Postmodernism in Stephen King’s Dark Tower


Stephen King is best known as a writer of popular fiction in the genres of horror and fantasy. However, with the creation of his massive Dark Tower series, King has written a grand epic tale that, at its heart, embodies many of the characteristics of postmodern literature. As a literary movement, postmodernism developed in the 1940s, at the end of the Second World War. Since that time, there have been numerous authors who have made their mark in the genre, yet the requirements of the movement remain largely undefined. Regarding defining postmodern works, Dr. Raymond Wilson, literature professor at Loras College stated, “In this situation we might find it effective not to attempt a strict logical definition but simply to list those characteristic that first made us notice a difference” (50). King’s Dark Tower novels are comprised of seven parts, together reaching well over 4200 pages, and were written over the course of 30 years from 1982 to 2002. Throughout these seven distinct novels, many of the common themes and characteristics of postmodern literature are readily apparent. Through his use of pastiche, metafiction, fragmentation, psychosis, and anti-consumerism within the Dark Tower novels, King created a work that is distinctly postmodern.

To make The Dark Tower more than a popular fantasy novel, King drew from many standardly recognized facets of Postmodernism. Most notably, King uses pastiche to great effect in the series. Pastiche is the combining or pasting together of different styles and genres. This technique is used noticeably throughout the Dark Tower novels. The Dark Tower books, of course, owe their very title to Robert Browning’s narrative poem, “Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came.” Throughout the series, Stephen King makes direct references to Browning’s poem, even repeatedly quoting the first line, “My first thought was, he lied in every word” (Browning). Not only that, but some of the characters, namely Roland and Cuthbert, as well as the basis for the novels themselves, a quest to the mystical Dark Tower, were developed directly from the characters and setting of Browning’s poem. King took the concepts and characters based in Browning’s epic poem and added them into his own narrative, making each one of them his own.

To take highly respected poetry and parody it to create new literature is very typical of postmodernism. King uses this technique numerous times in his Dark Tower works. Possibly the most notable example of pastiche in The Dark Tower, outside of “Childe Roland,” is his use of T.S. Eliot’s The Wasteland. Another lengthy narrative poem, The Wasteland became the primary inspiration for King’s third Dark Tower installment, aptly titled The Wastelands.

By parodying T.S. Eliot, Stephen King makes a direct criticism of a modernist author. As Fredric Jameson pointed out in “Postmodernism and Consumer Society,”

Those formerly subversive and embattled styles – Abstract Expressionism; the great modernist poetry of Pound, Eliot or Wallace Stevens; the International Style (Le Corbusier, Frank Lloyd Wright, Mies); Stravinsky; Joyce, Proust and Mann – felt to be scandalous or shocking by our grandparents are, for the generation which arrives at the gate in the 1960s, felt to be the establishment and the enemy – dead, stifling, canonical, the reified monuments one has to destroy to do anything new (193).

Through his borrowing, blending, and pasting of classic literature, King destroys the line between the high culture of T.S. Eliot and Robert Browning which represents the establishment in literature, and the low culture of popular fiction and film. King shows that he is determined to undermine high culture. In doing so, King made a poignant statement about his take on high culture in literature.

To continue this blending of sophistication levels, King also merged the world of film and literature by creating an homage to the genre of movie westerns. While the main character, Roland, may have taken his name and quest from Browning’s poetry, the nature of his appearance and behavior is drawn directly from Sergio Leone’s Dollars Trilogy films. It is no secret that Roland’s look and attitude is direct reflection of Clint Eastwood’s famous character with no name. King mentioned this connection directly in Dark Tower VI: Song of Susannah, stating that Sergio Leone’s character is where Roland got his start (285). In Song of Susannah, one of Roland’s friends even ponders the similarities of their lives and Hollywood movies. He wonders what actors would play them, stating, “Roland was the hero of the piece, the grizzled old warrior who’d be played by some grizzled vital star… like Clint Eastwood” (205). The simple act of combining and comparing of T.S. Eliot’s work with that of Clint Eastwood is a significant blend of academic and popular cultures, which is a strong example of pastiche in The Dark Tower.

However, King does not stop there. He blends several other film references into The Dark Tower. Notably, as writer Bev Vincent points out, the town of Calla Bryn Sturgis in book six, Wolves of the Calla, “acknowledges the classic Western film The Magnificent Seven as part of King’s inspiration” (116). The plot of Wolves of the Calla also mirrors The Magnificent Seven, in that the villagers enlist Roland and his team to protect them from a group of bandits that regularly raid the town. Beyond Westerns, King also makes reference to other iconic popular films, including The Wizard of Oz. In Dark Tower IV: Wizard and Glass, the characters find new red shoes and comment on their memories of the film, making connections between the magical enemy they are chasing and the non-magical illusions of the Wizard in The Wizard of Oz (652). Allusions such as these bring popular culture onto the same level as the high culture of modernist writers like T.S. Eliot by placing their works side by side with equal value in the mythos of King’s Dark Tower.

This borrowing and imitating of another artist or another style is a very common technique among postmodern works. As Jameson states, postmodern arts emerged “as specific reactions against the established forms of high modernism” (Consumerism 192). Famously, Kurt Vonnegut blended together several genres of writing, including science fiction and non-fiction, in his novel Slaughterhouse-five. By blending these unrelated styles together, Vonnegut’s version of pastiche responded to the despair of modernism with satire and parody. By utilizing the technique of pastiche in his work, Stephen King created a piece of literature that follows in the footsteps of previous postmodern authors in their parody of modernism.

Pastiche is not the only postmodern technique employed by King in his Dark Tower novels, as he also repeatedly uses metafiction to great effect in his works. Metafiction is the technique of drawing attention to the work as an artifact that is self-aware of its status as fiction. Kurt Vonnegut uses metafiction in Slaughterhouse-five by specifically addressing the reader with comments about the book itself, first stating, “All this happened, more or less,” but then referring to it as “a lousy little book” and “a failure” (Vonnegut 1, 2, 28). Metafiction such as this, forces readers to question the relationship between the world around them and the world within the novel. As Patricia Waugh states in her book, Metafiction: The Theory and Practice of Self-Conscious Fiction, “over the last twenty years, novelists have tended to become much more aware of the theoretical issues involved in constructing fictions. In consequence, their novels have tended to embody dimensions of self-reflexivity and formal uncertainty” (2). This increased awareness of theoretical issues allows the Dark Tower to become a self-conscious work of fiction, in which King is able to blur the lines between reality and the fiction of The Dark Tower.

This sort of blending occurs several times in the Dark Tower series, but is never more noticeable than when King himself is typecast into Song of Susannah. In the sixth installment of the Dark Tower series, Stephen King, the writer, is confronted by the very characters he created. As Waugh states, “It suggests, in fact, that there may be as much to be learnt from setting the mirror of art up to its own linguistic or representational structures as from directly setting it up to a hypothetical ‘human nature’ that somehow exists as an essence outside historical systems of articulation” (12). This makes the main characters, Roland and his band of adventurers, keenly aware of their own status as objects of the reader’s imagination. In regards to this section of the story, King has been quoted as saying, “All writers talk to themselves. This is just another version of that” (qtd. In Vincent). By creating himself as a character within the story, King places his fictional characters alongside a real life character, blending what is real and what is made up.

This blending of fiction and reality forces the reader to question what is known about the world around them. As high school administrator and postmodern critic Jesse Nash states, “King and his admirers tend to take his supernatural creations seriously, as more than literary creations, as in nineteenth century ghost stories. These supernatural beings represent a popular and archaic distrust of the scientific and the rational” (154). This distrust of rationality allows King’s fictional world to merge seamlessly with the non-fiction historical stories of the real world. To further strengthen this connection to history, King makes several references to famous historical figures such as President John F. Kennedy and major historical events such as the terrorist attacks on 9/11/2001. King interweaved his fictional characters into the 9/11 terrorist plot, giving an alternate meaning to the horrible events (Song of Susannah 338). By drawing links between historical figures and fictional characters, King simultaneously questions history as possibly being a fictional construction and also makes the point that today’s reality may be no more understandable than the fantasy world within his books.

Life as a work of fiction is a concept that is repeated throughout postmodern literature. In Chuck Palahniuk’s novel Fight Club, this task is achieved through the personification of the main character as the feelings and attributes of a figment of his own imagination, when he repeatedly states such things as, ““I am Joe’s Blood-Boiling Rage… I am Joes Broken Heart” (Palahniuk 96). In The Dark Tower, the theme of life as a work of fiction is confronted more bluntly. As Waugh states, writing metafictional novels results in consistently displaying its own conventionality “which explicitly and overtly lays bare its condition of artifice, and which thereby explores the problematic relationship between life and fiction” (4). This relationship is never more problematic than when a character in The Dark Tower recommended that the fictional character, Roland, read another of Stephen King’s books to gain some insight on his own future and the people he has yet to meet (Dark Tower VII 513-515). This relationship between the real and fictional worlds emphasizes the uncertainty the readers face in their own lives.

By calling attention to the novel as a work of fiction, Jacques Derrida’s theory of deconstruction is also brought into play. When readers are forced to confront the reality of the words on the very page they are reading, they are forced to deconstruct the meaning between the signifier or written word, and the signified or the concept conjured by the word. As Waugh states, metafiction in literature, “reflects a greater awareness within contemporary culture of the function of language in constructing and maintaining our sense of everyday ‘reality.’ The simple notion that language passively reflects a coherent, meaningful and ‘objective’ world is no longer tenable” (3). Waugh continues to explain, “Language is an independent, self-contained system which generates its own ‘meanings’… ‘Meta’ terms, therefore, are required in order to explore the relationship between this arbitrary linguistic system and the world to which it apparently refers” (3). This sort of play on word meanings is present in several places in the Dark Tower novels. At one point, the characters are directed to a New York restaurant that is actually a bookstore. There they see a daily specials sign that reads, “FRESH-BROILED John D. McDonald… PAN FRIED William Faulkner… CHILLED Stephen King (Wastelands 162-163). The language being used in an unconventional manner requires the readers to make their own determination as to the nature and meaning of the language used. Since metafiction in this sense is a direct link to Derrida’s deconstruction, and postmodernism relies heavily on philosophers such as Derrida, the use of metafiction in King’s novels is a concrete connection with the style and philosophies of other postmodern literature.

Continuing with the breakdown of the barriers between fiction and reality, King also adds an element of fragmentation into his Dark Tower novels. In contrast to Modernism, Postmodern literature tends to defy itself. The destruction of linear thought is certainly present in modernist writings, such as T.S. Eliot’s The Wasteland. However, while the modernists held strong to the notion of art as ray of hope in a damaged society, postmodern literature embraces and celebrates this breakdown. By breaking down the very fabric of linear storytelling King is able to provide further meaning through fragmentation.

The Gunslinger, the first installment of The Dark Tower series, features a non-linear storyline. When the reader is first introduced to Roland Deschain, he has already completed the majority of the events featured in the first novel. One of his first actions is a flashback within a flashback. Roland remembers recently giving a cathartic re-telling of his adventures in a Midwestern town called Tull, where he was forced to kill every resident in order to escape. This flashback is followed up by chance encounter with the young boy, Jake Chambers, a character with whom he develops an emotional connection. Jake proceeds to tell his own backstory, of how he crossed into Roland’s world after being murdered in contemporary New York, making Roland’s world appear as a sort of afterlife. The bulk of The Gunslinger is made up of these flashbacks which do not coincide with each other. In fact, the events which actually occur during the current timeline of The Gunslinger are summed up in the very first line of the book, “The man in black fled across the desert and the gunslinger followed” (Gunslinger 3) This line in particular becomes important beyond just clearly laying out Roland’s quest for the reader.

In the final Dark Tower installment, when Roland reaches his goal and steps into The Dark Tower, he finds that he is ill prepared for meeting his creator. He instead wakes to find himself in the same western desert featured in the first book, with no memory of having reached his goal. He then proceeds exactly as he began, and the story ends with the same line, “the man in black fled across the desert and the gunslinger followed (Dark Tower VII 830). By making the story circular, King breaks from the standard storyline, where events occur in a somewhat expected pattern. Instead, The Dark Tower has an ending where there is no clear resolution, and the purpose of life itself is called into question.

This fragmentation, on which the entire story is based, is repeated in various forms throughout The Dark Tower series. In Dark Tower III: The Wastelands, King creates a completely fractured story. The group of characters is disbanded for a short period of time, resulting in three different perspectives revolving around the same storyline. As Vincent states, “King deftly juggles three parallel story lines… [e]ach subplot is a crucial part of the gunslingers’ mission” (85). This sort of perspective change also creates contradiction between the different versions of the same story.

Contradiction is a common way to show fragmentation in postmodern literature. Unreliable narrators, a staple of postmodern literature, make contradictions of the utmost importance. By compromising the relationship between the reader and the narrator, the author creates new and conflicting interpretations of the details. While The Dark Tower does not directly employ an unreliable narration, the story does revolve around Roland, who is shown repeatedly to be a liar and have ulterior motives to his actions. When Roland meets and befriends Jake Chambers in The Gunslinger, he immediately intends to sacrifice the child to reach his goal (130). Unbeknownst to his newfound friend, Roland showed his true conflicted nature to the reader.

Contradiction is used by postmodernists to show that there is no single truth to the world. Fragmentation is often achieved through different and conflicting viewpoints within a story. In Bret Easton Ellis’s novel, The Rules of Attraction, this is achieved through a perspective change from one chapter to the next. However, King highlights conflicting viewpoints through fantasy. He included time travel and parallel worlds in which characters, such as Jake Chambers, can die in one world but still remember their own death in another. King’s characters often repeat the line, “there are other worlds than these,” throughout the novels (Gunslinger 266). This brings attention to the fact that their current point of view may not be the one that is the most important.

Contradiction within King’s novels is also found in the form of psychosis, which is another staple of postmodern literature. Mental illness is a recurring theme in the Dark Tower novels. Throughout the series, Roland questions his own sanity several times. Particularly, in The Wastelands, while trying to cope with his new understanding of time travel and alternate realities, Roland described a deterioration to his psyche due to his conflicting memories. At one point in The Wastelands, King described Roland’s fractured mental process stating, “There was a boy. There was no boy. Was. Wasn’t. Was─ He closed his eyes… and wondered how long it would be until he simply snapped like an overwound bowstring (126). Throughout this section, Roland questions his own cognitive abilities and the validity of the memories, which he relies upon to support his quest.

Psychosis is most prevalently shown in The Dark Tower through the character Odetta Holmes. Holmes is a character with split personality disorder. As a black woman bound to a wheelchair in 1960’s America, one of her personalities is angry and spiteful toward society and herself. Odetta and her split personality are what King describes as “the perfect schizophrenic” which, “would be a man or woman not only unaware of his other persona(e), but one unaware that anything at all was amiss in his or her life” (Drawing of the Three 213). This damaged personality highlights the self-degradation present in contemporary society by showing the insanity of those who play into the norms and expectations of society. These conflicting personalities of Odetta Holmes work and conspire against each other throughout The Drawing of the Three, but are reconciled immediately upon entering Roland’s world and leaving the pressures of their society behind.

Psychosis or mental illness is, of course, nothing new in postmodern literature. With postmodernism relying heavily upon philosophers, it is only natural that psychoanalysis is a common thread within postmodern literature. Noted philosopher, Michel Foucault stated,

Madness was seen as an integrally human phenomenon. Madness was opposed to reason, but as an alternative mode of human existence, not a simple rejection of it. Consequently, madness (even if disdained or abhorred) was a meaningful challenge to reason. It could engage in ironic dialogue with reason… or claim a domain of human experience and insight not available to reason… The point, in any case, is that in the past madness had a significant role in our culture’s understanding of human possibilities (qtd. in Gutting 70).

By challenging reason with the irrationality of madness King creates a worldview that is distinctly postmodern. In many other postmodern novels, such as Chuck Palahniuk’s Fight Club, psychosis is used as a major theme. Fight Club’s main character suffers from schizophrenia and repeatedly interjects his own comments that he is a “liar and a “faker” throughout the story (Palahniuk 206). This gives the impression that there is no clear distinction between what is real and what is imagined, or hallucinated. In King’s novels, this practice is put into play with several main characters being unable to trust their own observations and memories, thus being unable to follow the norm of their surrounding society. As Giuliana Bruno states in “Ramble City: Postmodernism and ‘Blade Runner,” schizophrenia in literature “results from a failure to enter the symbolic order” (Bruno 70). In the world of the Dark Tower, New York and contemporary America represent the symbolic order, which the characters must escape to heal their fractured psyche.

Psychosis also comes to play on another level in the later Dark Tower books. In keeping with the relationship of philosophy and postmodern literature, King repeatedly brings up conversation of Fredrich Nietzche’s “Parable of the Madman” which begins with the lines,

Have you not heard of that madman who lit a lantern in the bright morning hours, ran to the market-place, and cried incessantly: “I am looking for God! I am looking for God!” As many of those who did not believe in God were standing together there, he excited considerable laughter. Have you lost him, then? said one. Did he lose his way like a child? said another. Or is he hiding? Is he afraid of us? Has he gone on a voyage? or emigrated? Thus they shouted and laughed. The madman sprang into their midst and pierced them with his glances. “Where has God gone?” he cried. “I shall tell you. We have killed him – you and I. We are his murderers. (181).

This train of thought, famously leading to the concept of God being dead, is found throughout the Dark Tower series. As the characters brave their quest towards the Dark Tower, they discuss the possibility that God is no longer watching over the world. King offers various versions of this theory, considering at points that God is simply whoever currently resides in the top room of the tower. This leads to the assumption that the villain of the story is the current acting God, or that God has himself has gone insane with a loss of perspective on the real world (Dark Tower VII 607). Without a reliance on religion in society, King’s characters look inward to find purpose and morality in their own fractured psyche.

Finally, King uses the very typical postmodern theme of anti-consumerism throughout his Dark Tower novels. Anti-consumerism is such an important aspect of postmodernism, it is present in almost every facet of postmodern art. Andy Warhol famously used consumer products to blend the low culture of the consumer world with the high culture world of fine art. As Jameson states, “Warhol’s human subjects: stars — like Marilyn Monroe — who are themselves commodified and transformed into their own images” are “a certain brutal return to the older period of high modernism” (Postmodernism 18). Warhol parodied the actual images of his subjects with their status as consumer products. A similar style of anti-consumerism can be found within the Dark Tower series. Throughout The Dark Tower, King specifically lists brand names and corporations in his work as symbols of a decaying consumer world. Notably in The Wastelands, the characters traverse a post-apocalyptic version of New York City. Throughout this vision of the future, there are clear indications that over industrialization has led society astray. This negative view on over industrialization is also shown in the advanced technology featured with the story. Repeatedly, Roland and his group are confronted with technology and artificial intelligence that has gone haywire. At one point, the characters find themselves on a monorail train at the mercy of its sentient navigation system. This artificially intelligent train also shares in their mental illness, as it is suicidal and has lost all hope of mankind being capable of restructuring themselves. For the characters of The Dark Tower, this psychotic train displays the theme of anti-consumerism by showing that a dependence on material goods and technology is a fallacy.

The anti-consumer attitude continues in the series with a serious distrust of corporate business. In the The Dark Tower series, high ranking businessmen are viewed negatively. They are often depicted as vampires who pull the strings of the masses to reach their own means. In the mythos of The Dark Tower, vampires are the carriers of several serious illnesses including HIV, and they infect the people who they gain control over. In this way, they literally consume those who become dependent on their products. The significance of this is apparent when the characters visit an alternate reality version of Topeka, Kansas, where they discover that all of the residents have died from a mysterious illness. Thus, the only thing remaining of the former residents are the consumer products that once occupied their lives. The characters of The Dark Tower are then confronted with an overwhelming bombardment of commercial products that have been left behind. As stated by Yuksel and Mirza in “Consumers of the Postmodern World: Theories of Anti-consumption and Impression Management,” a sociological perspective of consumerism “suggests the riddance of peace, holism and spirituality from within individuals as a result of mass distraction, preoccupation and fascination with material belongings… the concept outlines society’s fixation with material possessions and the role of producers in encouraging materialism in the coax of fulfilling consumer interest, while in actually pursuing self-interest (498). This promotion of materialism while actually pursuing self-interests is the primary role of big business within the Dark Tower. The result is that the people of King’s Topeka are eventually represented solely by what commercial products they consumed in their lifetime.

With his focus on pastiche, metafiction, fragmentation, psychosis, and anti-consumerism, King crafted The Dark Tower novels to be distinctly postmodern. His views on the hierarchy and direction of society infuse the novels with postmodern viewpoints. By drawing from these postmodern ideals and philosophies, King has transcended his position within popular literature and has written a work that embodies the principles of the postmodern genre.

The Dark Tower VII

Works Cited

Bloom, Harold. “Stephen King Hardly in Same Class as Great Authors.” Journal – Gazette: 14A. Sep 28 2003. ProQuest. Web. 27 Dec. 2015.

Browning, Robert. “Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came.” 1855. A Victorian Anthology, 1837-1895. Ed. Edmund Clarence Stedman. 1895. Web. 09 Jan. 2016

Bruno, Giuliana. “Ramble City: Postmodernism and “Blade Runner.” October 41 (1987): 61–74. Web.27 Dec. 2015

Gutting, Gary. Foucault : A Very Short Introduction. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2005. eBook Collection (EBSCOhost). Web. 22 Dec. 2015.

Jameson, Fredric. “Postmodernism and Consumer Society.” Studies in Culture: An Introductory Reader. University of Southern California Santa Cruz. (1988): 192-205.Web. 9 Jan. 2016.

Jameson, Fredric. Postmodernism, or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. Durham: Duke UP, 1991. Web. 12 Jan. 2016.

King, Stephen. On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft. NewYork: Scrbner. 2000. Print.

King, Stephen. The Dark Tower I: The Gunslinger. New York: Penguin, 1982. Print.

King, Stephen. The Dark Tower II: The Drawing of the Three. New York: Penguin. 1987. Print.

King, Stephen. The Dark Tower III: The Wastelands. New York: Penguin. 1991. Print.

King Stephen. The Dark Tower IV: Wizard and Glass. New York: Penguin. 1998. Print.

King, Stephen. The Dark Tower V: Wolves of the Calla. New York: Scribner. 2003. Print.

King, Stephen. The Dark Tower VI: Song of Susannah. New York: Scribner. 2004. Print.

King, Stephen. The Dark Tower VII: The Dark Tower. New York: Scribner. 2004. Print.

Nash, Jesse W. “Postmodern Gothic: Stephen King’s Pet Cemetery.” Journal of Popular Culture 30.4 (1997): 151-160. Academic Search Premier. Web. 22 Dec. 2015.

Vincent, Bev. The Road to the Dark Tower: Exploring King’s Magnum Opus. New York: New American Library. 2004. Print

Vonnegut, Kurt. Slaughterhouse-five, Or, the Children’s Crusade: A Duty-Dance with Death. New York: Dial Press, 2005. Print.

Waugh, Patricia.   Metafiction: The Theory and Practice of Self-Conscious Fiction. NY: Routledge, 1984. Web. 8. Jan. 2016

Wilson III, Raymond J. “The Postmodern Novel: The Example of John Irving’s The World According to Garp.” Critique 34.1 (1992): 49. Academic Search Premier. Web. 9 Jan. 2016.

Yuksel, Ülkü, and Muneeza Mirza. “Consumers of the Postmodern World: Theories of Anti-Consumption and Impression Management.” Marmara University Journal of the Faculty of Economic & Administrative Sciences 29.2 (Dec. 2010): 495-512. Business Source Complete. Web. 6 Jan. 2016.

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