‘Grace notes’ – The Wind Through the Keyhole by Stephen King

And so Stephen King’s latest is published, almost simultaneously with news of the next but one book he is busy writing (seasoned fans are aware of The Shining sequel, Dr Sleep, which is due sometime in 2013 – he is also currently hard at work on a book called Joyland, a novel that concerns a serial killer in a fairground), and like Dr Sleep, The Wind Through the Keyhole returns to a scene of earlier triumph, in this case, the epic Dark Tower series. In a short opening to the book, King tells us to view The Wind Through the Keyhole as book 4.5, slipping in between Wizard & Glass and Wolves of the Calla; at the same time, the narrative is also relatively standalone so could be read by King fans who have yet to dabble with The Dark Tower at all. Until fairly recently I counted myself among their number but I thought, in the run-up to publication, I’d at least familiarise myself with the first four books in order to get up to speed. (Two interesting side points: Wizard & Glass is full of references to wind, as if the wind – a very particular storm called a Starkblast – was gathering strength throughout the previous book; and, like The Wind Through the Keyhole, Wizard & Glass is also a backward looking book, in which our hero the last gunslinger Roland Deschain regales his ‘ka-tet’, Eddie, Susanna, Jake and the ‘billy-bumbler’ Oy, with a story from his past .)

The novel opens shortly after the climax of Wizard & Glass as the ka-tet cross a river and are warned to find shelter before a terrible storm ends their epic quest for good and all. Finding succour within an old abandoned church, Roland tells a story of when he was sent, as a younger man, by his father, to track down a skin-man, a man able to transform into terrible beasts, terrible beasts busy ravaging the countryside, biting the heads off locals and attempting to violate nuns amongst other things. Roland and the local law enforcement gradually come to understand that the skin-man might be hiding amongst the salt miners up in the hills. While Roland’s quiet partner Jamie heads off to bring the salt miners in for questioning, Roland takes a newly orphaned boy into custody who may or may not have seen the skin-man after he had transformed back. It is as Roland and the boy wait for the salties to return that Roland tells us a story his mother told him as a boy – ‘The Wind Through the Keyhole’.  The fact that ‘The Wind Through the Keyhole’ fills the largest portion of the book underlines the standalone nature of the novel (although it’s worth mentioning, if you didn’t enjoy, say, King’s foray into children’s books The Eyes of the Dragon, you might not enjoy what follows).

‘The Wind Through the Keyhole’ tells the story of Tim, a young man whose father is killed apparently by a dragon on the edge of the nearby forest. His father’s partner quickly assumes the position of stepfather and before you can say Hamlet, Tim learns – via a tremendously creepy tax collector called the Covenant Man – that his father may not have actually been dispatched by a dragon at all. Young Tim engages on an epic quest of his own, first to converse with the Covenant Man once more in the depths of the terrible forest (raising in this reader’s mind images of Colin Meloy’s excellent Wildwood) and then in search of an old magician who may or may not be Merlin. It is as he makes this journey, the narrative gently veering between standard fairytale tropes (like dragons and enchantments, fairies and magic handkerchiefs) more familiar Stephen King characteristics (the white worms forever eating each other are a good example) and odd smokey flavours of other books (such as Harry Potter and Life of Pi), that Tim is beset by a Starkblast of his own and gets all cosmic on us.

Time is a keyhole, he thought as he looked up at the stars. Yes, I think so. We sometimes bend and peer through it. And the wind we feel on our cheeks when we do – the wind that blows through the keyhole – is the breath of all the living universe.

We emerge from the tale within the tale within the tale to read the resolution of the skin man story (which passes at breakneck speed and left this reader whether or not King should have taken more time over it) before ending with Roland his his ka-tet themselves, Roland granted a moment of surcease and forgiveness as far as the relationship with his mother is concerned. Of course The Wind Through the Keyhole can be viewed as a standalone book but it is best viewed as one in a series and best approached as such. The glimpses we are given of Roland’s mother, such as:

‘At night, when the wind blew from the north, it stole to her bed through her open window like a lover, bringing its own special smell, one both bitter and sweet, like blood and strawberries. Sometimes when she slept she dreamt of its deep tilts and secret corridors, and of sunshine so diffuse that it glowed like old green brass.’

Serve to give the reader a more tender view of Roland than perhaps even the other Dark Tower books allow. Similarly the presence of Marten, for example, and Roland’s father Steven, and even of Gilead before the fall, help to make the action of the ensuing books in the series all the more effective. The Wind Through the Keyhole lacks the compulsive page-turning propulsion of the other books in the series, a tonal change that arises in part because (we imagine) King wrote them under a cosh of sorts (would he finish? would he get his characters to where they needed to be?); the idea of returning to the series, though, inserting grace notes to allow action to breathe, is a good one and this reviewer hopes The Wind Through the Keyhole is not the last time King returns to flesh out Roland and his ka-tet some more.

Any Cop?: As different in its own way as 11.22.63, The Wind Through the Keyhole is a light, fantastical read guaranteed to have Dark Tower followers pining wistfully for the a re-read of the entire series.

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