…in which I invite someone bookish to share one of their all-time favourite works of fiction and what it means to them. This week’s Friday Fave comes from writer Craig Hildebrand-Burke:
I first discovered Stephen King by way of the TV series Lost. Buoyed by incessant mysteries, the showrunners let drop that the best way to understand the trajectory of the series was to read King’s epic post-apocalyptic novel The Stand. Which I duly did.
What followed was a series of reading-inspired facepalms as it occurred to me I had missed out on an entire youth of reading King’s books. I’ve been making up for lost time. Early on, I started reading his Dark Tower series, completely unaware how huge they are not only in terms of page counts, but also in their overarching connection to all of King’s work.
There are eight books in the series, published between 1982 and 2012. The first, The Gunslinger, took King twelve years to write after he started it in university, and was then initially published as a series of short stories in a magazine, only repackaged as a novel a year later.
The Gunslinger is possibly the most difficult of the eight – a dense, ambiguous genre-bender that takes its inspiration from the Robert Browning poem Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came. King fashions a story about Roland, the last gunslinger of Gilead, pursuing his foe the Man in Black, and he journeys across a narrative that is part-Western, part-fantasy, part-Jodorowsky acid trip, but through and through hearkens back to a knight’s tale of chivalry and exile.
From there, King’s hold of the story picks up with The Drawing of the Three, and he continued intermittently with the series with The Waste Lands and Wizard and Glass, which was published in 1997. This marks the halfway point of the series, and the moment when it really changes for many readers. In 1999, King was nearly killed when he was struck by a van while taking a walk, and it took him many months of rehabilitation to just be able to sit at a desk and write again. King mentions elsewhere how he was propped up by readers telling him of their fear that Roland would never reach the Tower, should King have died.
He returned to the series in 2003 with Wolves of the Calla, and Song of Susannah and The Dark Tower were both published the next year to conclude the series in rapid pace. What is striking though is how much King’s accident informs the writing of the series, and how he pays tribute to that through his characters.
This is what hits home for me about the series. On one hand it can be read entirely as a big, sprawling, evolving story that happily admits as it goes that King didn’t have an outline for as he wrote. But on the other hand it’s a series that weaves in and out of his other novels (characters from many other books pop up and play their part), it’s a document of a writer’s imagination and where he draws his ideas from. By the same token, the writer in these books is saved by his characters, is given life by them, and for me this stands as one of the truest depictions of the connection between a writer and their work that I’ve ever read.
This was continued when King published the unexpected addition to the series, The Wind Through the Keyhole, in 2012. This book actually intersects the series, and can now be read as an additional chapter in the middle, rather than any kind of afterword. But in this novel, King really lays out how closely he identifies with his protagonist Roland, and how integral this series is to portraying his own life. It’s as if someone asked him to write an autobiography, but instead the fiction writer wrote it down as someone else’s story.
The world of The Dark Tower is a world that is forever in jeopardy, and needs saving, but at the same point the Tower itself is King’s imagination. And what saves the tower is the stories. As the characters mention repeatedly during the series, ‘there are other worlds than these,’ so the writer must accept that stories need to be told, lest the Tower fall.
Craig Hildebrand-Burke is a writer and teacher. He has had various stories, articles and other odds and ends published around the place, and blogs regularly for Momentum on books, writing, film and TV.