Saturday, July 14, 2012

Dark Tower: ka and ka-tet

I’m in the middle of something I never thought I’d be doing:  reading Stephen King.  His Dark Tower series, to be specific.  If you had told me a year ago that at this time I’d be knee-deep in Stephen King novels (literally; I stacked them up the other day and they came to my knee cap, and that’s not even including the one that just came out, The Wind Through the Keyhole), I’d have said that you’re fruitier than a box of Harry and David Royal Riviera pears, nuttier than the pecan pancakes at Cracker Barrel.  But here I am, some 2,000 pages in, and there’s no turning back now.  In the world of the Dark Tower, there’s a word for such a thing: ka.

The basic story follows the quest of one man, Roland Deschain, who is seeking this mysterious and foreboding Dark Tower.  In the beginning, and for a long time after, we don’t know what the Dark Tower is (a place? a thing? Donald Trump’s office?), nor do we know why Roland is so anxious to find it.  What is clear is that he will stop at nothing, and will allow nothing to get in the way of achieving his goal.  It’s a lot like Moby Dick, except Melville doesn’t make you wait until page 200 to give you the first clue about why Ahab is maniacally pursuing this certain white whale.    

At any rate, in Roland’s world they have this thing called ka.  It’s like fate, or destiny, or The Force, or the will of the universe, or God, or Stephen King’s bank account, or something, and it plays a part in everything that happens to Roland.  Just like in our world, some people believe in it, and many people don’t.  Roland accepts the existence of ka, and even though it imposes great tragedy and suffering on him, he relies on it to know that it can lead him to this Dark Tower, where he must…do something.  I still don’t know; I’m only just starting the fifth book in the series right now, The Wolves of the Calla (and by starting, I mean I’m on page 175 of 900 or so).  There are two more volumes after this, and so far each book has been longer than the one before.  It’s like one of those hallways in your dreams that just keeps stretching longer and longer, and the more you run, the farther away the end of the hallway gets; which, now that I think about it, is a very fitting, King-like metaphor (I keep thinking of that scene in The Shining).

By the way, I believe in ka.  In fact, I’ve written about it before.  I call it serendipity.  Serendipity is like a smaller, friendlier version of ka; ka’s happy, less weighty offspring, if you will.  I lack Roland’s dedication and single-mindedness, so serendipity is probably as far as I’ll ever get. 

Anyway, in the course of pursuing the Tower, Roland discovers that ka has decreed that he recruit three people, three Gunslingers, to help him on his quest.  The thing is, these three people don’t know they’re Gunslingers, and they don’t live in Roland’s world.  They live in ours.  New York City, actually.  And, to further complicate matters, even though they come from the same where, they don’t come from the same when.  Think Back to the Future, except these people use doors to do their time boogieing, instead of a DeLorean.   
All of the artwork used here is the work of Michael
Whelan, one of the great cover artists.  I've been a
huge fan of his amazing artistry since the 80's.
One of the New Yorkers comes from the Sixties, one from the Seventies, and one from the Eighties.  The youngest is only twelve (his name is Jake) and he was the one who came from the Seventies, sometime around the end of May of 1977, to be precise. 

The end of May, 1977.  How interesting that King chose this particular time, and it raises one great, though admittedly irrelevant, question for me.  You see, the Dark Tower books teem with pop culture references which spring from each person’s when.   On May 25th, 1977, a little cultural phenomenon called Star Wars was released in New York’s movie theaters.  Yet it hasn’t been mentioned at all in the books I’ve read so far.  It appears that Jake may have taken out of his when just before the film opened.  And that raises a deeply disturbing question.  Dear God, King, did you pull little Jake Chambers out of his when mere days before he could have seen the greatest movie a kid could see, in that year or any other?  In 1977, I was nine.  Would you have pulled me out of my when too, Mr. King?  Could you really be that cold-blooded? 

I’m sure Mr. King’s response would be simply that ka can be cruel.  Personally, I like to think that later on the whole group goes back to Jake’s when, just so they can watch the movie together.  Roland the Gunslinger watching a movie.  Now there’s a thought that warms the ka-ckles of my heart.  Sorry.  I don’t normally do bad puns.

Anyway, this group of people, once they’ve all been pulled out of New York and brought to Roland’s world, form a close-knit team, which Roland calls a ka-tet, meaning ka has determined that these specific four people (and one billy-bumbler, which is a, well, kind of a small, raccoonish mammal that…well, yeah) be together for this journey to the Dark Tower.  

Artist's conception (not Michael Whelan)
Since I put myself down as a ka believer, it naturally follows that I would have no problem with the concept of ka-tet, and I don’t.  In fact, I recently discovered that I have a ka-tet of my own, which I didn’t realize until I stopped to consider how it was that I came to be reading the Dark Tower series in the first place.  Just like Roland, my ka-tet was formed by people from different whens, although I lack the crazy doors (or DeLoreans, for that matter) needed to bring the people from these whens together.  But, it was undeniably the result of three different people working together, yet separately, that brought me to the point where I actually picked up the first book in the series, The Gunslinger, earlier this year and started to read.

I alluded to this at the beginning, but I’ve never considered myself a fan of Stephen King’s books.  Don’t get me wrong; I respect the man tremendously for what’s he been able to accomplish as a writer, and I begrudge him nothing concerning the massive success he’s had.  My problem with King is that I just don’t like to be scared, and frankly, that’s kind of his big thing, his raison d’etre, scaring the hajeebers out of people.

The way I see it, I already spend too many waking hours (and a good share of non-waking ones) living in fear of all the bad things that might happen to me when I step outside to check the mail, for instance, or open the refrigerator door.  The last thing I need is for someone else to clue me in on all the things I should be afraid of, but hadn’t actually thought of yet myself.  Honestly, it’s always been enough of a battle getting from the bed to the bathroom in the middle of the night.  Why do anything to make it worse?

That’s why I’m as surprised as anybody to be reading the Dark Tower series.  Of course it’s not primarily a horror story, although King does flash his fangs every now and then (literarily speaking), just so you don’t forget what he’s capable of.  Still, I’m still a little surprised to find myself holding these tomes in my hands, and actually looking forward to the next one.  I attribute this strange twist of fate to the working of ka, and my ka-tet.

The first member of my ka-tet is Tim of Ss. Simon and Jude (it is traditional to refer this way to people in a ka-tet).  Ss. Simon and Jude is the name of the Catholic church and elementary school in Phoenix where we met.  The thing about Tim is that he’s been a huge Stephen King fan for as long as I can remember.  And for as long as we’ve been friends, minus maybe a day or two, he’s been trying to get me to read King’s books.  Over the years, he has worked me with the doggedness of a doorstep Jehovah’s Witness.  Every time King would write a book, Tim would try to persuade me to read it.  Trust me, during those years no one suffered more from King’s prolific output in the 80’s than I.  It felt like we were having these conversations on a weekly basis.

Tim:     How ‘bout Cujo?  Would you read Cujo?

Me:      What’s it about?

Tim:     Oh, it’s a great story.  It’s about this big, shaggy St.       Bernard-

Me:      That doesn’t sound bad…

Tim:     It doesn’t, does it?

Me:      So, what happens to the dog?

Tim:     Well, he gets bitten by this bat, see-

Me:      Wait.  Did you say a bat?

Tim:     Yeah, a bat.  (scrunches up his face, sticks his teeth out over his lower lip and flaps his hands by his ears)  Ffffft fffffft ffffffft.  You know, a bat.  But this bat has rabies- 

Me:      Oh…

Tim:     So then the dog goes crazy and starts killing people, and this woman and her little kid come along, and they’re trapped in their car, it’s a Pinto, so the dog’s almost as big as the car, and they  have to keep the windows up, cause if they open them at all the dog will break ‘em, and it’s getting hotter and hotter in there, and the kid’s gettin’ sick, so the woman gets out and tries to make a run for it, but the dog bites her in the stomach, and –

Me:      Nope.

Tim:     Whad’ya mean, nope?  Yes he does, he sinks his teeth right into her belly and-

Me:      Not nope, it didn’t happen; nope, I won’t read it.

Tim:     Why not?

Me:      When you said that the dog bites her in the stomach, I almost automatically threw up my Mexican haystack from lunch.  And not only that, but even if the poor woman managed to survive somehow, she’s just going to have to get all those rabies shots.  In her stomach, when it’s already all sore from the dog biting it.  I’m sorry, that’s just more than I can… well, stomach.  Hey, that’s funny.  Get it?

Tim:     (not smiling) Ha ha.  So, really, you won’t even think about reading it?

Me:      Sorry, Charlie.  Rabies shots are #28 on my life fear list.  And once I recalibrate the list tonight, they’ll probably be moving up.  I’m guessing mid-teens.

Tim:     But you don’t know if she even lives to get the rabies shots at the end.

Me:      Like that prospect makes me more inclined to read it.  Besides, it’s too late.  Now it’s in my head.  I’d be thinking about stomach biting and rabies shots the whole time I’m reading the book.  Sorry, no can do.

Tim:     Alright, alright.  So no Cujo.

Me:      Sorry.

Tim:     Hmmmm. (Pause) How ‘bout Salem’s Lot?

Somehow it always came back to Salem’s Lot.    

Actually, Tim of Ss. Simon and Jude did eventually convince me to read one Stephen King novel, The Dead Zone, selling me on the fact that it was more psychological thriller than horror story.  And I enjoyed it, but it in no way made me more inclined to sit down with a copy of It, or something like that.

The second of my ka-tet is Ron of Thunderbird.  When I decided to go into teaching, Ron was my student teaching mentor.  We hit it off right away.  I should’ve suspected ka was at work, but of course, five years ago I had no clue what ka was.  We had remarkable similarities in tastes in movies, and books, and TV shows, and spent a lot of time in the mornings before school started talking about that kind of stuff.  One day, he asked me if I had read the Dark Tower books.  I had to confess my aversion for King, on the basis that sleep was something I found difficult to do without.  He proceeded to tell me about the premise of the story, and the way he described it made it sound so intriguing – and so not terrifying – that I made a mental note to someday review the possibility of perhaps considering undertaking the effort to locate a copy in order to offhandedly peruse and verify the existence of some quickly identifiable reason not to read it.  Thus was ka’s second seed planted.

The final member of my Dark Tower ka-tet is Rick, of the County of Maricopa.  I met Rick through Tim, and when ka dictated that Tim leave Phoenix for the Idaho outback, it also dictated that Rick and I become great friends in our own right.  Rick is serving as the vanguard of my ka-tet; he picked up the Dark Tower series shortly before I did, and encouraged me to follow suit.  Because he is such a prodigious (I dare say gunslinger-quality) reader, he had completed the series before I had gotten through the first book.  It boggles the mind how he can consume and digest multi-volume epics with a rapidity usually only seen when Joey Chestnut is brought within range of a pile of Nathan’s hot dogs.  It defies all comprehension because he, like me, is the father of two lively daughters, and there’s only so much bathroom time any one man is allowed under those conditions.  At least that’s been my experience.  Under close questioning on the subject, he has admitted to having been trained in the use of some form of Evelyn Wood witchcraft, but nothing more.

Still, because he has so recently traversed the Dark Tower’s multi-verse landscape, he has been able to provide sure and steady scouting information as I lag along the same route.  When I was less than halfway through the first book, and less than enraptured by it, he wisely counseled me to patience, assuring me that better things were waiting ahead.

Me:      I gotta tell ya, Rick, I’m not really feeling The Gunslinger so far…

Rick:    How far are you?

Me:      Somewhere in the middle.

Rick:    Oh.  What’s the last thing that happened?

Me:      That’s the problem.  Nothing’s happened.  Nothing.  The last thing that actually happened was he left that one guy’s farm-

Rick:    The guy with the raven?

Me:      Yeah, him.  And the gunslinger’s donkey keels over while he’s there, and then he sets off into the desert on foot, and that’s where’s he been for the last eighty pages.

Rick:    He hasn’t met the kid yet?

Me:      What kid?

Rick:    Well, the gunslinger comes to this little way station, and he meets…Well, you’ll see.

Me:      I don’t know, Rick.  I don’t know if I can make it. 

Rick:    Sure you can.  Just a little further.  Things should start to pick up soon.

Me:      I swear, if I have to read “the hardpan of the desert floor stretched out as far as the eye could see” one more time, I’m going to scream. 

Rick:    Yeah, I know, that part can be a little redundant-

Me:      ‘A little redundant?’ It’s been eighty pages of nothing but desert. How many ways can you describe an endless, empty desert?  You have a blue sky, a blazing sun, and flat, rocky ground with almost nothing growing on it.  Some gunslinger dude is chasing some other dude across the desert.  There.  I just summed up the first eighty pages in twenty words.

Rick:    Come on.  There’s more going on than that…

Me:      Alright.  There’s that one big flashback scene where he single-handedly destroys a whole town. 

Rick:    Right. Didn’t you like that?

Me:      Yeah, that part was cool.  But it was just a flashback, which he recalls while he’s trudging through the desert.  And King insists on describing it in such detail, the same things over and over… There’s just so much you can say about flat, brown, rocky ground.  We should know.  We live in Phoenix. We see the desert every time we drive to San Diego… It’s just overkill. 

Rick:    Well, maybe he’s just trying to bring the experience to life, to make you feel like you’re right there with the gunslinger, enduring his total hardship as he pursues the Man in Black. 

Me:      If his goal is to make his readers endure total hardship, then he’s being wildly successful with me.  And by the way, who is this ‘Man in Black?’ Is it safe to assume he’s not chasing Johnny Cash?  If he is, let me just burn him a copy of Johnny Cash Live at Folsom Prison, and let’s end this thing right now.

Rick:    Well, I had some reservations after reading the first book too, but once I read the next book, The Drawing of the Three, I was hooked. 

Me:      So it’s not just more of the same?

Rick:    No, it’s completely different.  The story totally changes, and even the way he writes is better.  Much more enjoyable to read, at least I thought so.

Me:      No more desert?

Rick:    (Thinking) Hmmm.  Aside from just referring to what happens in the first book, I don’t think there’s even one sentence about the desert in the second book. 

Me:      So your advice is to stay the course?

Rick:    Stay the course. 

Me:      Alright, gunslinger.  I’m gonna trust you on this one.

Obviously, Rick of the County of Maricopa was right on the money with his sage advice.  And thanks to that, and the aid of my other gunslingers, my ka-tet, I am now more than halfway on my own quest for the Dark Tower.  And, like Roland, I have reached the point where I will stop at nothing, and let nothing get in my way. 

As one, we will go the rest of the way to the Dark Tower together, even though we still don’t know exactly what it is, or what we’re supposed to do once we get there.  We only really know one thing. 

It is ka.


  1. Bathroom reading time is underated. With two daughters, you take your reading time when you can get it!
    Enjoy the journey sir-thorson. From one Ka-tet member to another, Thankee sai!

  2. Hutton- ha ha ha. I would think the family would get a little suspicious when you spend 4 hours at a time in the bathroom?

    Kevin- my mouthful of water almost wound up on my computer screen when you mentioned mexican haystacks! Lol. Good memories!

    1. There's nothing quite like the memory of cafeteria food at good ol' SS+J. Personally, I prefer the memory to the food...