The Long Road Home is the second in a series of graphic novels that tell the story of Roland Deschain, The Gunslinger, the hero of Steven King’s Dark Tower novels. Unfortunately, my response to it requires a little history, so bear with me.
I had never read a Steven King book that I liked until about three years ago. The horror genre in general is entirely uninteresting to me, and I found King’s prose, which seems to value length over sound editing practise, horrific for all the wrong reasons. I enjoyed the first part of The Stand, but it lost me in the interminable journey that comprises the middle section. I also enjoyed King’s children’s novel, The Eyes of the Dragon, a readable and entertaining if mostly unremarkable fantasy. I found everything else almost unreadable.
A few years ago, however, a new friend of mine recommended King’s The Dark Tower series, persistently. He insisted that it was not a typical horror novel, not horror at all, in fact, more post-apocalyptic-western-fantasy, if I knew what he meant, which I was not sure that I did. It is a principle of mine, however, to take serious recommendations seriously, so I sat down with the first book in the series, The Gunslinger.
The Gunslinger is a marvellous book. The story is very simple, and this simplicity is emphasized by a prose that, by King’s standards at least, is sparse and direct. The writing is imagistic rather than realistic, schematic rather than detailed. It has clearly been pared and polished, worried and sifted. It is King’s best writing by far, and its stylistic simplicity permits other forms of complexity to emerge. The story is highly allusive to various stories and myths, particularly to Robert Browning’s “Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came” and to the biblical account of Abraham and his son Isaac. There is also a thematic complexity that draws from various contemporary American mythologies in ways that make the characters almost archetypal. The story and the characters seem less to tell a story than to create a myth of which they are mere instances. They form a unique and haunting novel, and I do not think it is coincidental that, though it is one of King’s shorter novels, it took him the better part of thirteen years to complete it.
Unfortunately, the Dark Tower series does not maintain this creative level. It is, as I always admit when I am recommending it, quite unevenly written. While the first book has serious literary value, the second, third, and seventh are only good. The fourth, fifth and sixth, even parts of the seventh, are not even very good, though they are still entertaining in their way. As the series progresses, the novels get steadily longer and less precise, steadily more like the writing of the generic horror novels that King produces at such an alarming rate. Though they are still good stories, and though they are still quite imaginative, they lack what thirteen odd years of polish and revision brought to the first text.
The fourth, Wizard and Glass, is probably the low point of the series. Not only is it too long and too ungainly, but it is comprised of a single long flashback episode to Rowland’s youth, an episode that certainly provides some context for Rowland’s character as an older man, but that nevertheless feels entirely out of place in the larger sequence of novels. The whole book is a frustrating disruption to the larger narrative, to the point where I skipped it entirely when I went to reread the series this past year. I have even suggested this approach to others when I have recommended the series to them, explaining that only the beginning and ending of this book are really necessary to the story, and that it is perhaps better read later as a separate novel.
This is why I was disappointed when the first graphic novel, The Gunslinger Born, began the story with the events of the fourth novel. Assuming that the writers intended to produce graphic novel versions of the whole Dark Tower series, I felt that they had done the series a disservice by not beginning with the book that made it worth reading in the first place. I understood the logic that would put the books in chronological order, but I thought this logic grossly insufficient to warrant beginning the narrative with anything other than the figure of Rowland walking across the desert in pursuit of the dark man.
All of this is to explain why I was pleasantly surprised by the second graphic novel in the series. It does not, as I assumed it would, return to the first of King’s novels, but relates the previously untold story that spans the time between the events of the fourth novel and those of the first. Not only does this project explain much more satisfactorily why the first graphic novel began where it did, but it means that the rest of the original novels will probably not be rendered in graphic novel form, an undertaking that I always thought a bit suspicious. Rather than attempting to produce what could only be inferior versions of the original novels, the graphic novel series instead expands on the very minimal information that King includes about the young Rowland to produce entirely new episodes. I am much more satisfied with this approach, and it makes the new graphic novel much more worth reading.