Not all fictional worlds are created equal. Stephen King has published over 50 novels and a couple hundred short stories, but he only wrote himself into one series: The Dark Tower, which also pulls together ideas and characters from his other books like a powerful magnet set into an ore-rich pool.
King didn’t begin The Dark Tower as a way to unite most of his fictional worlds. He began it as a way to explore inspirations from a poem, Robert Browning’s ‘Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came,’ and the westerns directed by Sergio Leone. But King eventually acted as an influence on himself, and The Dark Tower became a unique story that puts his whole career, even his life, into a new perspective.
The Man In Black Fled Across The Desert…
The Gunslinger, which King began in 1970, introduces an iconic villain: The Man in Black, who has destroyed the kingdom of Gilead and is working to destroy the integrity of All-World, a sort of parallel Earth. The hero Roland Deschain, last in a centuries-old line of warrior gunslingers, pursues the Man in Black across a vast desert. Their goal is the Dark Tower, a sort of pin connecting dozens of parallel worlds. Roland wants to preserve the Tower, while the Man in Black serves a force that wants to destroy it.
With the Dark Tower as a connection between worlds at the center of its own story, there’s a certain logic behind King’s expansion of the tale into a web that touches many of his fictional worlds. The Man in Black himself is the most obvious focal point, as he appears in several key novels from King.
Randall Flagg was written as the big bad of The Stand, first published in 1978. Flagg, a maybe-immortal sorcerer in faded denim, sows chaos across the country as he walks highways and back roads. He starts riots and instigates political violence, and is there to push society to the edge after it is crippled by sickness. When The Stand was originally published Flagg and the Man in Black were similar, but not the same. As King wrote more Dark Tower novels he eventually revised the first book to unite Flagg and the Man and Black.
Before that revision, however, Flagg had shown up in King’s 1984 fantasy novel The Eyes of the Dragon, which landed on shelves as King’s larger interconnected universe ideas were beginning to develop. The second Dark Tower novel, The Drawing of the Three, featured reference to Flagg as he appeared in Eyes of the Dragon.
So that’s major connection number one. Other King novels play into the Dark Tower story in ways both passing and significant.
Fathers And Kings
Salem’s Lot features a priest named Father Donald Frank Callahan, who turns up in a major role midway through the Dark Tower story. This isn’t a borrowing or parallel character — the same Callahan who battled vampires in the town of Jerusalem’s Lot becomes deeply involved in Roland Deschain’s quest to save the Tower. We won’t spoil the secret of how he got from one place to the other, but Callahan is a moral compass in both stories, and as such a stand-out creation.
Meanwhile, even though the Man in Black was the first villain of The Dark Tower, he’s more of a mid-boss compared to the grand bad guy of the story, known as the Crimson King. This villain was introduced in the 1994 novel Insomnia, a story about an old man who begins to see strange happenings in his small town, making that book one of the stranger Dark Tower tie-ins. It’s not one of the author’s stronger works, and is probably best left for obsessive completists.
On the other hands, there’s the early ‘80s collaboration between King and Dean Koontz, a terrific fantasy-tinged novel called The Talisman, in which a young boy travels across the country by slipping in and out of “the Territories.” Decades later a sequel would reveal the Territories to be part of All-World — specifically close to Roland’s land of Mid-World.
That sequel, Black House, doesn't just retcon The Talisman as a Dark Tower-adjacent story. It goes deep with explicit Dark Tower ties. The novel’s villain is a servant of the Crimson King; there’s a portal to End-World, which is the land closest to the Tower; Roland and his friends are mentioned; and the whole plot (spoiler) turns out to be as closely related to the Dark Tower cycle as it can be without becoming an official book in the series.
Low Men In Yellow Coats
Then there are a host of minor references in or to other books – too many to get them all here. The story collection Hearts in Atlantis features ‘Low Men in Yellow Coats,’ which introduces the villains of the title. Those “low men in yellow coats” aren’t men at all, however. They’re Can-toi, animalistic humanoids who wear human disguises – and the same things chasing Jake Chambers through New York in the film adaptation of The Dark Tower. The Man in Black also seems to make a brief appearance in this story.
And Ted Brautigan, one of two main characters in 'Low Men in Yellow Coats,' has a big part to play in The Dark Tower series, though that aspect didn’t make it into the movie. (You can still see Ted on film. He’s played by Anthony Hopkins in the movie Hearts in Atlantis, which cuts out all Dark Tower references.)
Other tangential mentions connect The Dark Tower and various King books. There’s mention of the town of Lud, a stop on Roland’s journey, in Rose Madder, which also features a few other minor Dark Tower nods. From A Buick 8 features a car that may be much like the transports used by the Can-toi in 'Low Men in Yellow Coats,' and the Can-toi show up in the novella Ur as well.
Finally, while the Dark Tower film nods to IT with an impossible-to-miss sign spelling out the name Pennywise, the original novel is one of the big King stories not directly connected to The Dark Tower. Still, the creature in IT may be the same species of monster encountered just as Roland finally approaches the tower.
Meanwhile, there’s The Shining. The Dark Tower movie makes much more explicit ties to The Shining than the books ever did, by defining Jake’s power as “shine.” Not only is there that photo of the Overlook Hotel in Jake’s therapist’s office, the kid himself shares a version of the power that young Danny Torrance had in King’s novel.
Near-Death Of The Author
King also pulled even more references than the original Robert Browning poem and Leone westerns into his epic saga.
Shardik, a novel about a giant bear by Watership Down author Richard Adams, is a key reference point for The Dark Tower, with a character explicitly named after the bear. And JK Rowling’s Harry Potter novels were a big influence on late Dark Tower books, with technology in Roland’s world named for bits of the Potterverse. King’s son Joe Hill also flirted with some Dark Tower connectivity in his novel NOS4A2, though he passed off the linkages as a bit of play.
Finally, there’s King himself. The author wrote a version of his own persona into the latter half of The Dark Tower, placing not only his work, but King’s own life events – primarily his alcoholism and the hit-and-run that nearly killed him – into the same fictional setting as Roland and the Man in Black. The trick is a bit of a reach, and frankly takes a bit of reader tolerance to accept. It also puts the crowning touch on the massive story, turning The Dark Tower into a fantasy/sci-fi cycle that stands apart from all others.