The wheel of Ka turns, and a movie based on Stephen King’s magnum opus The Dark Tower is finally coming to theaters, say thankee sai. Even better, it’s both an adaptation of the books and a continuation, meaning there’s sure to be plenty there for fans both old and new to obsess over.
Because if any series of books is worth your obsession, it’s this one. Even if you’re only interested in the movie, you are probably aware by now The Dark Tower is a
seven eight-book fantasy/western/sci-fi saga that has come to contain within it basically everything else King has written (crafting a story about a giant, mysterious edifice that binds the multiverse together will do that). It’s harder to find a Stephen King novel that doesn’t tie into the saga on one metafictional level or another, making the Tower, in a way, the ultimate Easter egg—though some ancillary works are definitely more ancillary than others.
What follows is a list of 10 books that are closely enough tied to Roland’s quest for the Tower that you really need to read them to get the whole picture. If you have already taken the journey to End-World with the last gunslinger and his ka-tet—Jake, Eddie, Susannah, and Oy—alongside and a host of wizards, robotic wolves, mutants, and evil trains, this list of essential related works will hopefully help augment your appreciation of King’s crowning achievement as an author. If you haven’t, it should serve as motivation to get started—there’s like a trillion worlds in the balance here, fhttps://www.barnesandnoble.com/blog/sci-fi-fantasy/wp-admin/options-general.phpolks! It doesn’t get much more epic than that.
If you’ve stayed away from reading The Stand because the TV mini-series was a rambling, uneven, and unnecessarily long mess, I won’t hold it against you. But it really is a fantastic book, about a plague that wipes out most of America’s population. Those that are left go either to Nebraska, to side with the saintly Mother Abigail, or to Las Vegas, to join the demonic Randall Flagg. The latter pops up in multiple Dark Tower books with a variety of names, and is the Gunslinger’s most iconic adversary (“The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed…”). The introduction to Flagg in The Stand is, for my money, the most interesting description of a villain I have ever read. Anyway, once the two sides are formed, a battle for the heart and soul of the country ensues. Now that sounds like a line from a book jacket, doesn’t it?
The Eyes of the Dragon
The most direct connection here is that the book takes place in the realm of Delain, a land Roland the Gunslinger has traveled through many times. The story revolves around the murder of a king—the eldest son is framed for the crime, and the younger son takes power. The latter has a scheming court wizard in his corner. That wizard (and the king’s murderer) goes by the name of Flagg, and his goal is plunging Delain into centuries of bloody anarchy.
Hearts in Atlantis
Atlantis is a collection of novellas and short stories, the most relevant of which to the Towe narrative is “Low Men in Yellow Coats.” The characters referenced in the title are the can-toi, servants of the Tower’s main antagonist, the Crimson King. Their hobbies consist of posting lost pet posters that describe psychic humans (referred to as Breakers in the King universe) whom they are looking to kidnap in order to force them to use their special abilities to destroy the “Beams” that hold all of existence together. Did I mention they also have the creepy rat faces? Fun guys. The man they are after in this tale is Ted Brautigan, who plays a pivotal role in the final Dark Tower novel.
Not only does one of the Tower’s main characters, Eddie Dean, know of the book Salem’s Lot, he also gets to meet one its main characters! Yes, this series can get a little meta. Everyone’s favorite vampire hunter Father Callahan appears in three of the Dark Tower novels, most prominently in Wolves of the Calla. He also references no less than twelve characters from Salem’s Lot while talking to the Gunslingers, just in case you weren’t aware of how connected all of this is.
While the Tower itself is never discussed in IT, Pennywise has similar abilities to those of the Crimson King, including the power to emit “Deadlights,” which cause extreme suffering (and possibly death). It seems entirely possible this creature originally came from what King calls “Todash space,” a dimension between worlds that is completely dark and filled with monsters. Seems like a good place for a part-clown/part-spider thing to hang out, right? As a side note, in the trailer for The Dark Tower film, there is a decaying sign referencing the Pennywise Circus, plus some ominous balloons. Hmm.
The impressive array of monsters that spill forth into our world in The Mist are from the very same Todash Darkness referenced above. In The Dark Tower, it is said the Crimson King would throw his enemies into this darkness so they would wander alone, deaf and blind, until they were eaten by one of the horrific creatures that preside there. Note to self: start a band called the Todash Monsters.
While all of the books on this list have some connection to the Tower, this is one of the few that actually mentions Roland by name. Black House is the tale of a retired LAPD detective Jack Sawyer, who a transplant to a small Wisconsin town where he stumbles upon a serial killer with ties to a mysterious house that acts as a portal between worlds. The killer in question, the Fisherman (named for the similarities between his crimes and that of the notorious, real-world Albert Fish) is possessed by a demonic servant of the Crimson King who is transporting children from our world to a nasty place called the Furnace Lands, where they work on breaking the Beams that support the Tower. Jack also encounters a former Gunslinger named Parkus who knows quite a bit about Roland’s journey. This book is ostensibly a sequel to the very fine mid-’80s King novel The Talisman, but if Dark Tower connections are all you are looking for, you can safely start with Black House.
If you’ve ever seen Insomnia on a bookshelf, you know it’s thick enough to serve as a murder weapon in a pinch. The story revolves around Ralph Roberts, who develops a nasty case of the titular malady after the passing of his wife. He starts to see things that he assumes aren’t actually there, but as you can probably guess, because you are reading a Stephen King book, there is truth to his visions. Eventually he is wrapped up in stopping a plot by his possessed neighbor to bomb a pro-choice rally, and has to stand face to face with the Tower’s ultimate baddie, the Crimson King himself. This is the only work outside of the actual Dark Tower series where the Crimson one makes a physical appearance.
The psychic ability Danny Torrance displays is no doubt similar to that of other characters in King’s works. It is also revealed in the sequel, Doctor Sleep, that Danny and Roland’s traveling companion Jake Chambers are “Twinners,” a term referring different versions of the same person living on different levels of the Dark Tower. The Tower’s first trailer also contains an image of the Overlook Hotel, the setting of The Shining. I say again…hmm.
Like many King novels, Desperation focuses on a small town inhabited by a dark presence. In this case, that presence is a monster by the name of Tak. This antagonist can speak the language of the dead, something he has in common with the Taheen (humanoid creatures with bird heads featured heavily in the later Dark Tower novels). It also has the ability to shapeshift, leading many to speculate that this creature is related to IT, and other Todash monsters. You’re starting to warm up to that band name, aren’t you?
What say you, gunslingers? Did we cover all the essentials?