Song of Susannah by Stephen King
Hodder & Stoughton HCVR: ISBN 0340827181 PubDate: 06/01/04
Review by John Berlyne
430 pgs. List price £20.00
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And so we round the final corner of this marathon and enter the final straight. The race has been a challenging one - long and grueling, oftentimes over uneven ground, sometimes pushing uphill, sometimes flying with seemingly unstoppable momentum but never lacking in excitement. In Song of Susannah, King disabuses both the reader and his characters of the notion that they may be the main participants in the experience that is The Dark Tower – this is and has always been about King himself. As his uberstory (a term he himself uses to describe his epic) cranks up to its highly anticipated climax, the author shows yet again that he towers above the competition, that he truly is The King.
Mere minutes have passed between the final scene of The Wolves of the Calla (see my review) and the opening of this new volume. Susannah has gone through the door, in possession of Black Thirteen and herself possessed by Mia. She will birth her demon child in another world that lies along the path of the beam. Roland, Eddie and Jake, along with Pere Callahan must step through the door and follow her. They gather along with the Manni, whose magic they must harness in order to pass through.
But as so often has happened along this journey (and by that I point to the drama rather than implying any formula being employed) there is betrayal – and the ka-tet are split further still, this time the distance between them measured in time as well as space. Eddie and Roland find themselves in Maine, in 1977 and they must track down the unpleasant and selfish Calvin Tower to secure the plot of land that houses the rose. From there, they go on to encounter what is surely the masterstroke in King’s epic – the author himself - and in doing so, they define both their existence and cause. King, on the other hand, as a character in one of his own books, now delves deep inside himself to reveal a very factual fiction – weaving the essence of his epic story into his real life experiences rather than the usual path of it being the other way round. The effect of this inversion is heady stuff for the reader, for it allows us to almost commune with the author and we learn (as if we didn’t know already) what massive integrity this writer possesses.
Susannah too is outside her time – in New York in 1999, twenty years ahead of Roland and Eddie and thirty years further on for herself, she must negotiate a very different America to the one she knew – and perversely, her hitherto greatest weakness, that of her split and schizophrenic mind, becomes her greatest strength. She is both guide and guided, but the road she travels gets ever darker as the vampires from Salem’s Lot and the Crimson King himself tighten their grip and move to claim the child.
What transpires is not for me to tell. If you’re this far into The Dark Tower , you’ll want to experience it for yourself – and you’ll not be disappointed. Song of Susannah ratchets up the tensions, the pace and the drama of this tale to an almost unbearable level. It’s just so damn readable! And the thought of having to wait some months (thank God it’s not years!) for the last installment is a tough one.
On the critical side… well, there’s not much to say really. Certainly it takes a moment or two for the reader to slip back into King’s world. The entry is abrupt, with no concessions made for those who may have come late to the party. At the same time, I guess if you’ve made it this far, then no introductions are necessary. Certainly too, one could say that the idea of the characters an author creates actually encroaching upon the author’s life is not an original fictional conceit – Jonathan Carroll’s The Land of Laughs immediately springs to mind. Furthermore one could say that King’s story is riddled with clichés – but to that I would add the caveat that this is meant. Indeed King makes such a virtue out of the clichés he portrays that they cease to be so. It is a mark of his unparalleled skill and the dimension it adds to the tale lifts it into league so far beyond cliché that the argument is moot.
I get an impression of real and lasting power in this story – there is power in the symbols and talismans, in the myths, in the unity of Roland’s band of Gunslingers, in words and numbers and ultimately it is the power of stories and of the imagination that could be interpreted as being the beam itself, the underlying truth behind everything. And in this we touch upon the power that drives Stephen King to write, and what a power that must be! For it has driven him for thirty years along the road to The Dark Tower. That he can share the struggle as well as the fruits, hell, that he has made the struggle become the fruits of the labor is a clear (and powerful) sign of his genius. I infer too that the weight of Susannah’s pregnancy is something of a metaphor for the lengthy gestation of The Dark Tower. The birthing process has clearly been a difficult and personal one for the author.
A word about the illustrations before I sign off – I was not too impressed with the colour plates that adorned The Wolves of the Calla, but a change of artist in Darrel Anderson has most definitely come up with illustrations worthy of the story. These are powerful and haunting images, beautiful in their grotesqueness and they look very good indeed in this very impressive Hodder release.
Journey onward toward The Dark Tower – the final volume of which is due to be released in September. I for one can hardly wait!