The Dark Tower, Book 5 - Wolves of the Calla
I’ll begin this review by stating that King’s magnum opus is undoubtedly required reading for any self-respecting genre reader. It is a vast work, thirty odd years in the writing, panoramic in scope, depth and idea, filled with myriad wonders and dangers and ultimately a hugely rewarding (if at times uneven) experience for any reader who puts in the necessary time it takes to plough through it. To date there have been five volumes released, and the King publicity machine states that the author has completed the remaining two volumes which will published next year. Given the nature of this work, this review can be aimed only at those readers familiar with the series – if you’re thinking of beginning this journey with The Wolves of the Calla, DON’T! Start – as I did to prepare for this review – by picking up The Gunslinger and working your way through. If you don’t, frankly, you won’t have the slightest clue about what’s going on!
Are they gone? Good. Now that the uninitiated have left the room, we can go on.
So, you’ve followed the journey of Roland and his companions since it began, and of course, you’ll be ravenous for this new volume. Good news! You won’t be disappointed. The Wolves of the Calla is the most focused episode yet, moving this epic story both forward and sideways and it shows, in no uncertain terms, that King is still right on top of his game.
Still trudging along the path of the beam toward the tower, Roland and co step out of the strangeness that ended Wizards and Glass and find themselves giving aid and succor to the folken of Calla Bryn Sturgis. This remote farming community exhibits an odd characteristic – their children are mostly born as twins. What the locals term “singletons” are rare indeed. There is a far darker problem though – the Wolves are coming! Every twenty years or so, the Calla is raided by a marauding band of masked and seemingly indestructible horrors. They steal away their children, always one half of a twin set and herd them back to Thunderclap from whence they came. Nobody knows what happens to the poor children once the wolves return with them to Thunderclap, but following each cyclical abduction, the Calla’s progeny is returned to the village some weeks later. What comes back to each parent though, is but a shadow of what was taken. The returnees are, in the vernacular, roont – gawking, dibbling idiots who grow fast and die young. That parents and siblings have to watch this horrendous decline over the ensuing years has made the Calla a fractured and grief stricken place. And as we enter the story this terrifying cycle is reaching a head once more and the Wolves are due again soon. The townsfolk (many of whom lost siblings of their own in the last assault by the Wolves), wearied by this generational assault are gathering up their courage to do something about it. Naturally there are dissenting voices, coming mainly from those singleton parents or those with no children at all. Word has it that there are Gunslingers approaching, and so a committee is sent forth to ask for their aid.
Behind this main plot lies the matter of Father Callahan. King’s readers will recognize this character from Salem’s Lot and Callahan’s experiences from that earlier novel are deftly woven into the fabric of The Wolves of the Calla, thus making for an intriguing conjunction with the authors earlier work and one that King, in bringing himself into the mix as well (and you’ll see how on reading the novel,) has some degree of fun with. And there is fun in this novel - it’s almost as if King is playfully rewarding those reader’s who have stuck with him thus far on this epic journey. This playfulness augments the weirder aspects to the tale which concern the over-riding story arcs, particularly the matter of just how our world fits into, overlaps and effects Roland’s own. Much, as should be in book five of seven, is left unresolved. At first I wasn’t sure that this linking of worlds served the story in any way. It seemed to be a distracting plot thread that took the reader away from the principle business we are concerned with – i.e. the Wolves. Boy was I wrong! It is part of King’s genius that he draws these strands together so successfully. Callahan has stepped from our world into Roland’s and the bridge over which he made the journey is a key element to what occurs in The Wolves of the Calla and there is every implication that its importance will continue into the next book.
On the actual plot to book five, I needn’t elaborate. If you’ve read as far a book four, you’ll pick up book five no matter what any critic has to say about it. I can say though, that I found this latest episode perhaps the most coherent and exciting of the series so far. The first book, as is widely agreed, is largely incomprehensible – I certainly found it so. I always got the impression that King was writing jazz style in that book – seeing where the riff went – and indeed in the original introduction I remember him stating that he has little time for outlining his work. I bet he’s changed his tune these thirty years later – the revisions he’s made for these 2003 editions would indicate as much. Books two and three are where this work really starts to motor, the obvious major factor being the introduction (or drawing) of Roland’s companions. Prior to this, Roland was nothing if not ambiguous as a protagonist. This band, this ka-tet, with its rich variety of personalities is easily as vibrant and interesting as Tolkien’s fellowship and in The Wolves of the Calla it is their unity under such tremendous pressure and in grave danger that drives the story forward with such gusto. It is worth noting that Wizards and Glass, the fourth title of the series and one that dealt mainly with flashback and back story, left Eddie, Susannah, Jake and Oy out for much of the time – the result was a slow and sluggish work which may even have put some readers off. The Wolves of the Calla is a far better novel and it builds towards a tremendously exciting climax that will surely reward you for your efforts.
I think if any new writer came to a publisher with an outline for The Dark Tower he or she might well be laughed out of the office. Taken at face value, so much of this story seems inelegant – “Well, our heroes get to travel on a mad talking train and they have riddle competition with it. Oh and there’s this schizophrenic legless black woman who is part of the group and there are references to the Wizard of Oz and to the Wild West”… and so on. When examined at such a level, The Dark Tower seems an eccentric, cumbersome and rather unwieldy construction. And yet there is much about it that is pure genius, not least that it has the feel of being an entirely original creation with a chief protagonist who is utterly compelling. King avoids the temptation to adapt or adopt standard fantasy conventions (with the exception of an Arthurian influence only very loosely alluded to) – no Celtic or Norse mythology here, no the reliance on European medievalism so prevalent in the genre. Instead we have a purely American concoction (albeit one which King acknowledges the influence of Sergio Leone) and I can think of nothing in the genre of modern written fantasy that I have read that seems even remotely similar. Likewise in this author’s capable hands, the dialects of Mid-World are entirely believable, giving these characters a voice cut through with an undeniable and universal reality. Nowhere else have I seen the use of the vernacular was so brilliantly depicted.
There was some controversy recently when King was awarded the coveted Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters by the US’s National Book Foundation. That there were voices of dissent over this award seems churlish to me. Few writers have contributed more to American letters than this man. Is his work literature? Who is truly qualified to say? We think of Dickens’ work as literature, when he, like King was a chronicler of his age. I wonder if the same aging process that turns grape juice into wine turns populist fiction into literature? Perhaps it is the fact that King’s work strays more in genre territory that provokes this snobbery – do those same dissenting voices then consider A Christmas Carol nothing more than populist trash? Literary or not, what cannot be denied by these lit-snobs is King’s all round importance to American literature, hell, to world literature. I say give the man a Nobel prize!
The Wolves of the Calla is published as an impressive hardcover here in the UK, complete with a hard wood spine board and colour plates. Though nicely produced, I confess to being a little disappointed with Bernie Wrightson’s artwork, which to my eye just looks like the pedestrian paintings of a student art project – though admittedly, I’m no art critic. There are some unforgivable inclusions in the paintings though – not least that Oy the bumbler looks like one of Her Majesty’s overfed corgis and that Roland is shown with a full set of fingers on both hands – this last is a whopping huge error and I’m surprised nobody else spotted it. Thankfully this book is about the words rather than the pictures, and as such has fed my hunger for the next installment. Roll on The Song of Susannah.