I recently said I look for “imaginative escapism” in summer reading, and Stephen King’s, The Wind Through the Keyhole, 2012, qualifies on both scores.
This book is a celebration of stories by a consummate storyteller. It is structured as a frame tale, three levels deep – a story within a story within a story, something you find in some our oldest epics and story collections like The Odyssey and The Arabian Nights.
In case we we miss that connection, King says it another way through his main character, Roland Deschain, who tells his traveling companions, “There’s nothing like stories on a windy night when folks have found a warm place in a cold world.” Later, during a story concerning his younger self, Roland says, “A person’s never too old for stories…Man and boy, girl and woman, never too old. We live for them.”
This is the eighth of King’s Dark Tower Novels, and the first I have read, but the introduction caught me up well enough to proceed. Roland Deschain is a gunslinger in Mid-World. A gunslinger is a cross between a knight errant and an old west marshall. Many gunslingers are descendants of “the old White King, Arthur Eld.”
Mid World borders our own and is “filled with monsters and decaying magic.” In places, there are gates between the worlds, or places where “the veils are thin.” Three of Roland’s companions come from New York. The fourth is a billy bumbler, a talking, dog-like creature.
Roland and his companions – his ka-tet – barely have time to find shelter from a starkblast, a devastating storm, with winds like a hurricane, the sudden onset of a tsunami, and temperatures so cold that trees snap and explode. While the friends shelter by the fire in the only stone building in a deserted town, Roland tells of one of his first assignments as a gunslinger.
In the first story, “The Skin-Man,” Roland rides with his partner, Jamie Red-Hand, to the desolate mining town of Debaria, where a shapeshifter has slaughtered dozens of people. This a gritty western world, like the bleakest of early Clint Eastwood’s westerns, and the monster is more deadly than the bad and the ugly Clint faced down.
While talking to an 11 year old survivor of an attack, a boy whose father and a dozen others were slaughtered, young Roland tells the second tale, “The Wind Through the Keyhole,” about another 11 year old, Tim Ross, who goes on a dangerous quest to save his mother who has been injured by a treacherous step-father. Tim sets off to find Maerlyn, aka Merlin, at the heart of The Endless Forest.
Picture an 11 year old on an Arthurian quest, who stumbles into a swamp filled with gators and is saved by a group of plant people who communicate telepathically and give him a strange disk with buttons and lights that speaks and answers his questions in a female voice. Her name is Daria. Once she tells him she’ll be “offline” for half an hour, “searching for a satellite link.”
Just when he’d begun to believe she really had died, the green light came back on, the little stick reappeared, and Daria announced, “I have reestablished satellite link.”
“Wish you joy of it,” Tim replied.
Well, why not? Is a magical iPhone so different from an enchanted sword or magical ring? A master storyteller like Stephen King can pull of escapades like this because he always has me asking the one question that really matters in storytelling. To quote Neil Gaiman, that question is, “What happened next?”
There’s adventure, courage, cruelty, humor, horror and much more as Roland Deschain takes us in and leads us back out of three levels of story. One constant throughout all the tales is the wind, and I think Roland speaks for King when he says:
In the end, the wind takes everything, doesn’t it? And why not? Why other? If the sweetness of our lives did not depart, there would be no sweetness at all.
The Wind Through the Keyhole is a very satisfying summer read – and quite a bit more.