With so many people working from home and practicing social distancing in 2020, we could all use plenty of distractions. It’s hard to go wrong with a good Stephen King book. King has built a career writing spooky page-turners that frequently clock in at over 1000 pages. Just one of his books can sustain most readers for days. His entire back catalog could take months or more.
For the budding King fan, perhaps the easiest way to take in the best and most important books of his prolific career is to focus on the Dark Tower saga. In addition to the seven core novels that make up the story of wandering gunslinger Roland Deschain, many of King’s most iconic books tie into the Dark Tower in some way or another, forming an entire literary multiverse. Read on to learn which books you should read to fully appreciate the Dark Tower mythos.
Warning: Very vague spoilers follow about certain connections between books.
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Stephen King’s Dark Tower Series: Book Reading Order
Much like with the Star Wars movies, Stephen King fans frequently debate the best order in which to read his Dark Tower-related books. While the core Dark Tower books are numbered sequentially, it can be much harder to know when and where to branch out to the rest of King’s work.
We’re proponents of reading these books in more or less the same order they’re published. The Dark Tower is a story that grew in the telling. King certainly didn’t have any inkling of the full scope of this story when he began it, or how much events in his own life would influence its execution, and it’s best appreciated with that perspective in mind.
Salem’s Lot (1975)
Salem’s Lot is King’s second published novel, and after all these years it remains one of his best and most terrifying works. It certainly set the tone for much of King’s work to come, focusing equally on supernatural horror and the ordinary, mundane evil that lurks behind closed doors. It’s a story that steadily builds a sense of dread as an intrepid few try to save their idyllic small town from being overrun by vampires.
Salem’s Lot eventually pays off in a significant way where the Dark Tower books are concerned. One character in particular, Father Callahan, has a big part to play later in the series.
The Dark Tower: The Gunslinger (1982)
The Gunslinger is where the Dark Tower saga truly begins. This is the book that introduces Roland Deschain, last of the fabled line of gunslingers and a man obsessed with finding the fabled Dark Tower and saving his dying world. As Roland pursues the mysterious Man in Black across an endless desert, he encounters strange creatures, unholy demons and a boy inexplicably ripped from 20th century America. King released a revised version of the novel in 2003, one rewritten to more closely align the story with later sequels.
Pet Sematary (1983)
Pet Sematary’s connection to the Dark Tower mythos is pretty tenuous – sort of a “Six Degrees of Roland Deschain” situation. Assuming you do read Pet Sematary, there’s a fascinating cameo to be found in 1994’s Insomnia, a book with a much clearer link to the Dark Tower series.
Still, we feel this book belongs on any good Stephen King reading list solely because of its quality. It’s among King’s best and most emotionally harrowing novels. It’s also quite possibly the scariest book he’s ever written. Suffice it to say, you don’t want to read those Wendigo scenes while locked away in a remote cabin in the woods.
The Talisman (1984)
The Talisman is notable for two reasons. It’s a collaboration between King and fellow horror luminary Peter Straub. It’s also the rare King book that veers more into fantasy than horror. The Talisman follows a boy named Jack Sawyer who sets out on a quest to find an artifact capable of curing his mother’s cancer. That journey weaves in and out of a parallel reality called “The Territories.”
While this story’s direct ties to the Dark Tower books are only really made apparent in the 2001 sequel The Black House, even in 1984 The Talisman was notable for delving deeper into the King multiverse and the concept of parallel worlds that exist as distorted mirrors of our own.
It is easily one of King’s most well-known works. It’s also among his longest, chronicling a battle between a group of social outcasts and a demonic entity haunting the town of Derry, Maine across multiple time periods. It never really forges a firm connection to the Dark Tower books, but it’s still worth reading for two reasons. One, it’s an essential King novel that many regard as one of his best. Two, it does offer a fuller sense of the true scope of King’s multiverse and the forces that keep it in balance.
The Dark Tower II: The Drawing of the Three (1987)
The Drawing of the Three is the second installment of the Dark Tower books. Here, a wounded Roland encounters a series of doorways leading to New York City, offering the chance of new allies in his quest and a shot at redemption.
The Stand (1990)
If you only read one other King novel as a companion to the Dark Tower series, it should probably be The Stand. Widely regarded as one of the greatest works of post-apocalyptic fiction, The Stand is set in a world ravaged by a superflu known as Captain Trips. The few survivors rally around one of two ringleaders, the benevolent Mother Abigail and the demented Randall Flagg.
Both Flagg and the world of The Stand become integral to the latter half of the Dark Tower saga. Just be sure to read the “Complete and Uncut” version of the novel first published in 1990, as opposed to the relatively shorter original version from 1978.
The Dark Tower III: The Waste Lands (1991)
The Waste Lands is the third chapter in the Dark Tower saga, one far larger in terms of both page count and scope than its predecessors. This volume offers a much fuller sense of the ruined world Roland inhabits and the forces holding it together. It’s also the one book in the series to end on a major cliffhanger, which made the six-year gap between Books 3 and 4 all the harder to bear.
Insomnia is a bit of an odd duck in the King lineup. It’s among his longest books, but it’s also slow-paced and fairly uneventful in its first half. Rather than featuring King’s typical tortured writer protagonist, it revolves around a retired widower named Ralph Roberts. However, the novel rewards the patient reader with a much more exciting climax and a very meaningful Dark Tower connection that really pays off in the final leg of the saga.
The Dark Tower IV: Wizard and Glass (1997)
The fourth Dark Tower book shakes up the formula in a big way. The first and third acts continue the journey of Roland and his allies, resolving the cliffhanger from The Waste Lands and tying into The Stand in a very direct way. But the middle act unfolds as a lengthy flashback to Roland’s formative years. Wizard and Glass greatly fleshes out his past and the history of the fallen kingdom of Gilead, while also shedding more light on what Roland lost in his drive to find the Dark Tower.
Hearts in Atlantis (1999)
Hearts in Atlantis is a collection of several novellas. While the entire book is worth reading, in terms of Dark Tower relevance you need only concern yourself with the opening tale, “Low Men in Yellow Coats.” This story introduces kindly Ted Brautigan, an elderly man with psychic powers being pursued by sinister forces. Yes, both Ted and said forces have a direct link to the Dark Tower books.
Black House (2001)
Black House is the second collaboration between King and Straub, a sequel to 1984’s The Talisman starring a now-adult Jack Sawyer. As mentioned before, this sequel is far more overtly tied to the Dark Tower books. In fact, it does more than any of the core Dark Tower stories to flesh out the Crimson King, the central villain of the saga.
Everything’s Eventual (2002)
Everything’s Eventual is another short story collection that falls under the Dark Tower umbrella. In this case, there are two tales essential to fully appreciating the saga. The title story, “Everything’s Eventual,” introduces Dinky Earnshaw, another psychically gifted character with a key role to play in the tail end of the Dark Tower story. “The Little Sisters of Eluria” focuses on Roland himself, showcasing one of his adventures early on in his quest to find the Dark Tower. This story is also reprinted in some versions of The Dark Tower: The Gunslinger.
The Dark Tower V: Wolves of the Calla (2003)
It would be another six years before King followed up on Wizard and Glass, in part because of a serious car accident that put his writing career on hiatus. But the work did finally resume. Wolves of the Calla is a clear homage to classic Akira Kurosawa and Sergio Leone movies, with Roland and his band recruited to protect a village from marauding “wolves” who regularly appear to steal away innocent children.
The Dark Tower: Song of Susannah (2004)
King didn’t keep fans waiting long after the release of Wolves of the Calla, with the penultimate book in the series following a mere six months later. This is where the saga begins to culminate, as connections to many of King’s previous stories become clear and Roland and friends begin preparing for their final push to the Dark Tower. This is also where the series starts becoming much more self-aware and meta, to the chagrin of some readers.
The Dark Tower: The Dark Tower (2004)
Following another short gap, King finally wrapped up a two-decade-long saga in the seventh and final Dark Tower book. Here is where Roland’s quest comes to an end, but not before the book introduces another key character that will make Insomnia readers glad they put in the time on that book. The ending to the series is nothing if not controversial, though King deliberately structures the book in such a way that readers can stop early if they prefer a cleaner, happier conclusion.
The Dark Tower: The Wind Through the Keyhole (2012)
Though the main saga ended in 2004, King revisited Roland’s world with this spinoff book. While set before Wolves of the Calla, we think The Wind Through the Keyhole is better appreciated as an epilogue to the series. Its unique “story within a story within a story” structure gives the book a whimsical feel that helps offset the grim tone of the main books.
The Dark Tower in Other Media
The Dark Tower saga may be rooted in the prose world, but it’s also expanded into other media in recent years. Both the Dark Tower comics and the live-action movie are worth consuming as companions to the novels.
Marvel Comics first journeyed into this universe with 2007’s The Dark Tower: The Gunslinger Born. Basically an adaptation of the flashback portion of Wizard and Glass, The Gunslinger Born helps visualize a world that previously only existed in prose form and in a handful of painted illustrations. That initial series was followed up by four more comic book miniseries that continue where the flashback leaves off and explore more of Roland’s formative years. That story culminates in The Dark Tower: The Battle of Jericho Hill, which chronicles the titular battle that destroys the kingdom of Gilead and sparks Roland’s quest for the Dark Tower.
Marvel continued to publish more Dark Tower miniseries after that, exploring more of Roland’s hidden years leading up to the original Dark Tower novel and then adapting both The Gunslinger and The Drawing of the Three. Unfortunately, Marvel stopped at that point, never adapting the entire saga. The franchise rights have since shifted from Marvel to Simon & Schuster’s imprint Gallery 13, but so far no further adaptations have been greenlit. A shame, but the comics are still well worth reading for anyone hungry for even more of this fantasy universe.
As for the movie, it’s an extremely flawed but still interesting attempt at distilling the plot of multiple Dark Tower books into one streamlined film. Originally the plan was to release a trilogy of movies with two seasons of TV airing in-between. Those plans appear to have shifted slightly. Amazon is currently developing a Dark Tower TV series focused on a young Roland, one seemingly unconnected to the 2017 movie or Idris Elba’s version of Roland. Instead, Sam Strike (Leatherface) will star as Roland, and Michael Rooker (The Walking Dead) and Jasper Pääkkönen are reportedly playing the villains of the first season.
For more on the world of Stephen King adaptations, check out IGN’s breakdown of all the Stephen King Easter eggs in Hulu’s Castle Rock and our recap of every Stephen King remake so far.