October is the perfect month to talk about scary stories. It’s also the perfect time to mention Stephen King, without doubt one of America’s modern masters of horror. (I’m pretty sure someone else came up with that title.) Say what you will about Steve (yes, I am claiming the right to call him “Steve”), he has had a major impact on the world of publishing, and if I hadn’t discovered The Shining back in highschool (I vividly remember trying to read it during choir practice – choir practice of all places!! – I could not put it down. Sorry Mr. Parker!), I would not be the person I am today. When I was sixteen and finally had a steady, though tiny, income from working at McDonald’s, I purchased my very first hardcover, The Stand, and my future was set. Many years later I own over three thousand books, and I have Stephen King to thank for it.
Now like most writers, Steve has had his ups and downs. His hits and misses. His classics and flops. I am not so blinded by his brilliance that I can’t admit to being disappointed once in a while (Cell, anyone?). But today I want to focus on one flash of brilliance, in particular a smallish book that was originally published back in 1982 by Donald M. Grant. The Gunslinger was a mere 216 pages long (Compare that to Under the Dome, which clocks in at 1,072 pages.) The first book of The Dark Tower, The Gunslinger was different from Steve’s other books: it was fantasy. Not only was it fantasy and a puzzlement to many of his loyal fans, but the book was hard to find. Donald M. Grant was (and is) a publisher of fine, limited edition books. The Gunslinger was released with a print run of 500 limited edition copies (meaning signed by the author and artist) and 10,000 first edition trade hardcover copies. After those had sold out, Grant released another print-run of 10,000 second edition trade hardcovers (one of which I am proud to say I own.) 20,500 copies may seem like a lot, but compare that to the first print-run of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, which was 12 million copies! Grant’s edition was gorgeously illustrated by Michael Whelan, and a precedent was set for future volumes. In fact, the covers you see above are the original editions published by Donald M. Grant, each with its own illustrator (Phil Hale, Ned Dameron, Dave McKean, Bernie Wrightson, Darrel Anderson, and Michael Whelan, who bookended the series by illustrating the first and last books.) A paperback edition was not published until 1988, about the same time that The Drawing of the Three, the second book in the series, was released. It wasn’t until 2004 that Roland’s story finally came to an end in The Dark Tower, and I realized that I could now read the entire series the way it was meant to be read: one book after another, from start to finish, without years between books trying to remember where one book left off and the next began. Instead of losing the threads of the story (and believe me, there are lots of threads), I had the best reading experience of my life. I remember tracking down reading copies of all the books except for The Dark Tower. I did not want to wait another year for it to come out in paperback. (An aside: the term “reading copy” usually refers to a paperback edition of a book. To a book collector, it’s a copy of a book that can be read: you can fold down its pages, spill coffee on it, and generally put it through hell if you want to. I did read my second printing of The Gunslinger when I purchased it, but I assure you I probably read it with gloves on.) So I got my reading copies together and put them in a big stack, and I started to read. It took me three months to read all seven books.
All this is a roundabout way of getting to the point of this post: What does keep me up at night? It may not be what you think. The Dark Tower is not horror, really. There are horrific elements to be sure, but most people would categorize these books as fantasy. What keeps me up at night is the fact that there are probably loads of people out there who have never even heard of The Dark Tower, let alone read it. The single experience I had of immersing myself in Roland’s story for three months was life-changing, and I can’t imagine not having read these books. If you are reading this, and you have read The Dark Tower books, perhaps you understand. (Of course, maybe you read them and didn’t like them. And if that’s the case, you probably won’t be coming back to this blog…) If however, you have not read about Roland and his friends, and you have some time to spare (about three months, I’d say), I urge you to take the time and jump in. All seven books are now available in any number of affordable editions (including digital and audio), or can be found at the library, or can be borrowed from a friend. They may not keep you up at night, in the scary/horror sort of way, but they will make you think, and dream, and imagine. And I will sleep better knowing you are reading them.
Stephen King’s The Dark Tower is: The Gunslinger, The Drawing of the Three, The Waste Lands, Wizard and Glass, The Wolves of the Calla, Song of Susannah, and The Dark Tower.
Special thanks to Goodreads for being so helpful with book covers and publishing dates. You guys are awesome!
Learn more about Donald M. Grant Publishers.