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Book Review

The Gunslinger by Stephen King has been reviewed by Focus on the Family’s marriage and parenting magazine. It is the first book in the "Dark Tower" series.

Positive Elements

Spiritual Content

Sexual Content

Violent Content

Crude or Profane Language

Drug and Alcohol Content

Other Negative Elements

Conclusion

Pro-social Content

Objectionable Content

Summary Advisory

Plot Summary

Roland Deschain, also known as the Gunslinger, lives in an Old West setting. He exists in an alternate timeframe, or perhaps a parallel universe, in a novel where time does not operate the usual way. Roland has spent many years chasing the man in black across the desert but has failed to catch him. Roland is searching for a tower where he hopes to find answers about the meaning of life and death.

He stops at the home of a farmer named Brown who has a talking bird, Zoltan. In a flashback, he tells Brown about his recent experiences in a town called Tull. During his time in Tull, Roland and a bartender named Allie became lovers. One of Allie’s other lovers tried to kill Roland. Allie told Roland the man in black had come through Tull and raised a man named Nort from the dead.

The town preacher, a large, boisterous woman named Sylvia, admitted to having had an affair with the man in black. She said she was carrying his baby. Roland put a gun between her legs and presumably aborted the child. Sylvia cried out that that he’d killed the child of the Crimson King. Sylvia turned the town against Roland. He had to shoot everyone, including Allie, in order to escape.

While Roland is with Brown, his mule dies. He continues his journey on foot. At a way station, he finds a boy named Jake Chambers who apparently died in his own time or universe. Jake doesn’t remember much, so Roland hypnotizes him to find out what he can about the boy.

Jake was the son of a TV executive who was brutally killed when a car rolled over him. They encounter a demon that warns Roland that the man in black controls his soul now that he’s with Jake.

Roland and Jake travel together, and Roland realizes that his growing love and concern for the boy have made him vulnerable. Roland flashes back to his childhood, when he studied under a hard man named Cort. Roland and his friend Cuthbert overheard a kitchen worker plotting against the kingdom and reported him. The man was hanged.

Roland’s father died, and a man named Martin was sleeping with his mother. When Roland discovered this, he was angry and wanted revenge. Before he could avenge his father, he had to fight Cort so his manhood would be official. He was only 14, but he used his trained bird to attack and defeat Cort.

Roland has a strange, drug-fueled sexual encounter with an oracle spirit in order to get information about the man in black. He learns that three is the number of his fate. He is told he will encounter the man in black soon, but Jake will not survive if Roland continues on his quest for the Dark Tower. Roland and Jake travel on, twisting through mountain tunnels for many days on train tracks using a handcar. They encounter creatures called Slow Mutants, which they must fight in order to pass through.

When the man in black appears, Jake falls and dangles from the tracks above a deep pit. Roland must choose whether to save the boy or pursue the man in black. Jake knows Roland will choose his quest over him. Jake lets go and falls.

Roland speaks with the man in black, who reads the Gunslinger’s fortune with something like Tarot cards. The man reveals that he was the one who destroyed Roland’s family and was sleeping with Roland’s mother. He imparts many cryptic pieces of information, like telling Roland he (the man in black) is only a minion of the powerful, omnipotent red king who controls the Dark Tower.

He shows Roland a vision of the vastness of the universe, trying to convince him to give up his quest. The Gunslinger refuses. The man in black finally causes Roland to sleep. Roland wakes up 10 years later with a skeleton next to him, presumably that of the man in black. He keeps the skeleton’s jawbone, speaks aloud of his love for Jake and ponders his next move toward finding the Dark Tower.

Christian Beliefs

A number of biblical references appear in the text. The narrator sometimes likens a situation to a story in the Bible. For example, he talks about the zombie-like creatures in a cave looking for Jesus to heal them and raise them from the darkness, like Lazarus. He refers to Roland’s meeting place with the man in black as Golgotha, the place of the skull. The man in black says Roland must meet and slay an Ageless Stranger whose name is Legion.

The Gunslinger attends the church in Tull. They sing hymns. The preacher, Sylvia, mentions a number of Bible stories before warning of an Interloper who came to Eve in the form of a serpent. Congregants cry out to the Lord in response to her message.

Other Belief Systems

Roland says he is not a holy man, like a Manni or the Man Jesus. He sometimes looks for ka, which is an Egyptian word for a spiritual entity living within an individual. He has encountered people who believe that devils live in fire.

Roland has the power to hypnotize people and control what they remember. He talks about God as well as gods in the plural form. Brown says he once tried to teach his bird the Lord’s Prayer, but that this wasn’t really Lord’s Prayer country. When Roland asks Brown if he believes in the afterlife, Brown says he thinks this is it.

The man in black brings a man named Nort back from the dead. Nort believes God has touched him and that he won’t ever die again. A man in Tull named Kennerly says his daughter has a devil. He rambles on about the end times when there are plagues and children don’t obey their parents. The man in black tells the Gunslinger’s future using Tarot-like cards. He tells Roland to allow this pointless ritual to calm him, like church might.

The man in black stands with Roland in a void universe. The man in black calls light, water, plants, dinosaurs and other creatures into being. He continues to command that there be light, until the light is so strong that it overwhelms the Gunslinger. The man in black later ponders the nature of God, if one exists, and wonders if there could be a stairway leading to a tower in which He exists. If so, he says, would one dare climb it? The Gunslinger suggests maybe God himself has climbed these stairs to a room above reality.

Authority Roles

The Gunslinger serves as an authority role for Jake. He protects him for a time but still allows him to die so he can continue his search for the tower. Jake recalls his parents. He says his mother sometimes goes to bed with sick friends, and his father, a network executive, sometimes uses drugs.

Profanity/Violence

The Lord’s name is used in vain. H---, d--n, s---, a--, b--ch, whore, balls, cojones, p---, b--tard, c--t, and the f-word are used.

Jake remembers a car running over him, mushing his guts and squashing his genitals. Blood spurts from every opening in his body. In a bloody scene, Roland’s bird violently tears Cort’s face apart. Blood and brains fly as the Gunslinger kills a group of townspeople. Roland violently forces his gun between Sylvia’s legs to remove the man in black’s child from her body.

Kissing/Sex/Homosexuality

Kennerly fondles his own daughter’s breast. The same girl walks by Roland and pinches her nipple to get his attention. Roland initially sleeps with Allie to get information. He ends up staying with her for a while and continuing their sexual relationship. Many in her bar sing ragtime Methodist hymns while drunk and sexually aroused. Kennerly makes a lewd sexual gesture when he realizes Roland is sleeping with Allie. Although Sylvia is over 300 pounds, many men lust after her.

When Roland first sees her, his lust makes him shaky. He goes to her house to get information about the man in black. He learns she slept with the man in black and that the man told her he was an angel of God. She says the man in black told her Roland was the Antichrist and that he would want to sleep with her. Roland asks her if she ever met a man who didn’t want to sleep with her. She reveals that she is pregnant with the man in black’s child. Roland pries her legs apart and puts the barrel of his gun between them. The vague description that follows indicates he aborts the child.

In various moments of pleasure and pain throughout the story, the author describes how Roland’s genitals feel or react. Roland confronts an oracle for information on how to find the man in black. They have a strange sexual encounter in which Roland allows the oracle to take him sexually once he’s received the direction he needs. One scene suggests Roland is going to the roof to masturbate. The preacher in Tull warns against sexual sin, including masturbation. Roland vows to forget Jake by sleeping with many women and killing people.

Discussion Topics

Additional Comments/Notes

Drugs/Alcohol: Many characters smoke marijuana to get high. People at the bar where Alice works are often drunk or high. Roland takes a pill before he faces a demon, and Jake likens it to LSD. The oracle warns Roland of a demon named Heroin.

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Book reviews cover the content, themes and worldviews of fiction books, not their literary merit, and equip parents to decide whether a book is appropriate for their children. The inclusion of a book's review does not constitute an endorsement by Focus on the Family.

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