Stephen King’s Dark Tower series is a magnificent achievement in fantasy fiction and among King’s best work. Jenny and I are both tremendous fans of the series, as you already know if you followed our Dark Tower readalong last year. So of course we got our hands on the newest Dark Tower book, The Wind Through the Keyhole, as quickly as we could. This is King’s eighth novel about Roland, a gunslinger from the kingdom of Gilead, and his ka-tet of companions. The action, however, falls between books 4 and 5 in the series. King calls it Dark Tower 4.5.
The story begins shortly after the end of Wizard and Glass with Roland, Susannah, Eddie, Jake, and Oy continuing along the path of the beam to the Dark Tower. When a massive windstorm–a starkblast–descends on them, they take shelter in an abandoned town, and to pass the time Roland tells his friends a story from his own past that occurred just after the events he told them about in Wizard and Glass. He and Jamie DeCurry go to the old railtown of Debaria to investigate the appearance of skin-man, a cannibalistic shape-shifter.
Nested inside this story is a fairy tale that Roland tells to a frightened little boy who has witnessed the latest skin-man attack. This tale, “The Wind Through the Keyhole,” is about a boy named Tim who goes on a journey to save his mother’s life. On this journey, Tim encounters good and bad magic and discovers his own strength.
Teresa: When I first heard that Stephen King was writing a new Dark Tower book, I got grumpy. The story is complete as is; adding to it would only wreck it. I came around a bit when I saw it was going to fit within the series, and after rereading the series last year, I became downright excited about this book. I love the characters so much that I want to spend more time with them, and after reading this, I realize that I love Mid-World for its own sake. I would be thrilled if King just wrote more stories set there, whether Roland and his friends appear in them or not.
Jenny: Yes, and in fact, that’s more or less what this book is. We spend very little time with Roland’s ka-tet, a little more with Roland and Jamie DeCurry in Debaria, and by far the biggest chunk of the book in the long-ago, with Tim Stoutheart. At first, I wasn’t sure what to make of the nested structure of the stories, but King’s storytelling power is as irresistible as ever. I was lured by the familiar (and eerie) nature of Mid-World, then yanked in by the story of the skin-man, then totally engaged by Tim’s tale.
The Dark Tower books have always made wonderful use of other stories — stories from our world. Wizard and Glass, of course, draws heavily on Oz. But this one — didn’t you think that in the Fragonard swamp, King was working with a twisted version of Neverland, Tinker Bell and the Lost Boys?
Teresa: I thought of Neverland when the crocodiles turned up! The interesting thing is that instead of being a story about staying a boy it’s a story about becoming a man. So it’s Neverland turned on its head in more ways than one.
One of the things I loved about the story of Tim Stoutheart is how much it felt like a real fairy tale. You have a little boy who experiences a family tragedy then must deal with it on his own, facing obstacles and tests that shape who he will be. I could imagine Gabrielle Deschain telling it to Roland, as Roland tells it to Young Bill. And it has wonderful Mid-World touches in the language and in the remnants of dying technology intermingled with magic.
Jenny: I thought the same about the fairy-tale aspects (including the wicked witch — er, wizard, with the pale face and red lips.) And King does such a wonderful job here of showing that fairy tales are part of a broader river of other stories — Neverland, here, and of course Roland’s own story, and then Eddie and Jake and Susannah and Oy’s story (and now I want to know more about the billy-bumblers!) and the Endless Forest, which is probably just a metaphor for Story itself.
I thought the parts about the skin-man were pretty scary. At first I thought it was going to be a werewolf, but it was worse than that; par for the course in Mid-World.
Teresa: Yes! More billy-bumblers! More Mid-World!
The skin-man is definitely one of King’s more successful monsters. I’ve not always liked his monsters, but those black snake’s eyes that Roland says were “filled with human understanding” were satisfyingly creepy. And its presence shows the danger of not listening to stories. Those who remembered the Old People knew to steer clear of the green light that called to them.
Jenny: Yes, and that green light is nicely mirrored by the green sighe in Tim’s tale, and also by the red light that calls to a different group of people at the bottom of a different mine, in Desperation, Nevada. I sometimes think Stephen King is having more fun with this linking of his worlds than anyone should be allowed to have, and then I remember — he’s written over sixty books. He can have all the fun he wants, as long as he takes us along.