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Jul. 14th, 2017

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The Gunslinger by Stephen King. No bonus points for guessing that I read this to be beforehand with the upcoming movie – though I've since heard that The Gunslinger (film) is not actually based on The Gunslinger (novel), but rather is sort of a sequel to the entire Dark Tower series. And I don't think I'm going to manage to get through another seven King books in less than a month, so I suppose the whole effort was a bit pointless. But I'd been meaning to read the book for years, so maybe not so pointless after all.

Anyway.


The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed, goes the famous opening line, and that's a fair description of the book itself. Characters are few, and those that are present are sparse to the point of one-dimensionality, frequently given epithets rather than names. The setting is a Dark Western Fantasy in a "world that has moved on" – there was once electricity and cities and advanced medicine, but all that's left now are border towns and overgrown ruins and strange cargo cult religions built around the single still-functioning gasoline pump and stories half-remembered from before. It's one of those books where figuring out what the hell is happening and why is the main driver of tension; the reader doesn't learn why the gunslinger is chasing the man in black until the last few pages, and even then there are unanswered questions. Worldbuilding and backstory are mostly conveyed in little hints around the edges of the story, which is pared down to the equivalent of a colorless pencil sketch.

(Note: There exists both an original text (published in 1982) and a "revised and expanded" version (published in 2003); I read the original, since there doesn't seem to be a consensus opinion on which version is better.)

At its best moments, the one-note quality of the writing works like a shotgun blast to convey a specific feeling or setting: the endless dehydrating trek across a flat white desert, the eternity spent in a empty lightless tunnel crossing beneath a mountain. But on the other hand there is whatever the fuck is going on with the book's treatment of female sexuality, which is so bizarre and off putting that I'm not even sure how to describe it. Every female character is horny and obsessed with sleeping with the gunslinger, which he reluctantly deigns to allow. The one exception is his long-lost mother, whose hinted-at adultery leads to a hinted-at downfall of a kingdom, in a Queen Guinevere sort of way.

And then there's the woman who gets shot in the vagina. Which, just... what.

It's weird and episodic and doesn't work terribly well as an individual book rather than the start of a series, but on the whole I think I'm glad I read it. Besides, I hear the subsequent books improve, so I'll have to keep reading.

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