Tuesday, May 13, 2014

A Few Thoughts About "The Dark Tower III: The Waste Lands"

A few nights ago, I finished rereading The Waste Lands for the first time in a few years (maybe since 2003 or so).  As I've been rereading King's books, I've been blogging about them; since 2011 when I began the blog, at least.

The blog was started after I'd reread the first two books in the Dark Tower series, though, which means that there are no posts corresponding to those novels.  As a result, it would feel . . . unbalanced, somehow, to write a full-on review (or, more likely, a series of reviews) on The Waste Lands.  I think that is going to have to wait until I can find time to circle back a bit and tackle both The Gunslinger and The Drawing of the Three.  And THAT is going to have to wait until I can find the original magazine versions of the stories that comprise The Gunslinger, as I would like to read them for reference purposes to find out what King changed in revising them for collection.

It seems wrong to simply skip over the book, though, so I thought a few personal reminiscences about my personal history with the novel might make for a decent solution.

That's the cover of the book that I purchased in 1991 when it was released.  I've not been able to find a firm release date for when the trade paperback hit stores, but evidence seems to indicate that it was in early- to mid-December, and that matches with my memories of reading the novel over Christmas break.  I was in my senior year of high school, and my family spent Christmas the way we almost always spent it: Christmas Eve was spent in Tuscaloosa with members of my mother's side of the family, and then on Christmas Day, we went to Creola and Saraland and spent time with my dad's side of the family.

These were always fun times for me.  We didn't get to see those grandparents and uncles and aunts and cousins more than once or twice a year, so visiting them and staying with them for a week or so was typically one of the highlights of my year.  That it coincided with Christmas made it only that much more fun.  Or maybe it was the other way around?  Six of one, half a dozen of the other.

Certain people might theoretically be surprised to find that I have a lot of nostalgia for those trips.  After all, I was famed in the family for mostly being interested only in reading.  Any time we went on a trip of this nature -- and bear in mind that we are talking only about a week or so at the most -- I would pack an entire bag full of nothing but books.  Would I read them all while there?  Of course not.  But the point was this: it was Christmas break, and without schoolwork I could focus my energies on doing what really mattered, i.e., reading all the time, and deciding which books to read was not necessarily always an easy task.  Plus, if I finished one book, I wanted to be able to launch straight away into another one, and the idea of running out of books to read was anathema.

I can't remember what else I took with me that year, but I know for a fact that I'd taken the newly-released trade paperback of The Waste Lands.  The book had come out in hardcover earlier that year, but since that was a limited edition, I never got it; I was not even aware of it.

I don't remember the circumstances behind how and when I got the book.  I suspect it must have been a Christmas present from my parents, because otherwise, school or no school, I would have started reading it practically as soon as I got it.  So my guess is that I must have asked for it for Christmas, and would, then, have gotten it that morning, wrapped tidily and stowed away beneath the Christmas tree.  I would not have begun reading it in the car on the way down.  I have never been much for reading in the car; I prefer to spend that time listening to music.  (What would it have been on the yellow Sony Walkman tape player that year?  Kiss, most likely; maybe some Guns N' Roses, or Aerosmith, or -- this is a strong possibility -- Led Zeppelin?  Movie scores by John Williams?  Almost certainly.)

The first few hours at my grandparents' house would have spent eating and visiting with various relations.  I would possibly have had the novel with me at all times.  Might be that after we ate lunch, I snuck a few pages in before the inevitable food coma took hold.  But it's just as likely that I held off.  Some books can be read in company with no fear of disturbances diminishing the experience; I've tended in my time to be a bit more fastidious about reading new Stephen King, however, so I suspect that I would have waited until later that night.

Ever since I can remember, I've been a creature of the night.  (Not a Kiss reference, that, but we can pretend.)  In large part, that was because as a small child, when the lights went out, I would stay awake, putting my imagination to use.  Or maybe trying to sneak a light into use so I could read.  On weekends, once I had a television in my room, I would stay up watching movies on HBO or TBS or something, or watching Friday Night Videos, or Saturday Night Live, or WWF wrestling, or maybe playing my Atari.  It might have been possible to find kids who were more difficult to get ready for school in the morning, but you might have had to look long and hard.  On average, I would try to fall back to sleep on the couch sixteen times before my mother was successful in fully waking me up.

Which is how I know I must have stayed up the majority of the night reading The Waste Lands.

Here is where my memory gets clearer.  It was an annual tradition for me to get up early and go with my mother, grandmother, and a few of my great-aunts to the mall for post-Christmas shopping.  This is where the vast majority of my Christmas money got spent every year.  I enjoyed that, because the bookstores and music shops in Mobile would sometimes have things that the ones in Tuscaloosa did not have.  It was always thrilling to find some book that I'd been looking for, or a cassette tape, or something.  But I didn't go purely to buy stuff; I loved spending time with these people whom I saw so rarely, and they were always in great moods, laughing and joking.  I think of myself as having a pretty good sense of humor, and a good portion of it -- you know, the portion that isn't foul-mouthed and jaded -- came from these women.  I looked forward to it every year.

This year, though, I sat the trip out.  I had two reasons for this.  One was that I was saving my Christmas money for an upcoming trip a friend and I were taking to Disney World after New Year and before school started back.  But that wasn't enough to stop me: I'd have been happy just to go with them and hang out.

What stopped me was The Waste Lands.  I can't remember how far I'd gotten the night before, but it wasn't far enough.  When my mom came and woke me up, I said I was going to stay at home and read.  And I can remember plainly sitting in that room -- which was not mine, but was mine, in a sense -- more or less all day long, reading the adventures of the ka-tet as they got Jake from one world into another, and then met Oy, and visited River Crossing and Aunt Talitha and her friends (a visit which had certain echoes of the visit I was currently on), and then tried to cross the bridge leading into Lud.  Then the mad dash after Gasher and Jake, the introductions of Blaine the Mono and Andrew Quick, the mind-blowing entrance of Randall Flagg -- or is that Richard Fannin? -- into the saga; the hellish ride out of Lud, the awesome and horrifying trip through the Waste Lands, and then that ending.  Oh, that ending!

I've read opinions from people who don't like the way the novel ends.  They feel it is too much a cliffhanger, or that it is cheating the audience in some way.  Bollocks.  I'm not even British, but bollocks to that bloody stupid idea, I say.  With maybe only a handful of exceptions, this particular novel is close to having no peers in terms of the excellence of its ending.  So what if it's a cliffhanger?  I was there in 1991 when the novel was brand-new (to the mass-market audience, at least), and there was no hint of anger or frustration, not from me.  I was hugely tantalized, and the wait between this novel and the next one in the series was interminable, yes, but it was also thrilling.  (When that novel inevitably materialized, I was a rather different person than I had been six years previously, but that didn't keep me from being about as excited to read that as I'd ever been to read anything to that date.  And evidently, a great many readers of Wizard and Glass remain frustrated that the story didn't advance farther.  Again I say "bollocks."  But that's a bollocksing for another post.)

I finished reading The Waste Lands that day.  December 26, 1991.  I can remember only because of the circumstances of it being a holiday.  My memory is not a particularly good one, but I tend on hold on to memories that take the form of emotions.  I can't remember exactly what my grandparents' house looked like (they live in a different one now), but I have a sort of general sense of it; what I remember are the emotions of being there.  Rereading The Waste Lands was a trigger for them, and it is no exaggeration to say that my feelings about that novel are inextricably linked to my feelings about the time and place where I read it: December 25 and December 26 in the year 1991, in a small town in southern Alabama that I visited about once per year.  I can't remember exactly what my bedroom looked like, but I have a sense of its shape and some of the colors, and the way it felt to be there, reading an awesome new book by my favorite author.

Occasionally, I wonder why I spend the time doing what I do on this blog.  What good is it, really?  Can it ever be anything more than what it is?  Does anyone care?  Valid questions, all, and while I certainly care about the answers to them, they are, in the end, irrelevant: I do this because doing it inevitably brings me back to memories of the sort that rereading The Waste Lands stirred up for me.  It keeps those memories close, and if the time should ever come when I need them, well, I've sort of put them down here.  Not fully; but fully enough to make it well worth having done.

I find conversations about fandom to be fun, and while I wouldn't begin to assume that most people are fans of things in the same way, or for the same reasons, that I am, I suspect that fandom frequently carries with it an aspect of memory and tradition and family (or, if not family, then friendship).  I myself am a tradition-oriented person.  Not to the point of being stifling about it; like anything else, a tradition has to be allowed to evolve and grow, and even to die. 
I find that many of my best and strongest memories tend to involve one sort of tradition colliding with another one.  And so it is that my memory of reading The Waste Lands for the first time at Christmas, in my grandparents' house, surrounded by people I loved, with some of my grandmothers' homemade peanut brittle in a tin on the kitchen counter, is a happy, vivid memory indeed.

I don't have memories of that sort for every King book, but I've got something at least vaguely similar for more than a handful of them.  Certainly more than I have for any other author's books.  I'm tempted to start listing them off, but I think this is maybe a good place to stop for now.

Before I sign off, though, I should probably mention that in revisiting The Waste Lands, I found it to be just as entertaining as I remembered it being.  It isn't my favorite novel in the series, and it may not even my my second or third favorite, but that's of no consequence; I like this novel about as much as it's possible to like a novel.  At some point down the line, when I turn my critical faculties (such as they are) on the Dark Tower series, I look forward to writing several posts about this rich third installment.  Something to look forward to!

Until then...


  1. I quite enjoyed this vicarious time-traveling to the early 90s and to a place I've never set foot (southern Alabama.) I can relate to pretty much all of it - always a pleasure to recognize one's self in someone else's life / reactions. The community of man and the love of literature and all that, but sincerely, not flippantly.

    Glad it held up on re-read, as well. I'm with you on the book itself - it's high voltage. I actually have strong associative memories of reading this (and Wizard and Glass) for the first time, myself, though in my case, much more recently. But it was the month before my wife and I began cohabitation and I was getting the place together for her arrival. I read most of both books in a large front room, empty save for my armchair and some strategically-placed fans, oscillating all day and night, and when I think of the Beams and the Guardians and first discovering them, I can time-travel to that pretty easily. Those were halycon afternoons and evenings, with my imagination wholly absorbed by the material.

    Great post - I love stuff like this.

    1. Thanks! I can practically picture that Spartan room, with basically nothing in it except an armchair, some airflow, Stephen King, and you. Seems like a good way to travel to Mid-World to me.

  2. I got to thinking about it, and figured it might be worth my time to list some of the other memories I have of the circumstances under which I read certain King books. So here goes:

    "Night Shift" -- I was in Glendale, Arizona with my parents to watch Alabama play in the Fiesta Bowl after the 1991 season. I took a bunch of books with me on that trip, most of which were Star Trek novels, and I finished one of those and began "Night Shift" during the game (!) when Alabama began getting their ass beat. Which they did, quite badly. This trip was a fertile one for King-based memories, as a trip to a local mall netted me my first-ever copy of "Cycle of the Werewolf," which I'd never been able to find in Tuscaloosa. Also, I did some babysitting for the kids of some of my parents' friends in their hotel room while their and my parents were at a function of some sort, and I read their kids sections of "The Eyes of the Dragon" as bedtime stories (!!!).

  3. "The Stand" -- I was reading this one for the second time in the fall of 1990 on a trip my high-school football team (of which I was a member, believe it or not) took to Natchez, Mississippi. All I did on the bus was read; all I did in the hotel room was read. Everyone else was talking about beer or pussy or whatever, and all things considered, I might've been wise to join in. Then again, maybe not; that's a pretty damn good book...

  4. "Christine" -- I took a driver's-ed course at one point, and I remember that I was reading "Christine" around the time that the teacher -- one of my football coaches, of course -- showed us the infamous film "Blood on the Highway." I refused to watch it, and just stared at the floor the entire time. He let me skate on that, probably only because I was a football player. But I'd have gone to the principal's office and gotten suspended before I watched that movie. My other memory of reading "Christine" -- and you might wish to refer to certain comments above regarding "The Stand" now -- is of being kind of exestentially haunted by the line, which I paraphrase, "There's no finer smell in the world than a new car . . . except maybe for pussy." Haunted, I tell you.

  5. "The Bachman Books" -- My memory insists that I read the vast majority of this one while in the school library over the course of several days, although I can't remember the circumstances as to why I was there. But now that I think of it, I seem to remember doing a LOT of reading inside the library. I wonder if I had a free period, or something like that?

  6. "It" -- I've got two for this one, and the first one is (for me) of titanic significance. I remember reading part of it while sitting outside on the cub in front of our house, waiting on my grandfather (who was driving up to visit us) to arrive. It must have been a Saturday, because I remember being out there for hours. At some point, I looked up, and across the street, I saw a little black kitten sitting there staring at me. I stared back for a bit, and then went back to reading, but would occasionally glance up to see what the kitten was doing. What the kitten was doing was progressively getting closer to me, almost as if it was one of the hedge animals in "The Shining" and only moved when I wasn't looking at it. Eventually, it -- she -- ended up crawling into my lap, and this is the story of how we got our first cat, whom my dad named Phoenix. I've been a cat man ever since.

    My second "It" memory is of rereading the novel -- probably for the third or fourth time -- during my senior year. We had to take a week-long series of exit exams, which were -- and probably still are -- crushingly easy. So I finished each day's tests early, and had literally hours in which to do nothing but sit there and read. So I read "It," and finished the entire thing during that week. And before the week was even out! After that was finished, I spent some time working on a novel I was trying to write, the plot of which involved people waking up one day to find that everyone over the age of ____ (don't remember) had disappeared off the face of the Earth. It was, although I did not know it consciously, a blatant ripoff of "The Stand." And it sucked.

  7. "Misery" -- I was reading this one in a social studies class after I finished a test, and got to the part where Paul gets his foot cut off. I was so surprised and grossed out that I inadvertently made some sort of vocalization and got shushed by the teacher, much to the class's amusement.

  8. "Needful Things" -- I got this one brand-new in hardback, and can remember reading it in school, too. For whatever reason, I associate it with a biology class, which probably means that I read a lot of it after a test. Although I sucked ass at biology, so I doubt I would have had any time after those tests. I am going to speculate that this must mean that my homeroom class was with my biology teacher, and I was devouring it before homeroom each morning. Seems likely.

  9. "Gerald's Game" -- My family used to go to Gulf Shores for a week at the beginning of each summer, and this novel had only recently come out when we took our '92 trip. I am generally opposed to reading in the car, but in this instance, I made an exception. I must have just gotten the book, which means that this was almost certainly the first King book -- a reread of one of the other being a possible exception -- that I read after graduating. In any case, I remember getting to the scene in which Jessie is trying to get out of the handcuffs and is slowly peeling the flesh off of her wrist in the course of the attempt. I thought I was going to (not literally) puke, and had to be all Vulcan about it lest I find myself having to answer any questions about the contents of the book. That might have been awkward. I believe I put the novel aside for a while after that, as I remember reading the rest of it while at the beachhouse (not ours; it was owned by the husband of one of my dad's cousins).

  10. "Dolores Claiborne" -- This was a November release, and my first semester of college was brutal, so I did not get around to reading the novel until Christmas break. I read it in the same room were I read "The Waste Lands."

    "Insomnia" -- Toted this one around with me on campus at UA, and read chunks of it between classes.

  11. "Wizard and Glass" -- I was reading this book at around the time a, uh, situation with a girl in a creative writing class was happening. Don't get excited, you perverts. When I say "situation," I mean that I had become friends with a girl. I fell in love with her (or something like love -- I've been told by numerous people that it probably wasn't really love, and hey, what do I know?) pretty hard, and she most assuredly did not return that whatever-it-was. Man, she was hot.

    And an incredibly good writer; how she failed (as she seems to have done) becoming a published author is a mystery to me.

    But I don't think of "Wizard and Glass" primarily when I think of her. I think of "Cadillac Jack" by Larry McMurtry, which I was reading outside the class while the one previous to ours was going on. We'd turned in our first stories of the semester, and had had to read them all over the weekend. She had never said a word to me, but walked up, sat down beside me, and said, "I really liked your story."

    Good lord, is she talking to me? I think she IS...! SAY SOMETHING, idiot!

    Anyways, I had massive feelings for her for quite a year or so, and when it was clear -- even to a dolt like me -- that my feelings were a dead end, I bought myself "Wizard and Glass" on audiobook as a self-consolation prize! Lord, what a nerd I am...

  12. "Hearts In Atlantis" -- Also read over Christmas at my grandparents' house, although they lived in a different house. This novel had come out in September, but I had a lot of crap going on that fall, so I didn't feel like reading it. Over three months later, I finally tackled it. I believe this is the only time I ever failed to read a King novel more or less as soon as it came out.

  13. "Black House" -- Read this one shortly after 9/11, in a friend's apartment I'd just moved into. I'd just gotten my first self-owned cat, named Duncan Idaho, which almost certainly means that I'd just reread "Dune"! He was, and is, a lap-cat, so most of "Black House" was with a new cat in my lap. "From a Buick 8" was read in much the same fashion.

  14. "Wolves of the Calla" -- Me and my friend roommate went to Walmart at midnight to see if they'd put the book out. They had not, but we found an associate and asked if he could locate the box they were in and crack it open for us. Which he, quite helpfully, did. We got our copies, and went home and cracked 'em open.

  15. How cool are these? Pretty damn cool. Thanks for continuing in this vein. I spend so much time remembering and associative-memory-ing when I read things of impact that I often wonder if it's of any interest to anyone besides myself. Then I read all of these and feel like I, too, am absorbing these memories and time traveling vicariously and it makes me realize hey! Not at all! I mean, perhaps, in my own case, but I very much enjoy this sort of thing.

    I could comment on each of these, but the Wizard and Glass one: that had to be a particularly strong association, I bet, given the themes of that one.

    Re-reading Hemingway's A Moveable Feast right now, and it's striking me while doing so that almost the entire book is stuff like this. Just, you know, Hemingway, and not us. And not what he read when (although there's a bit of that as well, and those parts are exceptionally cool) but where he was and how it smelled and felt while he wrote it.

    All of which is to say - thanks!

    1. Also, the It cat! That is fantastic.

    2. Yeah, the "Wizard and Glass" connection is super-duper strong for me. Oh, the hours I spent walking the UA campus during the witching hours, listening to that novel on cassette (!) and pining away for what would never be. Man, oh man...

    3. I should add, by the way, that I am now going to have to add "A Moveable Feast" onto my want-to-read-it list. I think the only thing by him I've ever read is a short story, the name of which (and plot of which) I can't remember. I mainly think of Hemingway as "the guy whose house they go to in Licence To Kill," which is a bit shameful.

  16. Great stuff Bryant thanks for sharing. Always good to read these memory lane posts. Any tradition that involves family and Christmas is cool to me. We always went to the movies Christmas day so my mom could have some peace and quiet.

    The Wastelands was the first collector-ish book I bought. I mainly bought it bc it was being released before the Trade Paperback and thought it was really cool to have a limited edition. It's still one of my favorites, I love the paper it's printed on, it's like really good drawing paper. I was really nervous reading it bc I didnt want to get it ruined, I forgot how much it was but it was a lot for me back then. I remember being at the car dealership with like 10 pages left thinking, "How is he gonna get them off the train in 10 pages?" Aw man I was pissed, what a cliff hanger! It was more like a empire>jedi kind of pissed not write a letter to Stephen King pissed. I was more angry that after waiting 6 years we got a stinkin love story then I was at cliff hanger. But whatever, it all turned out great and he gave us the last 3 in an 18 month span AND an extra book after it was all over. Uncle Stevie is a great guy.

    1. Thanks, Mike!

      Uncle Stevie really does seem to be a great guy, and his nephew Bryant hopes he'll pound out at least one more Tower book in the not-too-distant future. I'll read -- and be excited for -- almost literally any book he publishes, but if I got to make a wish, I'd probably wish for a novel about the fall of Gilead and the Battle of Jericho Hill.

      I work at a movie theatre, so I am well familiar with people going to the movies on Christmas Day. ;)