fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsbook review Stephen King The GunslingerThe Gunslinger by Stephen King

Stephen King’s The Gunslinger is a post-apocalyptic Western-fantasy hybrid about the gunslinger Roland Deschain and his pursuit of the man in black across a desert.

At first glance, the Western plays the largest role in The Gunslinger. Roland carries two heavy six shooters with sandalwood handles, and he can fire them both with deadly accuracy. He wears a duster, leads a pack mule when we first meet him, and is chasing his quarry across a seemingly endless desert. So it is not surprising that King cites The Good, the Bad and the Ugly as an influence in his introductory essay “On Being Nineteen (and a Few Other Things).”

The Western may be the more prominent inspiration for Roland, but his quest would make any author of epic fantasy jealous. It is not the ecstasy of gold, for example, that drives Roland. Instead, his life’s purpose is to complete an epic quest, which King has explained was inspired by Robert Browning’s poem “Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came” and Tolkien’s THE LORD OF THE RINGS. Roland does not seek the fountain of youth, nor does he seek to destroy the One Ring. Roland only hopes to save the world by reaching the Dark Tower, the nexus of the universe, and killing the “crimson king” that is trying to destroy it. Of course, there is any number of monsters and sorcerers, first among them being the man in black, that stand between it and Roland.

The Western and fantasy may seem like distinct genres with little room for overlap, but King finds a common romance at the heart of both genres. Roland is the last of his kind, and he is determined to complete his quest and see justice done. His world is bleak, but it is also grand. When Roland asks one desert “dweller,” Brown, whether he believes in an afterlife, Brown replies “I think this is it.” The world has “moved on,” but it and its survivors seem larger than life even when they are merely carrying on.

fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsKing has a knack for investing a sense of dread in the commonplace. Here, King twists the romance of Roland’s quest until it becomes a curse upon the gunslinger and everyone around him. Rather than writing about a noble, self-sacrificing savior hobbit, King has created a man who is, perhaps literally, hell-bent on reaching his goal. What is terrifying about Roland is not his guns but rather his single-minded determination to reach the Dark Tower. No matter what challenge is set before him, Roland finds something to sacrifice in order to overcome it. In spite of the many past sacrifices that haunt Roland, the monsters and sorcerers seem to be winning.

The Gunslinger is an early Stephen King novel, and at times it feels as though it was written almost entirely on instinct. Still, it remains one of my favorites from him. It was the combination of the Wild West and post-apocalyptic fantasy that captured my attention when I first read this novel as a teenager. As an adult, I still find the distinct mood that this genre hybrid produces intriguing. King has created a world that has room for saloons and shoot ‘em ups but also mutants and oracles. And best of all: the steady march of the last gunslinger, a man who will do anything to save a world that may already be dead.

Potential readers would do well to consider The Gunslinger’s publication history before they begin reading. Sections of Roland’s story first appeared in magazines in the late 1970s. They were later collated and published as one novel in 1982. The story would later evolve into The Dark Tower series, a collection of seven novels (eight if we include The Wind Through the Keyhole) that took decades to finish and which formed a hub for many of King’s other works. King revised and reissued The Gunslinger in 2003 to smooth out continuity problems, and the plot corrections do give The Gunslinger a stronger connection to the rest of the series, especially the concluding entry, The Dark Tower. The reissued novel also offers both an introduction and a forward that comments on aging, writing, and the inspiration for the series.

~Ryan Skardal

book review Stephen King The GunslingerA few weeks ago I picked up a used copy of The Gunslinger by Stephen King. I wanted to use the two opening paragraphs for a writers group I’m facilitating. After the group, I decided I’d just browse the opening chapter, because, you know, it’s classic King… and then I lost the whole day re-reading it. 

The Gunslinger is the first book in THE DARK TOWER series. King published the title novella that forms the kernel of the book in 1978, in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. He completed four more novellas, and in 1982 they were published as one novel for the first time.

The Gunslinger has one of those memorable opening lines:

The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed.

When I read it originally in the 1990s, I was hooked. When I read a few weeks ago, I was hooked. Usually Stephen King books give us names; names of characters, names of towns, of newspapers, of famous national brands, setting us firmly in a “real” world that somehow makes the horrible things that follow even more terrible by comparison. Not here; the two characters who set the entire seven-book plot in motion do not have names, they have titles. This sparseness continues throughout the linked novellas; unlike later King books which would get longer and longer (even within THE DARK TOWER series itself) The Gunslinger is streamlined; short sentences, short paragraphs, truncated dialogue. King uses this style to depict a world that is withering and dying. There are ghost towns in the desert. There are legends and myths of the times before, but there are no heroes.

The gunslinger himself, in these stories, is a literary anti-hero; the protagonist who does bad and despicable things. He’s not admirable, but somehow his drive, his mission, compels us as much as it compels him. We are drawn to him although we hate what he is doing.

Even with the simple, sparse prose, King takes his time getting started in the first novella. The gunslinger treks across a desert, following a dusty track that used to be a great highway where coaches went. He meets a “dweller” in the desert, a man who has a small patch of corn and a tame raven. The dweller invites the gunslinger to share his meal, and they talk about the town of Tull.

“I started to tell you about Tull.”

“Is it growing?”

“It’s dead,” the gunslinger said, “I killed it” He thought of adding, And now I’m going to kill you, for no other reason than I don’t want to have to sleep with one eye open. But had he come to such behavior? If so, why bother to go on at all? Why, if he had become what he pursued?

The implication is that the gunslinger had a different set of ethics before he set out on this particular quest. When we see, through a flashback, what happened in the town of Tull, we recognize that the gunslinger is driven by survival instinct and pragmatism. The town of Tull was drying up and blowing away in the desert, but it probably wasn’t corrupt until the gunslinger’s quarry, the man in black, showed up. Allie, the saloon-keeper, is just a regular woman who tries to be the one decent person left in town, but that does not save her at the end.

Before he kills the town, the gunslinger commits a weird sexual assault on the woman preacher, Sylvia Pittson. When I write “weird sexual assault” I’m not being coy or squeamish. I honestly am not completely sure exactly what happens in that awful scene, because King, who usually has no trouble taking us right down into the grit, the blood, the snot and the vomit, is strangely vague about what the gunslinger does. It’s safe to say that is a violation and a terrible one; but Sylvia is the minion of a demon, and proud of it; and in the gunslinger’s code, even now, demons must be defeated. And it’s Sylvia who set in motion the town’s final, fatal attack on the gunslinger.

The Gunslinger’s world is post-apocalyptic with little time spent on the nature of that apocalypse. As the book continues with “The Way Station” and later, in “The Slow Mutants,” we get glimpses of the gunslinger’s upbringing, as Roland, son of Steven, of the line of Eld, growing up in the city of Gilead. And we get an idea of how catastrophe came to this world. As The Gunslinger continues, King salts the stories with clues about this alternate reality, the crossover that brought bullet trains, robots and nuclear contamination to a world with demons and magic, and how those merged. This world is a mash-up, just as the stories are a mash-up, in King’s own words, of the stories of King Arthur and the Round Table, Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came by Robert Browning, and the nameless poncho-wearing gunfighter Clint Eastwood played in the western movie A Fistful of Dollars.

In these novellas, it is clear that King is playing with time, or Roland’s perception of time, in several respects. Roland does not really know how long he has been pursuing the man in black; it isn’t clear how long it’s been since his home, Gilead, fell. Roland can’t remember. When he meets Jake, a boy from our reality, at the way station, Jake is frightened because he is losing memories of his home, and does not know how long he has been at the way station. Time doesn’t work, in this world, the way it does it ours… or even the way it used to in their world, in the old days. It seems like decades must have gone by, but Roland meets a man in Tull who he recognizes from when he was a youth and first met Susan Delgado. In the final section of the book, King partially explains this through flat-out magic, worked by the man in black, but we the readers guess that mere magic isn’t all of it. And we’re right.

The five novellas, knit together, work as a book. I read the 2003 edition, which King had edited to smooth out inconsistencies between these stories and the later books. While they function as a dark, dystopian whole, I have to wonder how these stories read as stand-alone pieces back in the early 1980s when they were showing up in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. I know that people would have read anything by Stephen King, but several of these sections don’t feel complete on their own. In particular, “The Oracle and the Mountains” feels unfinished, referring to events that clearly will take place in a larger work.

King started working on The Gunslinger in 1970. Even though it is forty years old, it really isn’t dated, largely because King didn’t create a world based on the current world of his day. The gunslinger’s world is different. What worked back then still works now: the sheer weirdness of this world, and the frightening obsession of Roland, his endless pursuit of the man in black.

~Marion Deeds


  • Ryan Skardal

    RYAN SKARDAL, on our staff from September 2010 to November 2018, is an English teacher who reads widely but always makes time for SFF.

  • Marion Deeds

    Marion Deeds, with us since March, 2011, is the author of the fantasy novella ALUMINUM LEAVES. Her short fiction has appeared in the anthologies BEYOND THE STARS, THE WAND THAT ROCKS THE CRADLE, STRANGE CALIFORNIA, and in Podcastle, The Noyo River Review, Daily Science Fiction and Flash Fiction Online. She’s retired from 35 years in county government, and spends some of her free time volunteering at a second-hand bookstore in her home town.