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The Waste Lands, Page 2

Stephen King

  I would have given both of these folks what they wanted--a summary of Roland's further adventures--if I could have done, but alas, I couldn't. I had no idea of how things were going to turn out with the gunslinger and his friends. To know, I have to write. I once had an outline, but I lost it along the way. (It probably wasn't worth a tin shit, anyway.) All I had was a few notes ("Chussit, chissit, chassit, something-something-basket" reads one lying on the desk as I write this). Eventually, starting in July of 2001, I began to write again. I knew by then I was no longer nineteen, nor exempt from any of the ills to which the flesh is heir. I knew I was going to be sixty, maybe even seventy. And I wanted to finish my story before the bad Patrol Boy came for the last time. I had no urge to be filed away with The Canterbury Tales and The Mystery of Edwin Drood.

  The result--for better or worse--lies before you, Constant Reader, whether you reading this are starting with Volume One or are preparing for Volume Five. Like it or hate it, the story of Roland is now done. I hope you enjoy it.

  As for me, I had the time of my life.

  Stephen King

  January 25, 2003




  The Waste Lands is the third volume of a longer tale inspired by and to some degree dependent upon Robert Browning's narrative poem "Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came."

  The first volume, The Gunslinger, tells how Roland, the last gunslinger in a world which has "moved on," pursues and finally catches the man in black, a sorcerer named Walter who falsely claimed the friendship of Roland's father in the days when the unity of Mid-World still held. Catching this half-human spell-caster is not Roland's ultimate goal but only another landmark along the road to the powerful and mysterious Dark Tower, which stands at the nexus of time.

  Who, exactly, is Roland? What was his world like before it moved on? What is the Tower and why does he pursue it? We have only fragmentary answers. Roland is clearly a kind of knight, one of those charged with holding (or possibly redeeming) a world Roland remembers as being "filled with love and light." Just how closely Roland's memory resembles the way that world actually was is very much open to question, however.

  We do know that he was forced to an early trial of manhood after discovering that his mother had become the mistress of Marten, a much greater sorcerer than Walter; we know that Marten orchestrated Roland's discovery of his mother's affair, expecting Roland to fail his test of manhood and to be "sent West" into the wastes; we know that Roland laid Marten's plans at nines by passing the test.

  We also know that the gunslinger's world is related to our own in some strange but fundamental way, and that passage between the worlds is sometimes possible.

  At a way station on a long-deserted coach-road running through the desert, Roland meets a boy named Jake who died in our world, a boy who was, in fact, pushed from a mid-Manhattan street corner and into the path of an oncoming car. Jake Chambers died with the man in black--Walter--peering down at him, and awoke in Roland's world.

  Before they reach the man in black, Jake dies again . . . this time because the gunslinger, faced with the second most agonizing choice of his life, elects to sacrifice this symbolic son. Given a choice between the Tower and the child, Roland chooses the Tower. Jake's last words to the gunslinger before plunging into the abyss are: "Go, then--there are other worlds than these."

  The final confrontation between Roland and Walter occurs in a dusty golgotha of decaying bones. The man in black tells Roland's future with a deck of Tarot cards. Three very strange cards--The Prisoner, The Lady of the Shadows, and Death ("but not for you, gunslinger")--are called especially to Roland's attention.

  The second volume, The Drawing of the Three, begins on the edge of the Western Sea not long after Roland's confrontation with Walter has ended. An exhausted gunslinger awakes in the middle of the night to discover that the incoming tide has brought a horde of crawling, carnivorous creatures--"lobstrosities"--with it. Before he can escape their limited range, Roland has been seriously wounded by these creatures, losing the first two fingers of his right hand to them. He is also poisoned by the venom of the lobstrosities, and as the gunslinger resumes his journey north along the edge of the Western Sea, he is sickening . . . perhaps dying.

  He encounters three doors standing freely upon the beach. Each door opens--for Roland and Roland alone--upon our world; upon the city where Jake lived, in fact. Roland visits New York at three points along our time continuum, both in an effort to save his own life and to draw the three who must accompany him on his road to the Tower.

  Eddie Dean is The Prisoner, a heroin addict from the New York of the late 1980s. Roland steps through the door on the beach of his world and into Eddie Dean's mind as Eddie, serving a man named Enrico Balazar as a cocaine mule, lands at JFK airport. In the course of their harrowing adventures together, Roland is able to obtain a limited quantity of penicillin and to bring Eddie Dean back to his own world. Eddie, a junkie who discovers he has been kidnapped to a world where there is no junk (or Popeye's fried chicken, for that matter), is less than overjoyed to be there.

  The second door leads Roland to The Lady of the Shadows--actually two women in one body. This time Roland finds himself in the New York of the early 1960s and face to face with a young wheelchair-bound civil-rights activist named Odetta Holmes. The woman hidden inside Odetta is the crafty and hate-filled Detta Walker. When this double woman is pulled into Roland's world, the results are volatile for Eddie and the rapidly sickening gunslinger. Odetta believes that what's happening to her is either a dream or a delusion; Detta, a much more brutally direct intellect, simply dedicates herself to the task of killing Roland and Eddie whom she sees as torturing white devils.

  Jack Mort, a serial killer hiding behind the third door (the New York of the mid-1970s), is Death. Mort has twice caused great changes in the life of Odetta Holmes/Detta Walker, although neither of them knows it. Mort, whose modus operandi is to either push his victims or drop something on them from above, has done both to Odetta during the course of his mad (but oh so careful) career. When Odetta was a child, he dropped a brick on her head, sending the little girl into a coma and also occasioning the birth of Detta Walker, Odetta's hidden sister. Years later, in 1959, Mort encounters Odetta again and pushes her into the path of an oncoming subway train in Greenwich Village. Odetta survives Mort again, but at a price: the oncoming train severed both legs at the knee. Only the presence of a heroic young doctor (and, perhaps, the ugly but indomitable spirit of Detta Walker) saves her life . . . or so it would seem. To Roland's eye, these interrelationships suggest a power greater than mere coincidence; he believes the titantic forces which surround the Dark Tower have begun to gather once again.

  Roland learns that Mort may stand at the heart of another mystery as well, one which is also a potentially mind-destroying paradox. For the victim Mort is stalking at the time the gunslinger steps into his life is none other than Jake, the boy Roland met at the way station and lost under the mountains. Roland has never had any cause to doubt Jake's story of how he died in our world, or any cause to question who Jake's murderer was--Walter, of course. Jake saw him dressed as a priest as the crowd gathered around the spot where he lay dying, and Roland has never doubted the description.

  Nor does he doubt it now; Walter was there, oh yes, no doubt about that. But suppose it was Jack Mort, not Walter, who pushed Jake into the path of the oncoming Cadillac? Is such a thing possible? Roland can't say, not for sure, but if that is the case, where is Jake now? Dead? Alive? Caught somewhere in time? And if Jake Chambers is still alive and well in his own world of Manhattan in the mid-1970s, how is it that Roland still remembers him?

  Despite this confusing and possibly dangerous development, the test of the doors--and the drawing of the three--ends in success for Roland. Eddie Dean accepts his place in Roland's world because he has fallen in love with The Lady of the Shadows. Detta Walker and Odetta Holmes, the other two of Roland's three, are drive
n together into one personality combining elements of both Detta and Odetta when the gunslinger is finally able to force the two personalities to acknowledge each other. This hybrid is able to accept and return Eddie's love. Odetta Susannah Holmes and Detta Susannah Walker thus become a new woman, a third woman: Susannah Dean.

  Jack Mort dies beneath the wheels of the same subway--that fabled A-train--which took Odetta's legs fifteen or sixteen years before. No great loss there.

  And for the first time in untold years, Roland of Gilead is no longer alone in his quest for the Dark Tower. Cuthbert and Alain, his lost companions of yore, have been replaced by Eddie and Susannah . . . but the gunslinger has a way of being bad medicine for his friends. Very bad medicine, indeed.

  The Waste Lands takes up the story of these three pilgrims on the face of Mid-World some months after the confrontation by the final door on the beach. They have moved some fair way inland. The period of rest is ending, and a period of learning has begun. Susannah is learning to shoot . . . Eddie is learning to carve . . . and the gunslinger is learning how it feels to lose one's mind, a piece at a time.

  (One further note: My New York readers will know that I have taken certain geographical liberties with the city. For these I hope I may be forgiven.)

  A heap of broken images, where the sun beats,

  And the dead tree gives no shelter, the cricket no relief,

  And the dry stone no sound of water. Only

  There is shadow under this red rock,

  (Come in under the shadow of this red rock),

  And I will show you something different from either

  Your shadow in the morning striding behind you

  Or your shadow at evening rising to meet you;

  I will show you fear in a handful of dust.

  --T. S. ELIOT

  "The Waste Land"

  If there pushed any ragged thistle-stalk

  Above its mates, the head was chopped; the bents

  Were jealous else. What made those holes and rents

  In the dock's harsh swarth leaves, bruised as to balk

  All hope of greenness? 'tis a brute must walk

  Pashing their life out, with a brute's intents.


  "Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came"

  "What river is it?" enquired Millicent idly.

  "It's only a stream. Well, perhaps a little more than

  that. It's called the Waste."

  "Is it really?"

  "Yes," said Winifred, "it is. "


  "Hand in Glove"






  IT WAS HER THIRD time with live ammunition . . . and her first time on the draw from the holster Roland had rigged for her.

  They had plenty of live rounds; Roland had brought back better than three hundred from the world where Eddie and Susannah Dean had lived their lives up until the time of their drawing. But having ammunition in plenty did not mean it could be wasted; quite the contrary, in fact. The gods frowned upon wastrels. Roland had been raised, first by his father and then by Cort, his greatest teacher, to believe this, and so he still believed. Those gods might not punish at once, but sooner or later the penance would have to be paid . . . and the longer the wait, the greater the weight.

  At first there had been no need for live ammunition, anyway. Roland had been shooting for more years than the beautiful brown-skinned woman in the wheelchair would believe. He had corrected her at first simply by watching her aim and dry-fire at the targets he had set up. She learned fast. Both she and Eddie learned fast.

  As he had suspected, both were born gunslingers.

  Today Roland and Susannah had come to a clearing less than a mile from the camp in the woods which had been home to them for almost two months now. The days had passed with their own sweet similarity. The gunslinger's body healed itself while Eddie and Susannah learned the things the gunslinger had to teach them: how to shoot, to hunt, to gut and clean what they had killed; how to first stretch, then tan and cure the hides of those kills; how to use as much as it was possible to use so that no part of the animal was wasted; how to find north by Old Star or south by Old Mother; how to listen to the forest in which they now found themselves, sixty miles or more northeast of the Western Sea. Today Eddie had stayed behind, and the gunslinger was not put out of countenance by this. The lessons which are remembered the longest, Roland knew, are always the ones that are self-taught.

  But what had always been the most important lesson was still most important: how to shoot and how to hit what you shot at every time. How to kill.

  The edges of this clearing had been formed by dark, sweet-smelling fir trees that curved around it in a ragged semicircle. To the south, the ground broke off and dropped three hundred feet in a series of crumbling shale ledges and fractured cliffs, like a giant's set of stairs. A clear stream ran out of the woods and across the center of the clearing, first bubbling through a deep channel in the spongy earth and friable stone, then pouring across the splintery rock floor which sloped down to the place where the land dropped away.

  The water descended the steps in a series of waterfalls and made any number of pretty, wavering rainbows. Beyond the edge of the drop-off was a magnificent deep valley, choked with more firs and a few great old elm trees which refused to be crowded out. These latter towered green and lush, trees which might have been old when the land from which Roland had come was yet young; he could see no sign that the valley had ever burned, although he supposed it must have drawn lightning at some time or other. Nor would lightning have been the only danger. There had been people in this forest in some distant time; Roland had come across their leavings on several occasions over the past weeks. They were primitive artifacts, for the most part, but they included shards of pottery which could only have been cast in fire. And fire was evil stuff that delighted in escaping the hands which created it.

  Above this picturebook scene arched a blameless blue sky in which a few crows circled some miles off, crying in their old, rusty voices. They seemed restless, as if a storm were on the way, but Roland had sniffed the air and there was no rain in it.

  A boulder stood to the left of the stream. Roland had set up six chips of stone on top of it. Each one was heavily flecked with mica, and they glittered like lenses in the warm afternoon light.

  "Last chance," the gunslinger said. "If that holster's uncomfortabte--even the slightest bit--tell me now. We didn't come here to waste ammunition."

  She cocked a sardonic eye at him, and for a moment he could see Detta Walker in there. It was like hazy sunlight winking off a bar of steel. "What would you do if it was uncomfortable and I didn't tell you? If I missed all six of those itty bitty things? Whop me upside the head like that old teacher of yours used to do?"

  The gunslinger smiled. He had done more smiling these last five weeks than he had done in the five years which had come before them. "I can't do that, and you know it. We were children, for one thing-- children who hadn't been through our rites of manhood yet. You may slap a child to correct him, or her, but--"

  "In my world, whoppin the kiddies is also frowned on by the better class of people," Susannah said dryly.

  Roland shrugged. It was hard for him to imagine that sort of world--did not the Great Book say "Spare not the birch so you spoil not the child"?--but he didn't believe Susannah was lying. "Your world has not moved on," he said. "Many things are different there. Did I not see for myself that it is so?"

  "I guess you did."

  "In any case, you and Eddie are not children. It would be wrong for me to treat you as if you were. And if tests were needed, you both passed them."

  Although he did not say so, he was thinking of how it had ended on the beach, when she had blown three of the lumbering lobstrosities to hell before they could peel him and Eddie to the bone. He saw her answering smile and thought sh
e might be remembering the same thing.

  "So what you goan do if I shoot fo' shit?"

  "I'll look at you. I think that's all I'll need to do."

  She thought this over, then nodded. "Might be."

  She tested the gunbelt again. It was slung across her bosom almost like a shoulder-holster (an arrangement Roland thought of as a docker's clutch) and looked simple enough, but it had taken many weeks of trial and error--and a great deal of tailoring--to get it just right. The belt and the revolver which cocked its eroded sandalwood grip out of the ancient oiled holster had once been the gunslinger's; the holster had hung on his right hip. He had spent much of the last five weeks coming to realize it was never going to hang there again. Thanks to the lobstrosities, he was strictly a lefthanded gun now.

  "So how is it?" he asked again.

  This time she laughed up at him. "Roland, this ole gunbelt's as com'fable as it's ever gonna be. Now do you want me to shoot or are we just going to sit and listen to crowmusic from over yonder?"

  He felt tension worming sharp little fingers under his skin now, and he supposed Cort had felt much the same at times like this under his gruff, bluff exterior. He wanted her to be good . . . needed her to be good. But to show how badly he wanted and needed--that could lead to disaster.

  "Tell me your lesson again, Susannah."

  She sighed in mock exasperation . . . but as she spoke her smile faded and her dark, beautiful face became solemn. And from her lips he heard the old catechism again, made new in her mouth. He had never expected to hear these words from a woman. How natural they sounded . . . yet how strange and dangerous, as well.