Stephen King’s Bad Case Of Survivor’s Guilt

The Wind Through
The Keyhole
Pages 1-82

*This post contains full series spoilers

When The Wind Through The Keyhole was first published in 2012, nearly a decade after the final volume of the series had been released, I was delighted to have more Dark Tower content to consume, but I never took it very seriously. I remember enjoying the three nested stories quite a bit—The Stark Blast, The Skin-Man and The Wind Through The Keyhole—but they all felt removed from the rest of the series. With the exception of Gabrielle’s letter at the end of the novel, it all seemed rather insignificant. To me, it felt like King had retroactively added this book to the series not because he felt the story was incomplete, but because he got an itch to pull out his favorite action figures and play in his sandbox.

As for me, I was delighted to discover my old friends had a little more to say. It was a great gift to find them again, years after I thought their stories were told.

– Foreword, The Wind Through the Keyhole

That might read like a criticism, but it’s actually one of the things I enjoyed most about the novel when I first read it, especially considering Mid-World just so happens to be my favorite sandbox too. Also, after being emotionally pummeled by The Dark Tower a few years earlier (I took my first trip around the wheel in 2007), the one-off nature of this book was like a cool refreshing drink. I got to spend time with Roland, Eddie, Jake—all my dead and damned friends—and know that, at least for the next few hundred pages, they were safe from dying or damning themselves. It was just a low-stakes romp through Mid-World that served to cleanse the palate after the tragic ending of the series, nothing that required too much thought or analysis.

Now, thanks to this blog, I am examining the text more closely and finding much more substance than I ever did before. Of course I always understood that Roland’s story in this book is about guilt and forgiveness; you can’t really miss it and just in case you do, King spells it out for you in the Afterword anyway. What I never understood until now, though, is that those themes are much more deeply layered than I ever gave this book credit for. It’s not just a story about Roland being absolved for what he did to his mother; it’s about Stephen King being absolved for what he did to his characters.

You don’t have to look too hard to find evidence that King had the idea of guilt—survivor’s guilt—on his mind while he was writing this. We’re only eighty pages into the novel and already we’ve been bombarded with characters suffering from the guilt of being alive while someone else is dead. Roland is the most blatant example, but we also meet Fortuna, who blasphemes by wishing she had been killed; we meet Young Bill, the sole survivor of a slaughter that took his Da’; the two sons of Sai Jefferson that were away at auction and will no doubt torture themselves for the rest of their lives, wishing they had been home at the ranch in their sisters’ stead.

“I wish you had killed me,” Fortuna said. “Oh, I wish you had.” She sat in one of the chairs that had been brought to the table, put her face in her hands, and began to weep. Her one remaining eye did, at least.

The Wind Through the Keyhole, p. 52

Each of these people was involved in a situation in which a loved-one died and they didn’t. And no matter whether they actually had a part to play in that situation as Roland did, or whether they had no control over it whatsoever like Young Bill, they all blame themselves for what happened either way.

Is that not exactly what happened to King when he finished the series? He spent so many years imagining these characters that he grew to love them. Then, at the end he was finally forced by the logic of his own narrative to kill his imaginary friends off one by one, before finally dooming the gunslinger to eternal damnation. His fingers typed the words that kill Eddie, Jake, and Oy, just as Roland’s finger pulled the trigger that killed his mother; it’s easy to see how he might feel guilty about writing it.

I mentioned before that this story felt refreshing after the trauma of the final book, and now I wonder if that was deliberate. Perhaps King didn’t choose to return to Mid-World because he missed playing with his favorite toys; maybe he came back to the path of the beam to let himself off the hook for what he did to them. Maybe he wanted to write himself a letter, just like Gabrielle’s letter to Roland’s, saying “I forgive you everything.”

But King doesn’t bear the responsibility of the ka-tet’s fate alone. As I’ve written before, we Constant Readers are culpable as well, for a story needs an audience just as much as it needs a storyteller. Every time I finish the series I feel as though my selfish need to keep reliving this adventure is the only reason Roland is doomed to repeat it. But maybe I don’t have to feel so bad; maybe this book is King’s way of forgiving the audience as well as himself, or at least giving us permission to forgive ourselves.

Next Week’s Reading
The Wind Through The Keyhole
Pages 83-163

Published by Joe Rechtman

Screenwriter/watcher. Constant Reader & Dark Tower Junkie.

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