The Waste Lands (The Dark Tower series – book 3) by Stephen King (audio book)
Another audio book; look at me, I’m on a roll.
I, for reasons unclear to me, started listening to Stephen King’s The Waste Lands just as our world’s current COVID-19 nightmare ramped up – this is not the time to be reading of dystopian futures, right? Oddly though, given that I had read this disturbing book back in my university days, it was almost like finding comfort in the familiar. Yes, I remembered it pretty well in terms of the plot points but I still, odd for me (I don’t usually re-read books), enjoyed the rediscovery of it.
King is a master. The set pieces are well imagined. The tension is taut, and knows just when to give readers some release. The characters are imperfect and some somewhat caricature-ish, not to mention that it took me a while to aclimatize to the vocal choice for one of my faves (Eddie). That said, the characters that count have the levels needed (revealed slowly, naturally in the storytelling) to make them endearing. And then there is the off kilter borderline creepy otherworldliness that has made King’s work, Carrie to The Shining to Misery to It, popular across several platforms – TV, film, and, primarily, books.
As I write this, I am reminded what turned me off about the trailer of the big screen adaptation of the series (yes, just the trailer, I haven’t yet seen the film), it looked too …clean. I loved the casting of Idris Elba as The Gunslinger (because Idris is always a win) and was hyped for it, but from the jump, it just seemed to lack the grit of the series. This layer of film (i.e. dust) is very present in the book/s. It is not necessarily (nor just) a visual thing, though that’s part of it. It’s a tonal thing. This is an old school western wrapped in a thriller wrapped in a post-apocalyptic dystopia wrapped in dark fantasy wrapped in a ragtag family questing adventure but it never forgets that it is a smelly, dusty, world-weary western. The film (i.e. movie) I haven’t yet seen and could be judging incorrectly (the trailer for it anyway) seemed too slick and too pristine by comparison.
I’ll still watch it at some point but reading The Waste Lands, I am reminded of that initial impression – because in this world that has moved on leaving all manner of forgotten people and machines behind, there is grit, a sheen of de-lustre (if that’s a thing).
I am also reminded how much I love this series. And I am reminded how mad I was at the ending of The Waste Lands, which probably had something to do with why I put the series on pause back when. I cannot stand reading something that’s unfinished even within a series, the particular book should come to an end (see Anne Rice’s Vampire Chronicles for reference), and this one literally ends on a cliffhanger – who will win the riddle bet that means life or death for our venturing band which includes Eddie and Odetta/Detta/Susannah (introduced in previous book The Drawing of the Three, my favourite of the three books I’ve read in the series because your first is always your favourite), Jake and Roland, the titular Gunslinger of the first book, and the sentient dog-like creature that is more than a pet, and is actually one of the MVPs of The Waste Lands.
To picture the wastelands think of films like Book of Eli or TV shows like The Walking Dead wherein civilization has collapsed and feral humans lurk behind every corner and the whole world feels like a wilderness – a dead world gone wild. The flipside of that world is another wild landscape, NYC where some of the story takes place. The New York chapters are as interesting as Roland’s world (that has moved on). The way the story flips between the two is effective and germane to the plot which deals with split and slipping mental realities (double reality, multiple personality, schizophrenia, some variation of…) and the madness it signals to those who can’t get a handle on what’s real and what isn’t in their own mind. Several characters, including one AI, fight this mental battle.
Some other observations. I never realized how short the chapters were before (or maybe the storytelling is so good they just feel short); it made the reading go quicker as I could listen in manageable sound bites. The book slips in and out of different point of views, and reading the characters struggling with their grip on reality can be unsettling. It’s a very effective use of point of view but, fair warning, you might be unsettled. Also, I’m giving the book a win for calling a cutlass, a cutlass and not a machete (as it often is when I’m taking in American entertainment), I almost felt like I was reading Caribbean fiction for a minute. King for all his pop fic bonafides is also a wordsmith (and his work is literature), with rich descriptions, one character’s laughter for instance described as sounding “like rats scampering over broken glass”; and a deeply human and philosophical aspect that the action never allows you to forget – lines like “old animosities forgotten now that the end was finally upon them” hitting hard. I didn’t like the sentient, somewhat verbal dog, Oy, actually something called a bungler, in the beginning – the idea of it; but he really grew on me. Blaine did not. I’ll leave you to read the book to find out who Blaine is.
It’s pretty much a given that I’ll finally be getting around to reading the remaining books in the series – I’ve added them to my TBR anyway. So, that’s the prequel to The Gunslinger, The Little Sisters of Eluria, and the sequels The Waste Lands, Wizard and Glass, The Wind through the Keyhole, Wolves of the Calla, Song of Susannah, The Dark Tower, and whatever other million books and stories in the series there are. Because that’s what my already overlong TBR list needs, more books.