Saturday, June 4, 2011

Robin Furth's "The Dark Bells"

Here's the thing.  I'm not exactly the smartest guy in the world.  You're never going to catch me doing things really intelligent people do, like reading Bill Bryson books, or not eating an entire box of Crunch-n-Munch in a single sitting, or "vacationing in the Hamptons" (whatever the hell that means), or correctly spelling the word reccomend.  It's just not in the cards for me.  It's cool; I'm okey-doke with that.  In fact, I think I've even figured out why I'm a bit of a dullard: it's due to a poor memory. 

My memory isn't horrendous; I don't have to leave notes all over the place like that one dude did in Memento ... you know who I'm talking about, that Pearce guy, whose first name I can't quite bring to mind.  I remember things way better than that dude did.  But sometimes, I just can't get the file to save, you know?

This is why I don't always trust my first-impression opinions when it comes to movies and books and music and the like.  When I read a novel or a story, I typically just can't hold most of the specifics in my brain, and more often than not if I need to summon up those specifics to put them to use in some way, I just can't do it.  Kinda like I imagine being the case with this feller:

My point is this: even though it only came out, like, a few months ago, I didn't remember much of anything about Robin Furth's short story "The Dark Bells" except that I'd very much enjoyed it.  So, when it came time to write -- cogently and accurately, one hopes -- an essay about that story as the finale to my series of reviews of Marvel's "The Little Sisters of Eluria," I did what any responsible blogger with a poor memory would do: I reread the story.

And the second time through, I found it to be ... well ... not quite as good as my first impressions would have insisted.

I do have some fairly serious objections to certain elements of it, and I'm moderately baffled as to how and why some of these objections didn't occur to me on the first read-through.  Maybe they did, and my poor memory just blotted them out.  Either way, in discussing those objections I'm going to talk about very specific elements of the story, so if you haven't read it and don't want to be spoiled, now is your chance to duck out.

Here, then, are some of my problems with the story.  Some of these plot points may have justifications that I'm not considering, so if you feel as if I'm being unjustly harsh, by all means let me know so that I might be the beneficiary of your insights.
  • One of the main characters of the story is a gunslinger, Bertrand Allgood, who visits the Sisters and observes Jess being tended by the little doctors.  This seems to indicate that the Sisters and their can tam are relatively well-known to the Gunslingers, and that their method of healing is not unknown.  It is perhaps a bit distressing, and there is the intimation that the general populace might be less knowledgeable about the doctor bugs, but clearly the Gunslingers know all about it.  Additionally, since we can include The Talisman -- wherein the Sisters seem to be tending to Queen Laura -- in this story's continuity, the Sisters would seem to be well-respected enough to minister to royalty.  So, why is it, then, that Roland seems to have no knowledge of them?  I'll grant you that Roland is portrayed as being neither the brightest nor the best-educated gunslinger, but it seems as if perhaps he ought to have known about the Sisters and the can tam if they are as prevalent in Mid-World as "The Dark Bells" intimates.
  • "Will you be staying in the Desatoya Mountains for long?" Sister Alejandra asks Bertrand.  Well, clearly this group of Little Sisters will be staying there for quite some time, seeing as how they are still there ages later for Roland to be captured in their web.  But does it make any sense that they would have stayed there?  If they stayed there, wouldn't Eluria eventually have become as infamous as the Bermuda Triangle as a place where people go and never return; it seems as if it would have become legendary in that regard.  It also seems unlikely that the Gunslingers would have permitted the Sisters to remain there.  Clearly, a better solution from a story standpoint would be for the Sisters to have begun to travel, and to have -- via the cold hand of ka -- have wound up back in Eluria so that Roland, unwitting agent of the Tower that he is, could end their menace forever.  In Part I of the story, there is a reference to the Sisters' tent as a traveling hospital, so clearly that is part of their operation.  However, there is no indication anywhere in "The Dark Bells" that this traveling, or anything like it, continues after the Sisters are corrupted ... and for them to have simply remained in Eluria all these years, or even anywhere nearby, simply does not seem plausible to me.
  • "As he" [Bertrand Allgood] "stared at the unconscious young miner lying on the hospital cot before him, a dark comma of hair fell over his forehead."  (Part I)  This is actually a great moment; if you've read The Little Sisters of Eluria, then you will undoubtedly remember that Sister Jenna had a similar comma of unruly hair.  This, then, is a great way of revealing that Bertrand will end up fathering her.  However, Furth substantially undercuts the moment in Part II of the story in a scene between Alejandra and Jess: "But still, she smiled at him, and her cheeks dimpled prettily as a single black curl fell out from the confines of her wimple."  Is this meant to inform us that Alejandra ends up mothering Jenna?  If so, well, we'd have to be pretty damned stupid to not have realized that from the very beginning of the story.  However, if that isn't the case, then it's simply redundant; we've already learned that Jenna inherited her unruly hair from her father.  We need one of these descriptions or the other; having both is pointless.
  • There are numerous errors in the story.  "Mother lode" is misspelled as "mother load"; Jess's named is spelled "Jesse" at one point; Sister Tamara's name is misspelled throughout the entire story as "Tamra" (that one is pretty egregious); the can tam are referred to as "cam tam" at one point, and as "can-tam" at another.
  • Bertrand asks the lovely young Sister her name, and she replies that is is Alejandra, which means defender of men.  She then says that each leader of her order takes the name.  If this is the case, it raises two questions in my mind.  First of all, since Sister Mary is so adamant that Sister Alejandra does not deserve to be Big Sister, then shouldn't she think of Alejandra by her given name, and perhaps even refer to her as such when talking about her with the other Sisters?  Secondly, why wouldn't we have been introduced to Sister Mary as Sister Alejandra in The Little Sisters of Eluria?  If she's leader by then -- regardless of having been possessed by an evil demon that turns her into a vampire -- then it seems like she would have insisted that the others refer to her as Sister Alejandra.  Yeah, I know, she no longer defends men, but I doubt she would look at it that way, or care even if she did; in both of her guises, she is mad for power, and those who are mad for power tend to also be mad for its trappings.  If I may sum up my feelings on this matter: the claim that all Big Sisters take the name Alejandra bears up to virtually zero scrutiny.
  • Jess, the wounded young miner, has a crush on Alejandra, and is made quite jealous by the attentions she shows Allgood.  Here is a quotation from Part II: "As Jess fell into a restless sleep, he dreamed of murdering his rival."  This sentence ends one section of Part II, and seeing as how it is presented in that way, I don't know that any reader would fail to assume that Jess's murderous jealousy is going to prove to be a major element in the rest of the story.  However, it is scarcely even mentioned again, much less developed into a major plot point.  Stephen King himself isn't necessarily innocent of creating false story expectations, so I probably shouldn't be too hard on Furth, either; but in a short story, it's especially sloppy.
  • Another quotation from Part II: "As Tamra" [sic] "gasped, Mary's sagging flesh transformed into a swarm of doctor bugs in the shape of a woman.  Only her face and neck remained the same, though her mouth had fangs, and her hair was of red smoke."  Alright, now this just makes no sense to me.  You may recall from my previous Eluria post that King himself verified for Furth that the Sisters had begun their lives as human beings.  So ... does this mean that I am meant to now believe that Tak -- or whatever the malevolent force beneath this version of the Desatoya Mountains is called -- is responsible for transforming the Sisters from humans into walking collectives of can tam?  This does not work for me.  My reasoning is that we are also told that the doctor bugs are servants of the White, and of the Tower, and may in fact have come from the Tower.  So it seems unlikely that an agent of the outer darkness like Tak would be able to create new can tam, and evil ones at that.  To my way of thinking, it simply makes no sense that that would be the case.  The fact that the Sisters were once humans, but are now mass collectives of bugs, and evil ones at that ... I don't find these notions to be reconcilable.  If the specifics are left totally to my imagination, as in King's novella, then I can kinda roll with it; here, Furth attempts an explanation, but it's short on specifics and long on inconsistency, and does not work at all for me.
  • In Part III, we find out that Alejandra, too, has been corrupted, though we don't find out how; presumably, she was taken to the temple, but that's only an assumption.  However, it does seem that she is able to resist the influence of the evil, just as Jenna is able to do in the novella.  The factor that seems to make this possible must be that both possess the dark bells, but this is not spelled out, and probably should have been.  After all, the story is titled for them, and despite that, we find out virtually nothing about them.  In my mind, a more satisfactory version of this would have involved the possessor of the Dark Bells not being human, but being exactly what we know Jenna to have been: the bugs in human form, working together as an individual; and the other Sisters simply being human healers, and therefore unable to wield the Dark Bells.  That's not perfect, but something along those lines might have more sense, and it certainly would have made the fact that both Alejandra and Jenna seem able to reject the evil to some extent more plausible; as is, it seems more like a story contrivance than it does a legitimate plot point.
  • In Part III, to allow Bertrand to escape, Alejandra murders Jess, the spurts and sprays of his blood serving as a distraction to the evil Sisters.  This scene, obviously, is a very close cousin to the scene in the novella in which Ralph the slow mutant does much the same to John Norman to allow himself to escape; the repetition of the plot device is more than a little clunky, and verges on being an outright ripoff.
Ultimately, for a story that seems custom-designed to serve as an origin story for the Sisters as we know them from the novella, there is just too much here that doesn't get explained.  The function of the Dark Bells isn't explored as revealingly as the title might suggest it would; the nature of the Sisters themselves is not resolved, and is possibly made even murkier; we learn how Jenna came to be conceived, but we do not learn how her mother died, nor do we learn anything about how Jenna came to function in the capacity we know from the novella.  Frankly, there is just a lot here that doesn't work, and as a whole, complete story, I think it is a bit of a dud.

That's not to say that it is free of good points, though.  I like certain things, such as:
  • The suggestion that Tak -- and yes, I do personally believe that it is Tak, or at least a Twinner version of Tak -- lures the miners to the uncovering of the temple by planting the thought of gold in Vaughn's mind is nice.  It also reminds me a bit of Andy pushing people in Firestarter.
  • I was initially annoyed that the gunslinger had to be an ancestor of a character we were familiar with -- why couldn't it have just been a new gunslinger?  However, it's actually quite consistent with the notion of ka that an Allgood would have been involved in this.  Consider: Bertrand Allgood survives this ordeal to father someone whose line will eventually produce a member of Roland Deschain's ka-tet.  However, he directly fathers someone -- Jenna -- who will also prove to be of direct, and crucial, aid to Roland ages later.  Clearly, ka has chosen Bertrand Allgood to be of considerable aid to Roland, and therefore to the Tower itself.  That's actually kinda great.
  • Furth's depiction of the desecrated Guardian temple is effective.  I especially like the inclusion of the scorpions; this is another link to Desperation, which also featured scorpions.  Nasty little things.
  • There is a description of Sister Mary seeming to glide across the ground; this is a good call-back to King's description of her in the novella.
I wish the story followed through a bit better on its promise.  I love the idea of making a more direct link between Desperation and The Little Sisters of Eluria, and I think that there is great potential in this type of storytelling in terms of linking the wider King-verse together.  But ultimately, I feel like this particular story is a bust.

Well, that brings us to the end of the road in terms of our discussion of Marvel Comics' "The Little Sisters of Eluria."  Overall, I think it was a good arc for the series, and I definitely enjoyed digging into the comics a bit, even though I feel like I was occasionally more judgemental than I set out to be.


  1. Wait, so this is about a different comic or other kind of work then? So I can't add anything to what you wrote, I know nothing of it and seems to be not based on the books. I'm not sure if I would like to read it, either. Sounds like a cheap alternated version (or twinner) of the original story. With half of the stuff being just copied, and the other half not fitting into my personal imagination of The Little Sisters of Eluria and Tak. Maybe that impression is wrong, but I don't feel motivated to read that comic after seeing that article. (Putting aside that reading any of the DT comics is still a thing in the distant future to start with. Still so many books to read first.)


    1. The story appeared serially in the back of the comics as they were published. It's a prose story, though, not a sequential-art comic.

      It's not particularly good, and not written by King, so I'd say skip it unless you feel the urge not to.