Monday, August 31, 2020

Dark Tower Re-Read, Book 5: Wolves of the Calla

Wolves of the Calla meets Champagne of the Beers


In my Dark Tower re-read I have reached the final, weirdest leg of the journey that begins in Book 5: Wolves of the Calla.

The last three Dark Tower books blend together a little bit for me, which is not surprising since King wrote them almost at the same time in the few years after his 1999 accident. But I had forgotten how much of the really weird stuff from the later books starts happening in Wolves of the Calla. As with the other Dark Tower books so far, I enjoyed this even more the second time through!

One of my (admittedly mild) complaints the first time through is that I felt like King was maybe free-associating just a little too much so that I couldn't tell whether this all actually hangs together. Now on my second time through (or technically second and a quarter), I see that I should have trusted sai King all along. It does all fit together in the end (well, mostly... unexplained WTF? moments are an important ingredient of the Dark Tower series, but even those presumably fit in somewhere).

In fact, one of the reasons I love this series so much is that seemingly random things do fit together. All things serve the beam. And ka. And nineteen. Maybe since here in the real world things don't seem to fit together in any particularly coherent fashion, the idea of a multiverse running according to ka makes for an oddly comforting read. As horrifying and seemingly-random as the world of Roland and the ka-tet can seem, it all makes sense in the end.

But from another point of view, things in reality do seem to fit together and "make sense" at least in terms of cause and effect. As Stoics and Spinoza, Buddhists and Cārvākas have pointed out over the millennia, things could not have turned out any other way, causally speaking, so there's no point in getting worked up about it (even if one can act to change things moving forward). Maybe ka and all those things serving the fuckin' beam (as Eddie puts it) is a literary version of this insight. From a purely causal point of view, all things really are connected.

Susannah would not be Susannah without Jack Mort or her parents or Roland or Eddie... (nor would she be Mia without them and Jake, but let's leave that aside for a moment). You would not be you without the entire causal history of the universe coming together in the way it did, so if you think about it your existence and the beginning of the universe billions of years ago and what Stephen King ate for breakfast the day he came up with the idea of ka really are connected. Whoa.

Ka (and Gan and God and all that) is maybe a bit more anthropomorphic than I would put it, especially when King almost writes about it as a type of agent with goals and desires, but there's something deep there. And I can't help it: whenever Eddie, Susannah, and Jake notice 19, I get a little chill similar to the philosophical pleasure of contemplating the type of causal reasoning that led to mind-blowing stuff like the Huayan Buddhist idea of Indra's Jewel Net (a net in which each node is a jewel that reflects all the other nodes... representing the causal interdependence of all phenomena...).

Anyway, that's all getting pretty abstract. Bringing it back to something a little more concrete, from the first time I mostly remembered the Seven Samurai/Magnificent Seven style plot of our gunslingers defending the village of Calla Bryn Sturgis against the mysterious, fearsome Wolves. But that plot is really only about half the book, or maybe even less depending on whether you count the Father Callahan backstory. The Wolves element of the plot is one that might sound trite or overdone, but of course in King's hands it's anything but. From all the farmers, to Jake making a friend, to the Oriza plates (and excellent legend about it), to the Manni, to Andy the Messenger Robot, to the uncanny connections to our world that make up the Wolves themselves... this is far from a mere rehashing of samurai and cowboy movies.

I didn't really understand the whole Rose storyline the first time through (I only dimly came to understand it in the later books), but I feel like I almost understand it now. I still don't quite understand why time still runs in 1977 New York when they have magic time-traveling doors, but maybe I am not meant to understand all things. Maybe King just wanted to keep the plot going. I do appreciate that it's not a 1:1 correlation (time moves faster in New York relative to the Calla). This never bothered me much before. It doesn't bother me at all this time. After all, what fun would it be if you understood everything in a Dark Tower novel?

Another thing that has changed since the first time through is that I have now read 'Salem's Lot, which was great (I'm not really into vampires, but King of course makes it work splendidly). Based on his importance in Wolves of the Calla, I would have thought Callahan was the main character of 'Salem's Lot, but he's not. But I suppose this makes getting to know him in Wolves of the Calla even more interesting.

Wait, what's that? A character from another totally unrelated(?) Stephen King novel is now a resident of Mid-World? It says that on some of the book blurbs, so I don't feel like that's a spoiler.

I love, love, LOVE this sort of self-referential connection. And I remember loving the utterly bonkers direction King takes this sort of thing in the last two books. In fact, I think the reason I forgot that so much of this weirdness starts in book five is because I loved books six and seven so much that their gravity in my memory pulled in some of the plot of book five (if I remember correctly, book six was the first one during my first read that made me realize that the Dark Tower isn't just a fun series, but one of my all-time favorites).

This one ends on a cliffhanger, but luckily I don't have to wait to go on to Song of Susannah.

Throughout this re-read I've been revisiting the topic of which Dark Tower book is my favorite. I can say I enjoyed reading 4.5 in story order this time (I left it for last the first time through). Books 5-7 really do take a different direction than earlier books: even weirder, more complex, and more detailed. I'm here for it. I think I'm the rarer kind of Dark Tower fan who has a slight preference for the later books. I remember loving book six, while that's the least favorite of many other fans. 

Don't get me wrong, I love the whole series. Each book has its own character with something different to love, from the dream-like first book to the action-packed second and third books, to the immersive fourth and 4.5 ... all with these amazing characters at different stages of their stories. But book five starts the series down a path that I think gives me more intellectual enjoyment of the kind I get from philosophy. Book five still has one foot in the middle books, but things are getting weird. Oh, so delightfully weird. I'm getting ready to hear the song of Susannah again, and then... that last book...

Ka is a wheel, and I'm glad to be rolling with it.

Long days and pleasant nights.

See also my Goodreads review.


  1. Enjoyed the article.... huge King fan and of course Dark Tower.....
    just reread Insomnia.... wonderful elements from The Tower infuse the story.
    In my Top 5... give it a read if you haven’t and look forward to more of your insightful commentary

    1. Thanks!

      I read Insomnia a couple years ago on my quest to read the Tower-related books. I really loved that the protagonist was a 70-year-old man, not to mention how weird it was. Here's my review: