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Friday, 26 February 2010

The Gunslinger - Stephen King

I've long been fan of Stephen King - there was a time in my twenties when I used to devour his books and although somewhere around The Dark Half, I stopped reading him, I have returned in recent years. I recently enjoyed Cell and I thought Duma Key was a fantastic book. But there was definitely a transition with King's style back in the late Eighties, early Nineties. I remember Needful Things bored me and I found The Tommyknockers predictable, though it did contain some of the King magic. I guess for me I prefer classic King - Pet Semetary, Carrie, It and those early books. I remember reading the extended edition of The Stand in one wonderful week but when he switched straight out horror to suspense he kind of lost me. Mind you, I contradict myself, Misery, which was nothing like his earlier works, thrilled me with every page I turned.

In truth I don't think the issue was a drop in quality in King's work, but rather that he was growing as a novelist and, at the time, I wasn't ready to leave King's Maine with it's 1950's creature feature style horrors. Another interesting point about this period is that, I discovered, from reading King's semi-autobiography, "On Writing", that around this period he was having his most ferocious battles with drink and drug addictions. Did that affect the quality of books like The Tommyknockers? Mind you, and here's another of those little contradictions, King claims to not remember having written Cugo at all and yet that's a great book. And later, when kicking the drink and drugs, going through that personal hell, maybe King's books did take a dip for a short while. I don't know - but the genesis of The Dark Tower series comes from King's early Sgt. Peppers period.

And the Gunslinger often has the feel of early King - reminding me most of the apocalyptic sense that pervades The Stand and the feeling of tainted magic which runs through The Eyes of the Dragon. Maybe that's not surprising since this book was actually started when King was a teenager.

Imagine a Sergio Leone movie shot through a lens that had been smeared with red grease, and you'll get the feel of this book. It's kind of a western set in, what seems to be a post apocalyptic America, but I'm told by people who have read later volumes in this series that this is not the case. Still, I'm looking forward to later books and finding out what the hell is going on here. The Gunslinger is an enjoyable book once into the dreamy pacing of the narrative which, I must admit, I initially found off-putting, I picked up the book at every available moment.

If you come to this expecting a perfectly rounded novel, with all the loose ends tied up for the denouncement then you'll be disappointed, but if you remember that it is only a small part of a much larger work then you should find it riveting. The character of The Gunslinger, apparently based on the Eastwood character from The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, reminded me somewhat of Thomas Covenant from Stephen Donaldson's excellent fantasy series. I can't really put my finger on it, on the surface they are widely contrasting creations, but I had the same feeling with each. I think it's the air of doom that surrounds them that is the common factor.

There are some excellent scenes - the mob uprising in the town of (Jethro) Tull and the terrifying sequence in the mountains. God, knows what Mr King had been smoking when he dreamt this one up. The book picks up when The Gunslinger meets up with Jake,a young boy, who offers the reader another view of the generic gunslinger and fleshes out the purposely sketchy character.

The Gunslinger is the first in a seven book series and I'm hooked.


Matthew P. Mayo said...

Interesting thoughts on King, Gary. I, too, am a big fan of his early work, though I've enjoyed a few of his more recent novels, some more than others. I have copies of three of the newly reissued Gunslingers. I've been saving them for just the right time.... After reading your post, I'm anxious to tuck into them.


ChuckTyrell said...

Read the first one when it first came out. Never did get around to reading the others. Long time between books, and I wandered off. They'd be something Howard would eat up, though.



I'm going to read the second part quite soon. I thought I'd like to read a different writer between Dark Tower books, but it won't be too long before I pick up the second volume. Gunslinger was a strange book but strange in a good way.

David Cranmer said...

I just had the first of the Dark Tower series (revised edition) in my reading list last week. The second time, in fact, and it won't be the last.

Matthew Pizzolato said...

I started reading the Dark Tower series as King was writing them and got through the fourth book, but got tired of waiting on the next one. Now that he's finished the series, I'm going to have to pick them back up.