Kate (kate_nepveu) wrote,

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?

Tags: books, dark tower series, sff

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