I came to reading late. I collected Animorphs and Goosebumps as a kid, but I never got really into reading until I was sixteen. My father was a voracious reader; our house was always full of John Grisham thrillers, Tom Clancy spy novels, Rex Stout mysteries, all kinds of stuff. When I started reading, really reading, I started where I imagine a lot of young readers start—Stephen King.
I count the Dark Tower novels among the most important books I have ever read. I won’t say best, at least not anymore (sixteen year-old me would have said Hell yea, best books ever), but I found them at a very formative time in my reading life. In those pages (and pages, and pages) I had my first experience with a fantasy epic, my first opportunity to follow characters across a span of books. I was deeply invested in them. I loved them. I cried at the end of Wizard and Glass. All things indeed served the Beam.
For better or for worse, Stephen King finished The Dark Tower in 2004. Roland’s quest colored everything else I read for years after that—I kept waiting for a story to grab me, to make me care, to make be feel as much as those books did. But, like the fractured world the stories are set in, I moved on. I found new loves, new stories and series that held my attention, gained my love and admiration. Time and reflection soured my feelings on the series, especially the divisive final three books. With the exception of the recently released Marvel comics (less said about those the better) and several of the related works in King’s oeuvre, I had not read a Dark Tower story in almost seven years.
That is, until two weeks ago, when King released The Wind Through the Keyhole. The novel, chronologically positioned at what many fans consider the tipping point in terms of the series’ quality, reunited me with a cast of characters I had not expected to see again. Suddenly, after seven years away, I was back with Roland, Eddie, Susannah, Jake, and Oy. All the time I had been away, they had been there, on some level of the Tower, still carrying out the quest that saw completion in the final book. To slip back into that world was in itself exhilarating. Everything was as I had left it—Roland with his grim stoicism and his abbreviated hand; Eddie with his good-natured wise cracks; Susannah with her strange dualism and deep affection; Jake, frustrated on the edge of manhood; Oy and his gold-ringed, intelligent eyes. They were still very much alive in my imagination.
Keyhole occupies a strange borderland. Following the publication of the series’ fourth volume, Wizard and Glass, in 1997 many fans wondered if King would ever finish the series, the scope of which seemed to be ballooning. King’s much-publicized accident in 1999 exacerbated these fears. However, in 2003, with one final push, King wrote and published the final three volumes. The story of Keyhole takes place before those final three novels. Following Glass, the series became freighted with crude attempts at meta-fiction, an increasing reliance on extra-textual influences and commentary, and a slackening of narrative urgency. The series sort of collapsed under its own weight. It’s a disorienting place to put a new story, and reading it was sort of like looking into a hall of mirrors—here is a book that at once tries to recreate and revisit what made the first books so magical, while also needing to acknowledge and be beholden to some of the problematic decisions made in the later books.
Keyhole is a novel of and about stories. There are three nested tales in this slim book and, as with Wizard and Glass, the primary narrative is related by way of a night-long oral telling by Roland. At the novel’s beginning, the ka-tet seeks shelter from a freak storm (called a starkblast) in an abandoned meetinghouse. There, to pass the time, Roland tells a story that takes place after the events related in Glass, his ill-fated trip to Mejis. He and his friend Jamie DeCurry are sent to the mining town of Debaria by Steven Deschain to hunt down a skin-man, a monstrous shape-shifter who has killed dozens of livestock and people, terrorizing the community.
This level of the story gives us another fascinating glimpse at the Mid-World that collapsed. This world has not yet moved on—Gilead remains the seat of power. But, through Roland’s eyes, we see the edges of that world starting to fray. We hear whispers of John Farson, the Good Man, rallying support. Gabrielle Deschain, Roland’s mother, is dead. Steven, the stalwart leader of the gunslingers, is simultaneously mourning his wife and trying to keep the kingdom from collapsing around him. This story is a perfect companion to Wizard and Glass—we see a teenage Roland, still burdened by the terrible events that befell him and his ka-tet in Mejis, struggling, perhaps prematurely, to become a man.
However, while Glass told us the story of Roland’s greatest love and greatest loss, there doesn’t seem to be as much occasion for this telling. The skin-man story is a tale told to pass the time until the starkblast blows over—real character revelation is minimal. Even so, I was more than willing to learn more about Roland’s enigmatic younger days.
While on the hunt for the skin-man, Roland tells a young boy named Bill a story from the Book of Eld, from which Roland’s mother used to read. This story, “The Wind Through the Keyhole,” gives the novel its title and takes up over half of its page length. It recounts the story of Tim Ross, a young boy from a time long ago who goes on a quest into the Endless Forest to restore his abused mother’s sight.
This section often frustrated me. I love hearing about young Roland—Wizard and Glass is by far my favorite of the novels. But here, for 150 pages, we get a fairy tale story that, while it does flesh out a few elements of the lore of Mid-World, doesn’t do much to increase our understanding of the events of the Dark Tower series.
More, “The Wind Through the Keyhole” never rang true for me as a plausible tale that Roland’s mother would have told. There’s an omniscience and authority to the narrator’s voice, one that gives insights that I didn’t buy that teenage Roland would have nor that Gabrielle Deschain would relate to a child. The tale is gruesome, violent, and not just in terms of physical action. Spousal abuse, taxation, marriage laws, child abuse, and abandonment all play into the story. And I don’t want to make it sound like the story is not interesting, because it is. It’s well-crafted, tightly written, with a classic quest and a satisfying (and bloody) resolution. But turns of phrase and certain commentaries on the events made me wonder where Gabrielle Deschain’s telling ended and young Roland’s voice began, and also where old Roland’s voice ended and where King’s began.
Ultimately, the pitfall of writing a novel that takes place during the main action of a completed series is that Keyhole doesn’t serve much of a purpose within the larger arc of the Dark Tower series. The only other side story, “The Little Sisters of Eluria,” was published several years before the series’ concluding volumes. By the time we get Keyhole, all of the major plot developments and character revelations have already happened—all narrative threads and loose ends have been tied up.
King has said that Keyhole should be shelved between Wizard and Glass and Wolves of the Calla. Other reviewers have suggested that Keyhole forms a necessary bridge between the two major arcs of the series. However, I can’t imagine reading this within the cycle of novels. As an entry in the Dark Tower series, I don’t think Keyhole is satisfying or, really, necessary. However, I think if we look at Keyhole as a supplemental story, something on the order of The Tales of Beedle the Bard in the Harry Potter series, it finds more value. Readers expecting new developments and a true Dark Tower 4.5 will have find those expectations frustrated. However, as a coda to a remarkable but flawed series and a welcome extra glimpse back into the world that we all assumed that King had closed off years ago, Keyhole is a treat.
My love for The Dark Tower has diminished over time, but Keyhole reminded me how wonderful the setting was, how much I cared about the characters, and returned me, for at least awhile, to my sixteen year old self, who stayed up late into the night to finish book seven, absolutely sure that I would never read anything so good ever again.
At the same time, it reminded me about my later frustrations with the series and refreshed my disappointment about what this series (which was at times so, so good) could have been.
The Wind Through the Keyhole is available in trade hardcover from Scribner. Special limited editions were published by Donald M. Grant.
I give The Wind Through the Keyhole three pieces of lasagna out of five.