Spoiler alert: this article discusses the characters and plot of “Tales From the Dark Tower.”
I retreat to my windowless sanctum, to my books, to the darkness, to wait out the long, dead days.” – The Baron
In an effort to encourage reading back in 2001, my middle school conducted a contest for students to create artwork influenced by a book. Joseph Vargo’s posters had long adorned the walls of my childhood bedroom, so I took that as an opportunity to read “Tales From the Dark Tower,” his collection of thirteen short stories, and then paint something in his signature style. As a teenager interested dark fantasy stories, I enjoyed everything about the book full of vampires, knights, witches and ghosts.
Eleven years later, Vargo released the second volume, “Beyond the Dark Tower” and completed the trilogy with “Return to the Dark Tower” in 2015. I needed to know what happened to Brom and his cursed Dark Tower, but decided to first re-read volume one to refresh my memory on where the story left off.
Upon reading for a second time, I still enjoyed the haunting atmosphere and creepy aesthetic as much as when I was young, but this time found buried beneath the vampires, wolves and witches, a theme typical of gothic literature: solitude and isolation. In particular the type of solitude that comes as a by-product of drive and ambition leading to loss.
In the first chapter, Brom tells his love, Rianna, (pp. 16) “I have thought long and hard of my calling in this life. Since my childhood, I have been taught that we all serve some purpose beyond our mere existence. I feel mine, still unfulfilled. It beckons me.” This parallels the thoughts of another gothic hero, Victor Frankenstein who states, “from my infancy I was imbued with high hopes and a lofty ambition,” describing his mindset that drove him to create the infamous monster in Mary Shelley’s nineteenth century novel. Both Brom and Victor Frankenstein are sentenced to a life (using this term loosely) of isolation due to their ambition. While Frankenstein’s ambition is blind and without obvious warning to him, Brom is given the clear choice by the Baron in the first chapter: to choose to live out a life of happiness or to attempt to fulfill his destiny. Brom’s decision has consequences that haunt him and his loved ones for the remainder of the book.
This isolation suffered by Brom is a throughline that connects him with the previous two rulers of the Dark Tower – the Baron and the Dark Queen, Mara. The Baron suffers similar circumstances to Brom as he is set apart from the rest of humanity for his valiant effort to rid the world of Mara’s evil, but his suffering is intense. He states, “I retreat to my windowless sanctum, to my books, to the darkness, to wait out the long, dead days, listening to the world outside, waiting for the heat of the sun, dimly discernible even here, to fade to the cool of night.”
Mara’s solitude differs from that of the Baron and Brom. Her isolation is the cause of her deeds, not the result. She was born the bastard daughter of a great king who was ashamed and kept her hidden away in the tower where she was known to keep only the company of gargoyles. In her adolescence, she seeks the companionship of an menacing court jester to combat her forced isolation. After one particular slight from her father, Mara decides to exact revenge on everyone who has kept her locked away, plunging her permanently into a future of evil.
Many of the stories contained in the collection are written from the perspective of the third person, which works to further isolate the reader from the characters and enhance the theme of solitude.
One of the tools that Vargo and the fellow authors use to get inside the minds of the characters are journals. One such entry hints to some of the positives of a lonely life, as the Baron documents an increased sensitivity to light, sound, and feeling. With this additional perception and tortured past, the Baron finds an outlet for his loneliness in writing. Brom notes about the Baron, “his prose is so intense, so dense, I cannot help but suspect that something more drove him, as if he busied his mind with endless words so as to avoid something else, something too dark, too painful to contemplate.” This may be one of the reasons that creative people relate to and gravitate to these types of lonely, but driven protagonists.
In arcane tomes, on crinkling pages,
I search for my future’s key,
Locked in the past.
Even the shortest night takes ages to pass,
As I do battle with the hunger in my soul.
No mirth can move a mind tormented thus.
For too long I have existed alone.
Yet, I dare not seek solace
For fear of awakening the darkness
Which lies dormant within me.”
As with most art or literature, our interpretations can evolve and change as we do. When I was in middle school, I did not see or feel anything beyond the surface level, but years of life and experience has now led me to look at the characters in a different light. When I created the painting in 2000 based on the book, it was a simple image of the Dark Tower cloaked in the shadow of a full moon. If I were to interpret the book now, I would attempt to convey the isolation that Brom feels instead of focusing on simply the tower’s facade.