About mid-way through Song of Susannah, book 6 of Stephen King’s epic Dark Tower series, heroine Susannah Dean is told that it is vitally important that she find a way to waste the day. She does so by asking lots of questions, and we read about her doing so. It’s as interesting as it sounds. Unfortunately, it appears that King had the same idea about wasting time when he sat down to write Book 6 – just find a way to fill enough pages to bridge the gap between Books 5 and 7.
For those of you new to the series, the Dark Tower series is the tale of Roland of Gilead, the last gunslinger, and Roland’s multi-world-spanning quest to save the Dark Tower and all reality from the evil forces attempting to destroy it. As Book 6 opens, Susannah, a member of Roland’s band and seemingly possessed by a mysterious spirit, is pregnant with a demon’s child, and separated from her companions. The remaining members of Roland’s group split up in an effort to rescue Susannah and accomplish various other errands vital to protecting the Tower.
Up until now, the series, published book by book over 20 years, has been a thrilling R-rated version of the Lord of the Rings, blending the best elements of the adventure, romance, science fiction, fantasy, and horror genres. The first five books all work successfully as excellent stand-alone tales and can be read out of order. But readers of the series will find Book 6 to be a dull rehash of the first five books, while anyone new to the series will find it hard to follow.
The first problem is that very little happens in the 400-page volume, and most of what does occur is little more than a rehash of prior events. Roland and Eddie engage in yet another fight with Jack Andolini (Books 2, 6), and Eddie must once again talk Calvin Tower into selling him the lot housing the Tower (Book 5). We’re repeatedly told that actions occurring in this volume are more significant because they are occurring in “the true world.” But that claim doesn’t change the fact that we’ve read it all before. Book 6 also features many more auspicious turtle sightings, a plot device wearing thin, and yet another explanation of the beams holding up reality and the enemy’s plan to break them – nothing we haven’t heard before.
Another consistent problem in Book 6 is that all subtlety has been expunged from the series. While in Book 4 King allowed the reader to notice the similarities between the addictively powerful wizard’s glass, and Sauron’s ring, King beats us over the head in Book 6, telling us that Calvin Tower’s love of books is just like Gollum’s love for the ring. And if you missed it, King makes sure to repeatedly remind us that Book 5 was an homage to the Magnificent Seven. Not to ruin the soap-opera-style plot twist concerning Susannah’s baby, but these aren’t the only times that King goes to unnecessary lengths to tell us he’s cribbing from other epics. King also relies on tired fantasy clichés – Susannah learns that the problem with the world is that “Maerlyn retired to his cave” and “they replaced magic with machines… and now the machines are failing.” It certainly appears that King’s well of inspiration has run dry.
But the strongest sign that King is struggling to finish the series is that he admits as much to Roland. That’s right, Roland meets King, circa 1979, and must convince him to write the Dark Tower series. Throughout the extended self-indulgent passage, and the lengthy epilogue, King repeatedly expresses his fear that he will be unable to complete the series. Of course, these admissions are hardly necessary. By the end of Book 6, it is painfully clear that King is limping towards the end of the story.
Not all in the book is bad. The story picks up around three-quarters of the way through, as Susannah’s friends, Jake and Callahan, journey to rescue her. This sequence is the only time the book feels fresh and captures the excitement filling the prior volumes. Unfortunately, it’s all a tease. Just as Jake and Callahan prepare to burst into the den of evil in which Susannah is imprisoned, King ends that part of the story – to be continued in Book 7. Apparently, King felt he’d managed to waste sufficient paper to end Book 6.
Worse yet, not just content to burn his reader’s time, King has also burned his reader’s money with the latest volume. The novel is only 400 pages, yet bears a cover price of $30. By comparison, Bill Clinton’s 900-page My Life lists at $35. Perhaps this is due to the 10 full-color illustrations in the novel. If so, the cost isn’t worth it. A particularly dull illustration of the Tower doubles as the front cover. And another features the author himself, when surely the two photographs on the back cover are enough to remind the reader of King’s appearance. It is a bad sign when the most effective illustration in a story featuring a demonic baby, a bauble enclosing the devil’s eye, and ratmen wearing loud clothes depicts a strawberry.
In several volumes of the Dark Tower series, King speaks of the large number of readers that have written to him, begging him to complete the series. For most of those readers, this volume will be a disappointment. Hopefully, Book 6 really was just an effort to “burn the days” between Books 5 and 7, and the final volume will be a triumphant conclusion to the tale. Otherwise, King hasn’t done his fans a favor in finishing the series.
Song of Susannah (The Dark Tower, Book 6) (2004)
by Stephen King
Publisher: Donald M. Grant/Scribner
Format: Hardcover, 413 pages