I’ve read almost all of the King oeuvre so was excited to see this at 30% off at Target. He’s known as a master storyteller for a reason, and I sped through this in a few days. Over the last few years he’s been mainly playing around with crime novels and thrillers, so this pastiche/homage to classic fairy tales and America’s foundational genre writers like Burroughs, Lovecraft, and Baum was an interesting change of pace. He’s only really written one other fantasy-type novel (Eyes of the Dragon) and I was excited to see where this one went.
~~light spoilers below~~
The issue with becoming one of the most popular writers in the world is that if you don’t want to be seriously edited, you probably won’t be. This book is probably 100-200 pages too long and it takes until page 191 for Charlie to actually get down the well and into Empis to start the adventure. Around page 160 I felt like the narrative was spinning its wheels as King lovingly went through every detail of how long it takes to rehab a broken leg/hip. I get that he wanted to establish the relationship between Charlie and Mr. Bowditch, but I don’t think it needed that much page space. Nearly 200 pages before the actual narrative starts is pushing it. Also, King cannot write contemporary teens, and he really struggles here to convincingly inhabit the mind of a 17 year old in 2013. He has always had the habit of making up slang, which is his prerogative (albeit one I’ve always found perplexing), but putting made up slang from the mind of a 75 year old man in the mouth of a 17 year old was jarring and inauthentic enough to take me out of the narrative every time. King is at his strongest when he is writing about the 1960s to maybe the 1990s, and after that his descriptions of technology are weird, even though I know he uses it. There’s just something dissonant about Charlie’s persona and existence in 2013.
This book is also taken up by several of the tropes of his work, notably AA/alcoholism and dogs. Doctor Sleep is probably his finest work grappling with alcoholism, although he has several. This one felt more repetitive and taken up with Charlie’s father’s experience in a distracting way. If Charlie is the main character, why not have a focus on Al-Anon — there is teen Al-Anon — instead of viewing it through his father’s AA journey. I felt like King identified way more with the father and had trouble putting Charlie into focus beyond a rote discussion of his trauma. Again, I think this was the issue of the age gap between the author and the character. Charlie doesn’t seem to have any close friends despite being handsome, athletic, smart, and well-liked by everyone he meets. He barely texts and never uses any social media. I was 23 in 2013, so a bit removed from high school, but even when I was 17 (2007) I was texting, using GChat, Twitter, Facebook, and we even made a message board so we could communicate. We were talking a lot and continuously, so in contrast Charlie seemed a very lonely character without it being highlighted in the narrative. I guess to me he felt like a man from the 60s who was out of time.
The bulk of the narrative also had the issue of dragging a bit and extraneous narrative bits that could have been tightened. It had some scary moments and some effective imagery. I also liked the idea of Charlie as a dark prince who was not a standard fairy tale hero. King’s ability to write a heroic and lovable dog shines through here with Radar, a very good girl. Overall, I think that while the King machine is a well-oiled one and I will keep reading his books, this one was a miss for me. The book kept reminding me of previous King titles that I’d liked better, and there seemed to be depth and ingenuity lacking. I think I understood the gist of what he was trying to say here — a mishmash of ideas about alcoholism, the love between dogs and their owners, the power of storytelling and the question of where it comes from, coming of age and struggling with your dark impulses — but he’s done it better elsewhere.