Wolves of the Calla

by Stephen King (2003)


When I read first read this upon release it was the least memorable by far of the five books I had read, and re-reading it now I think I know why; it’s as much a remake of The Seven Samurai as it is a Dark Tower story. Ok, so really it’s “The Four Samurai,” but isn’t that all we’re talking about here? And without a classic resolution (or even falling action), the ending is palpably abrupt and unsatisfying. We go from one climax right to another (albeit lesser) one, and this one ends on a cliffhanger.

I do like how the mission of Roland’s “present” ka-tet mirrors that of his former one as recounted in the previous book — they stumble into a remote village that needs saving, and while at it discover it has more to do with their Dark Tower mission than they could have imagined (complete with a Wizard’s Glass). Roland even gets another girl, this one in many ways cooler than Susan Delgado.

Some of the new characters are also strong. I already mentioned Rosalita, a quiet, wise badass who is the perfect compliment to Roland. Pere Callahan, despite too much backstory, is also a worthy addition to the ka-tet. And even though I don’t like Calvin Tower as a person, I think he’s great as a character. It’s refreshing and interesting to encounter people fighting for the White who can also be antagonistic (Callahan does this at times too).

In fact, these characters highlight a weakness in the central group, which is that despite King’s tortured machinations there is very little discord. They all talk with the same (annoying) voice, constantly flinging around personal jokes, inside jokes, or some unnatural cultural references that normal people never use while talking. The same problem dates back to Drawing of the Three, and I discuss it more in that book’s review, but it boils down to this: when the four of them are talking together it is downright irritating to read.

Nowhere is this on worse display than in the Palaver chapter (IV) of the “Todash” section, around page 100, where in the space of a several pages you have: Susannah mentioning “Blue Car Syndrome,” a sociological phenomenon that literally nobody has on the tip of their tongues in a rapid-fire conversation; Eddie interrupting a very serious discussion to beg Callahan for North-American idioms, which Callahan breathlessly obliges; and Jake making another tip-of-his-tongue reference to specific mystery novels, because he’s read so many of them. Umm, no Jake, no you haven’t, and even if you have you wouldn’t be calling it up in conversation. You know how I know this? Because you’re 11.

Basically, when the four of them talk together you get the distinct feeling you’re watching Stephen King talk to himself. And I’m sure Stephen King is a fun guy to talk to, but he’s just one guy. I don’t need or want four of him.

The bloat is once again a problem, and besides Callahan’s unnecessarily long flashback, a lot of it has to do with King manufacturing conflict. Jake not telling the group a key plot point was unbelievable, as was the confrontation between Callahan and a friend’s grieving sister. Withholding Gran-Pere’s last line of his story was not only bizarre and irritating, but also ineffective in that it did not create more tension (and wouldn’t have been honest even if it had). And don’t get me started on the completely asinine, completely unnecessary hippie-cowboy who used our favorite magical rose as his own personal Oxy pad. That’s vomit-in-your-mouth levels of bad writing right there.

Other annoyances: there were no really good villains, certainly not anyone to rival Eldred Jonas, Rhea, Blaine, Gasher or Tick-Tock from the previous two books. The Wolves were basically really strapped storm troopers. Also, murderous sneetches? This is more a personal thing, but to me Harry Potter is far too derivative to deserve placement alongside original classics like Star Wars andWizard of Oz (or even Marvel).

But one of the worst transgressions was the ridiculous contrivance of Eddie going to meet Calvin Tower at the very moment the muscle-guys were there. Did you catch why Andolini and Biondi were even there in the first place? It was to assault Tower into a “verbal commitment.” Seriously, that’s why they were there, hitting him and burning treasured books and threatening him: to illegally pressure him into a non-legally binding contract. It makes absolutely no sense besides being outrageously convenient for the plot.

Perhaps the biggest issue in the book though is Susannah, who despite being involved in lots of conflict continues to be an extremely flat protagonist. It’s as if King couldn’t figure out how to make her interesting besides being black and crippled, two totally superficial physical traits, only one of which is really commented on (and that just so she can put a jerk character in his place after he calls her “brownie”).

So instead of fleshing her out, he just makes terrible shit happen to her. Terrible psychological shit that rarely occurs in real life and is not fully explained is still just terrible external shit, and it’s not a substitution for compelling development. And by taking this angle, by subjecting her to uncontrollable outside forces, King is basically relegating Susannah to perpetual damsel-hood. All of her drama in this book is a result of a demon-rape, and all we’re left with is her boys having to help her out again.

Just to be clear, the defining characteristics of our “strong female” are: 1) Crippled, 2) Black, 3) Mentally unstable, 4) (Demon) Rape survivor and 5) (Demon) Pregnant. This is one imperiled woman we’re talking about. I’m not really sure how you could make her more imperiled. Maybe give her cancer? Anyway, I don’t care how many crazy knife-plates she can throw, “She’s broke and the men gotta fix her” does not make for an empowering female character arc. And just piling on the terrible external shit does not automatically make a character interesting. Hopefully the next book corrects this course a bit, given that her name’s in the title and all. . .

Anyway, I’m still addicted to this story and to most of the characters, so I liked the book more than it annoyed me. But this entry has me wondering for the first time if that balance may shift toward the negative over the last two books. I don’t even mind King putting himself in here — it makes sense as a plot-turn in a story that’s about the nexus of all worlds. From my understanding this intrusion becomes more distracting later on, but I guess I’ll cross that bridge when I get there. Onward ho!

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