Tuesday, April 10, 2012

The Dark Undertaking

It seemed like a simple enough project, in the planning stages: trade off consuming a certain number of new (to me) books this year in order to devote a good chunk of my commute-enabled reading time to re-familiarizing myself with some old, beloved fantasy series. I took a mental stab at how long it would take me to re-read each book and mapped out the middle part of this year accordingly. I lined up Rothfuss’s Kingkiller Chronicle first because only two (admittedly very long) books in the proposed trilogy have been published to date, and I wanted to be conversant in the finer points once I put the second volume in my wife’s hands. That all worked out well enough; I read both books in about two or three weeks around the end of February and beginning of March, and knowing the larger shape of the story so far helped me pick out new, telling little details and fix the whole thing more firmly in my memory. My wife is now maybe ten percent of the way into book two, and I have yet to panic at my lack of recall when she mentions the bits that catch her attention.

Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire will be the third series I revisit, beginning (in theory) some time around the end of June and finishing (again, in theory) in late August when the paperback edition of book five becomes available. I may very well end up reading much if not all of A Dance With Dragons on the beach during my family vacation if the stars align. But that’s a ways off yet.

Funny thing is the saga gets pretty far away from the southwestern motifs before too long
At the moment, though, I’m re-acclimating to Mid-World, home of Roland the Gunslinger and primary setting of Stephen King’s Dark Tower series. And, perhaps unsurprisingly for such an ominous and fatalistic series, things got off to a bit of a bumpy start. Not in terms of the story itself, which is still entertainingly weird, but the specific, obsessive-geek manner in which I am trying to relate to the whole endeavor.

The first time I read The Gunslinger I was 18 and I checked the book out of the local library. I had officially been an avid King fan for at least four years by then and had plowed through a good chunk of his back catalog (which even in 1992 was pretty substantial) before finally getting around to The Gunslinger, which I think I had avoided up to that point because I really wasn’t that into westerns. (Yet another case of my younger self truly having no idea what he was missing.) I was also vaguely aware of the fact that, by the 90’s, the series was frequently referenced as “unfinished” and I wasn’t sure how invested I wanted to get if closure was a distant possibility with no guarantees attached. I think all that reluctance and hesitation was at least part of the reason why I opted to read the book for free and give it back to the library rather than pick it up at a bookstore; I wasn’t exactly the book collector I would later become, but I had a shelf of Stephen King paperbacks all the same. In any case, in order to re-read The Dark Tower I would need to get my hands on The Gunslinger again, so I ordered a used hardcover online, and figured I would continue ordering one book at a time in the series as I got close to finishing each preceding volume.

Of course, The Gunslinger is a very modest tale, barely a novella, basically a repurposing of five short stories that all feature Roland. So it took me almost no time at all to re-read it. I ordered book two, The Drawing of the Three (yeah, the second volume has a “three” in the title, which is confusing, as is the fact that the seventh book is entitled “The Dark Tower” which makes everything retroactively kind of like referring to George Lucas’s magnum opus as “The Return of the Jedi Trilogy”), in used-hardcover as well, but the third-party seller who had the format I wanted apparently ships their books via slow boat from Denver. The arrival date was estimated anywhere from April 9 to April 21.

Not only could this potentially throw off my schedule for re-reading King’s series and moving on to Martin’s, but it also raised the question of what exactly I was supposed to do to fill the gap between books one and two. At the risk of repeating myself in ironic doddering fashion, this whole mad scheme was inspired by the fact that I don’t remember details about these stories which I vaguely recall enjoying once. So the last thing I wanted to do was read a couple of random books which could potentially dislodge the Gunslinger details I had recently fixed anew.

I was able to kill a little bit of time reading The Dark Tower: A Concordance, v.1 which I acquired specifically for this project. Or, I should say, I skimmed it, since it’s really a reference guide for the first four books of the series (v.2 covers the last three books) that had its origins as indexed notes which Stephen King paid a research assistant to compile so that he wouldn’t contradict himself as he set to work finishing writing the series after the turn of the millennium. At the very least, it made me feel better to know that while I might no longer have The Dark Tower memorized chapter and verse, neither did its creator at one point. A small portion of Concordance is analysis-oriented, which really was fascinating to read, but a lot of it is glossary-style lists of characters and places which, frankly, doesn’t doa lot to enhance the re-read experience. It might be good for jogging the memory without having to go to the trouble of re-reading every word, but I want to go to that trouble. I was hoping for more insight along the lines of “you might not have noticed these parallels or repeated motifs” etc., or even an examination of just how many books King wrote which don’t have The Dark Tower stamped on them and which are set on earth, not Mid-World, but which nevertheless reference the central mythology of The Gunslinger and its sequels (for a while there in the 00’s it seemed like King couldn’t put a book out without including some shout-out to Roland and/or his adversary the Crimson King). Of course, rabid completist that I am, even though Concordance v.1 was just so-so I will no doubt track down a copy of Concordance v.2 before this is all done.

I still had more time to wait after that, so I started brainstorming other entertainments I could avail myself of. One notion that occurred to me was to dig out the short story “The Little Sisters of Eluria” which is technically part of The Dark Tower canon, but is a tale from Roland’s past that doesn’t really enhance the overall epic quest saga. Or so I thought the first time I read it, but maybe it plays a bigger narrative role than I first believed, and I might as well look into it since in that case I do own a copy. Or … I did? I must have lost or sold the paperback that story was in a while back. I was actually half-convinced that I had two copies of the story, one in a compilation of King stories and one in an anthology by various horror and fantasy authors, but after doing some research on the latter possibility I’ve fully convinced myself I never actually owned a copy of Legends: Short Novels by the Masters of Modern Fantasy. How odd.

So then I determined that what I should do instead was Netflix some Sergio Leone movies, because along with Tolkien and maybe Malory, Leone’s films are some of the primary influences on The Gunslinger. And I’m not a dumb kid anymore who thinks horse operas are dumb and boring. Plus, there are quite a few Leone spaghetti westerns on the 1001 Films list, so two birds with one stone and all that. Of course, I had a 1001 Films assignment for this week (review coming up tomorrow) to get through first, but I did some queue rearranging for afterwards … and then The Drawing of the Three showed up at my house yesterday, which was a relief but also the tiniest bit strangely disappointing. Now I need to come up with a new excuse for watching The Good the Bad and the Ugly … but fortunately coming up with excuses for consuming various bits of pop culture is something I’m pretty good at.

No comments:

Post a Comment