Tuesday, 24 April 2012

Book Review | The Wind Through the Keyhole: A Dark Tower Novel by Stephen King

In The Wind Through the Keyhole, Stephen King returns to the rich landscape of Mid-World, the spectacular territory of The Dark Tower fantasy saga that stands as his most beguiling achievement.

Roland Deschain and his ka-tet — Jake, Susannah, Eddie, and Oy, the billy-bumbler — encounter a ferocious storm just after crossing the River Whye on their way to the Outer Baronies. As they shelter from the howling gale, Roland tells his friends not just one strange story but two... and in so doing, casts new light on his own troubled past.

In his early days as a gunslinger, in the guilt-ridden year following his mother’s death, Roland is sent by his father to investigate evidence of a murderous shape-shifter, a “skin-man” preying upon the population around Debaria. Roland takes charge of Bill Streeter, the brave but terrified boy who is the sole surviving witness to the beast’s most recent slaughter. Only a teenager himself, Roland calms the boy and prepares him for the following day’s trials by reciting a story from the Magic Tales of the Eld that his mother often read to him at bedtime. “A person’s never too old for stories,” Roland says to Bill. “Man and boy, girl and woman, never too old. We live for them.” And indeed, the tale that Roland unfolds, the legend of Tim Stoutheart, is a timeless treasure for all ages, a story that lives for us.

King began the Dark Tower series in 1974; it gained momentum in the 1980s; and he brought it to a thrilling conclusion when the last three novels were published in 2003 and 2004. The Wind Through the Keyhole is sure to fascinate avid fans of The Dark Tower epic. But this novel also stands on its own for all readers, an enchanting and haunting journey to Roland’s world and testimony to the power of Stephen King’s storytelling magic.


Almost a decade ago from the time of this writing, The Dark Tower - a saga near and dear to the hearts of many fantasy fans, and at least as meaningful to a multitude of mainstream Stephen King readers who would never think to identify themselves as such - drew to a calamitous close. It marked an end to the entire affair, assuredly - and these days there is worth in that and that alone - but a dissatisfying one, I dare say, courtesy three long novels composed and published within months of one another versus the twenty-odd years their author had occasionally dedicated to unraveling this epic weird western before the awful accident that seems to have defined his career since.

The subsequent rush to wrap things up showed, of course. But on the bright side, at least the thing was finished.

Back then, though, I couldn't quite bring myself to believe that The Dark Tower was actually over... that the series I'd spent my whole reading life looking forward to following through most of the rest of it was suddenly done and dusted, and with what passed for a whimper rather than the thunderous bang I still insist it had earned.

Well: good news, everyone!

That being said, there's bad news too. The Wind Through the Keyhole may motivate a few Johnny-come-lately types into giving The Gunslinger a shot, and perhaps thereafter the remainder of the mostly magnificent series it begins. Old timers, however - which is to say those of us who have been there, done that before (AND ALL WE GOT WAS THIS STUPID SIDEARM!) - are likely to find themselves frustrated by this so-called midquel's essential insignificance.

"Time is a keyhole. [...] We sometimes bend and peer through it. And the wind we feel on our cheeks when we do - the wind that blows through the keyhole - is the breath of all the living universe." (p.263)

Ostensibly, The Wind Through the Keyhole takes place between Volumes IV and V of The Dark Tower saga, so after Roland's stupefying showdown with Marten Broadcloak in the Emerald City but momentarily before the ka-tet come to Calla Bryn Sturgis and Father Callahan. That, alas, is only important insofar as it represents an empty spot in the mythology where King can stage this postscript of sorts, composed of three stories nestled one within the other within the other.

In the first, whilst traveling along the Path of the Beam, Roland and his oddball posse - including fan-favourite Oy, the billy-bumbler - sense the coming of a Starkblast, and take shelter in an abandoned building to wait out the storm. To help while away the time that night, the wizened old gunslinger of Gilead tells a tale about a tale he was himself told, and once, in his youth, told in turn. This is "The Skin-Man," and though it recalls the extended fiction Peter David has purveyed in Marvel's current comic book cut of The Dark Tower more than anything in the official King canon, it's not half bad for all that. If anything, in (ahem) stark contrast to the narrative within which the other narratives nestle, it's overstuffed... particularly in terms of character.

To his credit, one senses that King is completely cognisant of how very little room he has to maneuver in "The Skin-Man," given that his constant readers know both what comes before it, and after. Thus, there can be no real jeopardy in terms of those folks we know and adore - or not - in advance. In the attempt to redress this balance, however, King goes too far in the other direction, introducing a host of nobodies it's honestly tough to tell apart, far less give a fig for.

It certainly doesn't help that "The Skin-Man" is sliced in half, either. Bifurcated, if you will, by the titular tale, a long novella wherein a woodsman's son, spurred on by two adults - one abusive, the other attractively enigmatic - comes of age after the death of his dear departed father. "The Wind Through the Keyhole" also takes in dark forests, black magics, dragons, SatNav spirits and - to come full circle - a Starkblast, the sister of the very storm you will recall inspired the telling of this old story.

But I've saved the best for last, haven't I? Because finally, not to mention fittingly, there is a reason you need to read The Wind Through the Keyhole, and "The Wind Through the Keyhole" is it. It's a tour de force story: an endearing olde world fable much more ambitious than "The Skin-Man," vastly more satisfying than "Starkblast" or "Storm's Over" - the pointless short with which this midquel concludes - and far better put than anything else in this curiously fragmented collection of loose ends.

Be you a die-hard fan of The Dark Tower or a complete newcomer to King's fiction - assuming such a species of people still exists - "The Wind Through the Keyhole," at least, is well worth the investment. Deeply resonant and sweetly redolent of the good old days of this sadly slightly stymied fantasy saga, it chronicles an author at the top of his game, with some terrific stories yet to tell, and a natural talent for telling them that - at its best, as in this novella - knows no equal.

As to the rest of The Wind Through the Keyhole, though? Well thankee-sai, sincerely... but no thanks.


The Wind Through the Keyhole:
A Dark Tower Novel
by Stephen King

UK Publication: April 2012, Hodder & Stoughton
US Publication: April 2012, Scribner

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  1. Ooof, my excitement and expectations are slightly dimmed after reading your review...but I'll probably still carve out some time in my day to get over to the bookstore and pick this up.

    I think part of what has endeared this series to me is that it isn't perfect. It has some flaws. (some small, some not so small) but regardless, I love the series warts and all.

    Thanks for yet another great review!

  2. I pretty much echo what Ryan says, though I will be picking this one up come payday. I was also quite chuffed to get included on the cover with the competition Hodder was running - doubt I'll be able to make it out on the hard copy though!

  3. I've been thinking about Starting this series, would you recommend reading this book after book 5, or after I finish the series?

  4. Probably between books four and five, Anonymous... though all the catch-up King devotes to Roland's ka-tet and where in the chronology this story falls will likely grate on you if you've just come off Wizard and Glass, so I suppose it's much of a muchness.

  5. You know, Niall, I think I disagree somewhat.

    The Wind is, easily, the second best of the series (behind The Drawing of the Three) for me. It blends the excellent work Robin Furth et al have been doing with the graphic novels (particularly the ones that came before The Gunslinger parts) with King's brilliant prose.

    The framing device of the ka-tet works quite well, especially at the end. Why? We see Roland as human. Not a gunslinger, but human.

    As for the younger Roland? Awesome. He makes mistakes, but ka intervenes and keeps him on the path of the Beam, as it were.

    The Wind Through the Keyhole proper? Hm. 8/10 for that bit. The majority of it was absolutely superb, and could easily have just been released as a novella on its own, but it had a few hiccups as it stopped being a story at a few points and instead became Roland telling a story. By that I mean King added things that didn't quite fit, such as the little exchange about America. As brilliant as that little bit was, it felt out of place.

    I don't think the double-framing was pointless, though. It contextualised things, gave people what they wanted (i.e. more of the ka-tet) and put things into some sort of relevance.

    I must confess I was left wanting more out of it. I wanted to know more about that young girl who was injured (she'd make an excellent support character in the graphic novel).

    But that said? King was on top form with this. I mean his best. He kens his wot, if it pleases ya.

    We say thankya to the Man Jesus and King, we do.

  6. This makes me want to finish the series. I've read the first four (I think...), but somehow never finished the series. Although, it's always had some kind of magnetic attraction for me, never really getting far from my thoughts. Thanks for the review!

    The Sound and Fury of Kristopher A. Denby

  7. You're welcome, Kris. :)

    If I were you - if I could call a do-over on my own progress through the series - I think I might just... leave it there. They have their moments, but the last books are certainly not the best books.

    We can agree on that, can't we Kathryn? What's your perspective on how it all ended anyway?

  8. The ending? Well, personally I don't think the end is as bad as some would say. A bit of a cheap get-out by Sai King, sure, but when one looks at the series and, more specifically, the mythology and magic behind it, it makes sense.

    I think there's some great moments in the last few books. The seventh has some very touching and sad moments, and the fifth is a bit bloated but quite cool in its own way. I've not read them for a few years, so my memory's a little vague, but oddly the one I like the least is the fourth. Why's that odd? Because it's the one I've most often seen as a favourite.

    If you're unwilling to plod through the something like 1500-2000 pages (can't remember exactly) that make up the last three books, then I'd say go for the graphic novels instead. They're largely all prequels upto and including The Gunslinger (the book, that is), a few of them retreading aspects of the books (books 1 and 4 in particular), one being an adaptation of a novella called The Little Sisters of Eluria, but they add in a lot of Roland's back story.

  9. I gotta disagree about the graphic novels being good. If taken by themselves they're great, sure, but if you've read the novels, they are just too many contradictions with them to make them enjoyable. For example, the novels establish that there was no Beam running directly over Gilead (which was why Roland wandered so many years in search of one after the fall of Gilead), but in the comics the characters experience a beamquake directly over the city - a ridiculous point to overlook, imo

  10. Was a little skeptic about this story. As a Constant Reader, I was thinking this would be a sub par extra to the series but, as usual, Mr. King has done it again. I was enthralled with the book and finished it in record time. My only regret is that I am unable to share it on my Kindle. Great read, though!!!