Stephen King, The Dark Tower III: The Waste Lands (Grant, 1991)
[originally posted 24Jan2000]
There’s something about conceptual, temporal art that seems to be a pervading problem—series novels, concept albums, time-lapse series of paintings, you name it. You hit a point where you’ve just had something really exciting happen at Point A. You’ve got a great idea for something exciting to happen at Point B. And you’ve got this really big space in between (Side 3 of Pink Floyd The Wall, for example). How do you get from point A to point B without boring the life out of your reader/listener/viewer/whatever?
There are two choices. Choice A is used by visual artists a whole lot: ignore that span of time. Cut it out. Make it go away. Deus ex machina: “And then three years passed.” You get a more impressionist work, and you risk losing some of your fan base, because they don’t have the mental capacity to make the jump.
Choice B is used by almost everyone who writes books and/or music, and that is the transitional piece. Queensryche’s fabulous concept album Operation: Mindcrime would be a perfect disc if not for the opening song on side two. Pink Floyd… well, I’ve already gone there. Point is, there’s a weak link in every chain. The one book, one song, one whatever that contains a few useful tidbits but otherwise could have been ten minutes or four hundred pages shorter. In the present scenario, that book is The Waste Lands.
To be fair, given that this problem seems to be ubiquitous, King does some good with it, using this five-hundred-plus page monstrosity to bring back some old faces and acquaint us with some new ones (would it be a spoiler to tell you we’ve got a new adversary here whom you know from another, non-Dark Tower book or two?), drops a few more hints about the war that caused the world to move on, introduces us to the author of that war, a man named Fannin/Fanon (mentioned in Drawing of the Three as the leader of the opposing forces, and here given us as The Ageless Stranger, who we were told early on will be the final obstacle to Roland gaining the Tower), and gives us the latter half of the series’ equivalent of Walter in the Tick-Tock Man. Did that last paragraph confuse you? It should have. The book probably will, too, although King gives all that to us in a lot more words. He also gets us from point A to… well, about halfway to point B (and the ending of this book will make you throw it across the room, guaranteed—it’s such a shocker that King felt the need to reprint the last eleven pages of The Waste Lands as the prologue to Wizard and Glass!). We get to know the characters we already know a little better. We see more full-color illustrations (Dameron’s just not right for this, Grant should have stuck with Hale, whose work for DoT was the best in the series to date). We tie up a loose end or two, but nothing really satisfying. We hope for a better book in Wizard and Glass (and, for those of you following this thing through to the bitter end, let me assure you that we get it). That being said, it’s still not as bad as some of King’s early-career unreadable howlers like Firestarter. It’s confusing, it’s pretty much plotless, but at least it’s readable. The compulsiveness of a series, by book III, rests quite a bit on how much you liked what came before. And if DoT didn’t hook you, you don’t have a pulse. ** ½