The Dark Tower:
Before I get to this week’s post, we need to take a moment to pour one out for another member of the ka-tet. John “Jake” Chambers has entered the clearing at the end of the path, say sorry, and I was just as sad to see him go as ever. But his death was only a portion of this week’s reading, and frankly this blog has been kind of a bummer the past few weeks, mourning Eddie and wallowing in ka-shume. Still, it wouldn’t be right to gloss right over this tragedy; suffice it to say: I Ake.
Now, what I really want to talk about is something I’ve been waiting to write for a long time, but always knew I should save it for “when the pages grow thin” (p. 372), and that is the subject of the Crimson King. Like, what’s that guy’s deal? I know it’s odd to be asking that question about a story’s Big Bad so late in the game, but as you know we don’t hear a lot about him leading up to this final book. In fact, I probably would have waited even longer had Roland’s visit to the Tet Corporation not forced my hand (but we’ll get to that later).
Roland was looking intently at Aaron Deepnau’s grand-niece. “The Crimson King is mentioned in here? By actual name?”– The Dark Tower, p. 416
As described in Robin Furth’s The Dark Tower: The Complete Concordance, the Crimson King is a “prince of chaos…a shape-shifter whose true dual form vacillates between that of a static red-eyed Santa Claus and a scuttling spider.” She goes on to explain that “not only is the Red King ugly, but he is also completely mad. Many years before [the] story began, he flooded Thunderclap with poison gas, darkening the land and killing everything that lived there.” And in one of the few references to this villainous Santa-spider Stephen King added to The Gunslinger, “Walter tells Roland that the Red King already controls the Dark Tower,” and later we will learn that “although he could not enter the Tower proper, he took up a position on one of its balconies. From there, he hoped to keep his fearsome enemy Roland at bay with his huge supply of sneetches.”
Furth does a great job summarizing the backstory of the Crimson King and his role in the text, but what does that role represent in the subtext? In this story about storytelling, where does the Lord of Spiders fit into the metaphor? My theory, which I spoiled a little bit during my discussion with the Kingslingers, is that the Crimson King represents a certain variety of Constant Reader: the entitled fan.
I know the subject of fan entitlement is polarizing. My personal opinion is that art is the product of an artist’s choices, and whenever a fan of any kind of art starts talking about how a story “should” have ended, or how something “should” have looked, they become an entitled fan. People who do this are not interested in thoughtfully consuming and critiquing an artist’s work, they merely want to see their own ideas projected back at them, complaining when that’s not what they get.
Which is exactly what the Crimson King is doing. He has positioned himself atop the Dark Tower, the nexus of universes that he did not create, yet is determined to control. He would rather topple the Tower, letting the Prim flood back in so he can rule over it, rebooting existence in his own image. To me, this is just like the rabid Star Wars fans who railed against Rian Johnson’s creative choices in The Last Jedi so vehemently that Disney overcorrected, finishing out a nine movie saga with a film that seemed to trade narrative integrity for fan service.
However, reading this week’s chapters made me realize the Crimson King isn’t the only character who represents the readers. When Roland visits the offices of the Tet Corporation, it becomes clear that the agents of the White aren’t so different from the Agents of the Red after all. We learn that the Tet Corporation has gathered their own team of telepaths and precogs, as well as a host of scholars—the Calvins—whose sole purpose is to piece together what will happen before it does. These are not the entitled fans trying to bend the story to their will, but they are still trying to spoil it.
“They don’t just read them,” Marian said. “They cross-reference them by settings, by characters, by themes—such as they are—even by mention of popular brand-name products.”– The Dark Tower, p. 415
They are like the people who dissect a Marvel trailer frame by frame, trying to decipher the Easter eggs that will tell them what to expect. They aren’t talking about what a piece of art should be, and that’s great. But they are trying to predict what a piece of art will be, leading to pre-judgement of said piece of art, which I believe is just as bad.
The two fan letters King includes at the end of Song of Susannah perfectly encapsulate the differences and similarities between the Red and the White perfectly. The first letter is from an entitle fan who is furious about The Waste Land’s cliffhanger ending. He can’t even articulate how he thinks the book should have ended, he just knows he didn’t want it to end the way King decided it should, and calls King an Asshole with a capital A, and calls the story a “cheat.” (Song of Susannah, p. 375).
Meanwhile, the second letter is from a “76-yrs-young ‘gramma’” who is dying of cancer and wants to know how the series wraps up before she enters her own clearing. As we know, that’s not a wish King is able to grant, and it pains him to deny this Aunt Talitha-esque woman her dying wish. Just like the Tet Corporation and the other agents of the White, her intentions are good, but she is still willing to ruin the story for herself if it means a shot at a happy ending.
A mad (but surprisingly persuasive) idea came to him: that these were in truth agents of the Crimson King, and when he opened the box, the last thing he’d see would be a primed sneetch, counting down the last few clicks to red zero.– The Dark Tower, p. 419
If you’re an artist, you cannot bend to the will of either of these forces, the good fans or the bad. Whether you’re Eddie carving his key or Stephen King ending his magnum opus, you have to make your own choices. Not because it’s what your fans want you to do, and not because it’s what your fans theorize you’ll do, but because it’s what your own cosmic turtle, your own Gan, is telling you to do. And if your fans decide they own that which you’ve created, and start hurling Sneetches at you when they don’t like where things are going, you know how to disarm them: simply use your art to make them disappear, make them irrelevant, just as Patrick Danville does with the Crimson King. Just make sure you leave the eyes; after all, you still need an audience.