The story of Roland Deschain and his quest for the Dark Tower has been a part of Stephen King’s literary agenda from the beginning. The opening sections were written in 1970, when King was an ambitious, unknown 22-year-old. The seventh and final volume, “The Dark Tower,” appeared in 2004 and brought the story — all 4,000 pages of it — to a startling conclusion. It’s therefore both a pleasure and a surprise to encounter “The Wind Through the Keyhole,” a new, largely independent narrative set in a previously unexplored corner of Roland’s universe.
For those new to the series, Roland Deschain of Gilead is a gunslinger, the last of a dying breed sworn to maintain order in a rapidly decaying world. Roland’s life has been shaped by his obsession with the Dark Tower, an enigmatic structure that binds together an infinite number of parallel worlds. The Tower has come under attack by an entity known as the Crimson King, who plans to overturn the Tower and rule forever in the ensuing chaos. Roland’s attempts to prevent that disaster form the centerpiece of this long, discursive saga, which is informed by such diverse influences as Robert Browning’s “Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came” and the Western films of Sergio Leone, notably “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly.” The result is an epic fantasy unlike anything else in its overcrowded field.
This new book begins shortly after the fourth volume, “Wizard and Glass,” has ended. (Familiarity with the completed series is useful but not strictly necessary.) The quest for the Tower serves as a framing device for a nested pair of stand-alone narratives within “The Wind Through the Keyhole.”
The first begins as a kind of campfire story, with Roland reminiscing as he and his companions wait out the passing of a lethal ice storm called a “starkblast.” Roland describes an early adventure in which he was sent to an isolated mining town to identify and destroy a “skin-man,” a murderous, lycanthropic shape-shifter. This nicely self-contained tale combines elements of the horror, mystery and Western genres to great, sometimes grisly, effect.
Roland tells the second story to a grief-stricken boy named Bill Streeter, whose father had been butchered by the skin-man. This tale has the aura of a fable, and it’s the heart and soul of this absorbing, multi-layered novel. The appealing hero is Tim Ross, another young boy who has just lost his father to a sudden act of violence. In the aftermath of that tragedy, Tim embarks on a classical night journey through a haunted forest in order to find the means to save his mother, who has been beaten, blinded and nearly killed. In the course of this journey, Tim encounters white and black magic, overcomes a variety of natural and supernatural hazards and finds courage, help, hope and resolve in unexpected places. He becomes, in effect, a gunslinger.
These interlocking narratives address a number of King’s recurring themes: families in crisis, imperiled children, the burdens of guilt and grief and the possibility of forgiveness. The structure of the book — a tale within a tale within a larger, ongoing tale — underscores another of its central points: the consolation to be found in stories. In Roland’s words, “A person’s never too old for stories . . . Man and boy, girl and woman, never too old. We live for them.” King’s entire career, one that has resulted in an ocean of narrative, is a fitting monument to this belief. At his characteristic best, King creates the kind of fully imagined fictional landscapes that a reader can inhabit for days at a stretch. In “The Wind Through the Keyhole,” he has done this once again.
Sheehan is the author of “At the Foot of the Story Tree: An Inquiry into the Fiction of Peter Straub.”
THE WIND THROUGH THE KEYHOLE
A Dark Tower novel By Stephen King
Scribner. 320 pp. $27