For readers unfamiliar with Stephen King's Dark Tower fantasy novels, The Wind Through the Keyhole is the eighth instalment of Roland Deschain's gunslinging adventures.
A fusion of post-apocalyptic fantasy and heroic romance (more Le Morte D'Arthur than Barbara Cartland), the series was inspired by Robert Browning's "Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came" and shaped by the usual morass of pop culture references. The Wind Through the Keyhole makes direct allusion to C S Lewis and The Wizard of Oz, and owes deeper debts to Tolkien and Sergio Leone's spaghetti westerns.
Set between books four and five of the series, The Wind Through the Keyhole vouchsafes revelations concerning Roland's mother, but is otherwise vague enough to be accessible to the uninitiated. Indeed, it isn't a novel at all, but a triptych of novellas nesting inside one another. The opening section, in which we encounter Roland and his usual "ka-tet", or posse, is interrupted by two loosely related digressions, only to return at the end. An excuse for Roland to tell his tall tales, this framing device has the slightest of plots. Our intrepid quintet meets a Charon-esque ferryman, hides from an imminent "starkblast" (the shipping forecast would assign it gale force one billion), and passes the time by hearing Roland spin a yarn.
There is something seductive, if deceptive, in this conception of story-telling as shelter from literal and figurative storms: Roland's narratives scare as much as they reassure. As King notes, in one of his now familiar acts of self-conscious literary commentary: "Stories take a person away. If they're good ones, that is."
The first half of Roland's double bill is autobiographical: a young Roland, then a gunslinging novice, hunts a "Skin Man", a shape-shifter who transforms into various man-guzzling beasts. The only eye-witness to the monster's human identity is a traumatised child called Bill. Roland comforts him in the only ways he knows how: with compassion, chocolate and a story, the titular "The Wind Through the Keyhole".
In this phantasmagorical folk tale, young Tim Ross travels through a forest to avenge the murder of his father (by his new step-dad, Bern Kells) and restore his mother's sight (also destroyed by nasty old Bern). He encounters the Covenant Man (part wizard, part taxman), a dragon, some sharks with legs and a magic tiger.
While The Wind Through the Keyhole does stand alone, I suspect it won't appeal to every section of King's vast audience. I struggled slightly with Mid-World's finer points, and more specifically its prose. A melange of King's pithy folk wisdom and cod Shakespeare, it lurks somewhere between Deadwood and Monty Python and the Holy Grail. There is some fruity cussing, admittedly, but King's anachronistic stew is also a little heavy on the thee-ing and thou-ing for my taste: "But done is done, Roland, as thee also knows. And thee doesn't nurse him out of love. Thee knows that, too."
Baffling as the stories occasionally are, King's ability to entertain and unsettle cannot be denied. The skill with which he delivers a shock (Bern Kell's return) or scenes of gothic terror (Skin-Man eats lunch) is simply unmatched by other contemporary novelists. And somehow, the telling does you good. As King himself notes: "Horror's a worm that needs to be coughed out before it breeds." I couldn't agree more, but best thee have a bucket handy.
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