Sometimes when you revisit a piece of nostalgia from your youth, something that has persisted in your memory all the years since as one of the best things in your life, you end up seeing it through the lenses of experience and age, and come to find that the beautiful luster you once saw has crumbled away revealing a hollow core beneath, a lack of substance and a thing undeserving of the merit you had assigned it. This has happened so often that, to a large degree, I’ve stopped revisiting my memories, opting instead to let them live on as they are rather than reveal to myself that something I thought so good actually wasn’t.
I’m very likely blurring my memories of this period of my life, but the way I like to remember it is like this:
It was 1995, thirteen years after The Gunslinger was first published.
I was an introverted and serious teenager, a straight-A student who hated the cliques of high school with the elitism and favoritism and meanness with which teenagers treated each other — especially toward those who are different. So I armored myself in a sort of self-imposed emotional isolation, not really bonding with anyone very closely during those formative years. Like many introverted kids, I found my place in books.
At lunch time on the first day of school we had to decide where we were going to sit in the cafeteria and who we were going to sit with. This would be your seat for the rest of the school year. If you were already in a clique, you didn’t even have to think about it. You sit with your clique. Done. Simple. But what if you didn’t fit into any of the cliques? Not with the geeks or jocks or goths or trouble-makers? Where do you sit when you don’t fit neatly into any of the prescribed social categories?
I never felt more different and out-of-place than the few moments I spent scanning the lunch room looking for a vacant seat. On this particular year I arrived late to lunch, and many of the tables were already full by the time I exited the lunch line with my food. Even the social outcasts had managed to find each other and fill up their tables.
Out of the corner of my eye, way over by the exit door, there was a mostly vacant table. A younger boy was sitting there by himself. He was in the special education program. I asked if I could sit with him and he shyly mumbled a non-response that seemed to suggest yes, I could. I sat down opposite him at the round table and ate my lunch in silence, giving him his space while maintaining my own. I opened a book (not this book) to distance myself from the discomfort of my reality and waited for the lunch period to end.
After a few more minutes a fellow student in my same grade sat down. We knew one another from past years as classmates, but we were just acquaintances, having never really socialized with one another outside of school. He noticed the book I was reading and asked about it. He pulled a Stephen King book out of his bag and we talked about that, too.
It was all so simple and natural, and I’d say lucky. If he was earlier in line he would’ve sat at a different table and our lives would have gone down different paths. I asked if he had ever read The Gunslinger. He hadn’t ever heard of it.
I told him with enthusiasm that it’s fantastic and unlike anything else Stephen King has written. No, it’s not a horror story like all the rest. It’s…different…somehow. It’s hard to explain. Even to this day I hesitate to call it Fantasy or Science-Fiction. There’s something different about this story that I still can’t define. It doesn’t fit neatly into any of the prescribed categories.
Finding that I actually had something in common with someone, we started discussing the books we’ve been reading on a deeper level. I let him borrow The Gunslinger and suddenly there were two of us following along with Roland in his quest to reach The Dark Tower.
It was the very first thing I really bonded over with someone in high school, at the table no one wanted to sit at, with the young boy no one wanted to be near because he was so different. Turns out that young boy had a great sense of humor and a bonfire of enthusiasm for Wrestlemania. There we sat, we three. My memory is unclear, but I think we sought that table each year after that, just the three of us. It felt good to have a group to belong in. Somehow this story — a very short story by Stephen King’s standards — was the seed of what would become a very long friendship.
So when I recently decided to reread The Gunslinger, I did so with apprehension. For these and other reasons, it’s an important story in my life. The books I’ve read since have shown me what good storytelling really is and what a good author is capable of. Would a story I read as a child really hold up after all these years?
The gunslinger felt the lie on his lips. He spoke it: “You’ll be all right” And a greater lie. “I’ll take care.”
The Gunslinger has held up beautifully. It’s actually better than how I remember it. Maybe I’m more aware of what the story is saying and what the author hints at, the turns of phrase, and I can better appreciate the beautiful bits of description. It is timelessly written and continues to stand shoulder to shoulder with some of the best stories I’ve ever read.
The piano player wore an inevitable piano stool slouch.
It is an adventure unlike any I’ve gone on in all the books I’ve read over the 22 years since I first picked this book up. It’s a story that aches in its telling, hitting all sorts of emotional pressure points, and is laden down by a world that has moved on. It’s haunting and empty and sorrowful. The Gunslinger follows The Man in Black. He needs answers. It’s like a dream you can’t wake up from, a dream from which you don’t want to wake yet because you don’t know what it’s all about, a world you want to explore and a set of characters you want to see succeed even though you aren’t sure why or what their goals are.
This is not the kind of book that wraps it all up at the end into a neat little package so you can have closure. There are mysteries in these pages. It is full of foreshadowing, symbolism, metaphor and motif. This is the beginning of a story that spans worlds. King drops hints and references in many of his other books, little breadcrumbs for Dark Tower fans to find. How does it all tie together? What does it all mean? Where does the story go from here?
You’ll have to read the rest of the series to find out.
Go then. There are other worlds than these.