“The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed.”
This opening sentence from the first book of The Dark Tower series by Stephen King tells you much of what you need to know about the story you are going to encounter. The gunslinger mentioned is Roland Deschain, the last living member of a famed order of gunslingers descended from the line of Arther Eld. As you might expect for a character of such renown, Roland is engaged in a singular quest. He wants to catch the man in black, and he wants to kill him. This is ostensibly part of a larger quest, to save all of existence, as personified by the titular Tower, from nefarious destruction (not too much to ask, I’m sure).
There are two people mentioned in that opening sentence, but it is clear they are both very much alone. Solitude is one of the key products of an obsession like Roland’s. And, indeed, much of the story in The Dark Tower is involved with Roland’s struggle to let other people into his world, to accept help, and seek human connection. Stephen King introduces the term “ka-tet” to explain a specific version of family that grows out of his struggle. Described by Roland as “one from many,” this is a group brought together and bound by fate for a specific purpose (in this case, that universe-rescuing quest mentioned earlier). By the time you are finished with this journey, you count yourself a member this ka-tet.
If you hear echoes of Tolkien and Sergio Leone in all of this, you are right on the money. King’s original wish to create his own epic saga grew over the course of writing the seven-plus books in the series into an all-encompassing world-building that would bleed out (sometimes fairly literally) into all of King’s work. There are references and connections to The Dark Tower scattered all across the King-verse, from The Stand to It to Salem’s Lot and on and on. It is a massive universe, crossing terrifying voids to journey between countless parallel worlds and shifting timelines. But at the center of it all is the Tower and Roland’s relentless quest to ascend its heights.
I can’t read any part of The Dark Tower series without hearing the voices of George Guidall and Frank Muller in my head. I will get into all of the reasons why I love the audiobook narration of this series in a moment, but first I should explain some of the background behind the publication of the series and the production of the corresponding audiobooks, because it’s a little messy.
First, if you are new to this series, you should understand that Stephen King took a bit of a George R.R. Martin approach to finishing this story. By that, I mean there are really long gaps between several of the titles in the series, which was the cause of considerable consternation for the readers who started reading back when the first book was published. (If you are losing sleep over the much-promised publication date for the next book in the Game of Thrones saga, you know this consternation well.)
The first book in The Dark Tower series hit bookstands in 1982. The seventh and final book was published in 2004. King wrote new books in the series in spurts over that twenty-two-year span. The second and third titles came out in 1987 and 1991, respectively. Then, there was a 6-year wait for the fourth title and another 6-year wait before King came back to finish out the series with the final three books in 2003 and 2004.
When that final push to finish the series started, King decided that the first book in the series, The Gunslinger, required some revision in order to bring that early story more in line with the plot, tone, and general skill level of the books he was penning nearly two decades later. This revision naturally meant that a new audiobook production of The Gunslinger would also be required.
In the early days of the series, the audiobook narration was started by Frank Muller, a stage and TV actor who developed a very successful career in audiobooks in the 1980s and '90s. Muller completed productions of the first four books in the series; however, in November of 2001, Muller was involved in a catastrophic motorcycle accident, suffering severe injuries that would eventually lead to his death in 2008.
In the wake of this tragedy, the narration of the series was handed off to George Guidall, an award-winning performer with one of the most extensive audiobook resumes out there. The result is that the revised version of the first book in the series is narrated by Guidall (Muller’s narration of the original version of The Gunslinger did exist, but is no longer available.), the second through the fourth books are narrated by Muller, and then we flip back to Guidall for the final three books in the series.
While these transitions take a little getting used to, the Muller and Guidall narrations are amazingly complementary to each other. Both performers’ voices are wonderfully evocative, rich, and warm. They uniformly conjure the image of an elderly and wise old man leisurely spinning tales in the flickering light of a campfire. And while some of the approaches to character voices are different, the overall tone and pacing is remarkably well-suited to the story, infusing the audience with the unique patois of Mid-World and keeping the story moving forward with the unhurried, always-in-control rhythm of a true gunslinger.
The Dark Tower is a tale that encompasses many genres. It is fantasy and Western and science fiction and monsters and the apocalypse and dystopia and folklore all rolled into one. The narration masterfully brings all of these worlds together into an experience that blurs the line between character and audience. These spoken words might just open a rift between the story and reality, between Roland’s world and our own, and we would welcome the merging gladly.
Footnote: The titles in The Dark Tower series are as follows: The Gunslinger, The Drawing of the Three, The Waste Lands, Wizard and Glass, Wolves of the Calla, Song of Susannah, and The Dark Tower. A novella titled The Little Sisters of Eluria, originally published in the short story collection Everything’s Eventual, contains a tale that takes place just prior to the events in The Gunslinger. An additional stand-alone novel titled The Wind Through the Keyhole was published in 2012 and takes place between Wizard and Glass and Wolves of the Calla. Marvel Comics has published several comics series depicting events related to The Dark Tower novels. These can be found under the following collected edition titles: Beginnings, The Gunslinger, and The Drawing of the Three. Overall, the comic series are plotted by Robin Furth, scripted by Peter David, and feature artwork by Jae Lee, Richard Isanove, Dean White, Sean Phillips, and Luke Ross, among many others.