I have never really wanted to read Stephen King.
I’m not into horror, and since childhood (for better or worse) I’ve always associated him with an unpleasant kind of approach to the question of evil, like he didn’t mind sidling up to it and getting a little too close.
Of course, all that was hearsay.
Then I found a gorgeous, illustrated version of The Gunslinger in my library. It was short. It had a “Western” feel. The writing on page one was sparse, to the point, and gorgeous. The first line has the same kind of punch as “Call me Ishmael.” I just picked it up, thinking… why not?
Like with only a few other books, by the time I realized I was standing by the bookshelf in the library, still reading, I had reached page fifty.
Turns out, I wasn’t entirely wrong about Stephen King. He’s perhaps a little too cynical about the possibility of good in a fallen world, perhaps a little too comfortable with casual violence. But unlike Game of Thrones, where the violence of a messed up world is described with more than a little bit of sick enjoyment, everything in The Gunslinger happens for a good reason. Even the critical moment, the “sacrifice” that probably will make everyone cringe, is heart-rending and harrowing rather than disgusting or unpleasant.
But I’m running away from myself. The real reason I loved this book is this–it takes its emotional cues from the Biblical account of Abraham and Isaac. As soon as I realized that, this short and sparse novel, so unlike other fantasies in its utter lack of detail and backstory, became (for me) a profound meditation on love, destiny, fate, and importance of personal choice.
If a book like The Golem and the Jinni cops out big time when it comes to the important questions of fate vs free will, this novel takes its bitter medicine and faces the reality of moral choice in a way that novels rarely do these days. It made for a harrowing, exhilarating read.
Lest you think this is nothing but an allegory or parable, the story is compelling in its own right. It gives just enough of the Gunslinger’s back story to keep you going, but the ultimate lack of detail makes the reader want to read the next books immediately after putting this one down (too back the second book is nowhere near as good as the first).
Since the long-delayed TV adaptation is finally happening, now is the time to get acquainted with the Gunslinger, the Man in Black, and Jake. You won’t regret it.