First, the background. In between "Christine" and "Misery" and countless other best-sellers, Stephen King wrote seven increasingly lengthy novels known as "The Dark Tower" epic, ending with the final volume published in 2004.
But, for King’s legions of Constant Readers, it should come as no surprise that the frighteningly prolific author of "Dark Tower" has found inspiration for The Wind Through the Keyhole, yet another tale set in the fictional Mid-World. King’s website describes this novel – set in harsh, post-apocalyptic terrain and focused on the peoples living there – as a combination of Tolkien’s "Lord of the Rings" trilogy and Sergio Leone’s shoot-em-up spaghetti Westerns.
"The Dark Tower" novels often intersect with stand-alone King works, but for those who find such fanboy jaunts of metafiction tedious, fear not. A brief scene-setting foreword serves as primer and, with that, King sends his troubled hero Roland Deschain back into action. Or, rather, inaction, as Roland and his motley crew, known as a ka-tet, find themselves battening down the hatches during a monstrous storm. (For those steeped in "Dark Tower" lore, "The Wind Through the Keyhole" fits between the fourth and fifth books.)
Whether these characters and their world are familiar or foreign, the new novel is, more than anything, an accessible and entertaining love letter to storytelling.
Roland, often brooding and cryptic in other "Dark Tower" tales, turns raconteur in this one. Three companions, drawn from the overlapping, contemporary world, accompany Roland. Despite or because of their shared adventures, they want to know more about Roland’s past. King describes Roland and his fellow gunslingers as “a strange combination of knights errant and territorial marshals in the Old West.”
Shelter from the storm inspires Roland to share two stories: one catalogs a harrowing boyhood adventure and the other, a story within that story, is a tale Roland’s mother read him as a child.
“Mayhap I’ll tell you two, since it’s long until dawn and we can sleep tomorrow away, if we like,” Roland says. “Yet the wind blows through both, which is a good thing. There’s nothing like stories on a windy night when folks have found a warm place in a cold world.”
And who better than the Bard of Bangor to relate the value of escaping wintry weather with a story or two?
King, of course, can’t resist telling stories. "The Wind Through the Keyhole" arrives just a few months after "11/22/63," a tidy 849-page alternate history about love and loss and the JFK assassination that won kudos from The New York Times, among others. "The Wind Through the Keyhole" carries less heft and is unlikely to be ranked among King’s top works, but it is a fun way to while away a weekend. At minimum, longtime fans will be happy to find themselves back in the (dis)comfort of King’s addictive narrative.
Over the years, many critics have relented and acknowledged King as a writer whose talent extends beyond selling millions of books. Shirley Hazzard and Harold Bloom may look down their noses, but the likes of Michael Chabon do not.
Whatever his critical standing, King remains comfortable with the gross-out as well as nicely crafted sentences. Of one victim, he writes: “His severed head stared up at the rafters with a fearful grin that showed only his top teeth. The skin-man had ripped the rancher’s lower jaw right out of his mouth. Kellin Frye found it under a bunk.”
Scrambled eggs, anyone? Shadowy figures, creepy forests, night crawlers, and duplicitous characters fill Mid-World, along with a near-permanent state of foreboding.
King shines just enough light on events to keep the characters, and readers, believing and hoping. And, at times, laughing. During one boy’s terrifying chat with a devilish schemer, the latter makes reference to a mysterious place.
“What’s America?” asks the boy who will come to be known at Tim Stoutheart.
“A kingdom filled with toy-loving idiots,” comes the reply from the malicious Covenant Man. “It has no part in our palaver ...” Thus does a Dodge Dart gearshift become an object capable of magic and prophecy.
Roland recounts the story of 11-year-old Tim Stoutheart during his own adolescent odyssey. Steven Deschain has ordered Roland to an outlying town where a shape-shifting man has massacred residents. Grieving for his mother, whose death haunts Roland for reasons that must be gleaned from the book, the young gunslinger sets out to win the respect and cooperation of the sheriff, villagers, and nearby miners while searching for the hidden killer.
His search leads him to the one witness who might be able to help. Bill Streeter, a boy who saw his father die, glimpsed the so-called skin-man responsible, but is shell-shocked and fears retaliation. To ease his worry and encourage cooperation, Roland shares the story of Tim Stoutheart. Before he begins, Roland makes it clear that the tale is long and filled with scary episodes of the sort that a boy who has just been through trauma may not want to experience.
Then, just like millions of readers, Bill Streeter accepts the bargain of fear in exchange for escapism.
“Don’t care,” he tells Roland. “Stories take a person away. If they’re good ones, that is. It is a good one?”
For King’s constant readers, the answer is, once again, yes.
Erik Spanberg regularly reviews books for the Monitor.