In 1970, a 22-year-old University of Maine sophomore named Stephen King decided to use a ream of green paper he found in his college library to write the story of a determined gunslinger and his quest for a dark tower. Nearly half a century later, the story of Roland Deschain is still rolling forward.
I've loved Stephen King since I found Misery in my own school library at 13, but I avoided The Dark Tower for over a decade. The series seemed inaccessible and boring—a sprawling, multimedia slog that I worried wouldn’t be sufficiently compelling as a fantasy story to keep me engaged if it lacked the thrills of King's horror novels.
When I received the books as a gift several years ago, I realized I was totally wrong. Not only does the epic stand alone as a fantasy saga, but the seven(ish) Dark Tower titles are actually explicitly intertwined with his horror books. In fact, it’s hard to find a Stephen King story that doesn’t overlap with The Dark Tower in some way, and most of the Dark Tower books also incorporate characters or themes from his other works.
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In an afterword to The Dark Tower book Wizard and Glass, King himself described the series as his literary Jupiter, "a planet that dwarfs all the others ... a place of strange atmosphere, crazy landscape, and savage gravitational pull … I am coming to understand that Roland's world (or worlds) actually contains all the others of my making.”
Essentially, The Dark Tower is the maypole that holds up the Stephen King Expanded Book Universe. That interconnection makes it a particularly rewarding read for people who already consider themselves King fans, in the same way that the Easter Eggs in a Marvel movie are most likely to tickle comic readers. But even if you've never read a single Stephen King book before, The Dark Tower is still totally fascinating and rewarding.
Part weird west, part Lord of the Rings, part meta science fiction, The Dark Tower drew me into its world as it follows the story of Roland and his fellowship, or "ka-tet." The only series I've ever felt a comparable amount of personal investment in is Harry Potter (a story begun almost three decades after Roland's, but one that had a clear influence on the final three Dark Tower books). At age nine, J.K. Rowling's world felt so tangible and compelling to me that I expected my Hogwarts letter to arrive any day. At 26, I walk through the streets of New York and wonder if there's a chance the next corner I turn might hurl me into Mid-World.
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Because of the sheer amount of content out there, getting started on your own path to the tower can be a little overwhelming. Hopefully, this guide will orient anyone with questions about what stories to be read when, which versions to seek out, and how to approach the non-book Dark Tower media.
If you're a Stephen King fan; a sci-fi or fantasy fan; or just an Idris Elba fan who wants to get the down low on The Dark Tower before the feature film comes out this summer, read on. The tower awaits you.
The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed: the history of The Dark Tower.
Stephen King first began writing about gunslinger Roland Deschain of Gilead after reading Robert Browning’s poem "Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came" in a class at the University of Maine. He intended to write a novel that would incorporate themes and images from Browning's poem, while also paying homage to J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings and the spaghetti western movies of Sergio Leone.
In "On Being Nineteen," an introduction King wrote in 2003 for the release of the revised first book (more on that later), he explained that after watching Sergio Leone's The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, he aspired to write "a novel that contained Tolkien's sense of quest and magic but set against Leone's almost absurdly majestic Western backdrop."
King started writing about Roland when he was practically still a teenager, and it shows. The first Dark Tower book is in some ways less assured and interesting than his later works, but that inexperience ultimately makes the rest of the series more interesting. In the decades it took King to 'complete' his fantasy epic, he grew as both a writer and a human. Dark Tower readers have a unique opportunity to witness a writer evolving alongside his protagonist; the later books' commentary on aging, addiction, and family would not feel as poignant or earned without the youthful audacity of the first.
King's fantasy cowboy novel was first published as a series of short stories in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction: "The Gunslinger" (1978), "The Way Station" (1980), "The Oracle and the Mountains" (1981), "The Slow Mutants" (1981), and "The Gunslinger and the Dark Man" (1981). In 1982, the stories were published as a limited edition novel titled The Gunslinger, and later re-released as a trade paperback when fans began calling the offices of King and his publishers demanding more Roland.
The Dark Tower and its fans have always had an intense relationship. King has written extensively about the pressure he received from readers to write faster (pressure that George R.R. Martin is likely all too familiar with).
In his foreword to The Green Mile, King describes receiving a "polaroid of a teddy-bear in chains, with a message cut out of newspaper headlines and magazine covers: RELEASE THE NEXT DARK TOWER BOOK AT ONCE OR THE BEAR DIES.” During the years-long droughts between Dark Tower books, he received pleas from terminally ill fans and at least one prisoner on death row, begging him to hurry up and get writing—or at least tell them how Roland's quest for the tower would end.
In 1999, constant readers had more cause for concern than ever. While walking near his home in Lovell, Maine, King was struck by a van and nearly killed. The accident, which almost paralyzed King, also changed his relationship to his magnum opus.
In "On Being Nineteen," he describes how an interaction with a fan at a signing three years after the accident inspired him to return to The Dark Tower:
"When one guy got to the head of the line, he said he was really, really glad that I was still alive ..."I was with this good friend of mine when we heard you got popped," he said. "Man, we just started shaking our heads and saying "there goes the Tower, it's tilting, it's falling, ahhh, shit, he'll never finish it now." A version of the same idea had occurred to me—the troubling idea that, having built the Dark Tower in the collective imagination of a million readers, I might have the responsibility to make it safe for as long as people wanted to read about it ... I would have to do it, I realized after my accident, by finishing the gunslinger's story."
After that, King wrote the final (depending on how you look at it) Roland books in quick succession: Wolves of the Calla (Book V) in 2003, Song of Susannah (Book VI) in 2004, and The Dark Tower (Book VII) in 2004.
But King's quest wasn't over yet. In 2012, he published another Dark Tower book, The Wind Through the Keyhole. The book is set chronologically between Wizard and Glass and Wolves of the Calla, but uses a story-within-a-story format to further explore events from Roland's youth that were only mentioned in passing in the first seven novels.
King has since taken an active role creatively in The Dark Tower comics and the upcoming Columbia Pictures' movie (more on both of those later), and it's not unreasonable to think another traditional novel set in Mid-World could be forthcoming. In 2014, King told Rolling Stone "I'm never done with The Dark Tower," citing in particular his desire to write a new book—or revise a published one—to highlight a significant battle mentioned throughout the original novels.
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Remember the face of your father: Where to start with The Dark Tower
Step one is probably pretty obvious: Read the Dark Tower books.
There are 7 books in the core series: The Gunslinger, The Drawing of the Three, The Waste Lands, Wizard and Glass, Wolves of the Calla, Song of Susannah, and The Dark Tower. King's other two tales featuring Roland are The Wind Through the Keyhole (the 8th book in terms of publishing order, but the 4.5th book chronologically), and "The Little Sisters of Eluria," a short story originally published in 1998, which describes young Roland's encounter with some menacing nuns following the events of Wizard and Glass.
My personal recommendation is to read the original seven books, then The Wind Through the Keyhole, and then "The Little Sisters of Eluria" (which can be found in King's short story anthology Everything's Eventual, and in a limited-edition Grant run of The Gunslinger from 2009).
That's the order in which I made my journey to the tower, and it served me fine, say thankya, leaving me with more stories to look forward to when I finished the core seven books and was desperate to revisit Roland and his ka-tet. But that's just my personal preference—the stories work in chronological order as well.
In looking for a copy of The Gunslinger, you may want to find one that has been revised and expanded. King felt the original version was "dry," and in 2003 updated it to improve continuity between the seven books. Some Dark Tower purists prefer the original version, but, considering King first started writing about Roland in the '70s, I appreciate that the revisions give greater cohesion to the overall saga.
Here’s a caveat to step one: as King has said, almost every book he’s written is in some ways a Dark Tower book. It, Salem’s Lot, The Stand, The Shining, From a Buick 8, Insomnia, Hearts in Atlantis, The Mist, Rose Madder, The Regulators, and The Eyes of the Dragon are just a handful of his many stories that have an explicit connection to The Dark Tower.
You don’t need to read any of those books to enjoy or follow The Dark Tower. But, if you enjoy Stephen King as a writer, it would certainly complement your Dark Tower reading experience to pick up some of those novels as well. Salem’s Lot, The Stand, Insomnia, and Eyes of the Dragon all have characters that also play a major role in The Dark Tower. If you’re inclined to read any of those, I personally suggest picking up The Stand before The Dark Tower—although the opposite order works as well! I would also recommend reading Salem’s Lot before Wolves of the Calla, and Insomnia before The Dark Tower, if only because the ending to both of those non-Dark Tower books will be spoiled for you otherwise.
Dada Chum, Dada Chee, Advanced Study
So you’ve read the seven (and change) Dark Tower books. You might have read some of King’s other books that overlap with the world of The Dark Tower. Now what?
In 2007, Marvel began publishing Dark Tower comics, with King on board as the project's creative and executive director.
The first chapter run of the series consists of 30 issues which follow or expand on events from King’s books. The first four volumes chronicle Roland’s early days in Gilead; the last volume, Battle of Jericho Hill, will be of particular interest to anyone who has finished the seven core books. The second chapter run, Dark Tower: The Gunslinger ran from 2010 to 2013, and The Dark Tower: The Drawing of the Three is ongoing.
For somewhat lighter fare, you can pick up the picture book Charlie the Choo-Choo, which King published in 2016 under the pen name of Beryl Evans, a fictitious writer mentioned in some of The Dark Tower books. Here’s the official synopsis:
"Engineer Bob has a secret: His train engine, Charlie the Choo-Choo, is alive ... and also his best friend. From celebrated author Beryl Evans and illustrator Ned Dameron comes a story about friendship, loyalty, and hard work."
If you're hungry for even more Mid-World (say gawd-bomb!) you can also check out Discordia, an online game authorized by King and housed on StephenKing.com. StephenKing.com has a lot of other great resources for fans, including a glossary of Mid-World's low speech and high speech, so you and your own ka-tet can get super nerdy together.
Finally, you can also take advantage of Stephen King's The Dark Tower: The Complete Concordance, an encyclopedia of all things Dark Tower. It was written by King's longtime assistant, Robin Furth, who also plots and writes many of Marvel's Dark Tower comics. The Concordance was originally created solely for King's use while he was working on the saga, as a reference tool to help him wrangle Roland's unwieldy world—but as a published book, it has fascinating insight into both Mid-World and King's writing process.
All things serve the beam: a note on the movie
In July 28th, a Dark Tower movie starring Idris Elba as Roland and Matthew McConaughey as the Man in Black will hit theaters. A spin-off TV show based off Wizard and Glass is also slated for release in 2018.
Although I think Idris Elba is an incredible choice to play Roland, I'm not super optimistic about the movie—there are important aspects of the books that I worry will be virtually impossible to adapt for the big screen. Hopefully, director Nikolaj Arcel and his ka-tet will prove me wrong.
In the meantime, if you haven’t read the books yet, and don't want to stumble on some significant spoilers (O Discordia!), I recommend avoiding articles about the movie as much as you can.
Featured photo: Susan Morrissey; Image of Stephen King via Billerica Public Library / Flickr (CC)