There are two different versions of this book, the first in Stephen King’s “The Dark Tower” series. The most widely available version is the 2003 revised edition. This is the alternative, original edition, published in 1982. It is a fix-up novel (a novel made up of connecting short stories), the first story of which was written in 1978. Unlike the revised edition, it was written without much of what would become the series’ features in future. It apparently holds less consistency with further volumes because of this, and some of the character material is less cohesive as well.
I’m generally a mite uneasy with revised editions of original works, and like to experience the original version if I feel particularly invested. That, coupled with the fact that I managed to get a copy of this original version of “The Gunslinger” that included the Michael Whelan illustrations, led me to reading this edition first. I have yet to read the revised edition, let alone the other books in the series, so I lack the knowledge of how this version is somewhat adrift with the rest of the series, but when I read the series proper, I’ll start with the revised edition of this book, and review that version separately.
To the actual book, then – it’s an evocative, moody collection of King stories. King drawls heavily from the Robert Browning poem ”Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came” (which in turn drew from a line from Shakespeare’s “King Lear”), delivering a similarly atmospheric, romantic tale of a desert wasteland. I particularly liked how King mashes up aspects of Leone-style westerns, with Tolkien-style fantasy, with contemporary pop culture and knowledge. King successfully manages to create a cohesive world and set of stories out of a smorgasbord of various references and inspirations. The prose is quite good for King, but it was this curious hodgepodge of influences that he wrangled into a unified world and story, that really captivated me.
The stories themselves are rather thin, but it’s a book of mood and atmosphere, which I found preferable to a more traditional opening fantasy volume anyway. It really fascinates me that the first book in what I’ve always heard described as one of the big and best fantasy series’ is so unconventional. There’s no conventional fantasy story. There’s barely any plot, and very few characters. It’s almost entirely a work of mood, atmosphere, the protagonist’s meditations on time, conflict, and survival. It’s enormously visually evocative and cinematic in the truest sense. I deeply enjoyed this surprising focus. It feels a lot more literary and interesting to me than a typical first book in a fantasy, more like the Browning poem it draws from rather than its peers on the bookshelves.
I give it four refrains of “Hey Jude”, and a jawbone.