C. S. Lewis (Walter Hooper, ed.), The Dark Tower and Other Stories (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1977).
This collection will surprise many readers. According to academic urban legend, the title story, an incomplete novel recovered from C. S. Lewis's papers and first published nearly 15 years after his death, is shoddily written, bereft of moral or theological significance, imbued with obscene and homoerotic imagery, and quite likely a crude forgery. That evaluation has been propagated so energetically and successfully that it is hard to remember that, upon publication, the book received generally favorable reviews and once upon a time bid fair to become the Lewis counterpart to The Mystery of Edward Drood.
Having last picked up The Dark Tower two decades ago, I thought that I remembered a rather crude, incoherent adventure story, from which it would be pleasant to dissociate the purported author's reputation. It turned out, however, that I was remembering the image formed by the critics, not what was actually there.
Taking into account the fact that it is an unfinished draft, the prose of The Dark Tower is comparable to Out of the Silent Planet. Both are in the vein of pulp science fiction, of which Lewis was an avid reader, and both suffer noticeably from the author's inability to weave convincing pseudo-scientific patter. In Perelandra, Lewis solved that problem by substituting the openly supernatural for the scientific. Perhaps he would have hit upon the same device if The Dark Tower had reached a second draft.
The novel's central concept is movement among parallel universes, then a new idea in science fiction (first popularized by Murray Leinster, whose classic "Sidewise in Time" appeared in 1934, though foreshadowed earlier). Lewis explains it by drawing on the relationship of lines to planes, an analogy long employed by theologians to illustrate how infinitely prolonged time differs from eternity.
In the opening chapters, a scientific team initiates contact between our time line and an "Othertime" that is, judging by broad hints in the surviving text, in thrall to one of the fallen eldils introduced in Out of the Silent Planet. The central element of the plot, already in motion before the fragment breaks off, was evidently to have been an Othertime invasion of our world via the eponymous Dark Tower. A young scientist is prematurely caught up in the struggle by being switched with his double in Othertime, finding himself in the role of a loathsome tyrant torn between the habits of his assumed body and the moral impulses of his this-earthly mind.
The involuntary visitor to Othertime suffers a physical deformity that is the ground for accusing the work of obscenity. A small, wasp-like sting grows out of his forehead, containing venom that, when injected into the spine, converts humans into vacant automatons. The Freudian implications are obvious (and are pointed out by the narrator), but that is the extent of overt or covert sexuality. Readers who can find pervasive erotic imagery here probably spend their time covering up naked chair legs. The presence of any homosexual interest is sheer fantasy.
One cannot know, of course, simply on the basis of reading it, whether The Dark Tower comes from Lewis's pen or that of a skillful forger, but it presents Lewis-like concepts and cannot be relegated to pseudepigraphical status on the basis of any deficiency in literary merit. (My review of Sleuthing C. S. Lewis by Kathryn Lindskoog discusses the forgery hypothesis.)
Two of the "Other Stories" printed with The Dark Tower are also disputed. One, "The Man Born Blind", is an artfully fashioned parable, telling of a man who, given sight for the first time, grows suspicious because no one will tell him what "light" looks like. The editor dates the tale to the 1920's on tenuous evidence. A documents expert has declared, according to Kathryn Lindskoog, that the ink of the manuscript was manufactured after 1950, which is consistent with the high quality of the narrative and its implicit theological themes.
The second challenged story, "Forms of Things Unknown", relies on a surprise ending that becomes too obvious too soon. It is akin in quality to the two other short stories printed here (both published while Lewis was alive). "The Shoddy Lands" is an unsubtle message story, while "Ministering Angels", Lewis's lone attempt at comedy, is better in concept than execution. Rounding off the volume is "After Ten Years", comprising the shards of what was to have been a retelling of the aftermath of the Trojan War. Lewis was seriously ill when he started it, and his death left it too fragmentary to evaluate.
The Dark Tower and "The Man Born Blind" are the scorned stepdaughters of the Lewis literary family. It is time for readers and critics to look at them first hand, rather than uncritically accept some stepmother's assurance that, yes, Cinderella is really, really ugly and a changeling to boot.
N. B.: The contents of this collection also appear in Lesley Walmsley, ed., C. S. Lewis: Essay Collection & Other Short Pieces (HarperCollins, 2000), currently available only in Great Britain.