The Dangers Of Storytelling: Witches And Grapefruits And Thinnies, Oh My!

Wizard & Glass:
Part Three,
Part Four, 1.i-v

Well, here I am once more, heartbroken and hollowed-out by the end of a book I’ve read half a dozen times before. Susan is dead, Roland is damned, and we are finally back in the present, turnpikin’ with the core ka-tet. The palaver is over, and Roland’s tale of youthful love has been told.

The telling of this story makes the gunslinger feel better. It’s therapeutic for him, a healing salve on a very old, long-untreated psychic wound. Here we see the cathartic power of narrative at work, and how stories can help us process trauma, even when they’re not our own. As a junkie and the son of a junkie, respectively, Eddie and Jake can both relate to Roland’s obsession with the grapefruit in their own way.

”Feel better?” Eddie asked.

The gunslinger’s lids rose, disclosing those faded yet somehow alarming blue eyes. “Yes. I do. I don’t understand how that can be, as much as I dreaded this telling…but I do.”

– Wizard & Glass, p. 931

But this week’s reading doesn’t just demonstrate the healing properties of storytelling; it also shows us how destructive and dangerous stories can be. For what is the grapefruit but a storyteller? In my mind, there is little difference between Roland finding the wizard’s glass, and Pere Callahan finding a copy of Salem’s Lot two books down the road. In each case, the characters find an object that shows them their own story from an omniscient perspective: Salem’s Lot contains Callahan’s past, whereas the grapefruit shows Roland his future. But ultimately the book and the ball are both the same thing: vessels for narrative.

However, while the Stephen King novel Callahan finds in Wolves of the Calla is dangerous in an existential sense, the pink bend o’ the rainbow is dangerous in a very literal, physiological sense. Those who look into the glass quickly become addicted to its glam. We see this first in Rhea, as she becomes obsessed with spying on the townsfolk and learning their shameful secrets. Rhea consumes this content the same way people binge trashy reality TV. In fact, Theresa Maria Dolores O’Shyven, the floor-licker, is a subject you might catch on an episode of A&E’s Intervention.

Rhea sits at home, using her pet snake to masturbate while soiling herself and staring non-stop into the glowing pink orb, completely oblivious to the fact that she has become just as pathetic and deviant as the floor-licker herself. Unlike Roland’s story—the one that makes him feel better after telling it—the stories that the ball feeds Rhea lack any emotional or thematic nutrition. They are empty calories, and by the time the ball is taken from her, she is almost completely drained of her life-force.

When Roland gets his hands on the ball, it shows him the story of his future. It’s not the same trashy content that Rhea became addicted to watching, but it’s harmful in its own way because it uses the power of narrative to mislead and ultimately radicalize him, turning him into the Tower Junkie we know and love. If the stories Rhea saw in the ball were harmful to her because they were vapid and mind-numbing, the story it shows Roland is harmful because it is manipulative propaganda. Like an army recruitment video, it shows him all the places he’ll travel and promises him the glory of saving the universe while omitting Susan’s horrible death, and the tragedy we know is waiting for him at the Dark Tower.

Perhaps the wizard’s glass had only shown him what stood worlds far away in order to keep from showing him what might soon befall close to home…If it couldn’t lie, might it not misdirect? Might it not take him away and show him a dark land, a darker tower?

– Wizard & Glass, p. 913

Later, when Roland describes their journey back to Gilead, he mentions how lucky he was that the ball did not glow for him while his grief for Susan was still fresh. “If it had awakened before I’d started to get some of my strength of mind back, I don’t think I’d be here now. Because any world—even a pink one with a glass sky—would have been preferable to one where there was no Susan,” he tells the New Yorkers in I-70 (p. 936). And while Roland ultimately doesn’t use the grapefruit’s pink glow to escape from his bleak reality, we see other men do just that: escaping not into the ball, but into the thinny. This brings us to the third kind of destructive storytelling on display in this week’s chapters: escapism.

The thinny does not tell stories in the same way the grapefruit does, but it shares many qualities with the wizard’s glass. Both seem to call out to their victims, almost putting them into a trance, clouding their eyes and impairing their judgement. And like a good story, the thinny promises escape to anyone who hears its insistent whine (“sounds Hawaiian, doesn’t it?”). Escape from reality, escape from your problems, escape from your life. It’s the same reason we go to the movies, except movies only last two hours and don’t strip the flesh from our bones when you step into the theater. Of course there’s nothing wrong with indulging in escapism from time to time. As I said, it’s one of the main reasons we crave narrative in the first place. But it is possible to become lost in them, to bury your head in the sand of storytelling so deep that you can’t pull it back up. That is—at least symbolically—what happens to the men who enter the thinny willingly, and what certainly would have happened to Roland had the ball glowed for him again too soon.

Come in, the green shimmer invited, and Latigo found its buzz strangely attractive… intimate, almost. Come in and visit, squat and hunker, be at rest, be at peace, be at one.

– Wizard & Glass, p. 911

While the catharsis of a well-told story can be a powerful tool for healing, King makes it clear in these chapters that not all stories are good for us. Some stories, like those Rhea becomes addicted to, only serve to entertain and titillate, providing no real mental sustenance and rotting our brains; some stories manipulate us and warp our perception of the truth, like the one Roland sees in the grapefruit; some provide a space where the problems of our real lives don’t exist, only to fully consume us and prevent us from actually living just as the thinny does. It’s important to know what kind of story we are choosing to consume, and how they might affect us, for too much of the wrong type of tale might end up doing more harm than good.

Next Week’s Reading
Wizard & Glass:
Part Four
2.i-End of Book

Published by Joe Rechtman

Screenwriter/watcher. Constant Reader & Dark Tower Junkie.

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