“The joke is that, out here a billion miles from nowhere, we come upon a storybook town.”
I’m re-reading Stephen King’s Dark Tower series to coincide with the Book Smugglers Old School Wednesdays readalong, and it’s the turn of Wolves of the Calla, number five of seven, to come under the wrathful eye of The English Student.
Why wrathful? you may ask.
Wrathful because Wolves of the Calla is, frankly, a bloated monster that drags King’s strange, disjointed vision into increasingly irrelevant nonsense.
As Roland and his new ka-tet (ones chosen by destiny) continue along the Path of the Beam on their search for the Tower, they come across a farming community, Calla Bryn Sturgis, under threat from the Wolves who come from End-World. Most of the children of the Calla are twins, with singletons a rare blessing; when the Wolves visit the Calla, once a generation, they take children, one twin from each set, and send them back weeks later mentally handicapped and huge. Roland and the gang agree to help them, for reasons which feel fudged and hand-wavy: “Because they are Good Guys!” Yeah? Tell that to the people of Lud, why don’t you.
To be fair, the main problem with Wolves isn’t actually the hand-waving; it’s King’s overwhelming urge to explain everything, to make everything fit together nicely. The novel is sprinkled, as The Waste Lands was, with fragments of popular culture that have ended up in Mid-World: the snitches from Harry Potter, Doctor Doom from Marvel Comics, Star Wars’ C-3PO. In the earlier novel, these bits and pieces of modernity, strange and abandoned, created a kind of shattered mirror-world, a statement about the alienation and fragmentation of modern life, haunting and almost Gothic. Here, though, King tries to amalgamate this mirror-world with an old-fashioned Western story which has the idea of community firmly lodged at its heart. It doesn’t work; instead of the strangeness and dislocation King was going for, we get a much more mechanical kind of mystery, a series of cute coincidences that, depending on your mood, range from mildly cool in a nerdy, trainspotting kind of way to deeply irritating. The same goes for the motif of nineteen and for the deeply flawed piece of self-aggrandizement that sees King actually inserting himself into his own novel: the story in which these things are rooted, the story the novel tells, is at its core much too traditional to allow them to be any more than bolted-on bits of cleverness. (The fact that I know the nineteen thing never gets resolved only adds to my annoyance at it. It’s purposeless, both functionally and aesthetically.)
Not only is Wolves conceptually flawed, it’s also far, far too long. Our Heroes don’t reach the Calla until well over the 200-page mark; the book until this point consists mainly of conversations and bad dreams. Nor does Wolves have any kind of narrative drive or tension until the last twenty pages: the ka-tet chat to the townsfolk, plan, listen to a long story told by Donald Callahan from ‘Salem’s Lot (interesting but not really necessary), visit New York a couple of times through a convenient magic door and generally faff around. It’s barely enough to sustain a chapter, let alone a whole novel. At least 50% of all this could be cut without materially affecting the story or the character development.
And, talking of character development, I just want to register how annoyed I am by the novel’s treatment of Susannah, who, it turns out, is pregnant with the child of the demon she distracted while the others were rescuing Jake. This is obviously Bad News (because demon), but not only is Roland’s method of handling it objectively terrible (let’s not tell her at all! This is the Best Plan Ever), the way the narrative frames her is awful. There’s this moment when Roland remarks to Eddie – her actual husband – that Susannah’s breasts and hips are “a trifle fuller” and it’s like they’re sharing in this squicky moment of objectification which treats the woman herself as just a body. The mother is othered, literally in this case, because her child isn’t human. And, effectively, it’s the male members of the ka-tet who are deciding what happens to Susannah’s own body. Why did you do this, Stephen. Why.
Re-reading this was more of a chore than a pleasure, which is a shame, when the first three books of the series are among my favourite pieces of fantasy ever. As I remember, the next book, Song of Susannah, tightens up considerably – it’ll be interesting to see how that goes next month.