The Gunslinger – The Dark Tower I (1979, 2003)
by Stephen King

When nostalgia for one's youth arises, seemingly anything can be revisited and cherished, except for two things: being molested, and being a Stephen King fan.

As I meander through adulthood, casting off certain fetishes and embracing new ones, I find myself continually checking in with previous editions of myself, and noticing things falling in and out of favor. Some things grow distasteful only to be joyfully rediscovered, some things are understood with wiser eyes and mind, and some things just stay in the dark corners, taboo to be touched.

Most of my hipster friends won't admit to ever enjoying Stephen King, and even my sci-fi/horror geek posse tends to write him off in much the same way one would an embarrassing incident of public drunkenness or an overly enthusiastic day-of-release endorsement of a Porno For Pyros album.

It's as though everyone is ashamed to have read Stephen King, much less enjoyed it. Culturally, the world's best-selling author has been brushed under the rug with our surreptitious nosepickings and skidmarked panties.

And so it is at his moment of absolute obsolescence that I decided to revisit the author whose work I enjoyed the most from ages 11 to 18, when I got the right to vote and voted a gigantic "NO" to him and his anti-literary canon.

My goal, really, is to understand, with wiser eyes and mind, what Stephen King actually is, and what I myself am for having enjoyed his books in my formative years. Rejecting him entirely is tantamount to rejecting the adolescent me.

Some of King's books I want to renew my faith in … the ones I loved, mainly. I want to be able to argue that he's a great writer, at his best. The Stand, The Talisman, and the Dark Tower books are the ones, if any, that will help me make the case. The epics. The "big statements." Because it can't be argued that he hasn't glutted the world's bookshelves with more than his share of absolute crap.

Conveniently, King is just now finishing up the Dark Tower books, and has revisited the first installment, The Gunslinger, rewriting and editing to create, essentially, a new book. To me, the new version is indistinguishable from the old version, based on my hazy mid-80s memory of it, and at any rate, I always respect a "director's cut."

This book may well be King's best. Tight, concise, propulsive, and eminently gripping, The Gunslinger is, through and through, a "page-turner" in the best sense.

It traces the journey of Roland, the world's last gunslinger, as he pursues the nefarious "man in black" across the deserted west – an Old West of the distant future, almost full-circle from the old Old West. In a series of suspenseful set-pieces, Roland's noble yet destructive character emerges, and the souls he meets along the way are captivating.

By the time the chase reaches its inevitable conclusion, the book pays off its tension in a big way. It's a rare occasion of Stephen King really proving himself.

Given that King originally wrote the book at 19, it has its juvenile moments … some grisly bloodshed and some rather macho sex. The sad note is precisely that this is the work of a 19-year-old author, and it's been downhill ever since. King may have become a richer man and a more studied writer, but he has not recaptured the drive of this one.

The book is notably different from King's other work, even from the subsequent Dark Tower books, which are, unfortunately, almost pure shit. But it's nice to revisit this one and discover that, at his best, Stephen King does have real literary merit after all, even if he's published far too many inferior things to support that notion.

So The Gunslinger takes me back and also moves me forward. I wasn't so wrong to enjoy King back in the day … however, the fact that I enjoyed him so much is still a nagging fact.

Review by Chocolate Stewart