Song of Susannah by Stephen King

Why King just keeps on trucking

Matt Thorne
Sunday 06 June 2004 00:00
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Reviewing the fifth volume of Stephen King's Dark Tower sequence, Wolves of the Calla, for this paper I suggested that this probably wasn't the best place for new readers to begin. Volume Six, Song of Susannah, however, almost works as a stand-alone novel, and is highly recommended for readers who enjoy the more metafictional side of King's oeuvre, and especially those who have been waiting for something along the lines of his greatest novel to date, Hearts in Atlantis.

Reviewing the fifth volume of Stephen King's Dark Tower sequence, Wolves of the Calla, for this paper I suggested that this probably wasn't the best place for new readers to begin. Volume Six, Song of Susannah, however, almost works as a stand-alone novel, and is highly recommended for readers who enjoy the more metafictional side of King's oeuvre, and especially those who have been waiting for something along the lines of his greatest novel to date, Hearts in Atlantis.

Anyone who's been following this series should skip the following paragraph, as in order to do the book justice I'm going to have to break the cardinal rule of reviewing and give away the end. In a literal twist on the death of the author, this novel ends with one of Stephen King's characters killing him. How? By running him over in a truck, of course. King's real-life road accident has been a regular source of inspiration for his recent work, most notably the novel (and film) Dreamcatcher and the first episode of his TV series, Kingdom Hospital, which features an artist in a similar predicament, but here King seems to be literally rewriting his own history.

The first time King is confronted by his own fictional characters, he runs away. He's aware of the danger they represent, but at first he's frightened that their appearance signals his own madness. This event takes place in 1977, after King has written his first two novels, Carrie and Salem's Lot, and has abandoned the "Dark Tower" series they've escaped from. As the characters observe that King seems to be drinking and smoking a lot, he struggles to explain why he stopped writing their story.

While any complete summary of the previous books would have to end with the old soap tag-line of "Confused? You will be...", in this volume the action is minimal, allowing the reader to enjoy the metafictional fun. Aside from this story, there are two other narrative strands, but the action in each is relatively simple: two characters head off to hide an evil ball called Black Thirteen somewhere they think will be safe (having magical skills, but lacking foresight, they choose the lockers in the twin towers in 1999) and a woman gives birth to a baby. In the Coda at the end of the novel, which appears to be a lightly fictionalised version of the real King's diaries, he criticises his own plot development, observing "in a long book, whenever a woman gets pregnant and nobody knows who the father is, that story is headed down the tubes..."

Far from heading down the tubes, Song of Susannah is by far the best of the sequence so far, and at 440 pages has none of the bagginess that has occasionally dogged the series in the past. It's also a lot less folksy, probably because much of the book is set in Maine or New York rather than the fantasy Mid-World. King has gathered up all the loose ends and set the stage for the final volume. Fortunately, rather than the four- or five-year wait that occurred between the first five books, it's only three months until the final volume, The Dark Tower, appears. I can only urge you to join the quest before it's too late.

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