The Wind Through the Keyhole by Stephen King
I have been following Stephen King's Dark Tower series, more or less, since the first story was published in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction some three decades ago. I had stopped for a while after the third book, The Waste Lands; years later I tried Book Four, The Wizard and the Glass, buut the stars were not properly aligned (or something) and I just couldn't get into it. Add a few more years and Robert Silverberg published the novelette The Little Sisters of Euleria in his Legends anthology and I gobbled it up. Over the past year and a half I finally journeyed back to the Dark Tower and read the remaining four novels in the series. (I also began devouring the Dark Tower graphic novels from Marvel.) All this is a roundabout way of saying the characters, background, and mythology were still fresh in my mind when The Wind Through the Keyhole was published last week.
A point has been made the The Wind Through the Keyhole can be read as a standalone; a few paragraphs of introduction is all that is needed for readers who are not familiar with the series. Well...sorta. If you have read the Dark Tower series, this book adds a layer of richness and understanding not only to Mid-World, but to other works by King that have been encrouched upon by the series.
The Wind Through the Keyhole, at 309 pages, is not a doorstopper. The framing story takes place between Books Four and Five. Roland the gunslinger and his ka-tet (Eddie, Susannah, and Jake, along with Jake's "pet," the billy-bumbler Oy -- who is not really ka-tet) have left the Emerald City and are traveling the Path of the Beam to Calla. They take shelter from a violent storm known as a starkblast. While waiting out the storm, Roland tells a story about his youth...
The story takes place shortly after his return from Mejis, where young Roland had loved and lost Susan Delgado. Roland's father has received reports of mass murders in the far-off town of Debaria at the edge of the alkalai flats; this reports hint that a skin-man (shape-shifter) may be responsible. Roland and another young gunslinger, Jamie de Curry, are sent to settle things in Debaria, where they discover that the so-called shape-shifter might also be a shape-changer. Shortly after Roland's arrival, the beast attacks a nearby ranch -- killing over twenty people, the only survivor an eleven-year-old boy, Billy Streeter. To calm Billy, Roland tells a story that Roland's mother used to read to him...
This story within a story within a story is The Wind Through the Keyhole, and it fills a good half of the book. It tells of a young boy of Billy's age, Tim Ross, whose father was a woodcutter at the edge of a large and dangerous forest. A few month's before tax time, word comes that Tim's father, Jack, has been incinerated by a dragon. Without a husband to provide for them, Tim and his mother face losing their home. Tim discovers the truth about his father's death and soon makes a dangerous journey to save his mother and to put him on the path of becoming Tim Stoutheart.
The stories and characters in the book echo each other while each stand on their own. The universe of Mid-World is slowly decaying and the Beams that hold its fragile reality are deing destroyed. Time and space are being distorted in subtle and not-so-subtle ways in the series. Fairies and mutants and long-lost computer and mechanical technology are apt to appear at any point in the telling. It is significant that in the central story, taking place "long before your grandfather's grandfather was born," Tim's father Jack is dead. Jack is the name for the hero of children's stories and legends: Jack is the brave, courageous, quick-witted one, the one who is nimble and quick, the one who chopped down the beanstalk. Jack is our Odysseus: if Oysseus had come from Ithaca, New York, rather than Ithaca, Greece, his name would have been Jack. By killing Jack and leaving the resolution of the children's tale to Tim, King is telling us things are different in this world, that we should expect the unexpected.
The framing story and the story within it and the story within that are all resolved, but not completely. Questions remain, which is as it should be. No story -- especially one of epic proportions -- can, or should, be wrapped up neatly. But in this book, King takes us deeper into Roland's background and into his character, as the world he has been inventing for years shines through.
Recommended, especially for those who have journeyed to the Dark Tower before.