The year 2004 will undoubtedly go down as a singularly exciting—and bittersweet—year for the millions of Stephen King's Dark Tower fans anxiously awaiting the series' much-anticipated finale. More than a quarter of a century after the publication of the short story "The Gunslinger" in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction (October 1978), the genre-transcending saga that has been called King's magnum opus will come to its climactic conclusion with the release of the final two books: Song of Susannah this month and The Dark Tower in September.
The seven-volume Dark Tower saga—essentially an epic fantasy—is a bit of a departure for the prolific King, who is best known for his wildly popular horror offerings (The Shining, Carrie, Cujo, Pet Sematary, etc.). The story's central character, an enigmatic, solitary gunslinger named Roland Deschain (a cross between Clint Eastwood's legendary Man With No Name of Sergio Leone's 1960s spaghetti westerns fame and the quasi-historical King Arthur), is on a quest to find the Dark Tower, the nexus of a trillion different realities, before it is destroyed. Those who stand in his way are summarily killed. But during his travels through time, he meets allies who will eventually make up his ka-tet (a group of people joined by fate): Eddie Dean, a former heroin addict and drug runner from 1987 Brooklyn; Susannah Dean, Eddie's wife, a civil rights activist with joint personalities from the when of 1964; and Jake Chambers, a sixth-grader from 1977 New York. Together, they battle the evil forces trying to topple the Tower and bring about Apocalypse.
Dark Tower VI: Song of Susannah picks up immediately after the events of Dark Tower V: Wolves of the Calla. Roland and Eddie, via the Unfound Door, travel to 1977 Maine in search of a rogue bookstore owner with an invaluable resource to be used in the quest. Meanwhile, Jake and Father Callahan, another key figure in Roland's quest, are thrust into 1999 New York City to find Susannah, who is not only possessed by a demon but also pregnant with a baby of mysterious origin. The unborn baby is "perhaps the most important child to ever be born . . . including Christ, including Buddha, including the Prophet Muhammad." This child, aptly named Mordred by the demon inside Susannah, is prophesized to destroy Roland. Can Jake and Callahan find Susannah before she has her baby? And more importantly, can they keep the baby out of the hands of Roland's nemesis, the Crimson King?
King drops a bombshell of a plot twist at the conclusion of Song of Susannah that will force readers to re-evaluate their take on the entire saga and leave them tottering on the edge of the mother of all cliffhangers. Fortunately, readers will only have to wait a few months to find out what King has in store for the final installment in his chronicle of the gunslinger and his quest.
Hauntingly surreal and almost supernaturally enthralling, King's Dark Tower saga is a monumental work of fantastical fiction created by a master wordslinger. The series is historically significant for a number of reasons—the eye-popping retail sales figures, the equally eye-popping value of first editions, etc.—but perhaps its most important (and fascinating) attribute comes from its prominent place in the author's extensive and storied canon. Not unlike legendary British fantasist Michael Moorcock's Skrayling Oak, the enormous tree that holds his entire Multiverse in its branches, King's Dark Tower is the thematic hub around which many of his other novels revolve. The Stand, It, 'Salem's Lot, Insomnia, The Talisman, Bag of Bones, The Eyes of the Dragon—all have strong connections to the Dark Tower. (For example, Father Callahan was also featured in 'Salem's Lot as the priest investigating the horrific deaths of his parishioners.) Longtime fans delight in piecing together the incredibly elaborate mystery that is King's Dark Tower universe, and the series has lengthy printed concordances to help readers keep everything straight.
And to think it all started with this unassuming sentence: "The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed."
Paul Goat Allen is a freelance editor and writer in Syracuse, New York.