Stephen King’s newest book, The Dark Tower: The Gunslinger, was first published in a limited edition in 1982, but was not released in a mass-market edition until the fall of 1988.
When asked about the delay, King explains: “There were really two reasons. One-was I didn’t think anybody would want to read it. “It wasn’t like the other books. The first volume didn’t have any firm grounding in our world, in reality; it was more like a Tolkien fantasy of some other world. The other reason was that it wasn’t done; it wasn’t complete. I had a volume of work, and it was ’peg-legged’; it was there, inside its covers, it made a certain amount of sense, but there was all this stuff that I wasn’t talking about that went on before the book opens, and when the book ends, there’s all this stuff to be resolved, including: What is this all about? What is this tower? Why does this guy need to get there?”
The beginning of what was to become one of King’s favorite projects came while he was still at the University of Maine, and living at the Springer Cabins down by the Stillwater.
“It took off for me to a certain point,” King says, “and then I set it aside. The first long section, The Dark Tower: The Gunslinger, was done, and I had a complicated outline about everything that was supposed to happen after that. And it sat for about 12 years. “Then I picked it up and started to pluck at it, and I wrote the second volume, The Drawing of the Three, and since then it’s sat quietly again. “I’ll be back at it.”
“It’s the one project I’ve ever had that seems to wait for me.” The idea of writing this dark fantasy series came from a favorite poem, Robert Browning’s “Child [sic] Roland to the Dark Tower Came.” King quickly warms to his story: “Browning never says what that tower is, but it’s based on an even older tradition about Childe Roland that’s lost in antiquity. Nobody knows who wrote it, and nobody knows what the Dark Tower is.
“So I started off wondering: What is this tower? What does it mean? And I decided that everybody keeps a Dark Tower in their heart that they want to find.
“They know it’s destructive and it will probably mean the end of them, but there’s that urge to make it your own or to destroy it, one or the other. So I thought: Maybe it’s different things to different people, and as I write along I’ll find out what it is to Roland. And I found that out, but I’m not going to tell you!”
He spoke at some length about creating a new world.
“It’s fun to play with a world where feelings of mysticism and wonder are taken for granted. I was interested in postulating a world where there is magic. One of the liberating things about fantasy is that you can create that kind of a world. If we talk about ghosts or demons or even flying saucers in our world, the skepticism comes built in. But if you create an entirely new, fictional world, readers or people who participate in the creation of that world say, ‘Fine. Let it exist according to its own laws.’ That’s wonderful.
“The gunslinger takes the speaking-demon as a matter of course. It’s something that’s there to be used. He’s really matter-of-fact about how some houses are bad houses and you have to steer clear of them and the rest of it, so we take it for granted, too. Whereas in the present world, if my secretary came in from the storeroom now and said, “That damn ghost of General Webber is back there again, ‘I would not simply say, ’Well, okay, I’ll go toss the clefferdust at him and he’ll go away.’ We’d all look at her and our first reaction would be that she was crazy, not just because she said she saw a ghost, but because she took it as a matter of course.”
There is a great deal of religious connotation and biblical imagery in The Dark Tower, significantly more than in other King works. “I’m very interested in God, religion and the afterlife, ethics, morals, and the part they all play, how much of God and the devil come from inside us and how much of them are their own creatures,” King explains. “Above all else, I’m interested in good and evil, whether or not there are powers of good and powers of evil that exist outside ourselves. I think that the concepts of good and evil are in the human heart, but because I was raised in a fairly strict religious home, I tend to coalesce those concepts around God symbols and devil symbols, and I put them in my work.
“I’m impressed by something C.S. Lewis said about Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy: ’As good as Tolkien was at depicting good, he was much more effective at depicting evil.’ I think that’s true, and I think that it’s easier for all of us to grasp evil, because it’s a simpler concept, and good is layered and many-faceted. I’ve always tried to contrast that bright, white light of real goodness or Godliness against evil.” King believes firmly in goodness.
“There must be a huge store of good will in the human race,” he says, “and that’s something I want to talk about in the other books of that series. If there weren’t this huge store of good will we would have blown ourselves to hell ten years after World War II was over.
“There was a time in this country, I think in the 30’s, when people thought that the fabric of society was literally going to break down and that the sense of good will and brotherhood would not hold. But it’s such a common thing, those feelings of love toward your fellow man, that we hardly ever talk about it; we concentrate on the other things. It’s just there; it’s all around us, so I guess we take it for granted.” King admits to being a Romantic without apology.
“I believe all those sappy, romantic things: Children are good, good wins out over evil, it is better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all. I see a lot of the so-called ‘romantic ideal’ at work in the world around us.
“It brightens the world that you see with your own eyes. I don’t want to go through my life seeing everything the way that it looks outside the window today, if I can find a light to turn on to make it seem brighter to me.
“Love is stronger than hate. And probably more creative, too. Love is a more complex emotion than hate, where you just sort of make fists and squint your eyes shut and say, ‘I hate you.’ Hate’s a very damaging emotion, and has its own deleterious effect: it anesthetizes.” Much of what takes place in The Dark Tower: The Gunslinger, occurs in what King terms “sort of a post-radiation world where everybody’s history has gotten clobbered and about the only thing anybody remembers anymore is the chorus to ‘Hey, Jude.’ It’s a different world, but it’s obviously a world that’s been influenced by ours.” It may be a glimpse of future past. “I think that we will come to a world, if things go on the way they are, where you will have degenerate people who worship gas pumps, that sort of thing,” King says, “Everybody in The Gunslinger kind of shrugs and says, ‘Well, the world’s moved on.’ But the point is that if nobody tries to stop the world from moving on, inertia will take care of all of our problems. The whales will all be gone, the ozone layer will be depleted. There’ll be a degeneration where technology continues to progress and there’s no morality to keep it in check, as though machines would somehow solve all of our problems.”
King himself isn’t quite sure where the entire project is going. “It’s a hard book to talk about,” he confesses, “because so much of it isn’t written or done yet inside my own head. I’ve never talked about this book to anybody. It’s all new. No one has ever interviewed me about this.
“I’m pleased with the way these books look, and I’m glad to finally get them out in a mass market edition. The Drawing of the Three comes out in March.
“For years people have been asking, ‘Where can I get this book?’ and now they can, so I’m happy about that.”
He remains unsure of his readers’ reception to the volume. “It’s different, and it’s strange, and I like it for that reason, and I’ve gotten to like Roland although he’s a hard guy to know. He’s kind of inward. One of the real motivations to write the next volume is that it looks back at what happened to this world. I want to talk about the way things fall apart. In both of these books, everybody says that the world has moved on, and I’d like to explore how it moves on and what happens when it does.”
King now projects the completed project to be up to 10,000 pages in about eight volumes, and estimates the next volume is probably two or three years in the future.
“Of everything I’ve written, The Drawing of the Three is my kids’ favorite book, and they’re pestering me,” he explains. “That’s the best incentive I know. Tell somebody a story who really wants to hear it.”