I stood in Waterstones the other day, doing my bit for bricks and mortar bookshops and trying to work out which of the huge range of books to commit my shrinking money and cramped bookshelf space to. As a recent frequenter of fantasy online forums (books dammit! I mean books!) this first instalment in Stephen King's fantasy opus had crept in from my peripheral vision to a central place in my awareness. It seemed a safe bet, not just a good read, but something of a literary education by all accounts. I had read its iconic opening line in a dozen forum threads and heard of the epic scale of the Tower series, so I was ready to plunge in.
Unusually for me, and perhaps for others, I read the forward and the introduction first and with careful attention to detail. No mere paragraph of acknowledgements here but more an old fashioned apology - that is it say an explanation and defence that begs no forgiveness.
I have read Steven King's "on writing" and also some of his more well known horror writing and rarely has my reading of a book gone so accompanied by a knowledge (albeit sketchy) of the author's method, motivation and intention.
The Gunslinger is an image that sets out to become an epic. Knowing the inspiration it draws from a cinema showing of Sergio Leone's "the Good the Bad and the Ugly" as a reader you can see what majesty of vision King is striving for. The desert must be bigger, the walk longer, the time slower, the mountains taller. For a relatively short book it strives to be BIG. To a large degree it succeeds. The mysterious chase at the spine of the novel, like an Arthurian quest for the holy grail, transcends all other considerations of plot. The opening line is also the book's synposis "The man in black fled across the desert and the gunslinger followed."
The homage to Leone's work is tangible from the outset, the other great influence that King claims, in The Lord of the Rings is less obvious. The spaghetti westerns give the story its visual context, the Lord of the Rings gave its its scale. A sense of enormity which unfolds in the book's denoument.
Along the way to that puzzle of a final confrontation we meet digressions and back story and hints at some strange world related to but dislocated from our own. The writing is powerful and spare, at times mystifying. The gunslinger is an enigma even to himself, he has a destiny unknown to him, or to his foe, the Man in Black, and there at the heart is my only problem with this enthralling extended piece of high quality writing. Neither the eponymous hero or his enemy can know where this story is going because the author didn't.
Steven King's method, as I understand it, is to explore situations into which he has thrown characters and to let the story unfold from there following it as much as leading it. He is the war-reporter on the front-line with the troops sending a daily copy home, rather than the historian a decade later assembling a coherent narrative of known events.
As a reader I am carried by the quality of his writing, the tantalising glimpses of the back story, the sense of majesty. However, without wanting to prejudge the rest of the series, there is a risk that he may bite off more than even he can chew. Like the TV series "Lost" a captivating style and an enigmatic puzzle can hold interest and enthusiasm. but it begs for the release of a fitting finale. It demands an end that matches in grandeur (you might say justifies) the means by which we got there.
I might have felt differently if I had not read the forward or the introduction, or "On writing." I might have believed there was already a puzzle in this plot known to the author but buried too well and too deep for my humble eyes to see it. But if I had believed that I would have fooled myself.
This is beautifully written book by a man in love with beautiful writing. But it is birthed and written from that single initial image, not built upon foundations as deep and internally consistent as Tolkien's epic.