BOOK REVIEW: The Wind Through The Keyhole

The Wind Through the Keyhole by Stephen King, pub. by Hodder & Stoughton (ISBN 9781444731705)

The Dark Tower lies at the centre of all Stephen King’s creations.  It is arguably the most important work of his career, certainly the one on which he’s placed the most emphasis, returning again and again to the narrative across the last thirty years.  The cycle of books can best be described as falling somewhere between Fantasy epic and post-apocalyptic Western.  They follow the tribulations of gunslinger-errant Roland Deschain in his quest to find the  Dark Tower, hub of all Creation, and protect it from the ravages of The Crimson King.  The story was concluded in the seventh volume back in 2004 and that, we thought, was that.  Joyously this has proven to be incorrect.  Since 2007 Marvel comics have been producing a stunning comic adaptation, keeping the saga alive and developing it further by filling in some of the back story.  Then, in 2009, the online game/experience ‘Discordia’ appeared on King’s official website, apparently continuing the story onwards from the end of the final book (I just found this out – kicking myself – going to check it out straight after I’ve finished this review!)  Now, against all hope, the Man himself has written a further novel set in this world.  Has it proven to be pure inspiration or an unnecessary addition to the set?  Read on to see what I made of it…

Listeners to Scrolls will know by now that I’ve held an abiding love for the Dark Tower novels ever since I picked up The Gunslinger at my school library.  As a child I was never one to read horror books, but such was the power of Stephen King’s reputation that I had to give the author a go.  His stand-alone fantasy novel The Eyes Of The Dragon gave me a way in to his writing and really appealled to the child in me.  When I found it, The Gunslinger appealled to the man.

As the years and the novels have gone by, King has opened up his world in many unexpected ways, crafting a rich and complex backdrop that feels utterly new yet at the same time fits the imagination like a well-worn pair of boots.  The series touches on (and is touched by) an enormous number of his books in an almost Lovecraftian manner (I’d say Moorcockian, but that just sounds wrong), with the body of his work adding weight to this core universal narrative.  Whilst the overall story was completed in The Dark Tower, The Wind Through The Keyhole represents just that – additional weight.  Does it tell us more about the main story?  No.  Does it add to our comprehension of the characters, the world and their history?  Absolutely.

Before I review the book itself, a note on the chronology.  Although technically the eighth book in the series The Wind Through The Keyhole (hereafter referred to as TWTTK) actually slots between books 4 and 5 on your shelf.  King uses the same narrative device here as he did in Wizard And Glass (WAG), the prequel tale of Roland’s tragic past – which is to say that we spend a little bit of quality time with the main characters before sitting down with them to hear Roland tell us a story of days-gone-by.  It’s a neat technique and it worked just fine in WAG.  However, I can see this being a big problem for readers coming new to the series.  Whilst books 1-3 flow effortlessly into one another, Book 4 inches forward before diving back into the past.  Now, I found this a little frustrating when I initially read WAG, but think how much worse it will be for a first-time reader who must then move straight on to TWTTK – where the same thing happens again.  All sense of forward momentum in the overarching plot is effectively lost.  King takes pains in his Foreword to tell us that this can be read as a standalone novel, and indeed he fills in the reader with the basic tid-bits necessary to get to grips with the story blind, but I remain skeptical as to the advisability of this.  Whether you choose to read TWTTK first – as a Dark Tower taster, in  chronoligical order with the rest of the series – as book 4.5, or right at the end – like a dvd deleted scene, it’s down to you.  The main thing is you should read it.

The book itself is a delight and I devoured it with the greatest of pleasure.  It’s a good looking hardback with illustrations scattered throughout by renowned artist Jae Lee (whose gorgeous work can also be seen in the previously mentioned Marvel adaptations).  When a writer/publisher goes to the trouble of adding such extra flourishes it makes the work feel more like a labour of love.  It’s a quality that comes across in the writing itself and, for me at least, it is like seeing an old friend for the first time in years.  King lives and breathes Mid-World.  He knows the place, loves it, and he makes us love it too – for all its lurking terrors.  Structurally it is a fascinating exercise: The Wind Through The Keyhole is a story nested within a story, within a story; and each tale has bearing on the others whilst retaining its own style and seperate identity.

The first part – Starkblast – reunites us with Roland and his ‘ka-tet’ of companions.  It drops us straight in and deftly familiarises us with the gunslingers, sketching them out in a way that neither excludes new readers or bores old ones.  The interaction between them is vivid, sparky and true, delineating character traits as much as setting the scene.  This is proper Stephen King, weaving the complex tapestry of the world with a simplicity and grace that eludes so many writers.  They are placed quite quickly in the path of danger (which still manages to evokes a genuine thrill, despite their safety being assured) and the wintry prison they find themseves in sets the scene nicely for a fireside tale.  If there is one thing that this book is about as a whole it is the power of storytelling – the gift of the tale and the wonder and comfort gained by hearing it.  As Roland puts it ‘A person’s never too old for stories… Man and boy, girl and woman, we live for them.’

The story he relates as they shiver by the fireside is one of his own life, following on from the disastrous events of WAG.  It is called The Skin-Man, and the first part of it makes up the next section of the book.  This one feels more like a knightly quest and a has a proper Western feel to it thanks to the setting.  Sent by his father to investigate a series of horrific murders, young Gunslinger Roland and his friend Jamie must discover the truth behind the stories of a shape-shifter in the midst of a mining community.  It’s a gripping mission, properly chilling in its way, and it adds the flavour of crime procedural into the mixing bowl of King’s creation.  It has to be said, if this is the kind of job the gunslingers used to do then I could definitely read more of these tales.  The story is pretty focussed and relatively slender, but it’s good to see more of the days before the world moved on.  Nice also to get some screen-time for Jamie DeCurry, a character from Roland’s youth often mentioned but rarely encountered.  Tracking the beast they discover a potential witness, a terrified young boy.  Later whilst trying to calm the boy, Roland tells him a well-remembered story that his mother used to read to him in off far off, innocent days of his childhood.

This tale is called The Wind Though The Keyhole and it fills a good half of the book.  Surprising really, considering that it features no characters that we are familiar with (save one, perhaps) and due to the nature of the tale you would expect something shorter – but there is something in the telling that makes you hunker down the more to listen in and the power of Storytelling takes yet further hold upon you.  It is, for want of a better word, a fairy-tale.  It has a totally different feel to the first two sections, yet it is still patently a product of the same world.  The initial story of young Tim Ross, his da an his ma is a great little one, but as it develops it becomes something epic.  There is a great deal of emotional and psychological truth to early part of the story and stylistically the development of the small community, complete with dark secrets and simple strength is very Stephen King.  This is also where the narrative voice becomes a little slippery.  The level of detail is far beyond traditional fairy tales, but it is unclear to me whether this is King’s indulgance as a writer, Roland’s embroidery of a simpler story – for as he states, storytelling ‘was a thing (he) learned to do well in time… All gunslingers have to’ or simply that children in MidWorld are read far deeper and wiser tales than ours.  There is little of magic and much of pain in the first half, but when the quest begins it gets pretty full-on, with swamp beasts, a dragon, magical artifacts, trickery and tests – all described with that peculiar blend of childish innocence and brutal truth that marks out the best fairy-tales.  It is grand and it is wonderful and it holds terrors for the young – but hope and redemption too.

The Skin-Man Part 2 picks up the threads of Rolands own story in a satisfying manner, solving the case, restoring order to the community and security to the young boy.  At the same time we come to understand a little more about Roland and how he developed into the hardened man we first met in The Gunslinger.  We round off with the ever so brief Storm’s Over, wrapping up the Starkblast narrative.  It is our return to the reality of The Dark Tower storyline, our awakening from the dreamtime that a good story can put you into.  Before recommencing their mission King permits his characters to ask a few questions about what we’ve all ‘heard.’  It feels right that they should do so and is quite nicely handled without feeling too exposition heavy, but I also found it frustratingly lacking in length or depth.  As readers we have all made connections between certain things in TWTTK and events/people/artifacts in the rest of the main narrative, but this is never picked up on by the Gunslingers (who are none of them stupid.)  It is a small nit-pick and who knows what the future may bring?  He has already revised The Gunslinger in the wake of the series finale.  Perhaps King will smooth things out in years to come with slight revisions in the rest of the series.  Until then we’ll have to accept the odd wrinkles and admire the cloth as a whole.

So where does this leave us?  For me, gloriously happy from reading a great book.  Also saddened and a little emotionally worn by the journey.  I’m hopeful now that more tales from Mid-World wait for us around the next next corner.  Mostly though, it’s left me with the sense that, regardless of how little it is needed, a well-told tale is worth the telling, and truly worth the reading.

Rating: 4.5/5
GS Reviewer: Dion Winton-Polak

You can hear me blathering about books on Scrolls, the podcast for literary geekdom here on the Geek Syndicate Network.
You can follow me on Twitter @Dion_Scrolls too if you like.

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