Most careers only stop; they rarely end. Stephen King has announced that The Dark Tower completes his career as bestselling novelist, and it does feel like a final statement as well as a completion for a ramshackle sequence that has taken him a quarter-century to write. It seems likely that he will continue to write shorter fiction - his recent work for intensively edited markets such as The New Yorker has been some of his most effective - and that he will lend his name to high-earning media projects.
Indeed, The Dark Tower's loopy strength comes from the sense, far more explicit than is normal, that the book's own composition is part of its matter and its plot. As the gunslinger who both is and is not Browning's Childe Roland accumulates companions and grows to understand his quest, it becomes apparent to him that, in another world, a writer named Stephen King is dilatorily writing his story. The story of the quest, as much as the quest itself, is one of the underpinnings of the cosmos - some of which, literally its girders of energy, are under threat.
Considered objectively, this is a bizarre piece of solipisism. But it has lent King's work a certain urgency. About half the text of the very long work that The Dark Tower concludes is a product of the last five years.
King nearly died five years ago, when a drunk driver ran him down on a country lane in Maine. That incident and its consequences form a significant plot strand in this volume. The crisp description of set-piece incidents, the building of suspense from the mundane, has always been part of King's real strength as a writer. The pages in which his heroic questers wander the back roads of Maine trying to reach the author in time are some of the finest, of their sort, that he has ever written - no matter how preposterous it is when an author describes how he was saved from a real threat to his life by an imaginary character who also deals with talking animals, were-spiders and brain-stealing robot cowboys.
In this volume, King stitches into place loose ends from the earlier parts of the book, and from a variety of other works. Having complained elsewhere about how bits of his "Gunslinger" mythology weakened King's intermittently superb Hearts in Atlantis, I have in fairness to report that the mysterious lodger from that book - Ted Brautigan - completes his story here effectively.
Generally, the guest appearances by characters from King's other books add thickness and resonance, even if you have not read the specific earlier work. The vampire-spoiled priest Callahan perhaps matters more to readers of Salem's Lot, but that is not to say that this doomed character will not matter to others.
King has never been best when he writes long, and the seven volumes of The Dark Tower are individually, as well as collectively, among his longer works. What he has to offer in compensation is a moral urgency about the way people treat each other and their world. Indeed, one reason for his long-windedness is a determination to get things morally and emotionally right. For all King's self-deprecation, he has never given us the Big Mac of popular fiction. He has always been far too concerned to provide, in his populist way, nourishment and healing for the flawed heart of modern America.
Roz Kaveney edited 'Reading the Vampire Slayer' (IB Tauris)
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