Listening to the Wind: Stephen King, the Dark Tower, and 'The Wind Through the Keyhole' on Audio

In The Wind Through the Keyhole, Stephen King triumphantly returns to the universe(s) of his beloved Dark Tower series; the story is exciting, engaging, and above all else, important.  Sequencing itself between Wizard & Glass and Wolves of the Calla, it retains the former book's basic structure and character shading while foreshadowing the latter's thematic thrust.  Initial concerns that the midquel of Mid-World would be too constrained by the existing narrative threads proved unfounded, and Wind Through the Keyhole is now locked into place as an essential segment of the Dark Tower canon.

King's love for the book was enough to bring him out of semi-retirement…as an audiobook reader.  While he recently provided narration for "Harvey's Dream," a short story from his 2008 collection, King hasn't done a full-on audiobook since 2000's On Writing, and hasn't read a Dark Tower novel since The Waste Lands in 1991 – over two decades ago!  So why return now?  The answers may lie in the past.

In 1982, Donald M. Grant, publisher, released its limited edition of The Gunslinger.  King fought to keep the book a "true" limited, but finally relented to reader pressure six years later and allowed Plume to finally release the book as an inexpensive trade paperback for the general market.  At the same time, it also threw its hand into the limited edition market: with a signed, numbered, limited-edition Gunslinger audiobook of 800 copies, followed soon after by a more affordable mass market edition (much like the book itself).  It was King's first such attempt at recording a full-length work, and in a brief introduction available only in the audio, King offered an explanation that sounded suspiciously like an apology: "I have no special qualifications as a reader, nor am I a professional voice.  But if there's any worth in authors reading their own works – and I believe there is – one hopes the listener will be pleased with this." 

It's good to keep in mind that King was new at this.  His voice is a little nasal, his delivery at times hesitant.  Early on, his attempt to sing a section of "Hey Jude" comes across as screechy and hard to listen to.  The intrinsic worth of writers reading their own stories is debatable, but while his first attempt at reading aloud is less than perfect, connecting more intimately with Stephen King might be worthy enough for fans to ignore these flaws.  Soon enough, a mass-market (and cheaper) edition of King's first audio reading was released.  

His tackling of The Drawing of the Three the following year was so radically improved from that of The Gunslinger, it is almost as if this book is read by an entirely different author.  King's seemingly awkward pauses had disappeared.  His voice had mellowed – no longer distractingly nasal, King's narration here reaches a resonance that far surpasses his first attempt.  It feels, in retrospect, that King had treated his reading of The Gunslinger as something of a lark.  Here, he's gotten serious.

Where dialogue in The Gunslinger often came across as robotic (though that may be a consequence on King's focus on Roland, who by nature is somewhat robotic, at least early on), here King infuses the characters with real emotion and heart.  Indeed, King again sings a few lines of "Hey Jude," and instead of coming across as ridiculous, the words are haunting.  In printed-book form, The Drawing of the Three signaled the true tonal beginning of the Dark Tower series (at least at the time; King's later revision of The Gunslinger brings it more in line with the feel of the rest of the series).  This audio edition marks the real beginning of King's career as an audiobook reader: this assured and invested voice would only strengthen as King continued narrating his books. 

One of the few negatives of The Drawing of the Three is King's choice to announce "sub-chapters," divided on page by simple numerals.  Here, the words "Sub-Chapter 2" and the like interrupt the action and break the story's momentum.  It doesn't destroy the narration, but it is a distraction.  King would dispense with this device in his next reading.

Like The Gunslinger, The Drawing of the Three was released as a limited edition of 800 signed and numbered copies, followed by a later mass-market edition.  The price for the limited audiotapes had been steep, and King may have rankled at the fact that the only thing that made them limited was King's signature.  For whatever reason, Drawing was King's last foray into signed, numbered limited edition audiobooks.  

By the time of The Waste Lands, King's style was more relaxed and assured, and his interpretation of characters was his most convincing yet.  This is all the more impressive given The Waste Lands' complex structure, particularly near the end, when the band of four is split into three segments; it is a testament to King's writing skills that these sections "read" easily, and that there's no confusion while jumping from storyline to storyline.  

Of particular interest is King's take on Big Blaine and Little Blaine, the two voices of the schizophrenic monorail Roland and his band of travelers encounter near the end of the novel.  Especially here, King's voice seems perfectly suited to his own writing.  His Big Blaine recalls King's flat monotone of The Gunslinger (an oddly comforting return), and his Little Blaine seems terrified and small; that both voices are somewhat shaded by King's Maine accent gives them an extra dimension missing from later interpretations.

Anticipating later releases Rose Madder and Hearts In Atlantis, The Waste Lands actually utilizes a second voice – purportedly that of in-story "author" Beryl Evans – who narrates the story-within-a-story, Charlie the Choo-Choo.  This lovely female voice works in counterpoint to King's less professional one, making the story even more convincingly charming…and frightening.  The special effects work to the story's success, too: the "god-drums" of the city of Lud – which Eddie realizes are just the drumbeats in the ZZ Top song "Velcro Fly" – really are the drumbeats from "Velcro Fly," playing subtly under the narration.  There's a sense of immediate menace to these sections not possible with words on a page; one wonders if King wrote these portions of the book with the audio version in mind.  

 These elements, along with King's assured narration, made The Waste Lands King's crowning achievement in reading his Dark Tower books.  Unfortunately, for whatever reasons, when the Dark Tower novels continued to march along again, King chose not to read along with them.  For 1997's Wizard & Glass, King chose audiobook superstar Frank Muller, who had recently recorded an expert take on King's The Green Mile.  In addition, Muller went back and re-recorded the first three books in the series for the sake of narrative cohesion, ultimately rendering King's recordings obsolete.  Rather than return to the series following Muller's tragic motorcycle accident, King chose award-winning reader George Guidall for Wolves of the Calla, Song of Susannah, and The Dark Tower, as well as an all-new recording of the revised version of The Gunslinger.

Now Stephen King returns with The Wind Through the Keyhole, his voice better than ever.  His years of  public speaking and reading seems to have done him a world of good; however assured his take on The Waste Lands had been, this reading feels simply more comfortable.  The textual version of Keyhole finds King returning to his ka-tet with affection that easily translates to the reader.  These mid-journey versions of Roland, Susannah, Jake, Eddie, and Oy changed significantly over the course of the latter three books, and returning to them at this stage of their quest is nostalgic in the best possible way.  That goes double for the audiobook: King can't quite disguise the warmth in his voice at being able to discover these characters again, and to portray them.

Beyond his ka-tet and into the two stories nested at the center of the book, King really excels.  There were hints at the kind of character work he could accomplish with Big Blaine/Little Blaine and especially Gasher in The Waste Lands, but in Keyhole, individual personality infuses all his characters.  His Big Kells menaces, his Covenant Man is horrifying, and his interpretations of two very different frightened young boys – Young Bill and Young Tim – are convincing and occasionally heartbreaking.  

The production of The Wind Through the Keyhole is terrific as well, with some minor, scene-setting sound effects (the wind, of course, blows through).  Brief musical interludes signal the trip down through the rabbit-hole of stories and back up again; it's these touches that make audio a unique immersive experience, entirely separate from words on a page. 

And perhaps that's why King returned to the series, and why this version of The Wind Through the Keyhole is so effective.  Most of the Dark Tower series, especially since The Waste Lands, has been about the nature of stories – how they affect people writing them, reading them, and being in them.  More than any Dark Tower book save Wizard & Glass, The Wind Through the Keyhole is about the power of storytelling as its own art, and how the act and tradition of telling stories aloud, and hearing them, can take you away.  One might argue that listening to an audiobook of this particular novel is a metatextual commentary on The Dark Tower series itself…but arguments like that tend to diminish the power of what something like this really is: terrific stories, folded inside one another, read by a master storyteller. 

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Note: the audiobook of The Wind Through the Keyhole is the only version that includes a preview of King's sequel to The Shining, Doctor Sleep.  While there's no word on whether King will read the entire novel on audio, his take here is spooky and unsettling.  If this excerpt is any judge, Doctor Sleep is going to be one scary book.  

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Check out Kevin Quigley's in-depth take on Stephen King audio with the chapbook Blood In Your Ears, which examines everything Stephen King has given his voice to, from the Dark Tower novels and his audio-only collection Blood & Smoke to his recording of "Stand By Me" with the Rock Bottom Remainders and his role as Abraham Lincoln on Sarah Vowell's audiobook, Assassination Vacation. In addition to the books Stephen King has recorded, Blood In Your Ears also delves into the Stephen King work of audio superstar Frank Muller, dramatic recordings of King work, King's Top Ten Best Audiobooks, and a list of every Stephen King audio title ever recorded.