The Gunslinger by Stephen King (King’s Revised Edition)

The Gunslinger by Stephen King is the first book in his Dark Tower series. It was originally published in 1983, but the version I read was King’s revised print, published in 2003. The new publication comes with a very thorough introduction from King. In it, he describes the reasoning for the changes, mainly relating back to bringing it in line with series continuity.

He also discusses his feelings behind writing this particular type of fantasy novel, namely that, “Thanks to Mr. Tolkien, the twentieth century had all the elves and wizards it needed.” He speaks further on the topic saying, “…I had no interest in either Tolkien’s sturdy peasant characters (that’s not to say I didn’t like them, because I did) or his bosky Scandinavian settings.”  He also notes the first time he saw The Good the Bad and the Ugly. Both certainly explain setting the story in an old western atmosphere surrounded by vast desert with a gunslinger at its center.

Mostly though his introduction is an essay on youth, specifically the age of nineteen. The age, “…where a lot of us somehow get stuck.” He goes on to describe the process of time and how it slowly degrades and humbles you. He writes about his alcoholism and the effects it had on his life and body. Also his ambitions when he started the Dark Tower Series.  It’s a touching, thoughtful read. And if you’re a fan of the series who hasn’t picked up the revised version, I’d recommend it if only for King’s introduction. I don’t typically read introductions first, as they generally pertain to details or opinions of book I haven’t read yet, but this one grabbed me.

The book was originally published as a series of shorts over three years before being combined into the novel.  However, unlike other science fiction or fantasy books published in the manner, it doesn’t feel compartmentalized. It’s a solid straightforward well-constructed singular story. I must concede though that the last section of the book is the best written, elevating the work to a different level. Perhaps three years of simmering was worth it to end the book with such definitive power.

That isn’t to say there aren’t flashes of brilliance in the earlier sections with lines like, “A gunslinger knows pride, that invisible bone that keeps the neck stiff.”

The book follows a gunslinger, the last of his kind, as he travels across an ungodly desert in search of a man in black. I don’t capitalize those names, because King doesn’t, even though it’s the way he refers to them. Eventually the gunslinger is given a name, Roland Deschain. Through flashbacks and conversations we learned both the gunslinger and the man in black are essentially immortal, and tied together by the past and their connection to the titular Tower. Mostly it reads like a great western pulp novel, pulling you from page to page, until the end when King unleashes his full abilities as a writer and cements the book as a classic.

In his introduction he mentions waiting to write the book, which I think is ultimately a shame with regard to The Gunslinger making it to the silver screen. Having published it in the early eighties, the quiet western was already pretty much dead as far as Hollywood was concerned. Since then, the only man who’s ever brought it back in a big way was Eastwood with 1992′s Unforgiven. And it’s a shame, because this would make an amazing movie. But a stoic western, set in a mythical world where the action sequences are almost all fought on morally shaky grounds, is a tough sell. The fact that the book pulsates with sexuality, and even involves a demon having it’s way with the main character, might not help it in the film pitch department. Though, Sam Raimi…he could pull it off…

Now I’ll admit something with a bit of shame; this is the only Stephen King novel I’ve read. Though certainly not the last, as I feel I’m helpless against the desire to read the rest of the series. I’m not sure why I waited so long to read something of his. When I was younger, they actually filmed The Stand next to my house. There’s a scene in that movie where Stephen King, in a small role, collects bodies from a church. That church is directly across the street from where I grew up. Had I any sense, I’d have read the book and gone to get his autograph.

There are a lot of books you should read, and while this book is one of them, it’s also one you’ll just want to read. Give it two pages and you won’t put down.