It was recently announced that Sony Pictures was finally moving forward with their movie adaptation of The Dark Tower series, with their first installment set to be released January 13, 2017. For Dark Tower junkies like myself, this news has been a long time coming. The Dark Tower saga has been long gestating in Hollywood, bouncing between directors and studios. I really thought we’d never get to see the series adapted. And now we have a release date, as well as the promise of the series being adapted across not just movies but also through television series. This vision is bold and visionary, just like the book series itself. I couldn’t be more excited.
The Dark Tower is an eight book fantasy/sci-fi/horror series written by Stephen King. King views the saga as his magnum opus, and rightfully so, I think. It concerns the last gunslinger, Roland Deschain, and his quest to reach the Dark Tower and climb to the top. Along the way he gathers a group–or ka-tet, as they’re referred to in the series–to aid him. They are Eddie Dean, Susannah Dean, Jake Chambers, and, later, Father Callahan. The Dark Tower is set in a fictional fantasy world akin to a postapocalyptic setting–it is often said throughout the series that “the world had moved on.” This place is called All-World, and is comprised of In-World, Mid-World, and End-World.
Opposing the ka-tet and their quest is a variety of gruesome creatures like the Slow Mutants, demons, the Taheen, vampires, the Wolves of Thunderclap, low-men, and the sorcerer Randall Flagg. Most of these villainous forces serve the will of the Crimson King, an ancient evil monster who seeks to topple the Dark Tower.
See, in the series, the Dark Tower is the linchpin of existence. The Crimson King wants to destroy the Tower, effectively killing all life and the known world. He plans to rule in the darkness and chaos that follows. In other words, this guy is insane.
With the movie/television franchise fifteen months out, I wanted to write an expansive post detailing just how to jump into the series in time to see it all play out on the big screen. Those unfamiliar with the series are probably wondering why I thought this post needed to be written so far in advance of the film’s opening. I’ll tell you why: the series’ eight core books number 4,250 pages. That’s a lot of material to sift through. But beyond that, The Dark Tower is enhanced by reading several other of Stephen King’s books, as well. The series is heavily steeped in multiverses, and several characters from other novels pop up in The Dark Tower in important ways.
What follows, then, is a suggested reading order, notes and observations on the expanded material, and explanations for some of the choices. This should be helpful for new readers, and quite possibly insightful for old Dark Tower junkies looking for a new way to look at the material.
There are two fundamentally basic ways to read the series: either you read books one through seven straight through, or you read all of the eight core books, putting The Wind Through the Keyhole between books four and five. A beginner’s read through of the series is probably going to be one of those options, and I’d personally recommend going with all eight books. I know some find that The Wind Through the Keyhole is somewhat superfluous, but I think it serves an important role as a bridge between the two distinct halves of the core series.
A more advanced, expansive, and rewarding reading of the series would look something like this:
The Eyes of the Dragon
The Dark Tower I: The Gunslinger
“The Little Sisters of Eluria”
The Dark Tower II: The Drawing of the Three
The Dark Tower III: The Waste Lands
The Dark Tower IV: Wizard and Glass
Hearts in Atlantis
The Dark Tower: The Wind Through the Keyhole
The Dark Tower V: Wolves of the Calla
The Dark Tower VI: Song of Susannah
The Dark Tower VII: The Dark Tower
The Stand serves as the best place to start. Not only will the plague-ravaged world of The Stand be revisited in Wizard and Glass, but it serves as the introduction of Randall Flagg/Marten Broadcloak/Walter o’Dim/Ageless Stranger/The Man in Black, Roland’s chief antagonist and personal nemesis. It’s self-contained and incredibly long, so I think it’s better to start with this behemoth of a novel than have it interrupt the main narrative at any point later on. (Note: I am absolutely talking about the uncut version of the novel. Don’t bother with the shorter one.) Randall Flagg again appears in The Eyes of the Dragon, which fleshes out some of his backstory. The Eyes of the Dragon serves as the better lead in to The Gunslinger–it actually takes place in All-World, albeit way in the past, and two of the characters are briefly mentioned in The Drawing of the Three.
Randall Flagg is one of King’s greatest characters, and having some background information about him before jumping into The Dark Tower enhances the confrontation between he and Roland during The Gunslinger.
After those two novels, you can jump right into the series proper with The Gunslinger. A warning, if I may: The Gunslinger is an odd book. I find it hard to recommend by itself. Parts of the book can be a slog, to be honest. But there are parts that really shine, and I think it’s vital to the narrative as a whole. Rest assured, the series really picks up with The Drawing of the Three, I promise. (Note: I personally still enjoy The Gunslinger, but that’s with some perspective. Rereading The Gunslinger feels like visiting with a very old friend.)
After the first novel of the series proper, I recommend a quick pit stop with the short story “The Little Sisters of Eluria” before moving on to The Drawing of the Three. Chronologically, this story actually takes place before The Gunslinger. I don’t like it being your first introduction to Roland’s world, though. Nothing beats The Gunslinger‘s opening line:
The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed.
That, right there, needs to be the reader’s introduction to Roland and his quest. So I like putting “The Little Sisters of Eluria” after the first novel, but definitely before the second. The ending of the short story is poignant, and gives Roland’s sacrifices in the first novel more impact in hindsight, I think. Plus, it’s a wicked cool horror story about vampires. You can find “The Little Sisters of Eluria” in the short story collection, Everything’s Eventual.
Following that, I’d suggest burning right through books two through four without intermission. They flow nicely, introducing Roland’s ka-tet, ramping up some action, filling in Roland’s tragic backstory, and working in more appearances by Randall Flagg. The ending of Wizard and Glass does create a good stop to pause the series proper and work in some expanded, connected reading that will have ramifications in books five through seven.
Between Wizard and Glass and Wolves of the Calla, there are five stories you should read: ‘Salem’s Lot, Hearts in Atlantis, Insomnia, “Everything’s Eventual”, and The Wind Through the Keyhole. I think the first four can be read in any order you see fit.
‘Salem’s Lot introduces Father Callahan, who is a major supporting character in the final three books of the series. Wolves of the Calla dedicates many pages to explaining what happened to Father Callahan after the events of ‘Salem’s Lot, so I think the novel is an absolute must read. Trust me when I say his redemption arc isn’t nearly as cool if you haven’t already read about his first encounter with the vampire Barlow.
Hearts in Atlantis is a really heartfelt book that introduces the low-men and Ted Brautigan, major characters in the final volume of The Dark Tower.
Now look, I hate to do this to you, I really do, but you should probably read Insomnia. I know it’s long, I know it’s boring, and I know a lot of it makes no sense, but it has major connections to The Dark Tower. The Crimson King is here, and he’s trying to kill a little boy prophesied to bring about his ultimate destruction. That little boy is Patrick Danville, and you bet your ass he’ll be showing up in the series. If you start reading it and absolutely hate it, you can always Wikipedia it, right? Sure, why not? The book is insanely long anyway.
Then you’ve got the short story “Everything’s Eventual”, which you’ll find in the same short story collection as “The Little Sisters of Eluria”–convenient, huh? “Everything’s Eventual” introduces the psychic Dinky Earnshaw. Aside from being a really fun read, it’s also pivotal for the final novel of the series, when Dinky shows up to help Roland and his ka-tet.
I mentioned that those four stories you can read in any order it pleases you, which leaves The Wind Through the Keyhole. While it does take place between books four and five and technically could be read at any point between, I think it is best served as a bridge between the expanded readings and Wolves of the Calla. It provides a smooth segue back into All-World and the quest for the Dark Tower.
Beyond The Wind Through the Keyhole, you move through Wolves of the Calla (a personal favorite of mine) and Song of Susannah. Wolves of the Calla features the Wolves of Thunderclap, villains who allude to Star Wars, Harry Potter, and Marvel Comics’ Doctor Doom. It also brings Father Callahan into the ka-tet.
Song of Susannah is a quick read, and then, I recommend one last stop before reaching the conclusion of the series: Black House. I thought long and hard about including this novel where I did, wondering how strongly it would affect the flow of the series. Ultimately, I placed it where I did for two reasons: 1) the gap between books four and five is already huge, and 2) chronologically, Black House exists between Song of Susannah and The Dark Tower.
Then, at long last, you come to the final novel, The Dark Tower. I’ll say no more about it than this: the long journey to get here is worth it.
There are a lot of books that have connections to The Dark Tower series that I left off the list, like It (my all time favorite novel) and the novella “The Mist.” The connections in many of these books are fun enough, but they’re not large enough to impact the narrative of the main series, and so I left them off. The reading list is large enough as it is, I find. You’re welcome to enjoy them, of course, but I’d recommend you not read them while in the middle of the series.
I’d also like to call to your attention Marvel’s series of prequel comics, based on the gunslinger’s past. The series tells of the fall of Gilead and the Battle of Jericho Hill, and elaborates on a lot of backstory only hinted at in the novels. I find they’re a good place to go after finishing the series if you’re craving more Roland in your life.
Finally, I think a truly rewarding experience would be to reread The Gunslinger once more after finishing The Dark Tower. A lot of stuff that definitely didn’t make sense or register during your initial reading will at once be clear. Rereading The Gunslinger after concluding the series is entirely satisfying, and casts the small novel in an entirely different light.
I hope this all helps anyone looking to read The Dark Tower series for the first time, or inspires a fellow Dark Tower junkie to reread the series a different way. Remember: only fifteen more months until the series finds its way to the big screen!
One last thing before I go: happy birthday to Stephen King, who turns 68 today!
In the words of All-World’s inhabitants, “Long days and pleasant nights.”