The Gunslinger by Stephen King was first published in 1982, but it was actually separate stories that were previously written that made this into a “fix-up” novel, as they are called. In 2003, King famously revised and updated the novel. I do not know if this is the second or third time reading this novel. Every time I read it, though, I feel more or less the same way about it – its really good in retrospect after having read the next two books or so in The Dark Tower series. Taken on its own, it is exceedingly weird and disjointed and awkward.
For better or worse, it is a fact that in our lifetime, Stephen King is one of the most famous and well-read authors. His name and works are included in that batch of fiction that have become cultural references, common knowledge, and household facts. Even people who do not read at all (yes, horrifically, these are real) are able to have some concept/referent for ‘Stephen King.’ I have not read King like many of his fans. I have read maybe two or three of his non-Dark Tower books. I have no idea if he is a good author or not, because I feel like I cannot assess him accurately without reading far more of his catalogue.
So, The Gunslinger is an odd fix-up of stories that King wrote in the late 70s and early 80s. There is not a whole lot for me to say about the novel because everyone on the planet has read it and has given their opinions on it. There is nothing new, surely, that I can provide regarding the actual novel and info about it. For example, many fans of the book absolutely adore the first line, which seems to evoke all the best feelings and images of all the best adventures and entertainments. “The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed.” There it is, again. All the readers quote it and now I can be counted as one of them. I think the critical point about this first line is that it is very deadpan and very simple. Three items and two actions: man in black, desert, gunslinger…. one fled, one followed. Contained in this little statement is all the makings of the excitement and thrills and hopes and curiousity of all readers; it seems paradoxical that such a bland sentence can do so much.
The spare writing, though, in which each sentence seems to contain so much meaning and significance, is what I consider to be the overall characteristic of this novel. It is spare like a desert. The writing is matter-of-fact, but yet at times somewhat poetic. However, the poetry is not flowery or fancy, it is just honest and matter-of-fact as the rest. Instead of having “dynamic” characters who are overly complicated and full of layers of delusions, it seems these characters are blunt and direct and very honest. The main character, Roland, is utterly honest with the reader.
Roland is a big deal. He is a character that, in his will, his strength, his skill, and his honesty, he appeals to readers. He is presented as a “simple man,” meaning he is unimaginative and not prone to time-waste. However, he is also very complex because he is not a farmhand or a grunt or a lackey. A character that wrestles with “inner demons” and with the fabric of the kosmos is hardly a “simple man.” However, it is clear straightaway that Roland is also not a “good man.” This is not a sinless, shining knight of virtue and holiness. So, he causes readers to constantly have to wrestle with his morality.
The novel is a sort of Western, Dark Fantasy, Steampunk mash-up that has a vast history and expanse of setting – but it also feels unclear and confused. The lack of detail and linear layout makes for some of the dreamy and bewildered feeling in the book. I doubt King, at the time, had any clear ideas about all of this and purposely left his world-building vague and open. He did a good job because there is definitely an ominous and mysterious kosmology that pervades every scene. The Western is medieval in tone and that is a very cool spin on the medieval-based fantasy usually found in books.
Not that all of this can be granted to King. He has always admitted that he was heavily inspired by Robert Browning’s “Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came” (1852). In fact, this whole business is reduced a bit once the originality is denied it and we realize that Browning handed a very creative author a silver platter full of perfect delicacies and delights. Both that work and King’s work are strange. Dream-like and wondrous and maybe a bit apocalyptic.
The major thing that bothers me about King’s work is the vulgarness that comes through. I mean, I rarely read anything so vile and vulgar. Horror, as I have said previously, is often vulgar. I do not care for this kind of writing and it always makes me wary of a soul that creates and writes such stuff. In a sense, we all write about what we know and because I could never write with such vulgarity, I wonder about the writer who knows such stuff.
The reason I re-read this novel is because lately I have been sensing the cracks in the kosmos. Hold on! Do not click away thinking I am some looney! I have been working on linguistics/logic and the odd statements that defy the good, common, healthy reasoning that we all have come to know and love. Counterfactual, self-referential, contradictory, ambiguous, paradoxical sentences that most people shrug at, other people are amused by, and metaphysicians are deeply disturbed by. Cracks in the world, my friends. The sentences that the computer programmers just want to ignore. The sentences that the poet knows about, but cannot understand the ramifications.
Plus, I have been reading Plotinus and Porphyry and Proclus. WE, the systematic Aristotelian science-men, have long since turned up our noses at such esoteric hogwash – all that Hermetica and astrology and alchemy and Kabbalism stuff that none of us take seriously. However, every great immense once-in-awhile there is a line or a comment in the Enneads or something that sends a bit of a chill, like a draft through a crack in a cellar wall. Mysticism and magis and its all very hocus-pocus, so we do not look at those parts directly; we dismiss them as silly esoteric junk that was ridiculously overlayed on the substantial and meaty ontology. I guess.
When Roland says: “The world has moved on,” it also feels like a cold draft. I feel like in 2021, with the strange things going on in the real world, yeah, it is easier to fall in step with Roland as he crosses the desert. The best thing about Roland is that he takes it in stride. The world is dying, everything is wrecked, there are abominations and absurdities everywhere, the remnants of the future (somehow) – but yet Roland just accepts it as it is. Zen master level. Pretty cool character, this Roland.
Overall, its hard to separate the vulgarity and the derivative context from the book. So, sure this one is only two stars. But when I read further into the series and then look back, I want to give this maybe four stars. Readers who have not read this (are there any?) will likely be shocked, confused and not know what to make of this craziness. Helps to think of the world moving on and there being cracks in the kosmos, I think.