Stephen King, The Dark Tower II: The Drawing of the Three (Plume, 1989)
[originally posted 17Jan2000]
By the time Plume released the first book in the Dark Tower series, The Gunslinger, it had achieved almost legendary status. Copies of the first edition, printed by Donald M. Grant, were going for $1250 on the auction block; the copies of Fantasy and Science Fiction containing the original stories were going for over $100 apiece. Then Plume brought out a trade paper edition, and to some extent the bottom fell out of the market.
What’s a fair price for a limited edition of an artist’s work? And how can you trust anyone who says it’s said artist’s best work? There are those who will believe that about any limited edition piece of work by any popular artist, certainly; by 1986, I was convinced that The Gunslinger was the holy grail, the be-all and end-all of Stephen King books. And then one of my classmates at college, a guy whose father was a friend of Grant’s, put a copy into my hand. I couldn’t take it out of his room, of course– it was worth about the cost of my meal plan for the year at that time– but I could immerse myself in it for a while. And I did, for two days straight. And while it didn’t have the solid, brutal power of The Stand, it had its own blissful, somewhat surreal magnetism. Trying to compare it to other Stephen King novels was like trying to compare Kurosawa’s The Seven Samurai with John Sayles’ The Return of the Secaucus Seven; there are some elements that pass from film to film, but the heart beneath it all is a radically different beast. Still, the human mind is destined to attempt to compare, and at that time I considered The Gunslinger the second-best book Stephen King had ever written.
Three years later, after I’d already worn out my first trade paper copy of The Gunslinger and made a failed attempt to purchase a copy of the hardback edition of The Drawing of the Three in a small Maine bookshop for $115 (it went for approximately $200, if memory serves), Plume brought out the second book in the series. This time, the transition from hardback to trade paper took less than six months. I bought, I retired to a place where no one could find me. I read.
News flash: The Drawing of the Three is even better than The Gunslinger.
No one who’s ever even heard the name Stephen King needs to be told about the plot of the Dark Tower; there’s a guy named Roland, and he’s on a quest for… you get the idea. We find out about some of the allusions given us in The Gunslinger, we find out limited information about some others, and there are some other things brought up that have no explanation as of the end of this book (a new character form the old time, Alain, is introduced, and Roland gives us enough so that we know he was in the same class as Roland, and that Roland and Cuthbert killed him, presumably in a duel; we get all that in a sentence or two, and nothing else). We also find out the meaning of the Tarot-like reading Walter performs on Roland at the end of The Gunslinger. But we’re left with as many, or more, questions than we had at the beginning of book one.
If the beginning of The Gunslinger put you off, don’t worry about this one. Where The Gunslinger makes attempts to seduce the reader into Roland’s world by putting him down gently and leaving him to his own devices, more or less, The Drawing of the Three begins with a scene that, coming from the world of The Gunslinger, is almost impossible to believe. It is, I think I can say, the most powerful scene in the series to date, and it has stayed with me from my first reading of those first pages up to now, ten years later. And this time, even though I knew it was coming, I still didn’t believe it. That’s good, solid storytelling.
I doubt the Dark Tower series is going to become immortal prose, and I doubt a thousand years from now it will be taught in schools as archetypal twentieth-century literature (as I believe The Stand will be), but from the perspective of Dark-Tower-as-part-of-the-corpus, this is some of King’s finest material, and while King has written a number of damned fine books, The Drawing of the Three is without a doubt somewhere in the top five. **** 1/2