While the “Dark Tower” saga would go on to become Stephen King’s most significant multi-part work, the story had relatively humble beginnings that dated back to the early 1970s. It made its debut to the world in a 1978 short story entitled “The Gunslinger.” The titular character in that story, Roland, was a ‘man with no name’ type modeled in part on the early Clint Eastwood character in Sergio Leone’s 1960s westerns. The idea for the novel had come from Robert Browning’s 1855 poem “Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came” that King had studied in college.
Four other short stories followed that continued the story and they were collected into a limited edition novel in 1982. As fans got wind of the quickly-sold-out book by the popular author, they kept nagging King’s publisher for a reprint and they finally got their wish. King continued the series in novel form in the later 1980s through to the saga’s completion in the mid-2000s. He did go back in 2003 and revised the first novel in the series to make its details more consistent with the later books and new readers would want to start with that revised version, if possible.
The major sections in this first book were split apart based on their short story origins:
“The Gunslinger” (Originally published in October of 1978)
“The Way Station” (Originally published in April of 1980)
“The Oracle and the Mountains” (Originally published in February of 1981)
“The Slow Mutants” (Originally published in July of 1981)
“The Gunslinger and the Dark Man” (Originally published in November of 1981)
The first story opened with the Protagonist of the saga, Roland of Gilead, in the middle of a mission to catch a mysterious Man in Black. Roland was a law enforcement type, a ‘gunslinger,’ and his background had similarities to medieval knight training but updated to an Old West level of living with occasional references to much more advanced pieces of technology. Stopping the evil Man in Black was an initial goal but Roland’s ultimate goal was to reach a place known as The Dark Tower.
Roland’s world might have reminded readers of the Old West but Roland’s reality took place on what was essentially an alternate timeline to that of our own world. The series would start to play around with that notion almost from the beginning, dropping hints right away to readers that Roland’s world might have aspects of it that are similar to our own. However, despite stray references to things like old Beatles song lyrics, Roland’s world was clearly a very different place from our own.
While taking a break from his quest with a man named Farmer Brown and his black crow, Roland told the story of his recent visit to a dusty town named Tull. The Man in Black had corrupted a local church leader, a fact that Roland discovered after having spent the night with the town’s prostitute. In the end, Roland had to kill every resident in the town in order to escape with his life.
Roland moved on from Farmer Brown to a way station where he first encountered the notable character name Jake Chambers. Jake had been pushed in front of a car in Manhattan and he then somehow woke up at the way station. Seeking answers, Roland hypnotized Jake and learned that he had died in the car accident. A decision was made for Jake to travel on with Roland but before leaving the way station, they encountered a demon in its cellar and came away with a jawbone from a skeleton.
Roland and Jake finally exited the desert environment and made their way into a more mountainous area. While camping, Roland had a sexual encounter with another demon and further hints were dropped as to problems that he would encountered on his journey to the Dark Tower. Readers also learned more about Roland’s back-story, such as his having been the son of the respected gunslinger Steven Deschain. To become a gunslinger himself, Roland had undergone difficult training that was given by a man named Cort. A man named Marten, who would later be revealed as one of many identities of the Man in Black, had caused trouble in young Roland’s life by having an affair with his mother. Marten also manipulated circumstances such that Roland ended up testing early for his gunslinger title. Roland defeated Cort in a duel at the loss of his hawk, David.
Jake and Roland had an initial encounter with the Man in Black on a mountain but then continued to chase him through underground rail tunnels via use of a handcar. After being attacked by creatures known as ‘slow mutants,’ Jake ended up falling from the handcar into a dark abyss, a consequence of Roland’s insistence that he continue chasing the man in black. In choosing to continue his quest, Roland essentially let Jake die but that decision would go on to haunt him.
In the aftermath of Jake’s death, Roland again encountered the Man in Black. The Man in Black used a pack of cards to read Roland’s future, which involved meeting a party of other characters and striving for the Dark Tower. It was only then that Roland learned that the Man in Black had been Marten and that Marten had failed to break the will of Roland’s mother. The Man in Black was not really Roland’s true enemy though and instead was merely a tool used by larger forces who sought to destroy the Dark Town and, with it, all universes.
The book concluded with Roland being put to sleep by the Man in Black for a period of supposedly ten years. Roland awoke to find a skeleton next to where he had been sleeping and he took the jawbone from it, replacing the earlier jawbone that had been lost in the mountains.
Roland then continued on to the Western Sea. The story ended on a cliffhanger of sorts at this point, with Roland trying to determine how he would gather three people whom the Man in Black had mentioned were in his cards. That tale would have to wait for the next book though.
In summary form, “The Gunslinger” sounds like a faster-paced and more interesting book than it was upon my initial read of it. While I was sometimes entertained by this first book in the series, I was also frustrated by it. Granted, it was a loose collection of connected shorter works but it was slow paced and often confusing. That said, the story of Tull was a memorable strong point and the death of Jake Chambers would end up being part of the emotional core of the entire saga.
As far as the world building went, this first book’s mythology was strong enough to see why it grabbed the attention of early readers. While the Man in Black might have seemed like the main antagonist of the series, it was best to consider him as being more of a henchman. His odd behavior and the fact that he let Roland live gave readers early hints that some of what was would follow was akin to seeing characters acting out needful stories on strings. Trying to decipher what was predestined and what was a choice that might have unfortunate consequences was a theme that would continue into the later books in the series.