I didn’t notice the universe until I was a teenager. Before that, I was content with monsters.
My first monster was a child-killing clown. Like many who watched It on ABC in the Fall of 1990, I was both horrified and fascinated by the concept of a monster who dealt in nightmares, killing children in the form of whatever their greatest fear might be.
Immediately after watching the movie, I checked out the book from the library and read what was to be my first of many Stephen King novels. It was also my first peek into the greater universe of King.
After reading a string of what I like to call the Greatest Horror Hits of King (The Stand, The Shining, Pet Semetary, Cujo, Salem’s Lot, etc.), I returned to It in high school. What I found in my second reading were hints to a larger story, one I was not aware of in my first reading.
There were connections. Connections that required my reading of the other, seemingly unrelated, King novels. I noticed that Dick Hallorann, the head cook of the Overlook Hotel in The Shining, was mentioned as being with Mike Hanlon’s father at the fire at The Black Spot in It. Also, Ben Hanscom of It has moved to Hemingford Home, Nebraska, the fictitious hometown of Mother Abagail Freemantle, where she gathers all the good guys in The Stand. And then, of course, there were all the mentions of Shawshank Prison and the Juniper Hill asylum, which were frequently referenced in the other King works.
What was going on here? As the years went on, I continued to see more connections between King novels. Then the big kicker happened. I read The Tommyknockers in 2004, and in that book, characters actually see and hear It when they visit Derry. This book takes place a year after It was supposedly killed by the Losers Club. Was Pennywise still alive? Were there more allusions in the books I still hadn’t read from the King catalog? And why did it always seem as if the bad guys were all coming from the same, otherworldly place?
Suddenly, monsters weren’t enough. I had to know what was going on. There was something bigger happening in King’s writing, and I wanted to be in the know.
I decided to look into the connections, and came across The Stephen King Universe by Stanley Wiater, Christopher Golden, and Hank Wagner. Scanning the introduction, I found confirmation of what I had already suspected: “They [the works of King] are all interrelated. Characters and stories cross from one to the next.”
From my reading of this book, I realized that I wasn’t the only one who noticed that there was a bigger story at play. I also realized that I was missing the most important pieces of the Stephen King Universe (SKU) puzzle–I hadn’t read the Dark Tower series. Immediately, I read the entire series, and along with my reading of The Stephen King Universe, the pieces of the puzzle started to come together.
Every single work of fiction by Stephen King is just a chapter of a bigger, more epic story. A story chronicling “a seemingly eternal struggle between good and evil, chaos and order,” (Wiater, Golden, and Wagner). Starting with the teenage girl who possessed powerful telekinetic powers in Carrie to the most recent tale of a man traveling across time to save JFK in 11/22/63, King has been creating a universe with his stories. And the Dark Tower series is the center of that universe.
The Center of the Universe
“I am coming to understand that Roland’s world (or worlds) actually contains all the others of my making; there is a place in Mid-World for Randall Flagg, Ralph Roberts, [and] the damned priest from Salem’s Lot.”
–Stephen King, in the Afterword of Wizard and Glass
As Wiater, Golden, and Wagner point out, the SKU could better be called “a multiverse (a cluster of universes existing in parallel dimensions)”. In reading the Dark Tower series, it becomes known that all of these universes are connected to and held up by the Dark Tower itself. “The Dark Tower is the point of time, space, and reality where all dimensions meet, the spindle of creation,” (Wiater, Golden, and Wagner). If the Tower falls, all of the universes fall, and chaos reigns.
Which is what makes Roland’s quest in the Dark Tower series so essential, and makes the seven books of the series crucial reading for anyone wanting to understand the SKU.
The series follows Roland Deschain, a gunslinger in Mid-World, as he journeys toward the Dark Tower in End-World. Roland’s world is a reality that might be the future of a world much like our own. In his world, “Hey Jude” is a popular song (with slightly different lyrics than our own) and many people worship “the Man-Jesus”. At one time, his world had computers and robots, but now they are just broken down relics of the past. In this world, things are breaking down and time is slipping–minutes turn into hours, days turn into years, and one is never really sure how much time has passed. This world is truly ending, and it is up to Roland and his ka-tet of newly trained gunslingers (who are people from a parallel reality nearly identical to our own) to stop its total demise through his rescue of the Tower.
The Tower is in danger as the Crimson King seeks to bring it down. The Crimson King, the greatest of King bad guys, works to break down the beams that hold up the Tower in hopes of bringing his own brand of horror to all of the worlds.
As previously mentioned, the Dark Tower is not just connected to Roland’s world. It is connected to ALL worlds, even our own, and so to save the Tower, Roland journeys amongst the worlds to complete his mission. On his quest, he happens upon the world of The Stand, a world nearly destroyed by the plague called Captain Trips. He also visits the world of Stephen King’s making, the world where Derry and Castle Rock exist; the world from which Father Callahan, “the damned priest from Salem’s Lot,” comes.
While Roland was somewhat aware of the multiverse he was a part of, it isn’t until he meets Callahan in Wolves of the Calla, that he (and readers) become fully aware of the nature of the Tower and its connections to all worlds. It seems that Callahan’s experiences in Salem’s Lot, his drinking of the vampire Barlow’s blood, gave him the ability to move amongst the worlds. When he eventually dies in New York, he ends up in Roland’s world. After meeting in a village near End-World, Callahan joins Roland’s ka-tet of gunslingers, and together they unravel the mysteries of the Tower and gain understanding of all of the worlds connected to the Tower. They also come to realize that they are characters in a book when their journey takes them to our world.
So, Roland’s quest to save the Tower not only serves a purpose in the plot of his book, it also, in essence, is the conflict central to the plots of all of King’s books. The Crimson King is the natural antagonist to all of King’s characters, and, in essence, to ourselves, as we too live in a world dependent upon the Tower.
The Worlds of Stephen King
“There are other worlds than these.”
-Jake Chambers, from The Gunslinger
Understanding now that there are indeed many more worlds than one, I returned to Wiater, Golden, and Wagner to make sense of all of the King worlds. If they are all just chapters of the larger story, then where did each fit? How does The Dead Zone connect with Gerald’s Game? Christine with 11/22/63? And what about the Bachman books?
Wiater, Golden, and Wagner break them down into 9+ categories. To keep it simple, I’ll stick to their major ones and include any Key Books (the books and stories most relevant to understanding the SKU) for each world:
The World of The Dark Tower:
See above for a description and explanation of this world.
Key Books: The complete Dark Tower series, “The Little Sisters of Eluria” from Everything’s Eventual, The Eyes of the Dragon, The Talisman, Black House, “Low Men in Yellow Coats” from Hearts in Atlantis, “Everything’s Eventual” from Everything’s Eventual
The World of The Stand, an alternate reality of the Keystone World:
In this world, a plague called Captain Trips has swept across the world, killing off most of the population. A group of survivors band together to stand against the book’s Big Bad: Randall Flagg (who also plays a major role in the Dark Tower series as the Crimson King’s second in command, and is the major antagonist in The Eyes of the Dragon).
Key Books: The Stand, Wizard and Glass
The Prime Reality, an alternate reality of the Keystone World (Derry, Castle Rock, Jerusalem’s Lot, King’s Maine, and the rest of King’s fictitious areas)
• Derry, Maine: Reality is a bit thin in this town. Just a really bad place, Derry is best known as the setting of King’s It, Insomnia, and partially in last year’s 11/22/63. Next to The Stand and the Dark Tower series, I believe that all of the Derry books are most crucial in understanding the SKU. Particularly Insomnia.
In Derry, we first meet The Turtle, a powerful figure of good, who works against the chaos of the Crimson King, and is known to help SK protagonists. If a character is getting advice or help from an unknown source, it’s probably from the Turtle. He has appeared in or been referred to in all of the major Derry books, as well as the Dark Tower series and 11/22/63.
In Derry, we also meet the Crimson King and Patrick Danville (who plays a big role in The Dark Tower).
Key Books: It, Insomnia, 11/22/63
• Castle Rock: At one time, this little town in King’s Maine was the CENTER of the SKU. King repeatedly returned to the town, and it serves as the major setting for the following novels (in order of publication): The Dead Zone, Cujo, The Dark Half, and Needful Things (which depicts the end of Castle Rock). The novella The Body and the short story ”The Sun Dog” also play important roles in the Castle Rock mythology.
The residents of Castle Rock don’t play a major part in the overarching SKU, but their stories are often referenced in other key works. Also, Leland Gaunt, the Big Bad of Needful Things might be related to our good buddy Randall Flagg (they have many similarities in their intentions).
• Jerusalem’s Lot: While this little vampire-infested town doesn’t appear much (mainly in Salem’s Lot and two related short stories), one of its residents, Father Donald Callahan, plays a HUGE role in the Dark Tower universe. Also, those pesky vampires pop up again in the DT series.
Key Books: Salem’s Lot
Here’s a brilliant flowchart created by Tessie Girl
• King’s Maine and other fictitious King areas: Nearly any tale that Stephen King has written is connected to the others in the SKU. If it is fiction from Stephen King, and it isn’t of the Dark Tower series or The Stand, it belongs in the Prime Reality, which are the realities created by Stephen King.
Key Books: Rose Madder, Desperation (and, based upon their twin connections, The Regulators), “Mrs. Todd’s Shortcut” and “The Mist” from Skeleton Crew (mainly because this what I imagine it being like if and when the Tower falls), 11/22/63
The Keystone World:
This is our world. This is the world in which Stephen King sits down at his desk and creates the Dark Tower series and all of his books of the Prime Reality. This is the world where we read Stephen King books. Why does this bear mentioning? Because, according to the DT series, our world, the Keystone World, is also held up by the Dark Tower, and is in danger if the Dark Tower is in danger. In this reality, there are no do-overs, what happens, happens, and stays that way. And if the Dark Tower falls, all of the other universes- the Dark Tower universe, the Stand universe, the Prime Reality universes- will no longer be separated. Chaos, as mentioned earlier, will reign. Imagine a world where you have to hide out from bands of vampires, Can-Toi, and aliens, alongside with rabid Cujo-dogs, living dead kids, various monsters of movie-land (thanks to It and the other shape-changers), fire-starting girls, killer cars and trucks, children of the corn, man-eating oil slicks, mutant beasts from other dimensions, etc. That’s what will happen to our world if the Tower falls.
The State of the Universe
“Go. Have a look. Spend a little time. But only a little. If this isn’t put right soon, there’s going to be a catastrophe.”
He spoke calmly. “It could destroy everything.”
“The world? The solar system? [...] The galaxy? The universe?”
“Bigger than that. [...] Reality itself.”
-Jake Epping and the Green Card Man, from 11/22/63
One might think that, with the conclusion of Roland’s journey in The Dark Tower, all of the loose ends are tied up. There’s no new chapters to King’s expansive overarching story of the battle between chaos and order. In reading King’s latest non-Dark Tower book (really, they’re all DT books) 11/22/63, I realize that nothing can be further from the truth.
As long as King writes, the SKU will be expanded. In 11/22/63, Jake Epping actually creates new worlds, new realities, with each and every alteration he makes to the past. In essence, he is adding new strings to the Tower. Also, classic King connections abound in the novel: Epping’s visit to Derry and meeting with numerous characters from It, the appearances of a red Plymouth Fury (famed car of Christine), and the constant feeling of “thinness” in certain places (thin places in King novels are reminders of, and sometimes portals to, the other worlds).
In this way, readers may be sure that King’s upcoming novels will surely be additional chapters to the larger story King has created. For when we read Stephen King, we are not just getting the monsters and the paranormal. To read Stephen King is to gain access to other worlds and to engage in his epic story of good versus evil and chaos versus order. While I love the thrills and chills I get from King’s Greatest Hits, I find that I am most passionate about exploring his universe, understanding his realities.
Are you interested in exploring the SKU? If so, buckle your seatbelts and hang on, as King isn’t done telling tales and there are corners of the universe still left unexplored!
For more analysis and information on the SKU, I recommend reading
The Complete Stephen King Universe: A Guide to the Worlds of Stephen King by Stanley Wiater, Christopher Golden, and Frank Wagner
The Road to the Dark Tower by Bev Vincent