Throughout the last year, many of my friends have egged me to read George R.R. Martin's series A Song of Ice and Fire. To this day, I have not. Nor have I watched any of the popular HBO television series. For good measure I've managed a general rule of thumb for beginning continuing series in book format: I'll read it when it's completed. Most often times there is only one way of reading a series and that is consecutively, one book after the other, until the final's spine is bent and worn from tender and approving hands. I stand by this rule after rereading the Harry Potter books whenever a new one was released (5 and 6 I disliked the most and bemoan ever revisiting) and once more I regretted diving into Robert Jordan's first The Wheel of Time books before learning he passed away before it's completion... Such death might have befallen Stephen King in 1999 and ended any chance of a conclusion to his Dark Tower series. But fortunately for many fans the world wide--drum roll, please-- King lived to tell the tale.
Released last week, King returned to his finished fantasy saga with a middle installment The Wind Through the Keyhole, and sure enough, I was there with my foot in my mouth, ready to continue a series I thought I had once finished. Set between the events of The Dark Tower IV: Wizard and Glass and The Dark Tower V: The Wolves of the Calla, King proclaims this new mid-world adventure "Dark Tower 4.5" but ensures new, prospective readers that this tale can be enjoyed without reading any other Dark Tower escapade. How is this possible? Well, without giving away too many spoilers, the story of The Wind Through the Keyhole is a story within a story within a story. And just how does that make any sense whatsoever? To put it simply, the gunslinger Roland and his ka-tet are holed up during the onslaught of a ferocious storm. While waiting for the storm to pass, over a campfire Roland tells two stories to his friends: one about a quest to hunt a skin-man (mid-world's version of a werewolf) and a children's fable about Tim Stoutheart, a young boy befallen with troubles in an episodic fantasy adventure.
After King's first attempt and success at prequel material for the Dark Tower series in Wizard and Glass, my expectations for this books were unintentionally high. With that previous episode, King somehow managed to spin a preexisting tale with enough intrigue, surprises, and beloved new characters, all the while keeping a manner of suspense, to ensure the book a keystone in the Dark Tower series. This reaction caused me to open Wind Through the Keyhole with the same expectations. Sadly, the stories delivered about Roland and his ka-tet do not advance the reader in his or her understanding of the overarching Dark Tower series. While reuniting with Roland, Susannah, Eddie, Jake, and Oy is as relaxing as sipping on iced tea during the summer heat, any ominous threat is little to none considering King's Constant Readers know all the characters survive between books 4 and 5. King merely uses a torrential storm as a plot device to lure his characters into an excuse for Roland to relate a past story.
This first story involves Roland's hunt for a murderous creature known as a skin-man, a shape-shifting human that changes his or her body into various werebeast anomalies. In Roland's journey, his father sends him with Jamie DeCurry in hunt of this skin-man. This sandwiched story offers an interesting premise, but does not feel as filling as one would hope. Several characters are introduced but none of them are built with gusto like in Wizard and Glass. Even the search for the skin-man becomes slightly bothersome, obtrusive, and borderline boring when no action sequences unfold until the very end. Although King creates a horrendously terrible monster, we only ever see the creature's aftermath or hear of it's destruction. Both of which result in little to no fear for the skin-man and results in almost a complete lack of caring. If someone forced me to put a label on this genre, I would call it a murder mystery with slight elements of horror. The only offering this tale adds to the Dark Tower series is insight into Roland's plagued memory of killing his mother and how he managed to cope with his loss in the following years. But even the small element of revelation we get is nothing eye-opening.
The true gem within this novel is a story Roland tells a young boy while waiting to confront the skin-man. This story features the same title as the title of the novel and is truly a reason for fans of Stephen King (whether you've read this series or not) to give this book's pages a flipping. If I could describe this tale-within-a-tale I would say it's a perfect cross between King's Eyes of the Dragon and his short yet sweet novellas in Different Seasons. Yes, this story is that good and definitely worth the read. Once readers begin this fairy tale like adventure, they will begin to understand one of King's main reasons for writing this book was to get this story off his chest. Of course he could have thrown it into a collection of novellas but seeing how it involves mid-world, Randal Flagg, and gunslingers alike, the story does not feel misplaced. As I said earlier, the story revolves around a young boy named Tim Stoutheart who encounters family troubles. His recent predicament causes him to undergoes a quest into the deep, dark forest with plenty of twists and turns of both the fantastic and the macabre to make anyone wonder where this creative wonderment has hidden inside King over the past several years. My strongest hope for this story is King's possible intention of creating something larger out of this character. He leaves Tim's world open ended and hints to various adventures forthwith. Seeing how most of his book are interwoven, anything is possible and hopefully King decides to return where this story leaves off. A Dark Tower spinoff would be a great surprise.
All in all, my trouble with this Dark Tower entry is equally outweighed by the pleasure of a single story that encompasses most of the book's 300+ pages. Roland and his ka-tet's story is 34 pages long, the skin-man prequel is 107 pages, and the separate Tim Stoutheart adventure is 155 pages for good reason. On a side note, I am a little depressed the book was not mass printed with illustrations like many of King's previous Dark Tower books. There was a limited 1,500 copies printed with illustrations from Jae Lee (artists behind Marvel's Dark Tower comic series) but forking over the extra cash for those copies is ludicrous. Plus, in my opinion, the cover art featured for this mass-market hardcover is one of my favorites of Stephen King's novels. For those unbeknownst to this series, I certainly recommend reading the previous Dark Tower novels to enjoy this book completely but if you're a little restricted on time these days, I'd suggest flipping through to the middle and enjoying one hell of a read. You won't regret it.