In ‘Fairy Tale,’ Stephen King riffs on the classic hero’s quest

The master of horror, Stephen King, comes up with a not-so-scary riff on fantasy stories and the hero’s quest in “Fairy Tale.”

"Fairy Tale," by Stephen King, Scribner, 598 pp.

Stephen King’s “Fairy Tale” is an epic quest novel with a golden-haired hero and his beloved pooch who save a cursed people from an even more cursed villain. Surprisingly unscary, the book offers a journey through an enchanted world. Charlie Reade, the main character, warns the reader right off the bat: “I’m sure I can tell this story. I’m also sure no one will believe it.” 

Like many people during the pandemic, King sought ways to occupy himself. He asked himself “What could you write that would make you happy?” This book was the answer.

Since it veers from the prolific writer’s typical horror fare, “Fairy Tale” may be a good option for readers turned off by the blood, gore, and terror of some of his other books (although they’ll find some of that here, too). In the book’s jacket flap, King writes: “As if my imagination had been waiting for the question to be asked, I saw a vast deserted city – deserted but alive. I saw the empty streets, the haunted buildings, a gargoyle head lying overturned in the street.... Those images released the story I wanted to tell.”

We meet Charlie, a charming 17-year-old living a pretty typical teenage life: school, sports, the occasional girlfriend. However, when he was 10 years old, his mother was killed in a hit and run incident, which turned his father to alcohol to numb the pain. Now in recovery, his father is an encouraging and loving parent, but Charlie often wonders if he’ll return to drinking, since he believes the only reason his dad was able to stop was because Charlie asked God to make it happen. “If you do that for me, whoever you are, I’ll do something for  you.... I swear,” he prayed. Shortly after, his dad quit drinking, leaving Charlie indebted and looking for whatever good deed would fulfill his end of the deal.

That good deed presents itself when Charlie runs to the aid of his spooky neighbor, Howard Bowditch, after Howard’s German Shepherd, Radar, howls for help. The three develop a relationship as Howard pays Charlie $500 a week to care for him and the dog. Where the money comes from is a mystery, and even though he wasn’t expecting to get paid, Charlie is pushed by grumpy Howard to take it. 

Inside Howard’s place (nicknamed “Psycho House” by the locals), Charlie sees a tidy home with a lot of old things. But there’s also a secret safe. Weird noises from a locked shed. A bucket of gold pellets. A gun. Then he meets some shady characters. As the novel unfolds, Charlie learns the source of Howard’s fortune, and it becomes his responsibility to protect what lies beyond the locked shed. The implications are deeper than what Charlie discovers in the shed, and could have far-reaching effects on the world. 

Throughout the novel, King nods to fairy tales. Charlie observes, “I myself was a version of Jack the Beanstalk Boy,” as he meets an exiled princess with a (sort of) talking horse. There are lots of fanciful touches: a sundial that can remove years from one’s life, a character in a red velvet smoking jacket who offers tea and sugar to his captive. At other times, the events are downright morbid: a mermaid speared through the heart; an epic battle to the death akin to “The Hunger Games”; one character devoured by rats. It’s in these moments the reader remembers they’re reading a King novel.

It’s a whopping read, just shy of 600 pages, and there are times the reader wonders if it really needed to be that long. There is some repetition: Charlie repeatedly mentions how much his adventure matches a stereotypical fairy tale (which it does), and a lot of signposting and foreshadowing that’s anything but subtle. But if you’re a fan of King, then you’ll be delighted to disappear into this charming coming-of-age tale and cheer for Charlie as he frees an oppressed people from a tyrannical ruler.

It’s a tale as old as time. 

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