Author: Stephen King

Title: The Wind Through the Keyhole

Publisher: Scribner

Back in the seventies, Stephen King wrote a story which began, "The man in black fled across the desert. The gunslinger followed." The saga of Roland of Gilead eventually found success as a series of novels under the banner The Dark Tower. Its hero, Roland Deschain, is a mixture of medieval knight and territorial marshal, last of a line stretching back to King Arthur (or some version thereof).  

The basic setting is the post-apocalyptic "Mid-World," in which, here and there, remnants of a highly sophisticated technology exist alongside "muties" and monsters. The series is, then, a mixture of science-fiction, horror, fantasy, and westerns.

You'd think such a hodge-podge would be clumsy at best, but King's imagination, verve, and storytelling gifts tie it into a coherent whole. Along the way, the taciturn gunslinger (inspired by "The Man with No Name" in Sergio Leone's westerns) picks up a family of sorts, three people from our world: Eddie, a former junkie; Susannah, a black female double-amputee, and a boy named Jake. The trio becomes Roland's ka-tet, his band of disciples which he trains in the way of the Gun. In their quest for the Dark Tower, the nexus of all time and space, the quartet has many harrowing adventures.

I could go on and on about that seven-book series, the conclusion of which came out seven years ago, but I say all I've said only to introduce the latest addition to the mythology of Mid-World, The Wind Through the Keyhole. It's a sort of footnote to the Dark Tower series, an untold tale—rather, two tales from the mind of a master storyteller.

Roland and his ka-tet seek shelter in from a mighty "starkblast," a lethal surge of freezing wind.  As the gale howls outside, the group sits around a fire and Roland tells two stories, one framing the other. The first comes from his days as a young gunslinger sent on a mission to Debaria to kill a "skin-man," a murderous shape-changer. Young Roland tells a frightened boy the legend of young Tim Stoutheart, who went on a dangerous quest through the Endless Forest. 

Though both tales are satisfying, I found Tim's the more engaging. It has a fairy-tale quality about it, albeit mixed with the other elements of Mid-World, not to mention King's inimitable style. The story is rather short, as is the book (short for King, that is), but he writes with relish and drew me in easily.

When King, who used to refer to his books as "the literary equivalent of a Big Mac and fries," was awarded the prestigious Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters, some scoffed. Regardless of the merit of his work as literature, King's prose is sometimes startlingly poetic, possessing a dark beauty: 

Go to her. And stay away from that dark man, should he appear to thee. He's made of lies from boots to crown, and his gospels bring nothing but tears.   

In the DT tales, he has found the right canvas upon which to paint with the most evocative colors: 

So Tim would go off to sleep, knowing he was loved, and knowing he had a place in the world, and listening to the night wind slip its strange breath over the cottage: sweet with the scent of the blossiewood at the edge of the Endless Forest, and faintly sour—but still pleasant—with the smell of the ironwood trees deeper in, where only brave men dared go.

His prose sometimes breaks into bite-sized chunks that sound like you ought to be able to find them among Solomon's proverbs. You feel like quoting them wherever you go: 

"America is a kingdom of toy-loving idiots." 

"Guns have evil hearts." 

"A person's never too old for stories."  

Of course, then he'll turn around and write about mud men pulling spiders from open sores on their chests, scooping out the loathsome eggs. But you can't have everything!

Still, gross as it can get, it's still life King's writing about. C.S. Lewis used the term "quiddity," the earthy "thingness" of life. Of course, Lewis wouldn't have rubbed his readers' noses in it as King does (Two days after closing the book, I can still smell the feet of his poor miners as they peel off their boots), but the human condition is what it is, even in King's fantasies.

And, as King shows, life encompasses the crude and the noble, gore and glory. Roland Deschain's religion is something like an eastern fatalism (though "the man Jesus" is known in his world; even John 3:16 receives honorable mention), but he knows he is an agent of the White, a paladin of honor in a savage land. He knows that Something More, something from beyond, blows into our lives like wind through a keyhole. 

Aside from theological considerations, plainly, King is having fun with his latest. Someone once said, "Great artists steal." Here he pilfers so lightly, so cheerfully. There are subtle references to movie westerns and The Wizard of Oz. Even the lion Aslan is mentioned as one of the Guardians of the Beams (roads to other worlds). King blows where the wind takes him—fire-breathing dragons jostle with spouse-abuse, alcoholism flows from one bottle, magic cordial from another. You name it, it's in here. As if by magic, it all fits together.

In short, what we find in Keyhole is a wildly successful writer who hasn't let any notion of personal "importance" spoil him. He writes for the joy of it.  (He wrote this one, I suspect, to read to his grandchildren, as Roland's mother read him the tale of Tim Stoutheart.) He writes to tell a story. Long after authors and their aspirations are dust, story remains. King doesn't mind reminding us of what he's all about, fairly highlighting his own quest in yellow marker: "Stories take a person away. If they're good ones."   

Hile, Stephen of Maine, once again thee tells a good one!   

Gary D. Robinson is a preacher, writer, actor, and aspiring gunslinger in Xenia, OH.  He blogs at www.garydrobinson.com

*This Review First Published 5/7/2012