Stephen King’s The Gunslinger is a post-apocalyptic Western-fantasy hybrid about the gunslinger Roland Deschain and his pursuit of the man in black across a desert.
At first glance, the Western plays the largest role in The Gunslinger. Roland carries two heavy six shooters with sandalwood handles, and he can fire them both with deadly accuracy. He wears a duster, leads a pack mule when we first meet him, and is chasing his quarry across a seemingly endless desert. So it is not surprising that King cites The Good, the Bad and the Ugly as an influence in his introductory essay “On Being Nineteen (and a Few Other Things).”
The Western may be the more prominent inspiration for Roland, but his quest would make any author of epic fantasy jealous. It is not the ecstasy of gold, for example, that drives Roland. Instead, his life’s purpose is to complete an epic quest, which King has explained was inspired by Robert Browning’s poem “Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came” and Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. Roland does not seek the fountain of youth, nor does he seek to destroy the One Ring. Roland only hopes to save the world by reaching the Dark Tower, the nexus of the universe, and killing the “crimson king” that is trying to destroy it. Of course, there is any number of monsters and sorcerers, first among them being the man in black, that stand between it and Roland.
The Western and fantasy may seem like distinct genres with little room for overlap, but King finds a common romance at the heart of both genres. Roland is the last of his kind, and he is determined to complete his quest and see justice done. His world is bleak, but it is also grand. When Roland asks one desert “dweller,” Brown, whether he believes in an afterlife, Brown replies “I think this is it.” The world has “moved on,” but it and its survivors seem larger than life even when they are merely carrying on.
King has a knack for investing a sense of dread in the commonplace. Here, King twists the romance of Roland’s quest until it becomes a curse upon the gunslinger and everyone around him. Rather than writing about a noble, self-sacrificing savior hobbit, King has created a man who is, perhaps literally, hell-bent on reaching his goal. What is terrifying about Roland is not his guns but rather his single-minded determination to reach the Dark Tower. No matter what challenge is set before him, Roland finds something to sacrifice in order to overcome it. In spite of the many past sacrifices that haunt Roland, the monsters and sorcerers seem to be winning.
The Gunslinger is an early Stephen King novel, and at times it feels as though it was written almost entirely on instinct. Still, it remains one of my favorites from him. It was the combination of the Wild West and post-apocalyptic fantasy that captured my attention when I first read this novel as a teenager. As an adult, I still find the distinct mood that this genre hybrid produces intriguing. King has created a world that has room for saloons and shoot ‘em ups but also mutants and oracles. And best of all: the steady march of the last gunslinger, a man who will do anything to save a world that may already be dead.
Potential readers would do well to consider The Gunslinger’s publication history before they begin reading. Sections of Roland’s story first appeared in magazines in the late 1970s. They were later collated and published as one novel in 1982. The story would later evolve into The Dark Tower series, a collection of seven novels (eight if we include The Wind Through the Keyhole) that took decades to finish and which formed a hub for many of King’s other works. King revised and reissued The Gunslinger in 2003 to smooth out continuity problems, and the plot corrections do give The Gunslinger a stronger connection to the rest of the series, especially the concluding entry, The Dark Tower. The reissued novel also offers both an introduction and a forward that comments on aging, writing, and the inspiration for the series.