By Michael Berry

For Stephen King's legions of loyal fans, the fits-and-starts publication of the Dark Tower saga has been nearly as exhilarating and frustrating as Roland of Gilead's epic quest itself. Begun nearly a quarter of a century ago when King was a college student and currently encompassing more than 1,700 pages, the series has, according to King's own calculations, only now reached its mid-point.

Which makes the publication of Dark Tower IV "Wizard and Glass" an excellent opportunity to reflect on the architecture of this mind-boggling literary edifice King is constructing. Six years ago, Volume Three, "The Waste Lands" moved at a furious clip to an agonizing cliffhanger, leaving Roland, Susannah, Eddie, Jake and Oy trapped aboard the insane Blaine the Mono. Now, "Wizard and Glass" picks up where its predecessor left off. But this installment, which features a 500-page account of one fateful episode from Roland's youth, allows the careful reader the chance to step back for a moment and contemplate the intricacy of King's still-unfinished epic.

The bulk of "Wizard and Glass" concerns events from Roland's fourteenth year, after he left Gilead with two friends, Cuthbert and Alain, on a mission to a small town riddled with corruption and sorcery. Roland fell in love for the first time, with a girl he was forbidden to have, and wound up losing her, killing a lot of people and very nearly forfeiting his own soul.

Few readers are better equipped to comment upon the Dark Tower series than Peter Straub. Not only is he the critically author of such best-selling horror and suspense novels as "Ghost Story," "The Throat" and "The Hellfire Club," but he is a close personal friend of Stephen King, having collaborated with him on 1984's best-selling horror/fantasy, "The Talisman."

Straub says, "When 'Wizard and Glass' stopped dead in its tracks and hunkered down to deliver a gigantic flashback, my first response was dismay -- it seemed like the most elementary sort of error. However, fairly soon I realized that what we had was not a flashback but the book itself, which had been placed in a narrative framework."

Straub says King's technique brought to mind Joseph Conrad's "Heart of Darkness," which also establishes a framing device before settling down to chronicle Marlow's primary narrative. "I think this is a very interesting way to.tell a story, that is, by literalizing the story-telling," says Straub. "In the case of 'Wizard and Glass,' it succeeded completely as a self-contained narrative, and the way it is handled offers a nice counter-rhythmic backwash to the surging foward progress of the saga as a whole."

That "Wizard and Glass" reminds Straub of "Heart of Darkness" not only speaks to his own erudition but to the intentionally allusive nature of the Dark Tower books themelves. King used Browning's poem "Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came" as the primary springboard for the series, but the books contain a multitude of other references to literature and pop culture. Everything from T.S. Eliot's "The Waste Land" to The Beatles' "Hey Jude," from Tolkien's "The Lord of the Rings" to Baum's "The Wizard of Oz," is thrown into the post-modern mix.

King has also taken taken care to link the Dark Tower books firmly to many of his other books. The connections range from the obvious to the inscrutable.

For example, in "Insomnia," elderly hero Ralph Roberts may be struggling to prevent a plane crash here in "the real world," but his larger mission impinges directly on Roland's quest. In "Rose Madder," the vengeful title character speaks of "ka" and seems to suffer from disease not unlike the radiation poisoning that has ravaged part of Mid-World. (And is it just coincidence that her first name corresponds to one of the most important symbols in the Dark Tower series?) Readers of "The Waste Lands" who wondered about the late appearance of one "Richard Fannin" will have their suspicions about the Dark Tower's connection to "The Stand" confirmed in "Wizard and Glass."

Straub sees this practice of cross-referencing as simultaneously playful and serious. "As Stephen King has handled the device, it has also given him the liberty to create a grand, gestural suggestiveness as to moral and theological depths ordinarily beyond the scope of individual works of fiction," he says. "Great, explanatory meanings hover in the air, musically, as resolution seems to draw near. We know the author has something magnificently significant in mind, and that he is working, maybe even groping, his way toward it. It's very gutsy. This goes well beyond the normal wish to have all of one's work eventually be seen as a single entity."

At nearly 800 pages, "Wizard and Glass" will still inevitably leave readers anxious for the arrival of the next volume. And if the pattern of the first four volumes is maintained, the series should only grow in power and complexity as it moves towards its conclusion.

Straub says, "It isn't surprising that the progress of the Dark Tower series should register, in both narrative technique and imaginative capacity, the increasing mastery of its author. What is surprising is that even a writer as true to himself as Stephen King could find so much ongoing possibility, so much space so full of unexpected promise, in an idea which first came to him in his late teens."

Straub can't think of another writer capable of finding such a wealth of narrative material in an old idea over so long a time. He says, "Most writers would not even consider trying to do this, in part because the idea itself would long ago have been consigned to the toybox, along with the beat-up teddy bears and rag dolls.That King can and wishes to do so indicates two things about him: that his imagination has been internally consistent since his youth, and that even very early on he had an instinct for what would evoke emotional power from him."

"Wizard and Glass" demonstrates that King's literary instincts are as sharp as ever. Although its final pages bring an inevitable longing for more adventures and a definite conclusion, the book succeeds in presenting a unified and pivotal episode in the protagonist's life while sustaining the mood and mystery of the larger saga. It represents another solid, well-executed storey (pun intended) in one of the towering achievements of modern fantasy.

(c) 1997 by Michael Berry

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