Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Swiped and re-swiped (Wolves of the Calla)

Here’s what you have to keep in mind with regard to Wolves of the Calla, Book V of Stephen King’s Dark Tower series: at the time it was originally published, it had been six years since the previous installment of the epic storyline. I had read the first three volumes more or less all at once, on loan from the library, the summer between high school and college. College kept me busy enough that I barely noticed the time flying by until the fourth volume came out, and I read that book while living in a townhouse with three other dudes, still very much feeling my own youth and its inherent inexhaustibility. But the next six years saw me move out of that group living arrangement and into my first real apartment, get married, get on my current career path, get set back by a bursting tech-bubble layoff, get divorced, move back in with my mom, regroup, and sort of start to put everything to rights again while steadily encroaching on my thirtieth birthday. The opportunity to return to the quest for the Dark Tower was one I took with great anticipation, but I wasn’t exactly the same person who had cracked open volume one a dozen years previously, either.

(Not that the world was really the same, either. In addition to the tech bubble’s demise, other things that had come and gone between Wizard and Glass and Wolves of the Calla included Y2K and 9/11. The world, as is so often repeated throughout the Dark Tower cycle, had moved on. And Stephen King wasn’t the same guy, either, but hold that thought for now.)

So I was excited, not just to hold the newest progression of the story in my hands but with the knowledge that, supposedly, King really was going to finish the whole series, and quite soon. What had started as some loosely connected, independently published short stories set in a post-apocalyptic fantasy western milieu had gradually morphed into a sequence of episodic novels which in theory would build to a climax, but for a long time no one (least of all Stephen King himself) was ever really quite sure if King would ever get around to tying up the whole thing. Considering the fact that King tends to write/release a couple of new books a year in addition to various other side projects, the fact that multiple years had always passed between Dark Tower volumes was never taken as a good sign. Maybe he lacked the inspiration for a fitting grand finale, maybe he had no idea how it was all supposed to end. Maybe he, like the world, had moved on. Sometimes that seemed an especially cruel trick to play on the readers, e.g. the fact that volume three ends on a life-or-death cliffhanger, or the fact that volume four only advances the master plot ever so slightly while devoting almost its entire length to flashbacks that flesh out Roland’s adolescence. But it seemed that all would be well when Wolves of the Calla was scheduled for release, because for the first time the release dates of the subsequent volumes, penultimate and ultimate for the series, were publicized as well. The entire epic was slated to wrap up in a little over a year, the last three books coming out at blinding rapid-fire speed relative to their predecessors.

But, again, in that moment in late 2003, the last two books were only a theoretical promise, and I had one book in hand to restore my faith in the Dark Tower. It very nearly failed to do so, mainly because it seemed like irrefutable evidence that King had lost interest in the series and was grinding it out just to get it finished and shut the superfans up. The book suffers from a dearth of imagination, which is lethal for a fantasy series.

I could probably come up with a dissertation’s worth of examples, but here are the big three (Spoi-diddly-oilers, obvs): plot-wise, Wolves of the Calla is almost beat for beat The Magnificent Seven (which I actually had seen and liked in high school, despite my general aversion for straight westerns); one of the major “new” characters who adds a twist to the proceedings is Father Callahan from King’s second-ever novel ‘Salem’s Lot; the bad guys are robots who dress like Doctor Doom and use hi-tech weapons of different types, including the lightsabers from Star Wars and golden snitches from Harry Potter.

Let me work my way backwards through those elements, starting with the borrower baddies. Remember, 2003, Deathly Hallows (the book) hadn’t even come out yet, so Harry Potter was still very much a going thing, and it seemed as if King were just kind of giving up trying to fight the new hotness, and just jumping on the bandwagon. Lightsabers had been around since 1977 and Doctor Doom since 1962, and I’m not sure if cribbing them was therefore better or worse than appropriating elements of quidditch. But Star Wars and the Fantastic Four are big soft spots in my overall geek fandom, so I couldn’t help but notice how glaringly weird it was to have them plunked down in the middle of Mid-World.

‘Salem’s Lot is not one of my favorite King novels; there’s nothing wrong with it, per se, but mathematically not all of them can be absolute faves. I think what rubbed me the wrong way about Father Callahan showing up in Calla Bryn Sturges was the fact that, in all the time it took for Wolves of the Calla to come out, King was at least poking the embers of the fire now and then by dropping references to the Dark Tower mythology in the other books he was publishing. Insomnia, Hearts in Atlantis, Desperation … they all contained little echoes and recycled bits which at least might serve to reassure the Constant Reader that King still thought about Roland and his ka-tet, even if he hadn’t quite figured out what to do with them next, at least not in any fashion that merited turning the spotlight on them for six or seven hundred pages. I know I nurtured the belief that whenever King was at a loss for a cosmic mystical element to plug a gap in one of his non-Dark Tower novels, he went back to that well because it ran so deep and was practically overflowing with ideas. So to see a King character from a 1975 novel enter the Dark Tower narrative threw that entire premise into question. If he was reduced to repeating himself, maybe the well had actually run dry.

The fact that the whole novel was an extended Magnificent Seven riff was maybe the least damning piece of evidence of creative bankruptcy. Lots of great works are homages to other earlier works (including, ahem, The Magnificent Seven itself revisiting Seven Samurai) and not only do I not have any personal aesthetic beef with that but I usually quite enjoy those kinds of exercises, because spotting the similarities, differences, inversions and so on is a fun game for me. The reason I found it frustrating in the case of Wolves of the Calla is because saving the village from the bandits is really little more than a side quest for Roland, Eddie, Susannah and Jake. It does nothing to advance the overall story and doesn’t get the heroes any closer to the series’ titular destination. Wizard and Glass kind of felt like the saga was spinning its wheels, King took six years away from the story, and then he came back and … spun the wheels some more. Pretty galling, at the time.

But, if nothing else, I am not merely a completist but a stubborn completist, and when volumes six and seven came out the following year I scooped them up and plowed through them. I was glad that I did, which I suppose should be self-evident in the fact that I snagged this year’s volume eight as soon as it became available, and voluntarily chose to re-read the entire series while I was at it. As it turns out, I enjoyed Wolves of the Calla significantly more the second time around, which I think is largely because I now see how it fits into the overall complete story, something I had no way of knowing back in 2003.

Towards the end of volume five there is a brief conversation between Eddie and Jake wherein they discuss the fact that the robot bandits look like Doctor Doom and carry Darth Vader’s weapon of choice. It gives voice to a suspicion, which plays out more in the subsequent books, that the bandits are agents of powerful forces who lack imagination and therefore borrow ideas from other, more fertile minds. It’s better than nothing, better than King trying to pass off specific copyrighted characters without comment as intrinsic parts of his fantasy admixture, along with cowboy archetypes and King Arthur and all the other elements of the previous volumes. There’s also a moment near the end where Father Callahan discovers a copy of ‘Salem’s Lot which makes him question the reality of his own existence, since he seems to be a character in a fictional novel. That starts to turn the whole series even more meta than it already was. With those closing moments in mind from the outset, I found the bandits and Father Callahan a lot easier to take.

And, as it turns out, the wheels aren’t spinning in place in Wolves of the Calla quite as much as it might seem at first glance. Story threads which are introduced in volume five (which have nothing to do with re-telling The Magnificent Seven) become hugely important in volumes six and seven. And certain themes become more and more prominent down the road, too. Villains who lack the capacity to invent and therefore steal and make real concepts like lightsabers and golden snitches aren’t just an interesting concept, they represent the major cosmic good-versus-evil dichotomy the whole epic revolves around. Creativity/creation = good, unimaginative thinking/mindless destruction = evil. And as far as the meta-story, Father Callahan taking the stage absolutely pales in comparison to the fact that King becomes a character in the series later on. Roland actually goes to Maine and interacts with Stephen King, author. His author. Compared to that, nothing in Wolves of the Calla is terribly hard to swallow.

One other significant thing happened between volumes four and five of The Dark Tower being published: King almost died. Apparently that was the impetus for him finally finishing the series, once he had recuperated enough to be back at something close to full strength. For years there had been jokes that maybe King would die before Roland ever got to the Tower, but they abruptly stopped being funny once they had come so close to coming true. Not only was King’s resolve to see the series through to completion strengthened, but it ended up being the inspiration for writing himself into the story (donning his fiction-suit, as Grant Morrison would say) which is more or less inextricable from the plot that resolves the whole grand saga. Maybe Wolves of the Calla is a little bit shaky, but considering the circumstances, I think some allowances have to be made for that. And now that I’m tripping along the Path of the Beam for the second time, I know I’m grateful that the fates allowed the whole story to be told, wobbly bits and all.

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