Let’s start with disclaimers, so you know where I’m coming from. The first is that I’m a big Stephen King fan, though a bit of a latecomer, and I am determined to read his entire output. The second is that fantasy novel are anathema to me. I just can’t. With the fake place names and the character names that are sorta like real people names but just a little off, and the whole “quest” structure where the hero runs into one strange new figure after another, each of whom gives him one piece of the story without any of them just giving him the whole story for some reason. It all bugs me to no end.
Obviously, this comes to a head when Stephen King writes a fantasy novel. Indeed, my least favorite King books I’ve read are the ones with the most fantasy elements, like the abominable Lisey’s Story and the dully straightforward Eyes of the Dragon. Even The Talisman, so beloved among King fans generally, was a chore for me to finish. Perhaps the ultimate proof that I like King but not his fantasy stuff is Rose Madder, where the “real world” scenes are utterly terrifying and the “fantasy” world of the painting is so tedious my eyes glazed over.
All of which is to say that I approached a Stephen King novel entitled “Fairy Tale” with no small amount of trepidation. Still, since the reviews were great I decided to give it a shot. Unfortunately, King once again failed to overcome my mental barrier against fantasy.
King’s protagonist is Charlie Reade, a good All-American boy who comes to his neighbor’s aid after hearing his dog wailing in the backyard. The elderly, mean-tempered Mr. Bowditch has fallen off a ladder and broken his leg. Charlie, who feels a debt to the universe after his prayer for his father to quit drinking was answered, becomes Mr. Bowditch’s caretaker and his friend. Eventually he learns Mr. Bowditch’s incredible secret: a hole in his backyard leads to an entirely different world. This being a fantasy novel, this world is unlike ours of course. There are magical creatures, wicked evildoers, and a beautiful princess in trouble.
Charlie really only wants to visit this strange kingdom because Mr. Bowditch’s dog, Radar, is dying and can be revitalized by a magic spinning wheel in the palace, but fate intervenes, as it will, and he gets drawn into a climactic conflict between what remains of the good in the kingdom and the evil that has taken control. I’d go into more but it’s all fairly standard fairy tale stuff, albeit with a bit more Kingian horror mixed in.
Fairy Tale is almost 600 pages long, which almost qualifies as “short” for King, but for me it felt twice as long. I never warmed to Charlie as a protagonist. He doesn’t really come across like a teenager at all, possibly because King tries a couple of dodges (he’s writing in retrospect for one, and he grew up watching TCM with his dad for another. Meh.) King’s attempts to give Charlie depth essentially amount to a dead mother and a hard-to-credit juvenile delinquent phase. The plot is drawn out to an agonizing degree, as Charlie must meet all the side characters one after the other with long treks in between, apparently. To be fair, this does all factor in at the end, but by then I hardly cared.
I’m sure that fantasy fans, or really any reader who can actually stand fantasy, will find a lot to enjoy in Fairy Tale. As for me, I’m trying to figure out how I’ll ever make it through The Dark Tower.