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wood cat
Kate kate_nepveu
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King's Dark Tower series: reader reluctance; reader betrayal

I'm currently four books into Stephen King's seven book Dark Tower series, completed this September. I'd read these first four previously, but had been holding off on the most recent three, each released six months after the other. My re-read of the first four is complete, and it's prompted a couple of thoughts about reading.

So I'm oddly reluctant to pick up the first new-to-me book, The Wolves of the Calla—not that I've had the time to read since I finished the fourth at the start of this week, but the desire isn't there, either.

The reluctance may be odd, but it's explicable: bluntly, I'm scared the ending will suck. This series has been in progress for longer than I've been alive, and I've been reading it for a considerable portion of my own life. I don't remember when I read the first two novels, but I distinctly remember picking up the third, The Waste Lands from a stack of new trade paperbacks and reading the inside excerpt—that moment of astonished joy is probably what well-and-truly hooked me on the series. (I'll rot13 the revelation, even though it probably no longer counts as a spoiler: wnxr jnf onpx!)

That was January 1992. I was 14. The next volume, and the last I've read, was published in 1997. I don't like it as well—I think it's too long and slightly unsatisfying—which I think is a fairly reasonable apprisal of its merits. However, I am also aware that I am no longer 14 and no longer uncritically gulp down books: the unconditional love I have for the first three books, especially The Waste Lands, is a lot harder to come by these days. Because of that distance between my experience of the first three and now, it's hard not to feel that these later ones are, or will be, a let-down.

Beyond my changes as a reader, though, it's just nerve-wracking to contemplate the conclusion of a series that's been in progress for so very long (since 1970). It's like contemplating the last scenes of whatever series you still care about, that you half- (or more) disbelieve will actually be finished: The Door Into Starlight, Harry Potter, Wheel of Time, Song of Fire and Ice, the Continuing Time Series . . . (I really didn't think I'd ever see the Dark Tower series finished. Looking at volume seven, sitting on my bookshelf with its gorgeous Michael Whelan cover (Whelan also illustrated the first volume), gives me a faint sense of unreality.) I've been trying to avoid reviews of these most recent books, for fear of spoilers, but the few bits of information that I've picked up here and there make me nervous. Though, to be fair, I'd been nervous about the direction ever since it became clear that King had decided that all of his books, more or less, were connected to the Dark Tower universe—rarely a good idea, I think.

Work has been a bear, anyway—I scratched this out on notepaper during downtime at a CLE this morning—so perhaps when I have time to read, I'll want to. (And I've saved a re-read of my favorite King, The Eyes of the Dragon (tangentially related to the series), in case the ending does suck.)

But how about you? If you had the long, long-awaited conclusion of a sequence before you, one you'd given up hoping for—would you jump right in, or would you hold back, a little fearful of what you might find? Have you already experienced this situation, and with what?

A secondary reason for my reluctance to start the new-to-me volumes is what King's done to the first volume: he's rewritten and republished The Gunslinger, retconning it—or more than retconning, which re-explains or re-interprets existing canon, and doesn't literally re-write it. (Or am I interpreting "retcon" too narrowly? It's like what Lucas is doing with the Star Wars DVDs.) I haven't read the new edition, but rysmiel has, and the resulting comments confirm that I don't want to read it. (There's also a comprehensive list of significant changes by a fan site, which I have only skimmed because it has references to book five.)

On one hand, I can understand that tales grow in the telling, and sometimes (as Teresa Nielsen Hayden has said) "do three and a half somersaults in midair and come down wearing a different costume." And I imagine that many artists feel very strongly about being able to control the way their work is presented.

Yet as a reader, the word that keeps coming to mind is "betrayal," melodramatic as it sounds. I think it has something do with nature of fiction: once published, a fictional world and fictional characters live in the minds of the readers as well as on the page and in the mind of the author. In a way, they no longer belong solely to the author—so the author rewrites their history at his or her peril. A straight retcon is at least transparent; rewriting a book, such that the original is no longer in print, seems less . . . honest? Less desirable, at least, to remove the reader's option.

I might not be able to fully articulate or justify this feeling of betrayal, but I feel it keenly all the same. As readers, writers, critics, what do you think? Am I overreacting, discounting the author's interest? Is this just not a question most readers have occasion to confront? If you were Stephen King, would you have done it?

I liked book five, though I thought it was the weakest of the series. I liked book six.

Book seven is sitting on my shelf, basking in the glory of being one of the few hardcovers I have actually dashed out to buy new, and I decided a week-and-a-half ago, after much vacillation, that I am not going to read it. I can't stand to have this series over. It's that simple. My best friend read me the last several pages over the phone, but the large portion in the middle will remain unread for now, simply so that I know that if I ever come to a time in my life when I absolutely need to read Dark Tower I haven't read, it will be sitting there.

Of course, I have no idea if this resolution will last out the year.

A note on book seven, by the way: it has, and King has been perfectly up-front about this, two endings-- the one he wrote, and the one the publisher wanted him to put on, which is separated from the rest of the book by a vitriolic little essay about why it shouldn't be there. Everyone I know who has stopped after the first ending has been delighted and happy and satisfied. Everyone I know who has read the second has furiously wished they hadn't. If you're the kind of person who reads things whether you decide to or not, I'd recommend cutting the second ending out and throwing it away before you can read it, because King never wanted it to see print and really would rather everyone ignore its existence.

As far as the revised edition of book one goes, I haven't been able to bring myself to read it, and have been buying up copies of the original in used bookstores to give to people I want to introduce to the series. Betrayed sounds exactly right to me.

I had not heard at *ALL* about the two endings--thank you so much for the warning. Chad's out walking the dog right now, but I think when he comes back, I will ask him to go upstairs, find the second ending, and paperclip it.

I don't know if I can bear to have him cut it out. On one hand, I might well read it if it's there. On the other, book mutilation! Is it really that bad?

(And how can _Stephen_ _King_, of all people, not resist publisher pressure to change a work? I just don't understand. Really do not.)

(no subject) - kate_nepveu, 2004-11-20 06:03 am (UTC)(Expand)
(no subject) - orzelc, 2004-11-20 08:01 am (UTC)(Expand)
(no subject) - rushthatspeaks, 2004-11-20 09:00 am (UTC)(Expand)
(no subject) - kate_nepveu, 2004-11-20 09:43 am (UTC)(Expand)
(no subject) - rushthatspeaks, 2004-11-20 10:20 am (UTC)(Expand)
(no subject) - kate_nepveu, 2004-11-20 10:23 am (UTC)(Expand)
(no subject) - orzelc, 2004-11-20 11:12 am (UTC)(Expand)
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(no subject) - kate_nepveu, 2004-11-20 11:48 am (UTC)(Expand)
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(no subject) - kate_nepveu, 2004-11-20 11:57 am (UTC)(Expand)
(no subject) - rushthatspeaks, 2004-11-24 09:54 pm (UTC)(Expand)
I might not be able to fully articulate or justify this feeling of betrayal, but I feel it keenly all the same. As readers, writers, critics, what do you think? Am I overreacting, discounting the author's interest? Is this just not a question most readers have occasion to confront? If you were Stephen King, would you have done it?

This is an interesting question, and I haven't read the King Dark Tower series (I have an unfortunate allergy to Westerns, and it was called The Gunslinger. And yes, if it weren't for andpuff and the manager at the store, I would have missed Firefly, which would have served my narrow little reading tastes right).

My first published novel will be reprinted in September of next year. I'm almost terrified of it, to be honest -- I haven't reread the book in years, and I'm certain there are things I wouldn't do now, and there are things I would do entirely differently now. I don't hate the story -- but I was younger and knew less, and because I wrote it, what I see first and foremost are the errors, the things that show cracks in the craftsmanship of the whole.

But... having said that? There are people who still write me to say they loved that book. Whatever flaws I perceive in it, or will, they don't see. They see the heart of it, the thing that drove me to write it -- but not the flaws that I'll see. I've had people tell me they were upset by the end of the fourth novel because they knew there wouldn't be any more of them, and they almost didn't want to finish it because of that.

And mine didn't have those long gaps between volumes.

Digression, digression, and too much Me. If I were to have to write in that universe, if I were to somehow return to it, and I were given the chance to change things, I think I would almost have to, to keep going. Because it wouldn't be a finished thing, to me, anymore; it wouldn't have that certain sense of completion. I would have re-opened the world, and the story, and while doing that? I think the story would have different layers and different meanings or subtext than it once had. Granted, King always intended to write more. But a lot of years passed between the first and the last, and I'm sure that has to be part of it.

Retcon, to my understanding, can also involve wholesale shifts into an alternate reality (or it felt that way in comics, which is where I first heard the term used widely). But your use is more in keeping with how it's generally done.

I'm not sure I understand you--would you change the text of the first novel and republish it, or decide to revise the meaning of things in the new work?

(no subject) - msagara, 2004-11-20 06:59 am (UTC)(Expand)
(no subject) - kate_nepveu, 2004-11-20 07:09 am (UTC)(Expand)
(no subject) - msagara, 2004-11-20 07:17 am (UTC)(Expand)
feelings of betrayal at revisions - (Anonymous), 2004-12-07 04:09 pm (UTC)(Expand)
Oops. And to add: if I ever had thoughts of wholesale revision, if I ever had even the glimmering of a thought about it, this whole post would stop me dead in my tracks. Which is probably not a bad thing <g>.

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I think I'd actually prefer people didn't revise style flaws, but this is because of the way I read: I have a very intense visual memory for beloved text, down to "that line is on the top right of a page about halfway through," and when suddenly it *isn't*--well, I cut out a paragraph of this rant about something in book 4 that depended on the revised book 1 and confused me and jolted me out of the text. I hate being jolted out of the text.

But it doesn't make me splutter incoherently for several nights running at Chad during dog-walking conversations.

Funny, I don't expect there to be another Khaavren novel. I'd be pleased if there was, because I trust Brust, but I completely do not expect it.

I do wish I still cared about the Wheel of Time. I'll read the last pages in a bookstore, just for curiosity, but since I didn't read the last book and don't regret it . . .

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(no subject) - kate_nepveu, 2004-11-20 10:26 am (UTC)(Expand)
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Gosh. What do you think of _Silver on the Tree_ after that?

Yes, I've been trying not to read sample chapters online (readings are usually short enough that they don't pose the same problem). I broke this resolution for _Paladin of Souls_ and the chapters stopped at a place that gave me an entirely wrong idea of the shape of the story, which was distracting. But my willpower is not good.

There are a lot of books that I've decided not to read until the series they're part of is complete, partly because I want to see if they *will* be complete, but partly because I've really come around to thinking that all-at-once is the optimal way to experience a series. Not that I'm short of reading options in the meantime, so it's no great hardship.

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(no subject) - kate_nepveu, 2004-11-20 06:52 am (UTC)(Expand)
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(no subject) - kate_nepveu, 2004-11-20 09:41 am (UTC)(Expand)
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I just discovered that in fact I believe that up to the paperback, it's fixable, the paperback is the immutable copy, because that's the one normal readers buy.

I think a lot of people think it's fixable up to the mmpb--I always look for the little line on the copyright page, "This book contains the complete text of the hardcover. Not one word has been omitted," and it's more often than not absent. Though even still I would expect consistency tweaking and typo fixing, not major things.

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Right, and apparently you can't get copies of the original Star Wars movies on DVD either.

Have you figured out a way to avoid retroactive ruination besides not watching/reading? If so, I'd love to know how.

whatever series you still care about, that you half- (or more) disbelieve will actually be finished: The Door Into Starlight, Harry Potter, Wheel of Time, Song of Fire and Ice, the Continuing Time Series . . .

Gee, you'd never guess which of these is at the top of my wish-list -- unless you read my user-name. I keep checking "Out of Ambit" for a tick mark next to The Door Into Starlight on her "What I've Worked on Today" list, but I haven't seen one in over a year. *sigh* I keep telling myself that it is because she is less than compulsive about updating the list, rather than that it has been languishing in a drawer un-looked-at all this time. And, interestingly enough, I was (almost) fourteen when I started on this series; perhaps there is something about that age that causes us to grab on tightly to things we will love for a lifetime.

Though, to be fair, I'd been nervous about the direction ever since it became clear that King had decided that all of his books, more or less, were connected to the Dark Tower universe -- rarely a good idea, I think.

I'm in agreement with you on this point. Despite the fact that To Sail Beyond the Sunset is one of my favorite Heinleins, it had felt to me for several books that he was really straining to get all of them to tie-together with his "Future History," when sometimes it might have been better to let them stand alone. In fact, given that The Number of the Beast was about there being " 6^6^6 " universes (or "ficti-verses"), one would think that there was more than enough room for each to have its own. Although for the most part it's fun to recognize characters from other beloved books, there were times when I thought, "Jeez, Bob, give it a rest."

If you had the long, long-awaited conclusion of a sequence before you, one you'd given up hoping for -- would you jump right in, or would you hold back, a little fearful of what you might find? Have you already experienced this situation, and with what?

For me the trouble wasn't that the "ending" sucked, it was with what came after. I'm definitely of the "jump right in" sort, and one series for which I waited a somewhat-long time was David Brin's "Uplift" series. Although I felt the newer trilogy wasn't quite as good as the original three books were, I was pretty happy with the ending, as an ending. Unfortunately, I then picked up Robert Silverberg's anthology Far Horizons, in which Brin's short story "Temptation" (set just after/concurrent with the ending of the series), came along to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. I'm still a little peeved by that one. After a thousand-plus pages of "our under-dog heroes, despite enormous odds, continue to struggle along on the side of truth and justice," tacking on fifty-pages of "here's why your petty little struggle is pointless" just felt like a slap in the face.


I hadn't really "given up hoping" for the Uplift series, though; I had more or less considered it done with the first three. The one I had been most afraid would never be completed (and technically hasn't been, yet) was Rosemary Kirstein's "Steerswoman" series, to which papersky alluded. It may have been less time between The Outskirter's Secret and The Lost Steersmanthan it has been since the last actually new volume in the "Doors" series, but at least Diane Duane continued/continues to write other stuff; as far as I could tell for most of that time, Rosemary Kirstein had ceased to write altogether. The Lost Steersman I at first didn't like as well as the first two, most likely because of what papersky said about Beyond the Tomorrow Mountains. I had been re-reading the first two in the intervening years and it didn't go any of the directions I had predicted. The next one, however, ( The Language of Power ) was a complete joy, mitigated only by the fact that she said in an interview that there are intended to be seven volumes in the completed series, plus a prequel -- which means I have to go back to waiting. On the plus side, that means that there will be more to love, yet, unlike what seems to be the case with so many authors these days, there is supposed to be an actual ending. Robert Jordan isn't one of the authors I read, but from things that I have heard from numerous sources, I suspect that closure is not really something one can reasonably expect from his books, for example.

From reading some of your replies to other comments, I suspect that one of the differences between those in the "jump in" camp versus those in the "hold back because it might suck" one may be in the way we remember books. With respect to not liking even stylist revisions, you said you have a very intense visualmemory for text, whereas I've often bemoaned the fact that with my terrible memory I can rarely quote anything accurately without having to look it up. If a book, once read, will be more or less engraved upon your memory, I can understand your reluctance to commit to something that may dash your high hopes. One of the few benefits of a poor memory like mine, however, is that unless an unsatisfying book is spectacularly bad (or ticks me off like "Temptation" did), I can merely consign it to the compost heap of my mind and not be bothered by it any more. The other benefit is that, if I leave a beloved series alone for ten years, it is almost like reading it again for the first time -- which may be another reason I haven't held back from reading a "last" book, because I know if it is good I can read it again and again.

Continued more - khavrinen, 2004-11-21 10:20 am (UTC)(Expand)
(no subject) - kate_nepveu, 2004-11-21 01:01 pm (UTC)(Expand)
Another on the pig-pile of "read 1-4 but not more (yet)". I received #5 as a gift, and still haven't gotten around to it; but then, I hated #4, and since adulthood have found the first three increasingly flimsy and excessive. I think I just became immune to the Grandiose King Magic (tm).

As for revision -- not retconning; retconning literally means inserting new information to re-interpret old information in a way not originally intended --, in the original edition of The Hobbit, Gollum lets Bilbo go. It's only when the ring gained significance in Tolkien's mind that he went back and revised that chapter to make Gollum nastier and obstructionist. (I thinkk Bilbo's lying about the ring is also in the later editions, but not in the first.) Notably, the only edition you can find outside of rare book shops is the revised edition.

So, although I'm not always a fan of retro-tinkering, sometimes it can work and even be necessary to future endeavor. Sometimes, however (take note George Lucas), it's just egomania at work.

Hmmm. Interesting point--I think I knew that but had forgotten.

I'm inclined to say, "Well, if you're Tolkien you can do that," but his constant rethinking means that _The Silmarillion_ wasn't finished in his lifetime, which I think is too bad. All the same, I think it a rare happening that the revision will net something like _The Lord of the Rings_.

If you like, when I finish the Dark Tower books, I can spoil them for you so you can decide if you want to read them or not.