The Gunslinger Revisited

“The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed.” That’s one of the great opening lines in speculative fiction — or hell, any kind of fiction.

It immediately evokes mystery, drama, adventure and an entire Old West mythology. It doesn’t merely tug at the mind — it rends. It compels. It forces you to read on to the next sentence … and the next … and the next.

It’s from The Dark Tower I: The Gunslinger, a novel that draws upon many traditions — the western, science fiction, fantasy, horror — to create something unique. Something that King himself would later describe as his “Jupiter” — the creative giant that looms over his solar system of work. He wrote the first version of this book early in his career — just after scribing Carrie.

It tells the tale of Roland, a gunslinger and the sole survivor of a fallen civilization. The man he pursues was one of the architects of that fall, though his exact role isn’t one that Roland is aware of. All he knows is that he must catch him, and that the man in black is his key to the Dark Tower, a destination who’s connotations in the gunslinger’s mind seem far more mystical than real. Yet whatever its nature, he knows on a fundamental level that it is at the root of what is wrong with his world.

The book is told along three timelines: the present, the recent past, and the distant past. In the present, Roland follows the man in black across the desert and finds a companion, one that was left there as a trap, though not the mechanical kind. The recent past recounts Roland’s time in a frontier town known as Tull (though frontier is not exactly the right word — frontier brings about thoughts of newness, hope and danger, and there’s nothing new — or hopeful — about Tull. And the distant past deals with Roland’s childhood in his far off land of Gilead, where his father was a gunslinger and ruler, and where Roland stumbled into a conspiracy that led him to fight for his guns far earlier than he should have.

It was initially published in the Magazine of Science Fiction and Fantasy as a serial, and later as a limited edition book that almost no one had a chance to read. It didn’t enter mainstream awareness until the 1980s, when a mass market paperback was released. Soon afterward, King began giving mass to this giant, releasing sequels that continued the gunslinger’s quest.

Revising a Classic

The original book was a slender tome, far smaller than any of the later books. It was also the roughest around the edges and — as King expanded its mythos — the book that fit least with the universe. As subsequent books were released, continuity problems began to arise, and the book itself felt disconnected from its larger legacy. Still enjoyable to be sure, but problematic. Like the eccentric, slightly-mad older brother everyone wishes would just shut up and fit in.

Being several decades older than when he first wrote the story, King saw the problems, and decided to fix them. Normally I’m extremely hesitant when an author decides to “revise” his work — just look at the mess that Lucas made out of Star Wars (what do you mean Greedo shot first?) and what Spielberg did to E.T. (guns morphed into radios? Are you mad?). This time around though, the revisions work.

[warning … spoilers ahead]

And then there are the wholly new developments in the book, like the mysterious — and apparently maddening secret of “19”. In the revised edition, when the man in black raises Nort from the dead, the resurrected man returns with a vision of the what lies beyond death. The secret’s lost to him … but it can be unlocked by muttering the word “19”. The man in black leaves a note for Allie explaining this to her … and the temptation immediately begins gnawing at her. Later, she says the word to Nort and he shares his terrible vision. The knowledge sends her sanity reeling, and she ends up begging for Roland to kill her. So what is the secret? King doesn’t tell us, though I suspect we may learn part of it in the upcoming novels.

Another new addition is mention of a tribe of border-landers living at the edge of the desert, apparently north of Tull. I expected we’d see them in this book, but they are only mentioned, never seen. Again, I suspect this may be a hook for one of the future novels.

So was it worth it for King to return to the fountainhead of the Dark Tower series? Yes, I think it was. Though there were a few lines that I wished he hadn’t changed, all in all the book reads more smoothly, and more importantly, its far more consistent with regards to the later novels.

For those of use who read The Gunslinger during its first wide-paper back release, and grew up with the books, the novel had become something like a mental myth. It was disconnected from the latter books in terms of both time and content, and truly felt like it belonged in a different era. The revised book has some of that same feel — its namesake is still far more the lonely, forsaken gunslinger than he is the personable, approachable “Roland” of the later novels.

That said, I hope that King doesn’t pull a Lucas and prevent the original book from being published. As with Star Wars, I think fans — especially new fans — should be able to see the unaltered version, the one that capture so many people’s imaginations (including King’s) and judge the book’s merit’s for themselves.