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13 Things You May Not Know About The Dark Tower Series

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Stephen King’s world-traversing fantasy epic is a fan favorite, but even if you’ve read all eight volumes of The Dark Tower saga and have preordered your tickets to see its big screen adaptation, which opens this weekend, you can probably pick up a few new nuggets and theories about the sweeping work.

1. ROBERT BROWNING’S POETRY INSPIRED THE SERIES.

The first volume of the Dark Tower series, The Gunslinger, drew inspiration from Robert Browning’s poem “Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came” and King even borrowed the name for his heroic gunslinger Roland Deschain. The author first read the poem during his sophomore year at the University of Maine, and it stuck with him.

King explained his fascination with the poem in a 1989 interview with the Castle Rock News:

“Browning never says what that tower is, but it’s based on an even older tradition about Childe Roland that’s lost in antiquity. Nobody knows who wrote it, and nobody knows what the Dark Tower is. So I started off wondering: What is this tower? What does it mean? And I decided that everybody keeps a Dark Tower in their heart that they want to find.”

2. AN ODD REAM OF PAPER HELPED, TOO.

In an afterward to The Gunslinger, King wrote that, “The Dark Tower began, I think, because I inherited a ream of paper in the spring semester of my senior year of college … The ream of paper I inherited was bright green, nearly as thick as cardboard, and of an extremely eccentric size—about 7 inches wide by 10 inches long, as I recall.” In need of a project to fill out this strange green paper, King began writing the first book in March 1970.

3. T.S. ELIOT'S WORK ALSO MAKES AN APPEARANCE.

Browning isn’t the only famous poet who influenced King. The series’ third installment, The Waste Lands, nearly duplicates the title of T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land. The two main sections of the novel (“Jake: Fear in a Handful of Dust” and “Lud: A Heap of Broken Images”) directly allude to lines from the poem.

4. THE SERIES WAS AN IMMEDIATE HIT.


Larry French/Getty Images

The Gunslinger came out in a limited hardcover edition in 1982, but the first mass-market edition didn’t drop until 1988. King explained the publication delay in the 1989 Castle Rock News interview:

"There were really two reasons. One was I didn’t think anybody would want to read it. It wasn’t like the other books. The first volume didn’t have any firm grounding in our world, in reality; it was more like a Tolkien fantasy of some other world. The other reason was that it wasn’t done; it wasn’t complete ... [I]t made a certain amount of sense, but there was all this stuff that I wasn’t talking about that went on before the book opens, and when the book ends, there’s all this stuff to be resolved, including: What is this all about? What is this tower? Why does this guy need to get there?"

5. THERE'S MORE THAN ONE HARRY POTTER REFERENCE.

King also paid homage to more contemporary fantasy works. In Wolves of the Calla, the author uses the same font for his chapter titles as the ones used in all seven Harry Potter books. The titular wolves use golden homing grenade-like weapons called “sneetches” (a few letters removed from everyone’s favorite Quidditch ball) stamped with a familiar-looking serial number: 465-11-AA HPJKR. The “HPJKR,” of course, stands for “Harry Potter, J.K. Rowling.”

6. STEPHEN KING MAY WRITE HIMSELF OUT OF THE BOOKS.

Although he’s famous for making cameos in movies and TV miniseries based on his novels, King had second thoughts after including himself as a character in the series. The author mentioned in an interview with fellow scribe Neil Gaiman for The Sunday Times that he would consider writing out the author proxy who appears in the fifth and sixth Dark Tower volumes.

7. THERE'S A BIT OF SPAGHETTI WESTERN IN ROLAND, TOO.

While Roland Deschain takes his name and purpose from his kindred spirit in Browning’s poem, Clint Eastwood’s performance as director Sergio Leone’s spaghetti Western character “The Man With No Name” influenced the character’s look and mannerisms. The King character even winks at the comparison in Song of Susannah, telling Roland, “As The Man With No Name—a fantasy version of Clint Eastwood—you were okay. A lot of fun to partner up with.”

8. YUL BRYNNER IS IN THERE AS WELL.

Wolves of the Calla tips its cap to another famous Western: this time, King shows his adoration for The Magnificent Seven. On the ever-winding path to the Dark Tower, there’s a town named Calla Bryn Sturgis: That’s Bryn as in Yul Brynner, of The Magnificent Seven fame, and Sturgis as in John Sturges, the film’s director.

9. NOT EVEN KING KNEW HOW IT WOULD ALL END.


KENZO TRIBOUILLARD/AFP/Getty Images

King’s slow progress on the series had a tendency to drive fans crazy, and some tried to get the author to reveal where the series was headed. In a foreword to the fourth installment, Wizard and Glass, King wrote that an elderly cancer patient and a fan on death row had both written letters asking for the end. The inmate pledged that he would take the secret to his grave, an offer that King said him "the creeps.”

Unfortunately, King didn’t know how the series would end. “I would have given both of these folks what they wanted—a summary of Roland’s further adventures—if I could have done, but alas, I couldn’t," he wrote in the foreword. "To know, I have to write. I once had an outline, but I lost it along the way.”

10. ROLAND'S UNIVERSE PERMEATES ALL OF KING'S WORK.

In an afterword to Wizard and Glass, King cemented the notion that the universe he wove in The Dark Tower series includes his other works, stating that: “I have written enough novels and short stories to fill a solar system of the imagination, but Roland's story is my Jupiter—a planet that dwarfs all the others ... a place of strange atmosphere, crazy landscape, and savage gravitational pull … I am coming to understand that Roland's world (or worlds) actually contains all the others of my making.” King’s official website even includes a list of user-submitted connections between Roland’s story and his other novels.

11. KING ALSO BORROWED CHARACTERS FROM HIS PREVIOUS BOOKS.

One of the series’ main characters, Father Callahan, first appeared in King’s 1975 vampire novel, ’Salem’s Lot. In his reappearance in The Dark Tower series, the priest discovers a copy of ’Salem’s Lot in a Manhattan bookstore. Other Dark Tower characters to appear in multiple King works: Randall Flagg (The Stand and The Eyes of the Dragon), Patrick Danville (Insomnia), the Crimson King (Insomnia), and Ted Brautigan (Hearts in Atlantis).

12. THERE MAY STILL BE MORE TO COME.

When Rolling Stone asked King in October 2014 if he was done writing The Dark Tower books, the writer gave a cryptic answer: “I'm never done with The Dark Tower. The thing about The Dark Tower is that those books were never edited, so I look at them as first drafts. And by the time I got to the fifth or sixth book, I'm thinking to myself, ‘This is really all one novel.’ It drives me crazy. The thing is to try to find the time to rewrite them. There's a missing element—a big battle at a place called Jericho Hill. And that whole thing should be written, and I've thought about it several times, and I don't know how to get into it.”

13. THE DARK TOWER MOVIE IS FULL OF KING EASTER EGGS.


Columbia Pictures

Nikolaj Arcel's big-screen adaptation of The Dark Tower series, which stars Idris Elba and Matthew McConaughey, is full of fun nods to King's previous work, including The Shining, The Shawshank Redemption, Cujo, and Christine. In one scene, Jake Chambers (played by Tom Taylor) stumbles upon an abandoned amusement park known as Pennywise, the same name as the clown in It.

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Ernest Hemingway’s Guide to Life, In 20 Quotes
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Though he made his living as a writer, Ernest Hemingway was just as famous for his lust for adventure. Whether he was running with the bulls in Pamplona, fishing for marlin in Bimini, throwing back rum cocktails in Havana, or hanging out with his six-toed cats in Key West, the Nobel and Pulitzer Prize-winning author never did anything halfway. And he used his adventures as fodder for the unparalleled collection of novels, short stories, and nonfiction books he left behind, The Sun Also Rises, A Farewell to Arms, Death in the Afternoon, For Whom the Bell Tolls, and The Old Man and the Sea among them.

On what would be his 119th birthday—he was born in Oak Park, Illinois on July 21, 1899—here are 20 memorable quotes that offer a keen perspective into Hemingway’s way of life.

ON THE IMPORTANCE OF LISTENING

"I like to listen. I have learned a great deal from listening carefully. Most people never listen."

ON TRUST

"The best way to find out if you can trust somebody is to trust them."

ON DECIDING WHAT TO WRITE ABOUT

"I never had to choose a subject—my subject rather chose me."

ON TRAVEL

"Never go on trips with anyone you do not love."


Ernest Hemingway Photograph Collection, John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston. [1], Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

ON THE RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN INTELLIGENCE AND HAPPINESS

"Happiness in intelligent people is the rarest thing I know."

ON TRUTH

"There's no one thing that is true. They're all true."

ON THE DOWNSIDE OF PEOPLE

"The only thing that could spoil a day was people. People were always the limiters of happiness, except for the very few that were as good as spring itself."

ON SUFFERING FOR YOUR ART

"There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed."

ON TAKING ACTION

"Never mistake motion for action."

ON GETTING WORDS OUT

"I wake up in the morning and my mind starts making sentences, and I have to get rid of them fast—talk them or write them down."


Photograph by Mary Hemingway, in the Ernest Hemingway Photograph Collection, John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston., Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

ON THE BENEFITS OF SLEEP

"I love sleep. My life has the tendency to fall apart when I'm awake, you know?"

ON FINDING STRENGTH 

"The world breaks everyone, and afterward, some are strong at the broken places."

ON THE TRUE NATURE OF WICKEDNESS

"All things truly wicked start from innocence."

ON WRITING WHAT YOU KNOW

"If a writer knows enough about what he is writing about, he may omit things that he knows. The dignity of movement of an iceberg is due to only one ninth of it being above water."

ON THE DEFINITION OF COURAGE

"Courage is grace under pressure."

ON THE PAINFULNESS OF BEING FUNNY

"A man's got to take a lot of punishment to write a really funny book."


By Ernest Hemingway Photograph Collection, John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston. - JFK Library, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

ON KEEPING PROMISES

"Always do sober what you said you'd do drunk. That will teach you to keep your mouth shut."

ON GOOD VS. EVIL

"About morals, I know only that what is moral is what you feel good after and what is immoral is what you feel bad after."

ON REACHING FOR THE UNATTAINABLE

"For a true writer, each book should be a new beginning where he tries again for something that is beyond attainment. He should always try for something that has never been done or that others have tried and failed. Then sometimes, with great luck, he will succeed."

ON HAPPY ENDINGS

"There is no lonelier man in death, except the suicide, than that man who has lived many years with a good wife and then outlived her. If two people love each other there can be no happy end to it."

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Marvel Entertainment
10 Facts About Robert E. Howard’s Conan the Barbarian
Marvel Entertainment
Marvel Entertainment

Nearly every sword-wielding fantasy hero from the 20th century owes a tip of their horned helmet to Robert E. Howard’s Conan the Barbarian. Set in the fictional Hyborian Age, after the destruction of Atlantis but before our general recorded history, Conan's stories have depicted him as everything from a cunning thief to a noble king and all types of scoundrel in between. But beneath that blood-soaked sword and shield is a character that struck a nerve with generations of fantasy fans, spawning adaptations in comics, video games, movies, TV shows, and cartoons in the eight decades since he first appeared in the December 1932 issue of Weird Tales. So thank Crom, because here are 10 facts about Conan the Barbarian.

1. THE FIRST OFFICIAL CONAN STORY WAS A KULL REWRITE.

Conan wasn’t the only barbarian on Robert E. Howard’s resume. In 1929, the writer created Kull the Conqueror, a more “introspective” brand of savage that gained enough interest to eventually find his way onto the big screen in 1997. The two characters share more than just a common creator and a general disdain for shirts, though: the first Conan story to get published, “The Phoenix on the Sword,” was actually a rewrite of an earlier rejected Kull tale titled “By This Axe I Rule!” For this new take on the plot, Howard introduced supernatural elements and more action. The end result was more suited to what Weird Tales wanted, and it became the foundation for future Conan tales.

2. BUT A “PROTO-CONAN” STORY PRECEDED IT.

A few months before Conan made his debut in Weird Tales, Howard wrote a story called "People of the Dark" for Strange Tales of Mystery and Terror about a man named John O’Brien who seemed to relive his past life as a brutish, black-haired warrior named … Conan of the reavers. Reave is a word from Old English meaning to raid or plunder, which is obviously in the same ballpark as barbarian. And in the story, there is also a reference to Crom, the fictional god of the Hyborian age that later became a staple of the Conan mythology. This isn't the barbarian as we know him, and it's certainly not an official Conan tale, but the early ideas were there.

3. ROBERT E. HOWARD NEVER INTENDED TO WRITE THESE STORIES IN ORDER.

Howard was meticulous in his world-building for Conan, which was highlighted by his 8600-word history on the Hyborian Age the character lived in. But the one area the creator had no interest in was linearity. Conan’s first story depicted him already as a king; subsequent stories, though, would shift back and forth, chronicling his early days as both a thief and a youthful adventurer.

There’s good reason for that, as Howard himself once explained: “In writing these yarns I've always felt less as creating them than as if I were simply chronicling his adventures as he told them to me. That's why they skip about so much, without following a regular order. The average adventurer, telling tales of a wild life at random, seldom follows any ordered plan, but narrates episodes widely separated by space and years, as they occur to him.”

4. THERE ARE NUMEROUS CONNECTIONS TO THE H.P. LOVECRAFT MYTHOS.

For fans of the pulp magazines of the early 20th century, one of the only names bigger than Robert E. Howard was H.P. Lovecraft. The two weren’t competitors, though—rather, they were close friends and correspondents. They’d often mail each other drafts of their stories, discuss the themes of their work, and generally talk shop. And as Lovecraft’s own mythology was growing, it seems like their work began to bleed together.

In “The Phoenix on the Sword,” Howard made reference to “vast shadowy outlines of the Nameless Old Ones,” which could be seen as a reference to the ancient, godlike “Old Ones” from the Lovecraft mythos. In the book The Coming of Conan the Cimmerian, editor Patrice Louinet even wrote that Howard’s earlier draft for the story name-dropped Lovecraft’s actual Old Ones, most notably Cthulhu.

In Lovecraft’s “The Shadow of Time,” he describes a character named Crom-Ya as a “Cimmerian chieftain,” which is a reference to Conan's homeland and god. These examples just scratch the surface of names, places, and concepts that the duo’s work share. Whether you want to read it all as a fun homage or an early attempt at a shared universe is up to you.

5. SEVERAL OF HOWARD’S STORIES WERE REWRITTEN AS CONAN STORIES POSTHUMOUSLY.

Howard was only 30 when he died, so there aren’t as many completed Conan stories out in the world as you’d imagine—and there are even less that were finished and officially printed. Despite that, the character’s popularity has only grown since the 1930s, and publishers looked for a way to print more of Howard’s Conan decades after his death. Over the years, writers and editors have gone back into Howard’s manuscripts for unfinished tales to doctor up and rewrite for publication, like "The Snout in the Dark," which was a fragment that was reworked by writers Lin Carter and L. Sprague de Camp. There were also times when Howard’s non-Conan drafts were repurposed as Conan stories by publishers, including all of the stories in 1955's Tales of Conan collection from Gnome Press.

6. FRANK FRAZETTA’S CONAN PAINTINGS REGULARLY SELL FOR SEVEN FIGURES.

Chances are, the image of Conan you have in your head right now owes a lot to artist Frank Frazetta: His version of the famous barbarian—complete with rippling muscles, pulsating veins, and copious amounts of sword swinging—would come to define the character for generations. But the look that people most associate with Conan didn’t come about until the character’s stories were reprinted decades after Robert E. Howard’s death.

“In 1966, Lancer Books published new paperbacks of Robert E. Howard's Conan series and hired my grandfather to do the cover art,” Sara Frazetta, Frazetta's granddaughter owner and operator of Frazetta Girls, tells Mental Floss. You could argue that Frazetta’s powerful covers were what drew most people to Conan during the '60s and '70s, and in recent years the collector’s market seems to validate that opinion. In 2012, the original painting for his Lancer version of Conan the Conqueror sold at auction for $1,000,000. Later, his Conan the Destroyer went for $1.5 million.

Still, despite all of Frazetta’s accomplishments, his granddaughter said there was one thing he always wanted: “His only regret was that he wished Robert E. Howard was alive so he could have seen what he did with his character.”

7. CONAN’S FIRST MARVEL COMIC WAS ALMOST CANCELED AFTER SEVEN ISSUES.

The cover to Marvel's Conan the Barbarian #21
Marvel Entertainment

Conan’s origins as a pulp magazine hero made him a natural fit for the medium’s logical evolution: the comic book. And in 1970, the character got his first high-profile comic launch when Marvel’s Conan The Barbarian hit shelves, courtesy of writer Roy Thomas and artist Barry Windsor-Smith.

Though now it’s hailed as one of the company’s highlights from the ‘70s, the book was nearly canceled after a mere seven issues. The problem is that while the debut issue sold well, each of the next six dropped in sales, leading Marvel’s then editor-in-chief, Stan Lee, to pull the book from production after the seventh issue hit stands.

Thomas pled his case, and Lee agreed to give Conan one last shot. But this time instead of the book coming out every month, it would be every two months. The plan worked, and soon sales were again on the rise and the book would stay in publication until 1993, again as a monthly. This success gave way to the Savage Sword of Conan, an oversized black-and-white spinoff magazine from Marvel that was aimed at adult audiences. It, too, was met with immense success, lasting from 1974 to 1995.

8. OLIVER STONE WROTE A FOUR-HOUR, POST-APOCALYPTIC CONAN MOVIE.

John Milius’s 1982 Conan movie is a classic of the sword and sorcery genre, but its original script from Oliver Stone didn’t resemble the final product at all. In fact, it barely resembled anything related to Conan. Stone’s Conan would have been set on a post-apocalyptic Earth, where the barbarian would do battle against a host of mutant pigs, insects, and hyenas. Not only that, but it would have also been just one part of a 12-film saga that would be modeled on the release schedule of the James Bond series.

The original producers were set to move ahead with Stone’s script with Stone co-directing alongside an up-and-coming special effects expert named Ridley Scott, but they were turned down by all of their prospects. With no co-director and a movie that would likely be too ambitious to ever actually get finished, they sold the rights to producer Dino De Laurentiis, who helped bring in Milius.

9. BARACK OBAMA IS A FAN (AND WAS TURNED INTO A BARBARIAN HIMSELF).

When President Barack Obama sent out a mass email in 2015 to the members of Organizing for Action, he was looking to get people to offer up stories about how they got involved within their community—their origin stories, if you will. In this mass email, the former Commander-in-Chief detailed his own origin, with a shout out to a certain barbarian:

“I grew up loving comic books. Back in the day, I was pretty into Conan the Barbarian and Spiderman.

Anyone who reads comics can tell you, every main character has an origin story—the fateful and usually unexpected sequence of events that made them who they are.”

This bit of trivia was first made public in 2008 in a Daily Telegraph article on 50 facts about the president. That led to Devil’s Due Publishing immortalizing the POTUS in the 2009 comic series Barack the Barbarian, which had him decked out in his signature loincloth doing battle against everyone from Sarah Palin to Dick Cheney.

10. J.R.R. TOLKIEN WAS ALSO A CONAN DEVOTEE.

The father of 20th century fantasy may always be J.R.R. Tolkien, but Howard is a close second in many fans' eyes. Though Tolkien’s work has found its way into more scholarly literary circles, Howard’s can sometimes get categorized as low-brow. Quality recognizes quality, however, and during a conversation with Tolkien, writer L. Sprague de Camp—who himself edited and touched-up numerous Conan stories—said The Lord of the Rings author admitted that he “rather liked” Howard’s Conan stories during a conversation with him. He didn’t expand upon it, nor was de Camp sure which Conan tale he actually read (though it was likely “Shadows in the Moonlight”), but the seal of approval from Tolkien himself goes a long way toward validation.

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