Stephen King’s Dark Tower series was supposed to be finished. The seven-volume science-fiction/fantasy epic, which spanned nearly three decades and much of King’s professional life, concluded in 2004 with the final entry, The Dark Tower. Roland of Gilead and his friends had, as far as readers knew, reached the end of their tale, and for many, the fact of that ending was more satisfying than the conclusion itself. The series had its problems: The normally prolific King took years between volumes, and as the finish line grew closer, the writing grew clunkier and sometimes repetitive, while the metaphysical indulgences became intrusive and often silly. Worst of all, the narrative drive, always one of King’s greatest gifts as a writer, began to stall. His confessional afterwords at the end of each new entry admitted that it was getting harder and harder for him to find the thread necessary to keep the tale alive, and as time passed, the odds seemed good it would all collapse. But then, with one final push, King wrapped everything up, publishing the series’ final three volumes in just under two years. Whatever its flaws, the Dark Tower sequence at least had the benefit of being done.
Which is why it was surprising when King announced he had another tale up his sleeve for his Dark Tower principal characters, Roland, Eddie, Susannah, and Jake. It seemed like the worst idea imaginable, an attempt to wring more blood from a stone that was squeezed dry sometime in the late ’90s. Stranger still was the news that the latest book, The Wind Through The Keyhole, wouldn’t be a sequel, but would fit between the fourth volume, Wizard And Glass, and the fifth, The Wolves Of The Calla. Late-breaking mid-series interpolations are almost always a mistake, given that they tend to focus on details that were deemed unnecessary enough to be excluded from the original source material. Trying to tell an interesting, exciting story while hitting all the marks to maintain continuity with the pre-existing work leads to a lot of box-checking and listless plotting. The Wind Through The Keyhole isn’t a prequel or a sequel, exactly, but it threatened to combine the worst possibilities of both.
Thankfully, Wind delivers something less and more than expected. The story picks up with Roland and his ka-tet moving through Mid-World after the events at the Emerald City that concluded Wizard And Glass. The travelers run into a severe, sudden storm, and take shelter in an abandoned town hall. While they wait out the “starkblast,” as the storm is called in Roland’s parlance, the gunslinger passes the time with two tales—first, a story about his younger days, when he and his friend Jamie DeCurry were sent on the track of a monstrous beast, and then, within that tale, a story Roland’s mother told him when he was a child, about a brave boy, an evil wizard, and the Endless Forest. Little of this has anything to do with Roland’s search for the Dark Tower (though the Tower comes up, as it always does), and both stories Roland tells are self-contained. Anyone looking for more resolution, or some reveal that would add depth to the series’ ultimate finale, is out of luck.
But that’s all to the good. As a long-form narrative, the Dark Tower novels were doomed from the start. It’s easy to look to later volumes as the tipping point, whether it’s the controversial 400-plus-page cul-de-sac of Wizard And Glass, the leaden, random mythology of Wolves Of The Calla, or the way each successive book seems a little less solid and a little more desperate than the one before. But the seeds of the series’ downfall were present at the beginning in The Gunslinger, which was full of pop-philosophy pretensions. This was never a truly coherent work, and with its mélange of iconography and on-the-fly surrealism, there was never any chance it would all come together in a completely satisfying conclusion. The Dark Tower Roland seeks is called “the nexus of all possible worlds,” and that’s a big concept to fit into the framework of a loopy, genre-jumping Western about knights with guns, killer lobsters, and giant robot bears. King has often said he writes more by intuition than strict planning, and while this has served him well elsewhere, much of the Dark Tower series is marred by tossed-off ideas which can’t ever be made to reconcile.
But it’s not a complete loss, and the aspects of the series that worked right up until the end help make Wind Through The Keyhole so satisfying. Throughout the novel, characters comment on the importance of stories, how they provide richness and value to life, and at its best, the Dark Tower books are a celebration of this idea. The protagonists, especially Roland, with his dry obsession with the Tower, and Eddie Dean, a former heroin junkie from New York, are some of the sharpest and most developed of King’s long career. They remain familiar, comforting faces even in the midst of the most baffling expository transgressions; their story matters even when King fumbles the details. Roland’s world, with its mixture of post-apocalyptic leavings and half-understood sorcery, is a potent medium for tales, as evocative and memorable as Roland himself. Where the series failed to live up to its potential, that potential remains undimmed, and there remains gold to be found, for the patient and the open-minded.
This new entry doesn’t require much digging to yield its treasures. The writing is clean and well-edited, with little of the meandering that marred the series’ weakest books. There’s a purity to the story-within-a-story-within-a-story structure, and by the time a much younger past version of Roland gets around to telling a frightened boy his own favorite childhood tale, King is doing what he does best, spinning a yarn full of deep feeling and unexpected delights. Where other books of the Dark Tower sequence got bogged down by a vain effort to make sense of it all, Wind Through The Keyhole has a light, easy touch, buoyed by the knowledge that all the machinations of plot and ka (the gunslinger’s word for “fate,” a pretty way of saying, “This happens because the writer needed it so”) have been laid to rest. The adventures of the fairy-tale boy, Tim Stoutheart, are as purely enjoyable and free as anything King has done, and without the obligations of Towers and Orbs and everything else, the book finds a way back to the true source of the Dark Tower books’ lingering power, and the attraction that delighted readers and author alike for so long: horror, courage, and wonder reaching straight up to the sky.