Ruminations on TV Shows, Comics, And Music
Last month, I suggested a reading order for the extended universe of Stephen King's The Dark Tower, a series I loved, but hadn't read any of since Volume 7: The Dark Tower came out in 2004. I realized that I missed the characters from the series, and wondered if the reading order I suggested would really hold someone's interest all the way through. I scoured some local bookstores, and then the internet for the hardcovers of the books, and prepared for my quest to read a Super Long series of books.
I've spent most of the last decade reading poetry collections and graphic novels, rarely investing my time in long form fiction, even though it's what originally got me into reading. I tried doing this with the Terry Pratchett novels a couple of years ago, but ended up distracted, so wish me luck. M-O-O-N that spells luck.
Artie Moffa tells the story of how, when he was a middle schooler, he got guilted into reading The Stand by a shopkeeper. And since he never read Needful Things, we don't know for certain if it was Leland Gaunt: Just read this book while you are at summer camp, young Mr. Moffa, and steal a radio for me, and you shall have the finest shoes for the rest of your days. Just don't take them dancing until you've broken them in.
I was already versed in Stephen King by the time I got to The Stand, I read it back to back with Les Miserables, which, while definitely not written by Stephen King, is almost precisely the same length. The length of the last hour of school before a dentist visit. The length of years it would take to watch every episode of the Star Trek franchise, The Simpsons, the Law & Order franchise, the Doctor Who Franchise, and Guiding Light while taking only occasional breaks to eat, use the restroom, and convince yourself not to bash your head into the television until it stops working forever. Except longer.
The only reason The Complete And The Uncut Version Of The Stand is readable is because of the first section. It does what every sci-fi, apocalyptic, horror, autofictional, romance, fantasy, historical novel should aspire to do: it draws you in with its opening chapter, and then makes every chapter that follows feel like it's also a first chapter. If I were going to teach a class on modern fiction, I would probably spend two weeks just on the first book of The Stand, which is The Circle Opens. From a storytelling perspective, it's perfect (from a modern sociological standpoint, it needs a lot of work). It's so good that the perfectly fine second and third acts of the book seem to be enormous letdowns in comparison.
The opening four hundred pages of the hardcover edition tell the story of The End Of The World As We Know It (where not many people feel fine). But the plot and the characters of the first book are mostly inconsequential to the Dark Tower narrative, they're just part of a Very Good Story that ever so slightly involves Randall Flagg, The Walking Dude, a man who appears in the dreams of the survivors of plague. A man who is pretty clearly evil.
In comic books, there is a trope when a series is launched or relaunched (which seems to happen every other year or so with Marvel and DC comics) wherein you meet a cast of characters who are clearly meant to be assembled into a team. Some may not make the grade, and end up as future villains, some will be protagonists, some will come and go from the team, but it's important you meet them early on. That's what The Circle Opens is. Four hundred pages to meet the players and care about them.
It shouldn't work. But it does because of the pacing, the constantly shifting points of view, and the believable characters.
When I made the original post How To Read The Dark Tower If You're A Fucken Masochist, my roommate, a devout Mainer and fan of Stephen King, pointed out that this technically takes place a bit later in the chronology. Several websites would have you read this between Wastelands and Wizard and Glass. DON'T BELIEVE THEM. While there are some great characters in this book, Flagg is the only one who ends up being important to The Dark Tower, so it doesn't make sense, once you are heavily involved in the characters journey to The Dark Tower, to take you out of the main story for 1400 pages, just to see what the villain did to Mid-World (which is the Stephen King version of our world) in the early 1990s. But you should read this in order to understand what Flagg is capable of. So do it now. Bask in these first four hundred or so pages, depending on which printing you're reading, of addicting storytelling.
--Stephen King originally wrote this in the 1970s, and then restructured and retooled it in the 1980s. I would like to think that in the 21st century, the very progressive and socially responsible Stephen King would not have made such gratuitous use of racial slurs. You can argue the importance of having characters of color having to overcome this word, if that's a thing you want to invest time in, but during this first book, the racial slur is aimed at a Very White protagonist to describe his singing style. It is also used as a disparaging type of behavior, though, again, there is precisely One character in the book who's presented as Not White, and she is barely in this first section. Having family from 20th century Maine, I understand that this was the way many people actually talked, but in the context of this first book, it's totally unnecessary, and several times took me out of the otherwise enjoyable story.
--I'm not going to give Content Warnings for any of these books in this chronology. Stephen King doesn't often fuck around. There's going to be violence, murder, sex of the consensual and nonconsensual variety. There is going to be every type of inappropriate language you can imagine. The actions and language are rarely (but occasionally) gratuitous. There is Almost Always context. Neither the non-consensual sex nor the violence is ever glorified. If these are not things you can handle, Stephen King is not going to be on your Holiday Gift Exchange list.
--We are a meager 394 pages into this journey