Keyhole is almost entirely story-within-story. The outer layer, perhaps the story you came to hear, is little more than husk. We have had seven full Dark Tower novels to tell the fate of (in the language of Midworld) the ka-tet, the group of seekers for the Tower. I am told that the novel takes place in the space in time between Wizard and Glass and Wolves of the Calla, but that is of almost no consequence. The narrative in the present moves just far enough for Roland Deschain, the gunslinger, “Old Long, Tall and Ugly,” to tell two stories.
The first is something like a crime procedural—in the odd feudal gunslinger world where Roland is part knight, part diplomat, part law-man. Roland has come to the little town of Debaria. He has come, still a teenager, to hunt down a killer. And yet, more so than the flashbacks in Wizard and Glass, this is the cold, determined man we’ve known in his later years. When he comes upon a boy who may have seen his family torn to pieces, Roland almost unconsciously begins to construct a trap. The bait is ten or eleven years old, and an orphan.
There are two warring currents in the story of Roland’s life: Attachments make a man vulnerable, but the cold makes him brittle. We know from past experience that he is, or becomes, a man who would leave a trusting boy to die. A man whose guilt, like half-healed wounds, stings with each step that he takes.
But here the weight is not quite so heavy as all that. Here we feel the echoes of the larger tale, and this may be why we have returned. But today we are here to listen to a story. And as this young gunslinger sits in a jail cell with the boy at the center of his trap, Roland begins to tell “The Wind Through the Keyhole”:
The story-within-story-within-story begins with a young boy, his mother, and his lumberjack father sitting in their little cottage. It begins, “Once upon a bye, long before your grandfather’s grandfather was born,” as all such stories in Midworld do.
One day not long after, the father fails to return from work. Happy families in such tales do not long survive. Things go poorly for Tim, and more poorly still for his mother. And soon the boy is setting out alone into the forest with an axe and a gun and a little bit of magic.
More echoes: here they are of The Waste Lands, my favorite of the Dark Tower novels. That volume is about journeys through the new and dangerous and cruel. And it too finds a young boy alone and desperate for a way out.
This is a fairy story, darkened in the way King darkens each of his stories. And it is a good story, though not one, I think, that really stands on its own.
And so I am here not to talk about why you should or should not read this novel. This would be like asking, should I watch the original or the extended cut of The Return of the King? The small choice, that is, that masks the larger.
I am here to talk about the Dark Tower. Because it has been perhaps the most unconventional epic fantasy since the genre became the genre. Because it doesn’t fit—and this in a way that is deeply interesting. Because King is a better writer, from the distance of a few paces, than I think most of us realize.
Because it does not, until its final moments, end with a strength that matches its first four books.
The Gunslinger is skeletal, bare, bleak, and metaphysical. It is end and beginning. The Drawing of the Three, the most Stephen King-ish of the books, is about postwar America seen from Roland’s alien perspective. The Waste Lands is about decay and renewal. And Wizard and Glass, the most melancholy of the bunch, is about losing in an instant more than one man can imagine.
Each novel has been given the time to develop, to marinate, to sour appropriately. To resonate at its own emotional frequency. The final three volumes have all of the ingredients but little of the subtlety.
Not long before this sprint to the finish, King was struck and nearly killed while walking along the side of the road. It is usually unfair to look for reflections of real-life events in an author’s work, but here it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that King made the decision to damn-well finish the series while he was still able.
I am being overly critical, of course. There are some bare patches, and the plotting becomes obvious at times. But the complaint is more minor than it seems. There is great sorrow and great achievement here as the story comes to a conclusion that is inevitable and right. There are deep roots back through the series, flaws in the character of Roland Deschain. Flaws colored, ever so lightly, by this latest twisted fairy tale.
Should you read The Wind Through the Keyhole? Read The Gunslinger and you will be drawn in and at some point come through to it. Or you’ll hate the series and move on. But I must warn that it will not let you go easily."