If I were able to craft my own degree in Geek Studies, I would load up on graduate-level classes about Hobbits and vampire slayers and post-apocalyptic survival. I’d study superheroes and villains, monsters and robots, old worlds and new technologies. Thankfully, there’s not much need to be hypothetical about the opportunity to study these topics. There are legions of curious geeks just like me out there crafting opinions, analyzing themes, and bringing scholarly criticism to the wide universe that is popular culture media.
One such insightful work is Patrick McAleer’s Inside the Dark Tower Series: Art, Evil, and Intertextuality in the Stephen King Novels. There is plenty of subject matter across King’s vast library of works for scholars to engage with, but, as McAleer notes in the Introduction, there has been a noticeable lack of attention paid to what is arguably the center of King’s literary endeavors: the eight novels that comprise The Dark Tower. In crafting his “magnum opus,” King deliberately created a story that would encompass all of the fictional worlds flowing from his pen. As such, it is a work crying out for analysis, discussion, and comparison.
McAleer begins this task by asking if King is a worthy subject for critical study. Is he merely a popular horror writer or something more complex? Naturally, as a student of popular culture, I conclude with McAleer that popularity and critical worth are not mutually exclusive, and as an avid reader of a large number of King’s books, I agree with McAleer that pigeonholing King into the horror genre is much too limiting.
This discussion of genre continues on into Chapter 1, as McAleer addresses central themes and character motivations, in particular the reason for Roland Deschain’s pursuit of the Dark Tower, at the expense of friend and foe alike. In the Dark Tower, King lays a foundation in science fiction, layers on a mix of elements from multiple other genres, and wraps the whole thing up in a climactic event that defines categorization altogether. The constant circling from the end to the beginning implies that the central pursuit of knowledge is a quest that can never be completed . . . an idea which McAleer posits is the true horror to be found in the story.
In scrutinizing The Dark Tower series against these genres, McAleer accomplishes a nice refresher course in their basic attributes, and, especially in the case of science fiction, delves deeper into the reasons for the growing prevalence of speculative fiction across all literary fiction. The bottom line here is “the complexity of modern living cannot be encapsulated by just one genre.”
From the question of genre and central motivations, McAleer moves on to the multifaceted depictions of evil to be found in all of the characters in the series, both big and small, primary and secondary. We have anti-heroes, sympathetic villains, madmen, and true evil, but no true protagonist. Instead, all characters are given their own individual measure of evil to contend with.
McAleer covers a number of other topics in this text, all of which illuminate numerous aspects of King’s authorship and with which I sometimes disagree. McAleer clearly sees any adaptation of the Dark Tower series as not only unnecessary, but a weakening influence on the original story. He takes particular issue with various graphic novel adaptations related to the story. It is his argument that readers who partake of these inconsistent representations will be forever affected by their influence and, therefore, incapable of seeing the story in its “pure” form. While I can see the need to acknowledge adaptations of an author’s work, I disagree with his assertion that the varying artistic representations of the Dark Tower, and in particular the Marvel Gunslinger Born graphic novels, “defile the imaginative consciousness that [King] claims to champion.”
On the contrary, I see these “inconsistencies” as a representation of the infinitely layered universes King creates with the Dark Tower. Every parallel universe, every new lifetime that Roland embarks on represents a new vision of the Tower. Every person creates their own story and, therefore, their own visual representation of its elements. Indeed, to apply the idea that there is one “pure” interpretation is in direct conflict with a central tenet of Roland’s experience. By definition, this is a story encompassing infinite re-tellings and re-livings in multiple worlds and universes.
Regardless of whether I agree with every point made in Inside the Dark Tower Series, I was endlessly engaged with McAleer’s in-depth study of King’s work. He offers a well-reasoned, detailed analysis of a story that defies categorization and that draws influence and thematic elements from a myriad of genres. He shines a critical light on an area of speculative fiction that might otherwise remain ignored by mainstream scholars. He brings welcome validation to an author who has forever influenced popular culture as a whole . . . and this geek in particular.