Saturday, April 13, 2013

A Review of "The Dark Tower Companion" [by Bev Vincent]

Released recently: Bev Vincent's book The Dark Tower Companion, which is described on the front cover as "a guide to Stephen King's epic fantasy."  This is not Vincent's first foray into writing about The Dark Tower; his exploration The Road to the Dark Tower came out in 2004, and is generally considered to be the most notable nonfiction work about King's magnum opus thus far.

The Dark Tower Companion cements Vincent's status as one of the preeminent King scholars working, and the preeminent Dark Tower scholar.  It's good stuff, and if you're a fan of the series, you really ought to add this to your collection.




That's the short review.

If you feel like reading a slightly longer review, one that'll give you a taste of the actual contents of the book, then step right this way; I can accommodate you.

Roughly the first fifth of the book is devoted to explorations of the books that form the Dark Tower series itself.  Vincent covers each in turn, providing lists of the characters and places encountered, crossovers with other King works, foreshadowings of future events in the series, and (in some cases) continuity errors.

If you've read the series before (and if you haven't, why in Gan's name would you be reading a companion book about it?), the plot summaries may or may not be of interest to you.  If they are not, then you might justifiably be annoyed that a decent-sized chunk of the book you just bought is taken up by them.  However, Vincent does a very good job of writing the summaries, and I can easily imagine myself sitting around one day and picking this book up as a quick way of refreshing my memory of the events.  It's an entertaining way to do so.

By the way, here is the order in which Vincent covers the tales:

  • The Little Sisters of Eluria
  • The Gunslinger
  • The Drawing of the Three
  • The Waste Lands
  • Wizard and Glass
  • The Wind Through the Keyhole
  • Wolves of the Calla
  • Song of Susannah
  • The Dark Tower

A bit of commentary on this perhaps needs to be made.  First of all, I approve of placing The Wind Through the Keyhole there.  When, in the future, I sit down to read the entire series, that's how I'm going to read it; it's where King says it ought to be read, and it fits in there perfectly.

I take issue with placing "The Little Sisters of Eluria" at the front, however.  In my opinion, that's a bad move; it's a bad move, Ripley.  And I'll tell you why.

First of all, I get the placement.  In terms of the chronology, "The Little Sisters of Eluria" takes place prior to The Gunslinger.  However, there is simply no way that someone reading the series should read this prior to reading The Gunslinger.  Vincent states several time that The Gunslinger is a "difficult" book, and while I'm aware that this is an opinion shared by many readers, it's an opinion I do not share, and do not understand.  If you actually think The Gunslinger is a difficult novel, then what that tells me is that you've never actually read a difficult novel; go work your way through To the Lighthouse, or Absalom, Absalom, or Finnegan's Wake.  Get back to me once you've finished -- or, more likely, given up (like I did) -- and tell me how difficult The Gunslinger supposedly is.

It's a ludicrous opinion, and it kinda disappoints me that Vincent panders to that element of Towerphiles here.  It's his book, so he's welcome to do it; just as I'm welcome to be a little bummed out to see that silliness apologized for here.

In any case, the reason you shouldn't start with "The Little Sisters of Eluria" is simple: it doesn't fit there.  The Roland we meet is The Gunslinger is the gunslinger as King first envisioned him, and it is THAT version of the character around whom the entire series revolves; his decisions in that novel are what prompt the events which occur in the final moments of Book VII of the series.  Without that version of the character coming first, the circle formed by Book VII loses its shape.  You'd be doing yourself a major disservice in allowing that to happen to you, dear reader; so don't do it.

My assessment is that the only natural place to read it is between Wizard and Glass and The Wind Through the Keyhole (or, if you're insistent on following publication order, between Wizard and Glass and Wolves of the Calla).  Failing that, hold onto it and read it after you've finished the rest of the series.  But I think it works reasonably well following upon the heels of Wizard and Glass, because the Roland we meet there is a sort of intermediary step between the young Roland as seen in the flashback scenes of Wizard and Glass) and the older Roland of The Gunslinger.  One way to look at Wizard and Glass is as a radical redefinition of Roland as a character; we come to find that what looked like a piece of rope is in fact a length of bungee cord, one which Wizard and Glass stretches and stretches, giving us insight into just how much more there was to him than we might have suspected.  
  
Certainly, that is the effect Roland's story has upon his tet-mates, and even upon himself; both "The Little Sisters of Eluria" and The Wind Through the Keyhole find Roland at a place during which that cord is still stretched to its capacity, whereas Wolves of the Calla presents Roland after the bungee cord (as it were) has been allowed to relax back into something resembling its natural condition; it is changed, and perhaps in a way that doesn't seem quite right if you aren't aware that all the stretching has taken place.  I think the transition between Wizard and Glass and Wolves of the Calla works just fine; but I think it works even better with "The Little Sisters of Eluria" and The Wind Through the Keyhole there to smooth things out a bit.

Others will disagree, and if their argument is that that placement delays the forward momentum of the story too much, I can see how they came to that conclusion; I'd counter by saying that it is the journey that matters, not the endpoint, but I'd understand their concerns.

In no way, however, would I support the motion of starting the series with "The Little Sisters of Eluria."  You might as well try to convince me to start with the comics.  Hell no.

*****

After the sections dealing with the series itself, there's a dozen or so pages about other books by King which are related to the series.  Hardcore King fans will be familiar with most or all of these (Insomnia, Black House, Hearts In Atlantis, etc.), but Towerphiles who are not devoted King readers will probably find this section to be fascinating.  They might even decide to pick up a few of the books mentioned and give them a whirl.

After that, we come to what is probably, for me, the best section of the book: a six-page interview with King himself, never-before-published and chock full of questions that I've never seen addressed elsewhere.

There is some fascinating stuff in here, especially if -- like me -- you've been wondering exactly how you should view the comics.  My inclination is write a piece that addresses the various revelations contained in this interview, but I don't think that would be entirely fair to Bev Vincent; it's a bit too soon.  So I've earmarked that idea for later exploration, hopefully sometime before 2014...but no promises.

Rather than remark at length upon the answers, thereby giving you less reason to buy the book, it seems fair to maybe just mention a few of the more tantalizing questions Vincent asks.  Those include:

  • To what extent are you involved with the Marvel graphic novel adaptations of the Dark Tower series?
  • Do you still plan to go back and revise the other books to bring them all into line?
  • Do you have an idea of what changes Roland needs to make to redeem himself?
  • When I was working on The Road to the Dark Tower, you mentioned in passing that Roland had a brother and a sister.  Would you like to elaborate on that?

And now, shocked faces:














I KNOW!  I couldn't believe it either!

Well, to get the answers to those questions, you'll just have to get the book.  However, I promise, we'll be returning to each of those topics, among others; I'm just going to give it some room to breathe.

*****

The next 130-odd pages focus on the Dark Tower mythos outside of the the books King has written: the online game Discordia, the planned/hoped-for/possibly-doomed movie/tv-hybrid adaptation from director Ron Howard, and (most notably) the Marvel Comics series.

Regarding the planned movies, Vincent interviews both Howard and screenwriter Akiva Goldsman, both of whom have very interesting things to say about their plans.  They aren't terribly specific in some of their answers, but don't let that discourage you; if you've been following the idea of the movies, these are must-read interviews.

The better part of sixty pages is spent on recapping the plots of each individual issue of the comics, as well as summarizing some of the appendix-like bonus content which filled out those issues.  Following that: forty pages worth of interviews with key contributors to the comics, including Robin Furth, Peter David, Jae Lee, and Richard Isanove.

That's a solid hundred pages devoted to the comics, and it is here that the book probably will lose some readers.  There are plenty of folks who simply do not read comic books, under any circumstances, and I suspect that a great many King readers and Towerphiles fall into that category.  Some of them may not even be aware that the Marvel comics exist.  There will be some readers who are intrigued by all of this, and perhaps decide to seek the first volume out; there will be others who simply skip this entire section of Vincent's book.

As for myself, I am a semi-devoted comics fan; I buy probably a dozen series on a monthly basis, which is not enough for me to be an expert, but enough to qualify me as being way more than a layman.  I've purchased each and every issue of the Marvel Dark Tower series, and while I've only enjoyed them maybe about half of the time, they've formed an ongoing part of my life for the last six years or so.  As such, I was thrilled to see Vincent interview some of the key contributors.  I was especially fascinated to learn more about the process the artists went through; turns out, my assumptions about some of them were dead wrong.

So, yeah; those hundred pages were like catnip to me.  Others will be less enchanted.  But then again, some people apparently think The Gunslinger is a difficult novel, so mileage may vary.

*****

Roughly the last half of the book is devoted to timelines, geography, and other glossary-type material.  I did not spend any time with those sections; however, I suspect that in the future, I will have many occasions to use them as reference guides, and so they are welcome.

*****

And that's my review.  Odds are, it's given you a decent idea of whether it's to your liking or not.  Personally, I think it's worth having if only for the interview with King; but there's plenty more gravy on top of that piece of country-fried steak, and I would think that all but the most casual of Dark Tower fans would find something to enjoy here.

Go buy a copy, won't you?

16 comments:

  1. Good review. I've been working on a review of this same book. Great stuff! I ahd trouble reading it straight through -- the contents alone was so good I kept skipping ahead, then doubeling back. I loved it.

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    1. The good thing about a book like this one is that you needn't read it straight through if you don't feel like it; it's custom-made for just jumping around in as you see fit!

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  2. I like the shocked faces.

    The main reason I chose to lead off with LSoE is because of the concept behind its initial publication. The anthology in which it appeared, Legends, was a collection of fantasy stories in which authors wrote standalone tales in their trademark universes. There was a Wheel of Time story and a Game of Thrones story, among others. The idea was that people could sample these tales and then perhaps become inspired to tackle the longer series.

    Since this Companion is written with people who are unfamiliar with the series in mind, I elected to give this option as a way into it. Even many of King's most ardent fans have been turned away by The Gunslinger.

    I've been waiting for someone -- anyone -- to comment on my map of Mid-World. I'm quite proud of it! It's the first one to ever attempt to assemble all the bits and pieces and, given the inconsistencies in time and space and distance in Mid-World, it worked quite well.

    Thanks for your extensive thoughts on the book.

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    1. Hmm...yeah, I can see that. For someone who merely wanted to dip their toe into the Dark Tower waters, "Eluria" might indeed work pretty well.

      You know, I've never read any of the other stories in "Legends." I'm really bad about that, actually; buying an anthology because it's got one or maybe two authors in it I'm interested in, reading their stories, and then never reading the rest. It's a terrible habit that I need to break myself of one of these days.

      I totally forgot to mention the map, but yes, indeed, it is terrific. My brain hurts a bit thinking about how complicated that must have been.

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    2. I really liked the George R.R. Martin story in Legends -- but I still haven't started the Game of Thrones. Neither the books nor the TV series.

      I had to redraw the map several times, but my Eureka moment came when I added the train line from Wind Through the Keyhole that ran west from Gilead and once ran all the way to the Mohaine desert. Lo and behold -- it worked.

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    3. Have you gotten any feedback from King about the map? I'd imagine that he would be just tickled pink by it.

      I'd heard of Martin, and of the "Song of Ice and Fire" series, at the time the television show began, but I'd never read them. I'd never read anything by Martin; he was, in fact, mostly familiar to me only as one of the non-King names on the front cover of "The Skin Trade." (Yes, I am guilty of having failed to read all the stories in that one not written by King. I am shamed.)

      I watched the first season, though, and was blown away. I was strongly tempted to pick up all of the books and read them, but instead, I decided to just pick up the first book and read it to see what the differences were between tv version and original version.

      So my plan is to stick to that; since I came to the show as a show, and not as an adaptation of something I already was familiar with, I decided to give it preferential treatment (of a sort), and to only read the books once the show was finished adapting them. So, after the second season, I read the second book; the third book is going to be split across the third and fourth seasons, so I'll not be reading that one for a couple of years.

      Great stuff so far, though!

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  3. Great review Bryant! Add my countenance to the list of shocked faces.

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  4. Great article, Bryant. And how awesome is that to have Bev piping in here to add HIS review of YOUR review of HIS book. That is too cool. I need to go get this posthaste (… along with 'NOS4A2' and 'Double Feature', of course, I'm still champing at the bit to read those new books by the King boys). I am eager to read King's answers to some of Bev's questions. I still think there could be MORE Dark Tower books that tell of what happens INSIDE the tower AFTER Roland returns with horn in hand – one that gives us the happy ending that Roland deserves, and not the cruel joke he finds at the top in Book 7. (Since death doesn't mean very much in MId-World – especially inside the Tower – why couldn't Roland snatch Susan Delgado out of the fire before she is consumed? Just a thought.) The closest thing I have to this Dark Tower Companion is Volume 1 of Robin Furth's Dark Tower: a Concordance, which this seems to trump. The coolest book I own by Bev Vincent is the oversized 'Stephen King: the Illustrated Companion', which is the cream of the crop of all my books ABOUT Uncle Stevie. If you've never seen it, you should seek it out – the book is fascinating and gives new meaning to the word ephemera.

    http://www.bevvincent.com/books/sk-companion/

    Kudos too, for including a photo of screenwriter Ernest Lehmen in your Shocked Faces. (While he did a terrific job of adapting 'West Side Story' and 'The Sound of Music' for director Robert Wise, the man's true genius lies in his script for 'North by Northwest', the original screenplay he did based on ideas presented to him by Alfred Hitchcock.) You made me feel like a pretty hep cat for recognizing him among those other visages choqués. (And yes, I got the irony of including a blank-faced Kristen Stewart in there – although, despite what others may say about her, I've always found her to be quite lovely.)

    Finally … regarding that long gestating Dark Tower movie adaptation, here is MY idea: Ron Howard and Akiva Goldsman need to release the rights to this, and sell them to Clint Eastwood. That's right, Clint Eastwood. The first film in this proposed series, 'The Dark Tower: The Gunslinger' should be a Malpaso Production, produced and directed by Clint Eastwood, and starring Hugh Jackman (doing his best Clint impression) as Roland. The ensuing films could be passed on to someone else, but this first one at least should be helmed by the man who inspired the character in the first place. Seems like a no brainer to me. Quick, someone get these books into Mr. Eastwood's hands – this could be an even better final thesis on all the westerns he did than 'Unforgiven' was.

    Long days and pleasant nights.

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    1. I knew I'd seen the face before, but I did not know that that was Ernest Lehman. Mystery solved! Thankee-sai! (And by the way, I totally agree with you about Kristen Stewart. But when that image popped up in my Google search for shocked faces, I couldn't resist the temptation to put it in here.)

      I, too, love "Stephen King: The Illustrated Companion." That really IS a marvelous book; anyone reading these comments who has never heard of it is counseled to go try to locate a used copy, stat. GREAT stuff.

      That's a hell of an interesting idea regarding having Clint Eastwood direct the movie. Sadly, I suspect he would turn it down; he's never much gone in for big-budget franchise stuff like that would be (or would be perceived to be, at least).

      But on some other level of the Tower, it's already happened...and it was probably glorious.

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    2. While Clint might shy away from what you refer to as "big-budget franchise stuff" … hell, I would much rather see Eastwood's low-budget version of 'The Gunslinger' than Hollywood's big-budget take on it. Any Dark Tower aficionado who says otherwise has forgotten the face of their father. This is Clint we're talking about––the Man with No Name (actually, in Leone's Dollars trilogy, he is referred to as Joe, Manco, and Blondie), the man who starred in and directed Outlaw Josey Wales, High Plains Drifter, and Pale Rider (the last two of which were, like DT, westerns with supernatural overtones). The man who embodies Roland Deschain more than anyone else. I say Clint WOULD direct this, and SHOULD direct this. He would come in under schedule and under budget, and given his pedigree the film would surely make a substantial profit, especially since he hasn't made a western since 'Unforgiven' over 20 years ago

      I say someone out there reading this with ties to this legend should put at least the fist three Dark Tower books in Eastwood's hands, and see how they resonate with him, since they are essentially homages to an iconic character that he helped to create. He might love them … if he hasn't read them already. Hell, look what happened back in the mid-70s when someone put a novel in his hands entitled 'The Rebel Outlaw: Josey Wales.' He loved it so much, he bought the rights for his production company, oversaw the development of the script, and saw it through to completion.

      The biggest problem I see with film versions of The Dark Tower novels is … Jake's age. The kid is supposedly around 11 years old in the first book, and perhaps 12-13 by the time the series finishes up. Hell, it took almost a decade to film the Harry Potter series, and look how fast those kids grew up. I don't know how to fix this … unless this could somehow be an animated series. But there goes my Eastwood idea … Or maybe not. Ever see 'Rango'?

      Now I'm rambling.

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    3. As I see it, there are three ways to solve the Jake problem:

      (1) Least preferable: make the character older.

      (2) Moderately preferable: film it as an animated project. (I love animation, but I don't think it does particularly well with action/adventure. Loads of anime fans would disagree with me.)

      (3) Most preferable: film the thing as a trilogy, and film it all at once, "Lord of the Rings" style. That would require a company to truly commit to the series, though, and it's going to be tough to make that happen. But I think it eventually WILL happen.

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    4. While I like the idea of a trilogy shot back to back to back … a producer could commit to making SEVEN Dark Tower movies (one for each book) and it would still play like a Reader's Digest Condensed version of the series. If it was whittled down to three movies … pppfffhhh.

      Okay, new idea: The Dark Tower should be made for cable. (HBO had great success with 'Deadwood', FX with Justified', and the History Channel with 'Hatfields & McCoys', so why not?) Now that Frank Darabont is off 'The Walking Dead', he should step up and focus all his efforts on adapting 'The Dark Tower' … and STILL let Clint Eastwood direct the first episode, or season, or whatever. Then again, Clint probably wouldn't do that. Dammit. Maybe this thing is unfilmable after all. But I would LOVE to see this on the big screen as a Malpaso Production directed by Eastwood. I can't believe no one else has had this idea – especially Dark Tower aficionados.

      Ah well … it will happen if Ka wills it.

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    5. If I had my wish, I would wish for it to be a cable series...

      ...but since that makes the Jake issue infinitely worse, rather than better, I just don't see how it can be done. That said, "Game of Thrones" is seemingly experiencing some of the same issues with the characters of Arya and Brandon. I've not read the books, so I have no way of knowing -- and do not want to know -- how much those characters end up aging; but the potential seems to be that the characters could be stuck at the same age for something like eleven or twelve seasons' worth of material. And what the producers seem to be doing about it is just shrugging and grinning at us all and just hoping that we, as an audience, don't much care that Brandon appears to have aged, oh, let's say...three years.

      Which, of course, is precisely the right thing to do. Because I kinda DON'T care. I kinda do, too; but mostly, I don't.

      Would it be the same case if I were watching a 20-year-old trying to play Jake in the final season of a "Dark Tower" series? Hard to say for sure.

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    6. Bart Simpson could play Jake. That kid hasn't aged a day in 25 years.

      (Though he would probably have to write in the sand with a stick 100 times: I will not forget the face of my father, I will not forget the face of my father, I will not forget the face of my father …)

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    7. I voiced my support for a cable series when I talked to Akiva Goldsman, and he isn't opposed to going that route, but he has higher aspirations for the project -- things that they couldn't swing on a cable budget. I wouldn't care for an animated version, but Jake is a problem. Maybe they could clone him and grow copies that start at different dates so there's always a new one coming along! (Or a more mundane solution would be to cast someone who has younger brothers who could step into his shoes for later shoots, I suppose.)

      They're having a hard enough time securing financing for the first movie that I can't see them attempting all X movies at once. Eastwood's a tad too long in the tooth to take on a project of this magnitude, too, in my opinion. He's 82 now. This project, assuming it gets underway, is going to take a lot of years.

      The Goldsman/Howard plan doesn't involve tackling the story chronologically. After hearing Akiva talk about it for a while, it makes sense. The Gunslinger, except for a couple of bursts of activity, is a pretty sedate book. Not the way you'd want to launch a franchise or series of films. It has the same issues that make it a doorkeeper for readers of the series.

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