindset.

At the end of the final book Stephen King preaches how the enjoyment in a story is all in the journey, not the end, largely in the defence that of course he would write a lackluster ending to this never-ending story. In truth, I thought the ending was fine and wasn’t that cheap, but in regards to his comment of the pleasure being in the journey, that was the exact problem for me in the series. At a point it seemed he had no intentions of pushing the main story along and blatantly obvious that he had no clue really where the story was going, so I could never commit faithfully to the story. I think this final installment does a pretty good job of wrapping things up and building towards an ending that was suitable for all its characters, even if there was a little more to be desired. It worked within the confines that King left himself to work with.

Ultimately, I left the series with a sense of disappointment and largely mixed to negative feelings. There was a ton of potential to the series, and while I did love the second and third books, the rest never lived up to what those books seemingly promised. King lost that thread and treaded water for a couple books before going into the absurd and taking things a bit far past the edge than seemed warranted. King always has interesting concepts and ideas, but what I’ve read of his so far seems to always fall a few strokes away from actual greatness and leaves a muddled wake instead.

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