Sunday, 24 June 2012

Wolves of the Calla and other thoughts

In his introduction to the Dark Tower series, Stephen King discusses being nineteen and its influence on the work that follows. He's right. It's a good age to be. Indeed, it was the age I was when I read The Gunslinger for the first time, and embarked on the quest for the Dark Tower with Roland - the perfect age to immerse myself into Mid-World, given the significance of the number in King's magnum opus.

But no man remains nineteen forever. And I turned twenty - that age of maturity and professionalism - while reading Wolves of the Calla, book 5 of The Dark Tower. Perhaps it's ironic, but what I've read since I turned twenty hasn't had the quality of what I read before that date. When I was nineteen, the number associated most closely with the Tower (alongside ninety-nine).

This isn't a review. I'm not going to assess the qualities of Wolves of the Calla like I've tried to with other books. Instead, I'm going to go through why, in my opinion, this is where The Dark Tower loses its way. If you've not read the series, I'll warn you now: I'll be talking about events that are spoilers.

Wolves of the Calla follows a plot most of us would be familiar with, because it's most clearly inspired by The Magnificent Seven (with a shout-out being made to this by Eddie Dean of New York in the next volume, Song of Susannah). Our ka-tet of Roland, Eddie, Susannah, Jake, and Oy come to the Callas, small towns dogged by raiders who take their children for purposes unknown. The ka-tet meets Father Callahan, formerly of Jerusalem's Lot, Maine, and agree to defend the towns and stop the Wolves - those who raid the towns.

For almost seven hundred pages it's as good as The Dark Tower gets (Wizard and Glass aside). There's the mix of SF, horror, westerns, and fantasy that made the world so haunting and believable. It touches our own world a number of times, with characters slipping through more of the doors we saw in The Drawing of the Three. And there's the growing sense of drawing close to the Tower itself, with the whole story taking place on the threshold of End-World, where the Tower stands.

It's another slow-burn building to a climax (with pacing for the most part that worked brilliantly in Wizard and Glass - my favourite of the series), but unlike previous volumes that climax ends in disappointment. The battle with the Wolves is all over - after hundreds of pages of build-up - inside twenty rushed pages. There's no excitement there. Again, returning to Wizard and Glass: book 4 ended with a triple climax, one a thrilling battle where there's a real sense of danger to the characters, an emotional climax that leaves you shattered, and then to top it off another emotional climax that gives you a punch to the gut and makes you want to jack it in - but you have to because you're already so invested in the characters and the world. Wolves of the Calla has none of those things. We can pretty much guarantee the ka-tet's survival, and even the emotional climax and resultant cliffhanger with Eddie and Susannah falls flat and hurried.

I think it falls flat because the whole ending sequence feels cheap. The Wolves are robots, which is believable enough in Mid-World. But they carry lightsabres and grenades called 'sneetches' - and if that latter sounds familiar, I'll add that they're the Harry Potter version. It jars. It cheapens. And then there's the final punch to the gut: a novel called 'Salem's Lot by a certain Stephen King comes into the possession of the ka-tet, making Callahan realise he's a character in a book.

Whilst I'm not against a writer giving himself credit (especially after a project he's invested thirty years of his life in nears its conclusion), but the effect of this cheapens not only the whole conclusion of this book, but overshadows the whole series. Suspension of disbelief is required for immersion in another person's world; when that person reminds you that someone wrote it, the characters you've grown to love seem to become so much less than they were.

King later inserts himself into Song of Susannah and The Dark Tower as a key character. I don't think it's an act of ego, like many other writers who have put themselves in their own work; rather, it's a writer acknowledging how much the series took from him. But the effect is to go within an ace of ruining the last three books. Immersion is lost when you're reminded that a book is fiction.

It's a shame. King as a character isn't that bad. He's not a hero (far from it), and he's not painted in a positive light. But I wonder how much his inclusion is as a result of rushing through the conclusion of what should have been one of the finest fantasy series of all time following his near-fatal accident in 1999. I'll always enjoy the first four books. They were books written by a writer who wanted to write them, and who had allowed the stories to mature and tell themselves. King himself doesn't like plotting, and from Wolves of the Calla on they have the feel of a writer going against his instincts by doing just that.

However, they're still worth a read. Some people will love the final volumes. As for me, I'll always be disappointed with how they turned out, and I hope The Wind Through the Keyhole is a return to form for The Dark Tower.

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