Writers that make me think, “Damn, I wish I could write like that” #1 – Stephen King and The Dark Tower novels

As long as I don’t get distracted (which, admittedly, happens a lot), this will hopefully be the first of quite a few blogs about writers I not only admire, but have particular styles and ways of storytelling that have made me both wish and even start to attempt to be half as good with my own story that I’m writing. Keep in mind, these blog entries won’t just be about authors – some will be about comic book writers, tv writers, film writers, hell, even video game writers. Writers with ideas and visions so great that they’ve influenced my own, sometimes subtly, sometimes heavily. I hope to write a few of these blogs over time, admittedly more for my benefit than anyone else reading them. It might be a good way of really reminding myself what made me love these writers and their stories – and great stories in general – and make writing possibly just a little bit easier. If it doesn’t, well, I’m a self indulgent sod, and I always love fanboying in general, so there’s that.

So, enough babbling: time to go into detail about Stephen King, and how one particular series of books of his changed my life. Which sounds more than a little bit exaggerated, but let me explain.

Now, the funny (and let’s be honest, more than a little understandable) thing about Stephen King is that, more than anything else, he’s more than often labelled as a ‘horror writer’. Now don’t get me wrong, he is someone who is, needless to say, very, very excellent at writing horror. No, let me re-phrase: Stephen King is an excellent writer in general whose most famous novels – including Carrie, Salem’s Lot, The Shining and It – come under the horror category. (Although in that last case, there’s definitely far, far more to that story than just horror, that’s for sure.) But it wasn’t until towards the end of high school that I realised that.

For the longest time, I wasn’t someone who had much of an interest in horror. I was a boy who was scared very easily, and I had no interest in watching or reading a story that was more than I could handle. I was more than happy settling for Doctor Who for anything approaching a horror fix (ironically, the stories I loved the most were the ones most heavily influenced by adult horror, but I’ll go into more detail on that for another blog). Writers like Stephen King were pretty much the kind of writers that I avoided.

And then along came 2004. It was my final year of high school (before sixth form, at least), and I was looking for something new to read. I then spotted a series of 7 books by Stephen King that, oddly enough, didn’t look like horror novels at all: a series called The Dark Tower, each volume’s cover showing an image of the Tower in the distance, getting closer and closer, until the final volume had the viewpoint looking up at it. Everything about the covers, from the logo to the covers to the Tower itself, screamed epic Lord of the Rings-esque fantasy with more than a hint of Western atmosphere. The idea of a ‘horror’ writer like King writing such a series intrigued me, to say the least. So, on the day that me and my parents first saw Shaun of the Dead (perhaps not a usual choice for a family film, but still one we definitely enjoy watching together), I bought the first volume, The Gunslinger.

It was an interesting read, to say the least. It had a fantastic spaghetti western feel to it, especially in its early chapters, while also having hints of something more fantastic and more epic along the way. At times, it was a little strange, surreal, and almost low-key, but it was an intriguing introduction to the series, especially the hints that Mid-World, the world of the protagonist, gunslinger Roland Deschain, and our world were in some way connected. However, I didn’t get around to reading volume 2 of the series until a few months later, when my parents got me The Drawing of the Three as a Christmas present. Out of all the presents they’ve given me, both for Christmas and for birthdays – the ones I’ve begged for, the ones I screamed for, the surprise gifts that I didn’t ask for but absolutely loved – this present, one I added to a list of suggestions for them to pick, is one of the best they’ve ever given me. Hell, it’s one of the best gifts I’ve ever received.

Because while I really enjoyed reading the first volume, it was the second that really blew my mind. Not just in a way that made me think, “Oh, so that’s what all the fuss about King is about!”, but in a way that changed me on a fundamental level and made me a Tower Junkie (a term that even King uses to describe fans of the Tower books) for life in a crucial way that the first book didn’t, and it’s really hard to explain why. Perhaps the best way to explain is by giving key examples of how the first and second (and even subsequent) volumes were so different.

With the first volume, even King admitted that he was very, very young when he started writing it, and perhaps due to over-ambition or just a little less experience, the first book comes across as rather strange and surreal at times, less because of the setting and any ‘magic’ that happens, but more because of its characters and the actions they take, including its protagonist. However, I think that owes more to its spaghetti western influence than anything else. Something else that makes The Gunslinger stand out compared to subsequent volumes is that each of the five chapters were originally published as individual short stories in The Magazine Of Fantasy & Science Fiction, and even in the revised edition I read, the episodic nature of each chapter really showed.

Keep in mind that I’m not saying I didn’t like or even really, really enjoy reading The Gunslinger. Just that it didn’t have the massive pull on me that The Drawing of the Three did, right from the opening prologue. Now, I’m not gonna spoil anything for anyone who hasn’t read it, but the first time I read that, it shocked me so much that I knew the rest of the book was gonna be something special. And oh boy, was I right.

One thing that made it so different to The Gunslinger was when it was published: 1987. Now, it’s less because of the time itself that’s important and more the fact that it had been 10 years since the first chapter of the Gunslinger had been published. So during that time, King not only wrote more great, great novels (including 2 of his all-time greatest and most epic, The Stand and It) and thus gained some great, great experience writing, to say the very fucking least, but he also had time to work out exactly where to take his magnum opus. Not that I’m saying these are definitely the key reasons why Drawing was, in my humble opinion, much more successful at hooking myself and many other junkies, but I think it more than likely that they helped, at least.

Something else that also helped, however, is that unlike the first volume, DOTT really was written as a novel, rather than individual, heavily linked short stories. The book is still divided into key chunks, but overall, there’s much more focus on the kind of story that King wants to tell, and overall it really does flow better.

What probably helps most of all is that the book is almost twice as long as The Gunslinger (which at only a little over 200 pages, it’s a slim paperback, especially by King’s standards). Ironically, the length helped me to read it that much faster than the first volume. Sometimes, authors write long books for the sake of it, at times feeling like nothing but padding. With King though, a lot of what makes The Drawing of the Three so great – and in fact, as I would discover later on, many of his greatest books – is that he has a real knack of adding an incredible amount of depth to his world. He’s able to flesh out his characters and their places and make them feel like real people, even the ones who only appear for a couple of pages at a time. He gives little details and little glimpses into the lives and minds of all his characters, both major and minor, and it’s a level of depth that really helps sell his stories that much more. Especially stories that concern worlds as fantastic as the ones in The Dark Tower.

This, I think, is probably the key difference between the first and later volumes. We see quite a number of characters in the first volume, but we don’t find out much about many of them, not really, and you can tell that it’s intentional, that for the beginning of his story (and that’s essentially what The Gunslinger is, not a complete story by itself but a 200+ page starting point), he wanted to create an air of mystery for his world, even for the boy Jake, someone who’s clearly from our world but doesn’t remember much from his previous life before Mid-World.

Does this change in the second volume? Regarding the world of Roland itself, only partially. There’s a lot of questions by the end regarding Roland’s quest for the Dark Tower that still remain unanswered, including why he’s truly looking for the Tower in the first place. Essentially, like The Gunslinger, The Drawing of the Three is only another part of the beginning.

However, one key difference between the first and second volumes is that while The Gunslinger hinted that there were connections between our world and Mid-World, in TDOTT, those worlds clash, in big and dramatic ways. So we get a lot more great characters and stories in our world (my favourite being Eddie Dean, a character I adored reading from the first page), but at the same time, even Roland is fleshed out: in volume 1, he’s something of an enigma, a character heavily influenced by Clint Eastwood’s Man with No Name (in fact, for the longest time in the first volume, he’s only ever referred to in the narrative as ‘the gunslinger’), but in volume 2, he’s much more fleshed out, partially due to being seen through the eyes of Eddie and Odetta, and partially because of what happens in the prologue when…well, the Tower Junkies know what happens, anyway.

This level of depth and the kind of world that King had created was like nothing I had ever read before, and the more I read in the series, the more of a junkie I became. It was the first time I had read a novel or a series and thought to myself, “Fuck, I wish I could write something even half as good”. Oh, I had enjoyed many, many great books before. But there was something about The Dark Tower – that level of ambition and scale, that bizarre combo of fantasy and western – that was so original and so different to anything else I had read. It proved to me that not all fantasy series were about sorcery or sword fights, wizards or warriors, or at least, not in the usual sense. There are many classic fantasy concepts within the Tower books, but done in such an unusual way as to feel completely original.

Just as awesome though was the fact that the universe of the Tower wasn’t just limited to those 7 (now 8) novels. I soon began to realise that many of King’s books, even his most popular novels, connected to the series in many ways, sometimes tiny, sometimes colossal. In Salem’s Lot, there’s a priest, Father Callahan, a relatively minor character in the book who later grows to become a far more major player in Roland’s quest for the Tower. There’s a passing reference in The Drawing of the Three to another King fantasy novel called The Eyes of the Dragon, particularly its villain. There’s a ton of others that I’m not even going to begin to list (other than the two I’ve just listed, of course,) because it really is such a big universe, and it’s great how one author is able to tell so many completely different stories in completely different genres in one particular universe.

I’m not gonna lie, I’d love to write anything with that sense of scale. To have that skill of telling completely different stories – stories on Earth, stories on other worlds, fantasy stories, horror stories, love stories, fucked up stories (especially fucked up stories) – and yet still have them take place in one universe or even multiverse, through connections big or small. Lately, I’ve been thinking that’s probably more ambitious than I should be aiming for. To be honest, there’s only one (maybe two) stories I have in my head right now, and the one element that’s been influenced by the Dark Tower the most (i.e. the genre of epic Western fantasy), I’m mildly considering just throwing out for a slightly-tighter focus. Which, considering that I originally aimed to do a very British take on something as wonderfully American as The Dark Tower, would be a little bit ironic, but so far, the much smaller focused writing in ordinary England is much, much easier to write than other world strangeness. For the moment, I think it’s definitely easier if I just concentrate on character creation and development and make each of them feel as believable and grounded as possible. Because that’s the real hook for me with King’s writing: his wonderfully written characters.

One more thing I need to say: how this series changed my life beyond the writing itself, and in a big way. Almost 6 years ago, I joined a message board, thedarktower.com (now thedarktower.org), which as you could probably guess, was a message board for fans of the Dark Tower books to discuss them. Well, it’s partially that, anyway. More often than not, I’ve discussed a ton of other shit: TV shows, films, other books, life/Doctor Who and much more shit. I’ve signed up with a few message boards in my time, but the Tower message board is the only one I use on a regular basis, and that’s entirely down to having one of the greatest online communities out there. I’ve not only made so many great friends on that board, I even had my first serious relationship because of it, and while things didn’t work out, I’m still grateful that it went as well as it did and that we’re still friends.

There are times when being a fan is difficult because other fans can ruin the experience for you. They can get overly possessive, they can be pretentious sods who think newbies don’t even count as fans, become ridiculously aggressive over alternate interpretations or particular points of a story that others love etc., and it can really ruin the experience, at times. My fellow Tower junkies however always restore my faith in both fandom and, frankly, humanity in general by being the most awesome guys to know.

I love you guys!

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6 thoughts on “Writers that make me think, “Damn, I wish I could write like that” #1 – Stephen King and The Dark Tower novels

  1. James, this is cool as shit. First, I’ll say I pretty much always avoid blogs because they’re usually full of pretentious, ego-fueled ramblings. I knew your blog would be the exception. I love hearing a fellow junkie gush over the same things that I hold close to my heart – especially hearing about all the small details that make it a part of their life. (the fact that you obtaining The Gunslinger is also wrapped up with your memory of seeing Shaun of the Dead is the coolest thing ever!) Second, that feeling of “oh my gosh, why can’t I create something this awesome?” is a bittersweet feeling. It’s burdensome because it weighs on that part of your writer brain who struggles to breathe life into what you’ve created, yet awesome because you have this piece of fiction and imagination that you can hold in your mind and cherish for being utterly beautiful. It’s inspiring and torturous at the same time. Lastly, The Dark Tower is indeed life changing. Without it, I never would have crossed paths with so many people on Dt.org. Sadly, I can’t imagine what the past 7(ish) years of my life would have been like without it. Long days and pleasant nights, James.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks so much, Amanda! You put it so well how frustrating and brilliant it is to be inspired by something as awesome as the Tower books. And I’m not surprised that you liked the little detail about Shaun of the Dead in there, something else that had an impact on my life, although in a more general way – along with adoring the film, that became one of the most talked about and quoted films during my final years of high school (including sixth form, in this case). And as for some blogs being pretentious ramblings: why do you think I even blog in the first place? I am a MASSIVE pretentious tosser, I thought you knew that by now. :p

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      1. Haha. Well, true. In fact, any time I see you geeking out/gushing over something you’re passionate about, I think “Geez, what a pretentious prick. He should get over himself.”

        Liked by 1 person

      2. I tried getting over myself once, but then I remembered how awesome I really was, and I knew that, no matter what happens in life, I will always be the best thing that ever happened to me. :p

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