The Wind through the Keyhole; by Stephen King; Scribner, 2012; 307 pages.
“The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed.” With that simple line, Stephen King launched a small spare novel called “The Gunslinger.” Originally published as a magazine serial, it was equal parts fantasy and Sergio Leone spaghetti western.
Only later did it become a genre-bending publishing phenomenon for a writer who has broken nearly every literary rule in becoming arguably the most popular American author of the past century. Unlike other novelists, King doesn’t simply write the occasional book in hopes of creating a bestseller. He manufactures them in clumps. Along the way he has set new boundaries for the book-buying marketplace and defied the skepticism of those who believe horror fiction — or its writers — shouldn’t be taken seriously.
Nowhere is this truer than in the string of books King calls the “Dark Tower “series. Starting with “The Gunslinger” in 1982, King began to paw at the idea of multiple worlds churning simultaneously with occasional intersecting portals. It’s a concept that not only drives that series but dozens of his other works as well. It’s instructive to note that beyond the seven books in what can now be called the original Dark Tower series, King lists 14 other novels or short story collections as Dark Tower-related.
Most, though, thought the series about an oddly familiar world that has “moved on” ended in 2004 with a flurry and something of an unsatisfying thud. The final three books in the Dark Tower series were published in a dizzying two-year period. There was a six-year lull between Book Four: “Wizard and Glass” and Book Five: “Wolves of the Calla” during which King was seriously injured (and nearly killed) when struck by a car while walking. It’s logical to assume that, facing his own mortality, King rushed to ensure the series he considered to be his epic creation was completed.
Not so fast.
In 2009 King announced there would be a new chapter in the Dark Tower series — “The Wind through the Keyhole” — a story that takes place somewhere between Books 4 and 5 but has no real impact to speak of on the already published ending. It’s a tale King assures his audience in the book’s preface that can stand alone for those unfamiliar with the exploits of Roland Deschain, the last gunslinger and his quest to reach the Dark Tower.
While that assertion is open to debate, there’s little doubt that King finds himself on solid ground in Roland’s very odd world, a place where monsters still exist, magic remains a scary yet lifesaving force and rules of polite society — that vague time centuries ago when formidable technology obviously existed — no longer apply. It’s a place of legend, fantasy, eastern philosophies, horror and science fiction. It’s a world of Tolkien and of Arthurian legend. In many ways it’s a kaleidoscopic patchwork quilt of memes and tall tales that are alternately inspiring, engaging or just plain silly.
“The Wind through the Keyhole” picks up Roland and his party — people of another more modern and recognizable America drawn into Roland’s world in earlier installments of the series to aid the gunslinger on his quest. But the story quickly detours into a tale from Roland’s past — always rich territory.
That’s the good news.
The Dark Tower series is usually at its best when King delves into Roland’s past and the often violent and murky events that placed him on this path. “The Wind through the Keyhole” delivers two stories — essentially a story within a story within a story. One is about a dangerous assignment Roland undertakes as a young gunslinger to seek and slay a shape-shifting murderer. The other is a tale people from Roland’s world spread about a boy who must rise to meet unspeakable challenges under the harshest circumstances.
Yes even the cautionary fables in Roland’s world are larger and more hazardous. Indeed, that’s true of nearly everything else as well. Storms aren’t merely weather events that quickly pass through — they eradicate entire species. Old machines aren’t simply landfill fodder — they’re laced with dark, sinister forces.
The strength of “The Wind through the Keyhole” is that it most resembles “The Gunslinger,” that straight-forward first book penned before the series became like a tangled web of intersecting plots buried under the vast weight of Dark Tower mythology.
King has indicated he intends to revisit the series. He wants to make additions and perhaps delete some of the more laughable portions. Not often in literary history have authors had the ability or clout to do so. If King does take on this chore — a personal quest as it were — one or two additions like this one wouldn’t be a bad idea.