Not all good stories are original. There are fragments, particles of story, which get glued together like molecular models in endlessly changing configurations. We are pleased by the sense that we have never seen this set of shapes before, while recognising its parts. Tolkien talks of Story as a vast stewpot into which the writer sticks their ladle; others talk of the sea of story, into which we place our nets.
Stephen King's "Dark Tower" sequence of novels, to which his new book is an annex, was always a meditation on story and its fundamental impurities. That it combined elements from a Browning poem based on a Shakespearean fragment with spaghetti Westerns, quest fantasies, post-atomic wastelands and a recursive use of the author's own misfortunes made that pretty explicit. In the end, King made clear that the preceding volumes had been but one iteration of a story that would go on for – something like – ever.
So here's another chunk, an anecdote that fits in between two earlier volumes, and contains an extended flashback to the gunslinger Roland's youth. In the course of this, he tells a frightened boy his own favourite folk-tale about courage and growing up. Roland and his companions escape a deadly storm; Roland tracks down a murderous shape-shifter. The boy, Tim, uncovers the circumstances of his father's death, and explores his world. He learns both the need for compassion and the inevitable nature of fate. What unites both the interpolated stories is a sense that the restoration of balance is not the same thing as turning back the clock. While you hide from a storm, it will nonetheless wreck the world around you.
This is a sober little book – as chastened in its way as the long books of King's late maturity. There is joy here, joy in the process of telling, but an emphasis on the costs of survival. King is one of the great popular artists of our time, and his greatness comes, in part, from the fact that the consolation he brings us is minimally built on sentimental denial of things as they are.
King will never be the same writer he was before his period of excess, or before the hit-and-run accident that very nearly killed him. It is all about making do. Nothing will change the fact that Tim's father is dead or that, at journey's end, beyond storms, Roland will come to the Dark Tower.
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