At this point, I have a good idea what I’m getting into when I pick up one of Stephen King’s Dark Tower novels. The story will wander. It will take longer than it needs to. But it will also be chock full of originality. And in places, it will be nearly impossible to put down.
Wolves of the Calla, the fifth book in the series, lives up to all these expectations—and then some.
The opening chapter sets up a confrontation with the Wolves referenced in the book’s title, fearsome raiders who come to the village of Calla Bryn Sturgis once a generation to steal half its children. Those taken eventually return, but they’re “roont” (ruined), marred by gigantism and mental enfeeblement. Stopping the Wolves is tangential to the protagonists’ main goal: Roland, Eddie, Jake, and Susannah—the last “gunslingers”—seek the Dark Tower, the multiverse’s crumbling lynchpin. But King sets most of the novel in Calla Bryn Sturgis, and the story occasionally drags as our heroes investigate the village and lay their plans.
Things slow further when Father Callahan, a character from King’s (seemingly) independent novel Salem’s Lot, explains why he's now in Calla Bryn Sturgis. The tale involves alcoholism and vampires, spans several chapters, and isn’t immediately relevant to Wolves of the Calla. Callahan’s inclusion does get at King’s overarching premise, however: that all worlds, both real and imagined, are linked.
The good father also provides a plot device: near the end of his trek to Calla Bryn Sturgis, Callahan acquired Black Thirteen. This malevolent artifact allows Roland to open doors into different worlds. The gunslingers use these doors to revisit 1977 New York, Jake’s home and the site of a threat to the Dark Tower’s physical manifestation. Cutting back to New York weaves more connections between the story’s various worlds—as one reality bleeds into the next—but the extra threads don’t feel entirely necessary.
Oh, and while all this is happening, Susannah is dealing with a form of demonic possession that’s triggering her schizophrenia in particularly disturbing ways.
And yet… there’s lots to like here, despite (and often because of) the craziness. King creates a believable dialect for the villagers of Calla Bryn Sturgis. The gunslingers’ personalities all deepen in some way. Most elements of the world/universe feel fresh, even though King is fusing together a grab bag of genres and pop culture. And the final showdown with the Wolves is legitimately thrilling.
So: as I’ve also come to expect of a Dark Tower book, Wolves of the Calla is worth the journey, maddening as it can be sometimes. I’m in for the long haul with this series. If you like innovative writing and have some time and patience on your hands, you should join me.