I can’t read Stephen King’s 2022 novel, Fairy Tale, as anything other than an ode from the Master of Horror to his predecessors who helped to lay the groundwork, from the Brothers Grimm’s dark and violent fairytales to Mary Shelley’s Dracula. I also felt like it was King writing under the bountiful tree he’d planted with his 1987 novel, The Eyes of the Dragon, which also was written as a fairy tale, narrated like a fairy tale, and done so with that meta since of the narrator knowing he’s telling a fairy tale and knowing we, the readers are well-aware of fairy tales. All of this makes Stephen King’s Fairy Tale arguably his modern best book I’ve read since 2011’s 11/22/63, one of my all-time favorite King books.
Our fairy tale hero and narrator is Charlie Reade, a 17-year-old from Illinois — yes, the book is set in Illinois (until it gets fairy taled up … uh, down), not Maine — who I couldn’t help but think King shaped after Lee Child’s Jack Reacher. Because even though he’s only 17, Charlie has the stature and physical physique of Jack Reacher at well over 6 feet and 220 pounds of athletic muscle, not to mention Reacher’s mental prowess and logistical thinking. Also like Reacher and like many a hero in fairy tales, Charlie is both reluctant to take on the mantle of being the Chosen One and saving the day — although he will of course because he’s the hero! — and he doesn’t think he’s Actually Good. Charlie’s mother died when he was young and his father turned into an alcoholic because of it. As such, Charlie grew up fast by necessity and almost because a de facto caretaker of his dad, but also, he did some awful things as a stupid kid with his stupid friend. I’m dismissive of the latter, even though the stories he shares are bad, because he was a kid! That doesn’t justify what he did, but I’m not going to eternally castigate someone who is now doing amazing, great deeds because of stupid things he did as a kid.
Aside from helping his dad back to sobriety (at least I would credit him, even if ultimately it has to be the addict’s own journey), Charlie’s biggest deed in the beginning of the book setting everything else in motion is helping his neighbor up the hill at the so-called scary Psycho house. He’d already been warned by his friend, Andy, that the neighbor, Howard Bowditch, has a terrifying, massive, and dangerous dog. Andy’s description of the dog reminded me of “fairy tales” we will tell our friends about some neighbor dog because to us kids, such dogs do seem out ripped right out of a fairy tale. It also reminded me of the Beast from The Sandlot. One day, Bowditch, who is a very old man, falls outside his home, and owing to his and the dog’s noise-making, Charlie hears. He helps the old man by calling 9-1-1. But being our hero, he credits Radar, the dog, with saving the old man.
From there, the seemingly curmudgeonly and reclusive Bowditch warms up to Charlie while on the mend — and Charlie yet again becomes the caretaker of someone much older, feeling like this is his penitence for being a dumb kid and his part of the bargain with God he made praying for his dad to get sober — and telling Charlie his secrets. Not only does Bowditch have thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of gold in an upstairs safe, but he retrieved the gold from another world below the shed in his backyard called Empis. This world also contains a magical sundial Bowditch used to stay young; he’s 120-years-old when Charlie meets him. After Bowditch dies of a heart attack and bequeaths everything, including the gold and the implied need to protect Empis from being exploited by our world, to Charlie, Charlie accepts that responsibility. However, he also sees it as an opportunity to go to Empis and make Radar young again because he loves Radar and Radar is nearing death. If you know me at all, then you know I’m all about good dogs and saving them!
This is such a classic story and fairy tale: a kid with modern problems suddenly realizes there is a portal to another world and he also inherited riches beyond his wildest dreams (quite Harry Potteresque, which King is fond of), and now, he must go on a perilous journey with the promise of something wonderful at the end. However, it wouldn’t be a classic story, a fairy tale, and certainly not a King story if there weren’t horrific obstacles along the way trying to thwart our hero and level up the stakes. In short, Charlie learns a royal family known as Gallien was torn asunder by a jealous brother who wasn’t destined to inherit the throne, Elden, aka the Flight Killer for his penchant for hating monarch butterflies. Elden killed his family members and cursed others still with deafness, blindness, and muteness. He also inflicted the world’s inhabitants with “the gray,” various deformities, including their skin literally turning gray. Elden did so by making a Devil’s bargain with the god underneath their world, Gogmagog. Gogmagog is so feared, nobody even dares speak his name, lest the world shake beneath their feet in anger (like Lord Voldemort!).
Charlie is captured after successfully turning back time on Radar’s imminent death and becomes an inmate, one of the “wholes,” those considered full blood descendants of the royals. Elden is stomping them out, too, by forcing them through a gladiators fight to death 32-person tournament called the Fair One. The tournament is overseen by the living dead with electrified auras and a mother-daughter giantess duo. Eventually, Charlie, with some help, particularly of magic leading others to think he’s a prince fulfilling their prophecy, thereby protecting him, leads an escape and overthrow of Elden, kills the two giants, and even forces Gogmagog back into his hole. I thought it was a cool visual by King to have the way to defeat beings who already dead by throwing water at them and them exploding. Because they’re electric! But more importantly, in showing how Charlie got that idea, King introduces what I think is his eternal answer to, “Where do you get your ideas from?” by saying, inspiration doesn’t knock. It’s just not there one moment and there the next.
I thought King’s novel to be a beautifully written ode to fairy tales, and I’m sucker for one centered around a humble boy simply trying to save his ailing, dying dog, but then rising to bigger challenges as they come along. Charlie and Radar (and Snab, the magical red cricket who plays a big role in helping) are among the best characters newly added to King’s extensive catalogue of great characters. And I have to say, the relationship he conveys between Charlie and his dad is strikingly tender and lovely — not rare from King, but certainly not something he’s known for, but he is well-adept at doing. Their relationship felt as real and raw as anything he’s written, and given his own alcoholic past, that makes sense.
Much like The Eyes of the Dragon, I think Fairy Tale is a great introduction to King for people who don’t think they would like King (because they’re not into horror and supernatural stories), but who do like fantasy, while also having plenty of King trademarks peppered throughout for longtime fans.
Toward the end of the novel, Charlie says, “I think all worlds are magic, we just get used to it.” I, for one, am not used to King’s magic; it remains a marvelous joy.