WARNING: This article contains spoilers for the entire DARK TOWER SERIES. You’ve been warned!
One of the longest running criticisms of Stephen King‘s work has been that he doesn’t know how to properly end a story. This criticism has been leveled at even his classics, such as THE STAND and IT. Most recently, UNDER THE DOME took a lot of heat for its letdown ending. But perhaps it was never more true than with the final three DARK TOWER books.
In 2004, when King published the final book of his self-proclaimed “magnum opus,” the response seemed to be more of a whimper than a bang. For a series that had existed in published form for twenty years, and in its writer’s mind for over thirty, there seemed to be a general feel of “Oh ok. So that’s how it ends. Alright.” The final books certainly weren’t terrible; no one went said “Oh, this is shit!” But, as I said last time, it was the equivalent of RETURN OF THE JEDI; a conclusion that was adequate but weaker than what had come before.
So just what is the problem with the last three DARK TOWER books? I think it was a mixture of things:
1. King just generally sucks at writing endings, and the final three books were essentially the third act of the overall saga.
2. King wrote the final three books all at once due to fearing death after being hit by a car in 1999; this was an admirable achievement, but the books do feel rushed.
3. Although King is a much, much, much (words cannot express how much) more talented writer than George Lucas, I think he still suffered from Lucas Syndrome: he is surrounded by “yes men” who publish everything he writes and no one to tell him “You can do better than this.”
4. King had a lot of plotlines to wrap up, not only from the earlier books of the series but from several of the interconnected novels (King’s own little Marvel Universe). ‘SALEM’S LOT, HEARTS IN ATLANTIS, and especially INSOMNIA had all been open-ended and introduced plot elements related to the DARK TOWER. King had written himself into a tough spot with no choice but to squeeze all this material in. [THE EYES OF THE DRAGON also had an open-ending and many of us hoped to learn the fate of its characters, yet they never showed up. However, I’m glad. I don’t think the lighthearted/juvenile tone of EYES would have meshed with DARK TOWER, and I’d rather the characters not be used at all than be used badly, as Patrick Danville from INSOMNIA was].
5. As stated before, one of the charms of the early books was how improvised it all felt, as if even the author was a foreigner to this strange world. Why did magic doors appears for Roland on the beach? Because they just did. Why were there sex-craving wind demons? Because there just were. There was a serendipitous quality to it all. Unfortunately, once the time to start wrapping up the series came, now King had to put together all these pieces that didn’t always fit. It started to become a little too obvious that the story had not been planned out.
Now, let’s break things down:
The final three books contained a lot of great stuff. It truly was an accomplishment to write all three of these books at the same time, and the sheer number of plotlines contained in them alone is astonishing: the Wolves terrorizing the Calla, Calvin Tower and the rose, Black Thirteen, Susannah’s pregnancy, freeing the Breakers, and Stephen King showing up as a character himself. While some people took issue with this bit of metafiction, I kinda liked it and thought it was done intelligently.
There are also some beautiful pieces of writing including [here comes those spoilers]…Eddie’s and Jake’s deaths. Two wonderfully heart-wrenching death scenes, showing how full circle each character came in his respective relationship to Roland. I loved Pimli Prentiss, the character with depth unfortunately fated to be the one to kill Eddie. And then there’s Irene Tassenbaum, the middle-aged house wife who ends up becoming Roland’s companion and witness to Jake’s death. King’s description of their lovemaking is some the most moving and somber writing of his career.
And I actually liked what happens to Roland at the top of the Tower. It was quite poetic and fit with the whole idea of cycles being a motif in King’s work.
But now, onto the negative:
The first two books of this final trilogy are not as bad as what was to come, but they do show some problems, mostly in just feeling elongated and badly structured. WOLVES OF THE CALLA generally works, even if the Wolves were so-so villains, and the book gets lost on a lot of filler, dedicating three whole chapters to Callahan’s life story. And we also get material that just doesn’t really fit in the narrative at all, such as the Jericho Hill flashback. This flashback is important for the end of the saga, and King just stuck it in the fifth book because he had to stick it somewhere. All in all, it’s an okay book, just with a lot of filler.
SONG OF SUSANNAH feels even more padded out, almost as if King realized he had too little there to make its own book. So he adds filler such as an entire chapter on a character named Trudy who we never see again in the series. This is also the only book that seems to actually forget that Roland is the protagonist of the series; the fact our hero doesn’t even appear in the entire final three chapters of the book makes it feel even more unfocused. Plus 9/11 is weaved into the story as a bizarre plot point, which may have been a little distasteful. And then the book ends abruptly with all build-up and no climax.
Still, I will say that these two books are flawed but entertaining. Now let’s move on to the final book, simply called THE DARK TOWER or DT7, where all the problems lie.
While this didn’t bother me as much as it bothered other people, it certainly was an anti-climatic way to kill off a beloved villain that had been central to King’s mythos for the past 26 years. I think most readers would have preferred Flagg as the final villain of the series more than either The Crimson King or Mordred.
CHILDISH HUMOR IN THE WRITING
King has always liked gross-out humor. But this talented writer, who has given us some truly beautiful passages and brilliant narratives, resorts to such low-brow gags as Haylis eating boogers:
“…there were wet snots and big boogies in some of the [tissues], he could smell their enticing aroma even now. He would save the biggest of the latter, the one with the jellied blood in it, for later.”
Dude! What the fuck?!? Or how about this:
“Once he shit a pint or so of stinky brown fluid in his pants…He gave out a victory-fart, but although this one was long and smelly, it was silent. His asshole was now a broken squeezebox that could no longer make music but only gasp.”
Look, I enjoy a fart joke as much as anyone, but this really does undermine the integrity of the story. Dude, you’re better than this!
Essentially, after traveling with Roland for all the adventures they’ve had, Susannah suddenly feels that she has to leave him, based on her reoccurring dreams, and go through the Unfound Door.
Now let me make it clear that I do like the idea that King was going for. I like that she is the only one in the ka-tet who lives, and she gets a happy ending that contrasts with Roland’s. What bothers me is how it’s executed. She doesn’t choose her fate, she doesn’t grow as a character, she had no inclination of leaving Roland prior to having these random dreams, she doesn’t do anything to earn this happy ending, and it happens at random, as opposed to at a climatic moment. She basically just says “Well, Roland, I’d like to see the Tower, but I’m leaving instead at this random point in the story because the plot needs me to.” Her story didn’t seem to climax; it just stopped.
I think the following would have worked much better:
Ever since Eddie’s death, Susannah starts slowly thinking about what it would be like to go back to NYC and start a new life, now in her new identity, and have her own adventure. She has a genuine desire to go back and cares less and less for the Tower, but sticks on the quest with Roland as a feeling of obligation. Roland senses this in her, but says nothing. Then, after she rescues him from Dandelo, or some other climatic event, he says to her “Now I’ve come to respect you. You are now a gunslinger and your own dinh. I release you from my quest so you may choose to do what you wish. I will respect your decision no matter what.” She tells him her quest is to go to New York. When they reach the Federal, they find a door and so she takes her leave.
This sequence of events would have played much stronger and shown an arc for BOTH characters. Susannah has grown into a new and stronger person from Eddie’s death while Roland has grown in his treatment of others. Susannah has CHOSEN her own fate, to put life first over the Tower, and hence earns her happy ending.
I think the main problem with Mordred is just how much King builds him up, giving us long passages telling us how bitter and lonely he is, yet he does nothing. He has several perfect opportunities to attack our heroes, either at Algul Siento or in the White Lands of Empathica, but he keeps watching and waiting the entire book. The narration tries to explain that Mordred keeps feeling the time isn’t right, but I just didn’t buy it. It’s a contrivance; Mordred just does nothing until the plot needs him to. When he finally attacks near the end, it seemed as if King was saying “Alright, I’ve built this up long enough. Gotta get it out of the way now.”
I had no problem with the actual character or his fate (and Oy’s death actually was a nice scene) but it would have played better had Mordred not been built up so much. Perhaps if we’d seen him only briefly as a baby and then never again until his surprise attack at the end, the result would have been much stronger. By spending so much time developing Mordred, King built up something that shouldn’t have been built up.
Ever watch a movie that features a random cameo by someone unrelated to anything, and you get the idea it was just thrown in there as a contractual obligation? That’s what Patrick’s appearance is. Introduced in the final fifth of the book, Patrick seems tacked on. It’s soon revealed he has God-like powers; he can manifest anything into existence by simply drawing it, and then erase it out of existence. Yet this power is not utilized by the narrative to its full potential and Roland shrugs it off as if it’s nothing special. When Mordred finally attacks them, I kept thinking: “Roland, you could have just had Patrick draw you a fortress to sleep in and kept this attack from happening! Or you could have made use of his infinite God-like power in thousands of other ways!” And yet this character, barely spoken of, introduced in only the final fifth of the book, is the one who saves the day at the end? King was forced to include this character because of INSOMNIA, and so he makes Patrick a plot point, but not a character. We don’t know Patrick’s story either before our heroes find him or after the end of the tale. He just does what the plot needs him to.
AND FINALLY, THE CRIMSON KING
Now, what about the Crimson King? You know, the primary antagonist of the series and final villain before the Dark Tower? I’d much rather have had this character been developed in Mordred’s place. Yet, I’m confused: was King actually trying to make this character be comedic? When describing his appearance, King writes:
“To Susannah, Eddie, and Jake, he would have looked like Father Christmas. To Roland, he looked like what he was: Hell, incarnate.”
What? I’m sorry, those two sentences DO NOT go together. I don’t associate the image of Father Christmas with being the least bit intimidating. Why would King tell us this character is so evil and then choose to give him an appearance that betrays this?
Here’s an illustration Michael Whelan made of the Crimson King. I’d much rather have gotten this over Father Christmas:
As the climatic scene continues, the Crimson King continues yelling “EEEEEEEEEEEEEEE!” at our hero and we’re later told that he is:
“…leaping up and down, shaking his hands beside his face in a way that was almost comic.”
So, as a result of these appallingly strange narrative decisions, the final villain of the series is not threatening and the reader is apparently not supposed to take him too seriously. So when Roland overcomes him and finally reaches his lifelong goal of the Dark Tower, the scene isn’t as climatic as it should be. And the series just ends on a weird note.
THE DARK TOWER SERIES did not end as well as it began. Still, it was a hell of a ride, and one I’m glad I took. Tune in next time as I give my final thoughts on Stephen King.