Monday, June 4, 2012

The Wind Through the Keyhole: A Pseudo-review/discursive Ramble on Prequels, Midquels, and Sequels

So I just finished Stephen King’s new novel. How was it, you ask?
First off, let me remind my three Turkish readers that I’ve never read a bad King book. Some are better than others, some are a lot better than others. Some are pulpier, some are closer to “high art” (whatever that means). Some, I think, will stand the test of time better than others. But no matter what, King entertains, and that’s the heart of the matter.
Second off, let me assure readers that there are spoilers here, so beware.
 As such, the book is a fun, easy, interesting read set in the universe of his Dark Tower series. And what a depressing thing that is.
 Allow me to explain.
 The book right from the beginning had me really pondering the nature of prequels and midquels throughout the realms of entertainment media. This alone makes The Wind Through the Keyhole an interesting example, because it is set at what is, in my opinion, the tipping point of The Dark Tower as a whole. That is, it is set right before the series starts truly sucking.
 Now as always, there are varying opinions on this matter. Some don’t like The Dark Tower at all. Some think everything from the first sentence to the last is the greatest thing ever put to paper. Some think the series began to go downhill as early as book 2, some think it was great until the end. But like the Star Wars prequels, which demonstrate another example of this phenomenon, the general consensus is that The Dark Tower took a severe decline in quality somewhere during book four. Where this point lies is yet another point of contention among fans; though in my opinion, the trouble really starts after Roland finishes his tale and the group stumbles upon nothing less than a complete working facsimile of the Emerald Castle from the Wizard of Oz.
Oh boy.
See, this was really about this time that King was formulating the idea that all of his books are part of one big multiverse, which fits with the idea that the Dark Tower upholds and centers all levels of reality. That’s fine, but it turns out that the conceit really drags the last three books down—in conjunction with two other main hindrances to The Dark Towers’ final three novels: 1. King being hit by a van in 1999, and 2. His desperation to finish the series thereafter.
Before the final three books, The Dark Tower series seemed to be something that King did because he wanted to. Like he was having fun writing the books. You can sort of tell this by his publishing schedule: the man was averaging about five years between books, even among growing demands from an increasing audience to know the end of the story. It’s pretty much the equivalent of the wait A Song of Ice and Fire fans had between the fourth and fifth books—except repeated ad nauseam.
 But the reason for it is rather straightforward: King writes when he’s inspired. It’s one of the things I admire about him. He writes what he wants to write, when he wants to write, and for the most part it seems like he just wants to have a blast while telling a good story. The publication schedule of The Dark Tower, if anything, indicates King was writing the books when he felt he had the story straight, and when he was really dedicated to putting out the best book possible; but around the publication of Wizard and Glass he starts really delving into this idea of the multiverse; fine, cool, clumsily handled at the end a bit, but the stuff where the ka-tet walk through the world of The Stand was really interesting and it could have definitely gone somewhere.
 Then the accident happened.
 Now, let me be the first to say that I am in no way blaming Sai King for anything that happened in his writing after this traumatic, horrific event. I have little doubt that it was one of the worst things that ever happened to him, and I cannot imagine the physical pain and anguish that he went through upon his recovery. What I am about to say is in no way a criticism of his style, a denigration of what he was able to accomplish, or a diminution of the agony of his recovery. Frankly, I find it amazing that the first thing he did upon being able to actually, you know, do stuff again was to sit down at the computer and start banging out stuff on paper. It’s a dedication and a love of writing that I could only aspire to. This critique is only meant to focus on the series of books itself, and why they ended up they way they did.
With all that said, let me, as respectfully and understandingly as possible, go ahead and postulate that this accident almost undoubtedly negatively affected The Dark Tower’s last three entries, which all came out after King’s accident. It did so in two ways: the first, the emphasis on the number 19.
 Again, this issue begs me to reiterate that I understand. I do. King was hit by the van on June 19, 1999, it was obviously a traumatic, life-changing event—an honest to god brush with death. I don’t know the man (and probably never will) but I can imagine that something of that import would severely change your outlook on life. But the fact is that the emphasis put in the number 19 in the last three Dark Tower novels came out of nowhere, introduced in the weirdest, most clumsy way possible…it really just makes no sense.

PICTURED: The Accused

Basically the book starts and suddenly the ka-tet is noticing and pondering the fact that they are seeing “19” everywhere, when nothing like this had ever been hinted at in the previous four novels (excluding the re-release of The Gunslinger, where it’s given a passing mention to at least, I guess, try and give the sudden emphasis on “19” in books 5-7 some connection to the previous books). And again and again, I understand. It takes the most basic form of human sympathy to see why King included this new theme of “19,” especially in light of the revelation in book 7 that the characters in the novel are constructs of King and that their existence depends upon him finishing the that the introduction of 19 in book five is supposed to coincide with the sudden interest in the number 19 that the characters’ “creator” has…but that doesn’t negate or mitigate the fact that “19’s” introduction to the novels is rather poor. The reveal about King’s status within the universe of the novels doesn’t even come into play until book 7 anyway, so we have two straight books with the characters acting and focusing on something completely outside the parameters of what we’ve come to understand about them in the previous four books with no explanation whatsoever, and that hurt the books.
But even that might have been okay if King had not rushed the damn things, and that’s problem number two.
Again with the disclaimers: this following section is purely conjecture on my part. Certainly it’s presumptuous to assume that I can know the mind and thoughts of a man whom I’ve never even seen in person, much less talked to. Yet I think from the evidence at hand that it can safely be inferred that King felt the weight of his own mortality after 1999, and suddenly a book series that was averaging a new addition once every five to six years suddenly has its last three entries cranked out in 2003 and 2004 (Note: Mind you, these are six and seven hundred page books, with number 7 topping out at almost 1000 pages, and the last two, two mind you, were published in 2004. –Mr. E), along with a new kind of desperation that had hitherto not been seen within the tone of then novels. Books 1-4 seemed to be written by a man that was inspired to write an epic tale. Books 5-7 appear to be written by a man who’s worried about his own demise. Which I totally, totally, totally understand…but remember, we’re looking at the novels intratextually.
Not to Bring George R.R. Martin back into this again, but for those who would want the man to hurry up and finish off A Song of Ice and Fire as quickly as possible, I would suggest you look at the last three books of The Dark Tower and really ask yourself what you truly desire. Fact is, this desperate feel to the last three books explains a lot of things, especially regarding book seven, The Dark Tower (the actual name of the book), including the weird metafictional element-- something so out of place and derided that King’s almost been convinced to take it out of the next edition entirely(1)--the introduction of a deus ex machina character from another book who can conveniently “erase” things out of existence, the clumsy introduction of the series “true” second-in-command villain Mordred, who dispatches previous (and well-loved) big bad Randall Flagg with almost dismissive ease and then basically doesn’t do anything else but die of dysentery or food poisoning, the causal deaths of almost all the main ka-tet, including Eddie, Jake, and even Oy, the abandonment of Roland by Susannah, the anti-climactic final battle with the Crimson King, which was built up to be some super-colossal thing but eventually turned out to be a Santa Claus on a balcony throwing grenades and cackling like the witch in wizard of Oz, the weird passive-aggressive “letter” to the fans after the faux-ending of the novel (on the heels of a dedication thanking them for all the times they read him, no less), and finally the brow-furrowing fate of Roland upon entering the actual Dark Tower…all of that can really be explained away by the fact that the man, upon recovering from a traumatic, life-threatening, and in some ways permanently crippling accident sat down and wrote somewhere in the neighborhood of two thousand pages in less than three years, in a series that was average a five hundred page book every five or six years.
PICTURED: What the Crimson King was built up to be.
PICTURED: What the Crimson King turned out to be.
To bring this long diatribe back to my original point, this has always been the problem with midquels and prequels, and even flashbacks, of all works of this sort. You can’t read The Wind through the Keyhole without at some point thinking: “Yep, crack that joke Eddy. You’re gonna be dead in three books.” Or look and Roland and think, “Yeah, you don’t know this yet but for the most part this is going to be ultimately meaningless.” Or read about Oy and think of the hideous way that he eventually was killed off. It gives the book this odd feeling I can’t quite explain…like traveling back in time and watching someone go about their life the day before they’re brutally murdered.
To compound the problem, for the most part adding more information to any story is just going to convolute it until it collapses. This is one of the biggest issues in comic books, whose continuity is almost untenably intricate already without additions to the backstory of characters. This, of course, doesn’t stop authors from adding them anyway. Sometimes, it’s okay. Other times, it’s stupid, as in something like Batman: Fortunate Son. Linkara gives the review more masterfully than I can, but in the end, this is the kind of thing that really is the denigration of prequels and midquels and even flashbacks: so we suddenly learn the Bruce parents are tight-assed blowhards who won’t let Bruce listen to rock music, and this is why rock music angers him so much as Batman. Um…okay. Unfortunately, since Fortunate Son is canon, we now are stuck with the canonical fact that a) Bruce’s parents, tragically killed, were also assholes, and b) Batman has something so idiotically minute as rock and roll added to his list of things to fight against, along with, you know, the gangs and the criminal psychopaths.
The problematic nature of prequels midquels is easily matched, however, with the spectrum of fandom reaction to them. Now this reaction is true of any addition, period, included planned sequel works. But it’s fascinating the hoops fans jump through to blatantly ignore less quality portions of their passions, up to arguing with and dismissing the author himself.
The most famous example of this is inarguably Star Wars, in which a wide swath of the fandom, including yours truly, is adamant that the series consists of the original three movies only, and that those “other” films were made by some deranged fanficcer high on peyote. Funnily enough, Star Wars actually lends itself to this type of self-denial much better than many other examples. It’s easy to separate two series, one made in the late 70s/early 80s and one in the late 90s/00s featuring different styles of acting, story and special effects, not to mention tone, theme, and overall value. The disjunction between the two trilogies and the large time span between Return of the Jedi and The Phantom Menace makes it pretty easy to forget that those “other” films exist or have any bearing on the story as we see it.
Basically, the Star Wars series, since each trilogy is its own self-contained story, separated by over a decade, with dissonance in practically every stratum of style a movie can but judged on, is easily truncated, denied, or forgotten depending on how much or little the individual fan likes each set of movies. This act of self-elision is much more difficult with, say, a book series that pops out one right after the other, a la Wheel of Time and A Song of Ice and Fire, especially when each book is part of the same overarching story. The two sets of stories in the Star Wars trilogy are indelibly related, of course, but each one has its own arc, and the similarities between the two are purely distinguished by the prequels “effect” (i.e., the existence of the Empire, Vader and the Emperor’s characters) that they had on the original (Note: although, in the case of the Star Wars universe, it might be a unique case of the after trilogy informing the prequel trilogy, which involves such philosophical conundrums of history and its ripple effect that I don’t even want to get into here. --E). Even so, dismissing an entire half of the canon film universe requires a particularly skillful form of mental gymnastics, and that’s with one of the easiest cases of willful self-memory-denial in the history of fandom. When you have a series of books that just falls off the cliff it’s much more difficult, because you’re dealing with the exact same story and characters, with (relatively) little time between, within the same arc and whatnot, leading to Olympic-levels of mental gymnastics to deny the existence of direct sequels within the same story (i.e., The Matrix sequels, every “Ender’s Game” novel after Speaker for the Dead [and sometimes including Speaker for the Dead], the last chapter of Harry Potter book 7 [and sometimes all of Harry Potter book 7], hell, even the last book in the Twilight series).
 This in turn brings up a lot of questions about who really “owns” writing and how much power a writer actually has and whom writing is actually for, etcetera, but that’s another post. To this end, this entire long, rambling, badly-structured post has been a prelude to a pseudo-review of The Wind through the Keyhole, and why it works and yet still feels like putting a left boot on your right foot, and the preceding paragraphs are the entire reason for it: I’ve already brain-bleached and hypnotized myself into believing what I want about The Dark Tower’s continuity. That is, the first four books are the good ones, and the last three can be pretty well-oh, I don’t know, bleached, let’s say. There’s nothing definably wrong with The Wind Through the Keyhole as is—there’s just this niggling feeling in the back of your mind, especially if you didn’t much care for the final three installments. You know where these guys are headed and it makes the whole think seem, well, pointless.
 The framing sections (the first ones anyway) are definitely the weakest parts of the novel, and I think this is, in part, why. King’s trying to slip back into the skins and feel of characters he hasn’t written about in eight years. This causes an odd jarring sensation—probably not unique among authors who attempt this sort of midquel thing years after the fact—where the characters presented are almost like fan fiction caricatures of the actual characters in the original novels. King’s trying to remind us that these are in fact Eddie, Susannah, Jake, Roland, and Oy, and so of course we have to have Eddie cracking rather lame, out of place jokes and Susannah speaking in a rather discomforting ebonic slang when she gets riled up. These things in themselves aren’t bad, it’s simply that there’s very little depth to flesh them out. The jokes Eddie cracks are bad, and they simply seem to be there to fill some sort of character quota. It’s as if someone who isn’t King is writing in the style of him with his characters and saying to himself, all right, I have to make sure I have Eddie Dean espouse some hideous comedy because that’s a defining mark of his character riiiight?
 The book picks up the further into the narrative you go. And then after the inner-frame stories end, the book ends with barely any more focus on the original characters before they continue on their quest into three unfortunate sequels. At the same time, for me the—by far—most enjoyable section of the novel is the story of Tom Stoutheart, whose tale creates the eponymous “Wind Through the Keyhole” bedtime story that Roland’s heard since childhood. It’s a really well structured adventure story, and deals with the North Central Positronics Corporation and all the aspects of the Great Old Ones much better than 5, 6 and 7. I honestly always liked the idea that Gilead and those great medieval aspects of Mid-World came after the fall of a much more technologically advanced civilization, and likewise I’ve always been a fan of stories where such mysterious attributes of the world are kept, you know, mysterious. The Wind through the Keyhole pulls this off as well as in any portion of The Dark Tower series, and the character of Tom is well constructed and fleshed out—you cheer for him when he suceeds, and you sense his wonder when he comes in contact with technology far beyond his control or understanding.
 The framing story used to tell The Wind through the Keyhole is also good, though not really that compelling. It’s mainly a way to get Roland and the kid in the story alone so that Roland can espouse to him “The Wind through the Keyhole” like the grizzled old raconteur he is. That being said, I think if it hadn’t mostly been a means to get to “The Wind Through the Keyhole,” which is inarguably the emotional and stylistic heart of the book, I believe it had the makings for a very good standalone tale. As it is, there’s something superficial about it, something a little dry and, well, dull. Not bad, exactly—but the more I dwell on it, the more I think King simply wanted to write “The Wind Through the Keyhole,” and for some reason thought he had to tie it in to The Dark Tower’s main continuity and hide it in not one, but two layers of framing devices—
PICTURED: ...within a framing device within a framing device within a framing device.
 Which begs the question of why “The Wind Through the Keyhole” and the story of Roland and the Skin-man weren’t standalone tales? King has referred to this novel as “Dark Tower 4.5,” but I really don’t think I agree with that, mainly because the characters from the original series are entirely inconsequential to the novel. Really, the only things they’re there for is to introduce the concept of the “starkblast” (Note: A cold front with stark in the title/Winter is Coming/Game of Thrones reference? Must remember to investigate further. –E) and hole up in a building so that the other two stories can be told. That’s it. Really, there is no good reason for them to be there. Which makes me wonder why King didn’t go all Different Seasons on this mug? Make it an anthology of works pertaining to Mid-World and The Dark Tower mythos. Have Roland and the skin man be one (more fleshed out) story, have “The Wind Through the Keyhole” be another, then add in a couple more. They could be about anything, anything at all in The Dark Tower’s rich and complex history. Anything. Roland, his father, the Crimson King, Arthur Eld, Gan, the tower itself, the Great Old Ones, All-World, End-World, Gilead, Alain, Cuthbert, Cort, the founding of the gunslingers, whatever—there is so much in this world of The Dark Tower that can be extrapolated, it just seems a little narrow to me for King to be using the same characters over and over again; especially framing it in a story that’s already done, where we know the fates of everyone already (and don’t want to think about them very much, either). It’s a strange thing to say, but of all the things that King would limit himself on, The Dark Tower, which is by far his most vested, expansive work, is probably the strangest.
 So after all that bellyaching, would I recommend The Wind Through the Keyhole? Of course. Repeat after me, my friends: I have never read a bad King book. The Wind Through the Keyhole is nowhere near his best, but like every single part of its canon it’s a fun read; the eponymous story is definitely the best part of it, and fortunately it takes up a majority of the book’s length. Is it going to win anybody over to King’s work, or does it make up for the weaknesses in the final three books? No…but taken on its own, it’s a worthwhile purchase for any King fan.

Until next time,
Mr. E


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