(2022) Stephen King, Hodder & Stoughton, £22, hrdbk, 579pp, ISBN 978-1-399-70541-7
Charlie Reade is seventeen when he meets a dog named Radar and his aging master, a recluse in a big house at the top of a big hill, with a locked shed in the backyard. Sometimes strange sounds emerge from it. And soon Charlie will inherit the keys to a parallel world… Legendary storyteller Stephen King goes into the deepest well of his imagination in this wonderful story about another world than ours, where good and evil are at war, and a heroic boy and his dog must lead the battle. The stakes could not be higher.
With nearly fifty years since his first novel was published, over sixty novels to his name to date and at least one semi-retirement, at the age of 75, I can understand if Stephen King wanted to retire. After all, there can’t be much else he wants to write about, surely?
Fairy Tale shows us that he can’t stop writing. But is it worth reading?
Cynical readers may note that in Fairy Tale we’ve got lots of King themes and elements that we’ve read before here – small town America in microcosm, young teenager with a difficult past, mentored by grumpy old man, hidden secrets (but BIG ones), not to mention a beloved pet. Anyone who’s seen the recent Netflix adaptation of his short story 'Mr Harrigan’s Phone' (or – shock! - read the original story in the collection If It Bleeds) will recognise elements of what’s on show here. But what he does here, he does darn well.
Part of the reason for this, I think, is that Fairy Tale has that disarming, laid-back style, of a teller telling a story, that draws you in and keeps you reading. King does that thing that I last noticed in his crime thriller Later (2021), where the narrative appears to ramble as any spoken narrative would, but actually foreshadows things that will happen later in the novel. It’s subtle, it’s disarming and it’s clever, so much so that you may not realise what’s happening until the end. But then to me that’s part of the charm in a Stephen King novel.
It also helps that Charlie is a likeable person – one who has had troubles in his own life, yet who is willing to help others when necessary. In contrast, Mr. Bowditch is grumpy, even curmudgeonly, yet when Charlie is forced to help him when he gets a broken leg we discover that he has a heart of gold and means well to those who wish him no harm. As the book progresses, we see why Bowditch is a recluse and this tempers our view of him. Like Mr. Hannigan, he needs someone – not only to look after him but also to look after Radar, his arthritic dog. Charlie is human company and Radar is Bowditch’s loyal, if aging, companion. It is to Charlie’s credit that he can see this in him.
So far this all reads like a typical bit of King-style Americana. It is only after about a couple of hundred pages, when Mr. Bowditch reveals to Charlie his BIG secret, that the story becomes something very different.
In a rather abrupt left-turn, the story then becomes a portal story, something that’s part Wizard of Oz, part H. P .Lovecraft, for in Bowditch’s garden shed there is an entrance to another world. When Bowditch dies, Charlie finds himself given Bowditch’s house, but also the stewardship of the portal. Charlie finds himself on a quest in order to save the ailing Radar, in an homage that’s pure Ray Bradbury (Something Wicked This Way Comes.)
There Charlie in the land of Oz – sorry, Empis – meets a host of new characters. There are nice people, bad people, weird places and strange animals which Charlie encounters on his travels to the city, where he hopes to find help for Radar. The city is something straight out of H. P. Lovecraft. There are also consequences of Charlie being there, especially after he is captured by the villains of the story. Because of this, much of the middle of the book being about Charlie being badly treated, put in a dungeon and in a Hunger Games kind of twist being forced to fight other people to the death for the sake of entertainment. At the same time, he finds that others seem to expect him to have an important role to play in this world, something he was not expecting, but by the end of the novel seems somewhat appropriate.
Fans of King’s The Eyes of the Dragon, The Talisman and The Dark Tower saga will find much in that style of writing here. This may not be for everyone - it veers between nostalgic reminiscence and extreme violence that makes it definitely not like a Tolkien or a C. S. Lewis story. There are some nice touches that show us that the storytelling is of the now – King manages to reference George RR Martin and social media, for example, not to mention at least one of his own works – but with the messy battles and decidedly contemporary cursing, not to mention passing references to sex may make this not entirely appropriate for all readers.
Although it does sag in pace a little in the middle, it is to King’s credit that in such a large book the reader’s attention is held pretty much throughout, by touching on many of those features that constant King readers love. In particular, I found that the relationship between Charlie and Radar is endearing and life-affirming, as I suspect anyone who has ever owned a pet animal may do.
And that’s the key point. When King is good, he’s very good. And this is very good, perhaps one of his best in recent years. Fairy Tale feels like a story told not because it has to, but because it can, an adventure tale written with love and just for the joy of storytelling.
A stand-alone novel (hurrah!) that you can immerse yourself in, encompassing many of the iconic elements that make a King story successful, Fairy Tale may not be entirely revolutionary for regular King Constant Readers (of which I am sure there are many), but it is terrific. It just goes to show that, like Radar in the novel, you can’t keep an old dog down. And I am very pleased to keep reading.
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