Stephen King’s latest, The Wind Through the Keyhole, is a DARK TOWER novel. The cover assures readers that they can read this novel even if they have not read the rest of the series, which is probably true, but the already converted will be interested to know that The Wind Through the Keyhole is something like the 4.5th book in the series. While King may not (cannot?) offer any revelations here that will significantly alter the course of the series, he does offer readers another chance to join Roland and his posse of gunslingers as they make their way toward the Dark Tower.
Mid-World has “moved on.” Although the world is desolate, its language continues to thrive and evolve since King clearly revels in adding to both its formality and its callous slang. The storm that waylays the gunslingers is a “starkblast.” For some, Mid-World’s curiously familiar yet oddly foreign language will be what gives Roland’s world its depth, but it may well serve as a litmus test for others. By the time Eddie says that he wants a bumper sticker that reads “I Waited Out the Starkblast in Gook,” readers should have an idea whether or not they have suspended their disbelief sufficiently to enjoy The Wind Through the Keyhole.
However, those that do buy in to this world are in for quite a good Stephen King story. The novel begins in Mid-World as Roland leads Eddie, Susannah, Jake, and Oy away from Lud (Wizard and Glass) on their way to Calla Bryn Sturgis (The Wolves of the Calla). They are caught up in a storm, take shelter, and Roland agrees to tell a story from his youth as well as a fairy tale that his mother used to tell him. It may sound like a frame story coupled with two short works, but the novel is actually arranged more like Roland’s hypnotic coin trick, offering its readers a chance to sink further into Mid-World’s id as they leave reason behind.
Roland and his partner Jamie are sent to investigate a series of supernatural murders involving a “skin-man.” I have always enjoyed reading about Roland’s childhood in Gilead, and it was nice to visit there once more. Although Roland and Jamie investigate a murder, the plot is unsatisfying if taken as a “who-done-it,” if only because the plot of King’s later novels often proceeds thanks to the hero’s faith that his life will eventually lead to a climactic confrontation.
The fairytale at the novel’s core also follows the story of a child, Tim, who bravely believes that things will have to work out for the best if he continues down the same dangerous path life has set before him. Tim’s father has passed away and his mother has remarried, and Tim’s stepfather turns out to be physically abusive in a way that recalls Full Dark, No Stars. When the Covenant Man, or taxman, comes for his due, he offers Tim a chance at revenge. However, the deal that Tim makes with the Covenant Man ends up being more than he bargained for, and his path back to safety will force him to confront a dragon, a tiger, and an artificial intelligence. Although I was initially hesitant to leave Roland’s monster hunt behind, I ultimately found Tim’s tale, or the gunslinger’s fairytale, the most interesting part of the book.
Although some fans felt that King had lost his way by the time the Dark Tower series ended, he seems to have written a story that will widely appeal to his fans. King is nominally retired, but he can still write a twisted and gory scene. This one stood out to me:
The sore above his nipple burst open in a spray of pus and blood. From it crawled a spider the size of a robin’s egg. Helmsman grabbed it, crushed it, and tossed it aside. Then, as Tim watched with horrified fascination, he used one hand to push the wound wide. When the sides gaped like horrified lips, he used the other hand to reach in and scoop out a slick mass of faintly throbbing eggs.
Yuck. King also still has a knack for portraying the wonder and decay of Mid-World. The Dark Tower novels stand out for their ability to bring together elements of sci-fi, fantasy, horror and the western into one mostly seamless narrative, and he does so again in The Wind Through the Keyhole. Although there is little here that will alter the series, I still found myself taking notes of little questions I had about the way that Mid-World works (and decays).
The Wind Through the Keyhole may not be the best novel in the DARK TOWER series, but it works very well as a DARK TOWER adventure. In his Foreword, King writes that he “was delighted to discover my old friends had a little more to say. It was a great gift to find them again, years after I thought their stories were told.” I agree, and would be happy to read further stories from Mid-World.
A story within a story within a story. Yep, it’s one of those books.
First, there’s “Starkblast” (Story #1), about Roland Deschain and his ka-tet, shortly after the events of Wizard and Glass. There’s a whopper of a storm coming, so they take shelter, and Roland tells a story to pass the time.
His story, “The Skin-Man” (Story #2), is about Roland as a young gunslinger, investigating a series of horrific murders. He takes guardianship of the only witness to the crimes and, to pass the time while they wait for the suspects to arrive for identification, tells a story.
That story, “The Wind Through the Keyhole” (Story #3), is about a young boy who must find courage in the face of evil both great and small. That story is well-written, compelling, and puts all of King’s storytelling gifts on display. Story #3 is enough like a fairy tale to impart a sense of wonder and nostalgia, while including so many deft touches (men who are mutating into moss-creatures, the guidance device called DARIA, the green-eyed tyger) that I thoroughly enjoyed reading it.
Story #2 is, in my eyes, useless baggage that could have been cut from the final manuscript without any detriment to the final product. Story #2 is King at his worst: simple characterization, flimsy dialogue, and super-saturated violence. We are told that the murderer is a skin-changer, a man who can shift his shape into that of an animal’s; we are told that he changes form at night and then terrorizes the countryside by murdering people and tearing them limb from limb; must we then be told the exact details of the attacker’s erect penis, and that he rapes his victims while eating their faces? Especially if two of his victims are young girls? I think not.
As a framing device, Story #1 functions perfectly well and would have been perfectly acceptable as the sole bookend for Story #3. Story #1 is short, direct to the point, and shares many of Story #3’s plot devices. That said, it adds nothing crucial or substantial to the overall Dark Tower mythos, so I would not consider it required reading for anyone who is working their way through the series. Besides which, “The Wind Through the Keyhole” didn’t need two framing devices. One story would have sufficed, kept the final product smaller, and created a novel which I would happily re-read. Unfortunately, Story #2 left such a bad impression with me that I don’t know if I’ll bother reading through The Wind Through the Keyhole again.