Novel * Stephen King * Dark Tower Throwback * 2012
The Dark Tower series has always been something of an enigma. Every entry seems like its own thing, a different style, a different voice, all telling the same epic story. The last three, written in a rush after King’s near-death experience, represent the most stylistically cohesive grouping of novels, but that trio is a long haul from the first iteration of The Gunslinger. Meanwhile, around the edges of King’s fiction, the Tower drifts through narratives like a ghost, showing up in odd places and serving as a reminder to us hardcore Tower people that Roland and his ka-tet are always in the background, always on the move, their quest more important than anything else happening in the worlds created by Stephen King. Even beyond this, the Tower stories continue apace. There’s a whole series of comics and graphic novels dedicated to Roland and Mid-World, most of which I haven’t read. The new movie on the horizon is going to be a whole other thing, which I await with some trepidation. This is all to say, there are endless stories waiting to be told about this world, and some of those are going to be from King himself.
The Wind through the Keyhole is not really a mainline Dark Tower book, even though the introduction refers to it as Dark Tower 4.5. True, the events of the novel take place between Wizard and Glass and Wolves of the Calla, but the things the ka-tet get up to in this story aren’t of any great importance. That’s because The Wind through the Keyhole is actually three stories, each nested within each other, and the very beginning and the very end consist of the frame in which the other two stories are told. If you’re picking up this book hoping for more adventures with Roland, Eddie, Susannah, Jake, and Oy, you’re going to be disappointed. They’re only here to give some context to Roland telling his stories, which, as I said, is actually two stories.
It’s an odd structure, but it turns out to be effective. Once I accepted that the book wasn’t some side adventure featuring the last gunslingers, I settled into what is actually here. Once the ka-tet is settled in, Roland begins his tale. The first is a story from Roland’s youth, not long after the horrible, upsetting, tragic events of Wizard and Glass. Young Roland is sent out with another young apprentice gunslinger, Jamie, who didn’t make the ill-fated trip out to Mejis in the fourth book. Jamie doesn’t talk much, so it’s a little hard to get a handle on his personality (not unlike Alain from Wizard and Glass, actually). Roland’s mission here is to travel out to the hinterlands and investigate a series of grisly murders. Locals are claiming that it’s the world of a “skin-man,” which is a shape-shifter situation. Since this is still Stephen King, there is totally a shape-shifter, and he does some messed up stuff, I tell you what.
This story of Young Roland is actually pretty engaging, and the mystery ramps up well, and of course even the minor characters are well drawn because King is a wizard with character building. So it’s a little abrupt when King shifts gears yet again and drops us into a third, entirely different story right as the action is ramping up toward a conclusion. The third story is something of a fairy tale as told to Roland by his mother when he was but a wee gunslinger-to-be. This story is about a child named Tim who lives in the deep, dark woods with his loving mother and father. Then some bad shit goes down and young Tim has to go on a quest. As the story goes on, it turns out to be engaging as well so by the time it wraps up there’s a strange moment where I was satisfied with the story I had just read only to realize that, oh yeah, there’s this other story to wrap up as well. It’s an odd way to structure what amounts to a couple of novellas, but King has never been afraid to experiment with from and structure, and in this case, it works pretty well, even if it’s a little jarring at first.
This is the space where I usually talk about theme and the larger considerations of the work being discussed. Roland’s world is very old and is clearly in the last stages of decay and decline, and that’s mostly what I’ve focused on with the various Dark Tower books. I’m less inclined to do so with The Wind through the Keyhole, because, well, those themes don’t come up all that much. The first story – the frame which holds the other two – isn’t really a story on its own. We pick up with Roland and his ka-tet in the middle of a journey we kind of skipped before. That’s fine, there’s a lot of time unaccounted for in the grand adventure, and there are probably many stories which haven’t (and won’t) ever be told. In this instance we get a brief episode, a single interesting thing that happens, which is the starkblast. Of course we know the group will escape no worse for wear, so basically it’s a narrative excuse to get Roland to tell his stories.
It’s in this way that the entire novel is an exercise in storytelling, is in fact a book about the value of the act of storytelling. The larger story that the audience presumably cares about, that of Roland and his fellow gunslingers, has been told. I then see this on the shelf some eight years later and my reaction was “the hell is this?” I wasn’t expecting it to exist, so I had nothing to look forward to, no expectations. Obviously I bought it as soon as I saw the thing. That’s probably for the best, since if I had taken to the time to wonder about what The Wind through the Keyhole would be, I would have had expectations of the ka-tet getting up to some adventures. Instead, it’s more Roland storytelling time, which is fine, but maybe not what Tower fans would be clamoring for if they knew King was writing Tower stories again.
So what is King’s intention here? Who’s to say, but it seems clear that he had some Mid-World stories in mind and needed a vehicle in which to tell them. The first is a short story about Roland’s youth. Taken alone, not a whole lot goes down in this particular episode. That is, until the very end, where young Roland receives a small amount of absolution from his actions in Wizard and Glass. The young gunslinger is afforded contact with his mother, who of course died by his own hand, and it seems like she knew what was in the cards for her. And a mother can forgive. In all, it’s a rather grisly horror story with a nice little ending, which marks a closure to young Roland’s emotional arc from the nightmare he suffered in Wizard and Glass. Rancher-munching-skin-monster? No probs. First love getting burned alive and shooting your mom a few days later? Slightly more difficult to parse. Telling the story helps adult Roland assimilate some of these things a bajillion years later.
We see the power of the story to soothe in the middle of young Roland’s story, when he uses the fable of Tim to calm young Bill after his dad gets slaughtered by the monster. The story, of course, not only soothes but teaches. Obviously there’s the whole dead father aspect of Tim’s story that Bill can identify with. There’s also the implicit meaning: be brave. If young Tim can brave a scary forest by night and face a dragon and hang out with a tiger, young Bill can try and identify a were-bear. Stories also pass the time, they bond people over the tale. They offer insight into how others live. Most importantly, stories beget new stories. Like, the Covenant Man is Flagg, right? And like in The Gunslinger he says he was never Maerlyn, and that’s true! But is this a whole Arthuriana thing now? Connections! And really, that’s all I’m getting at here. This is all fun. Aside from Roland’s bit of emotional closure, there’s nothing to worry about here other than enjoying a couple of stories from a world I still love.