The Dark Tower: Context and Reader Expectations

Here’s another Dark Tower post, because I’m not ready to move on yet. This one’s about how things that would be terrifying in our world just aren’t that scary in Mid-World.

Spoilers below the cut.

Hey, remember It? That was some pretty scary stuff, wasn’t it? Tense, nerve-wracking clowny horror. I consider it one of King’s best books; hell, King single-handedly caused my fear of clowns.

So why is it that when Roland and Susannah run into a similar Emotion Eater in the White Lands of Empathica, there’s absolutely no sense of horror? A friend thought King might have failed to properly set the tone and show what was at stake. I thought maybe it was because we’d seen the Emotion Eater from King in It already.

Really, it’s the surrounding context. What’s terrifying in small-town New England is, in Mid-World, just another baddy to blast. The transferrence of this threat to a post-apocalyptic science-fantasy wasteland denudes it of any fangs that it might have had. Don’t get me wrong, it can still kill, it’s just that the reader can’t be wholly convinced that our near-invincible protagonists aren’t going to turn this thing into bug-smear once they know what’s up.

This points to a particular strength of urban fantasy. High Fantasy readership has been actualized through various narratives to expecting epic exploits, and so, as a whole, aren’t particular surprised when a protagonist rolls all 20s in order to escape some dire predicament. Against a “real-world” backdrop, suddenly werewolves and vampires and emotion eaters and hulking monstrous insectile death-beasts from the non-euclidean wastes seem much scarier. What we know Rand al’Thor can handle, we’re pretty sure that Thomas O’Mackey, beat cop, cannot. This property carries over even when we know that Thomas O’Mackey has a magical gun that’s actually the modern form of Excalibur. We assume realism holds true because of the context, even when the narrative remains epic.

What does this mean for High Fantasy authors? Well, it means that in addition to baking in how exactly the constructed world differs from the ‘real’ world, we’ve also got to carefully enforce what’s normal in that setting. Do Tolkien serfs regularly tangle with orcs? If so, how does that affect their outlook? How do people view the top 1% of the power scale? Are heroes really heroes, or are they glorified bandits pushing people around. When someone says they’re the Chosen One, is that regarded with some level of skepticism?

Perhaps the most common problem for establishing stakes in High Fantasy is how the camera hovers around the people best able to handle the danger. Maybe splicing every two hundred pages a glance at what a normal farmer or a normal adventurer or a normal wizard or a normal whatever looks like in this setting, and what they’re capable of, might help take some air out of the power level inflation balloon.

All of this, of course, assumes that you think that power level inflation and escalating reader expectations are a problem. And that you’re resistant to killing as many characters as George R.R. Martin does.

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