The Gunslinger is an American Western-flavored science fiction story as told by the king of the horror genre. That is the simplest way I can think of to accurately describe it.
I’m not much for horror, so this was my very first foray into the work of Stephen King. I have long been curious what said work was like, he being such an accomplished and successful author, but I was always too terrified to dare try it. When I heard he’d written something not dealing in ghosts and ghouls and terror and blood, I knew I had to try it sometime. Now they’re making a movie based on the book(s) of the Dark Tower series, I thought it might be a better idea to dig in before it was all spoiled.
So, how was it?
Well, his flair for horror certainly still comes through loud and clear. Skating around spoilers, there was a scene very early in the novel which reminded me very strongly of something I saw by chance in a movie based on one of his horror novels. That set the tone for a number of scenes which followed throughout the novel, where I was nodding and going, “Yep, master of horror, here.” I guess he just leans that way.
…hmm, that sounds fairly ambiguous, doesn’t it? Let’s see if I can make my meaning a bit more clear without spoiling it.
See, well-crafted scary stories aren’t just jump scares and blood spatter. That’s the blunt method, making us swim through a sea of blood. There are more subtle methods, which slasher films are sadly lacking more often than not. If I were sum up what I would say thrillers and slashers and the horror genre overall does, it would be this: it takes you into horrifying darkness. That darkness could be a monster that kills everyone, yes, but it could also be wading ever deeper into the cesspool of human sin and misery, no end in sight. It could be black magic, the sacrifice of innocence (and innocents) in pagan oaths made to heathen, otherworldly powers. It could be unnatural perversions of the natural order of things, like life and death and love and laughter. It could be as simple as the murder of hope. There are a hundred things it could be, but it is always the same thing.
Horror is: stepping into darkness with no real chance of returning.
That’s what it felt like reading The Gunslinger. It wasn’t a horror novel, but it delved plenty deep into the disturbing, disquieting dark. And it never came back out.
The story follows the titular gunslinger as he pursues the man in black. And that’s mostly how they’re referred to the entire time: “the gunslinger” and “the man in black.” We learn that the gunslinger’s name is, or was, Roland, and the man in black has had multiple names, including Marten and Walter. Exactly why they couldn’t just be called by their names, I have no idea. In fact, I have no idea why much of anything was the way was. No idea why they called things “Out-World” or “In-World,” no idea why they referred to “the world moving on” all the time, no idea what they meant when they talked about “remembering the face of my father.” No idea why the characters did what they did. No idea why they needed to do or say certain things. No idea why I should care about someone so cold and uncaring as the gunslinger. No idea whatsoever. Nothing was explained. Ever.
I will say, Stephen King certainly created a vivid setting. I was very well immersed in it, hearing, seeing, smelling, touching, tasting… but even that just made for a long and demanding trek as we followed the gunslinger across the desert, into Tull, out of Tull, to a farmhouse to find a boy from the 20th or 21st century, to the mountains, through the caves, up a bridge, out the other side, into the depths of the universe, all the way to the beach. After all of that, I was hoping for something a bit more than what we got. There is clearly history between the gunslinger and the man in black, and after everything he did and sacrificed to get to his enemy… we got a metaphysical lecture instead of a climactic final confrontation. After wading through everything, the endless series of events and obstacles, we got a talk about the cosmos, the man in black giving the gunslinger his quest before simply dying, and a couple of mediocre questions as the gunslinger sat idly on the beach. And that’s it. The end of the novel. To be continued.
Honestly, I found The Gunslinger to be rather disappointing on the whole. It wasn’t bad in such a way to make me hate it, it just wasn’t that good, droning on forever and never delivering the goods. I am now scratching my head wondering what the big deal about this novel and this series is. Somehow, I just don’t feel very passionate about it. I feel passionate about loving the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and I feel passionate about hating Twilight, but I don’t really feel anything particularly good or bad about The Gunslinger.
Rating: I’m giving it 5 stars out of 10, right in the middle but still failing.
…are we sure this was written by a master storyteller?
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